Saturday, August 25, 2007

Picture Books -- The Brilliant Idea

I write picture books (upcoming REMBRANDT AND THE BOY WHO DREW DOGS (2008) Barron's Educational Series), and I thought I'd discuss some of the writing process over a few posts.

The first thing -- you need to think of a brilliant idea, and I will mention that these ideas are very rare. Read several hundred picture books and you will see what I mean. Everyone has been there and done that. An original picture book idea is about as rare as a white tiger, the Florida manatee, or the California condor.

Everyone on the planet has a picture book -- because one of the strange myths of our generaton is that anyone can write a picture book. Go to any cocktail party of regular random people and you will see what I mean. At least half of them will have a picture book manuscript and will have spammed every publisher in existence with said manuscript. Rhyming bedtime stories about singing toothbrushes, dying parent stories, and a smattering of talking dinosaur stories are a few of the tired ideas circulating.

Celebrities (who are basically regular random people who have had the blessed opportunity to work with talented writers and directors) are also able to get their books into the publishing pipeline with relative ease. They write books because "no one is writing good picture books anymore". Sigh.

Then there are many illustrators who don't need a writer -- think William Joyce, Mo Willams , and Laura Kvaznosky (some of my favs). They write quite brilliantly all on their own. After that, a number of award-winning middle grade and YA writers also write picture books. Their names are "brands" , if you will, and these very talented writers get slots before you.

OK, that's enough (but there are more), you get it. The odds are stacked against you for publication, so you must have a brilliant idea.

The idea must be warm, parent -friendly, kid-friendly, laugh-out-loud funny, fast-paced, action-packed, original, universal in appeal, crisp, shiny, age-appropriate, simplistic but have great depth, and it doesn't hurt if it ties into school curriculum's or reaches a segment of the population who have lots of money to burn and need more reasons to spend -- a toy-tie in doesn't hurt either -- Beatrice Potter led the way on this one.

So do you have the perfect idea? Yay!

Now, a daunting fact --someone just like you has already thought of this idea. They have a file in their computer right now. The big trick is to write the definitive story that expresses this idea -- the perfect picture book text. I'll talk about that text in the next post.

Great ideas often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds.
-Albert Einstein

I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.
-John Erskine

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
-Linus Pauling

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Few Revision Hints

I'm working on the rewrite of my YA novel, Plumber Gal. I thought I'd share a few rewrite hints that you might wish to translate to your own work.

1. Having trouble physically moving your characters through the scene? The cup of water was on the desk, then it's on the porch and then it turns into lemonade. (Oh, yes, this happens to me sometimes.) I now have a habit of making nifty maps and drawing sketches of the physical places that my characters visit. I also collect pictures that represent the various items in the setting. I have found this habit saves much time if my character returns to that particular place in another scene of the book or if there are setting errors in a scene.

2. Having trouble with the time-line? It's Monday when the package comes and the next day the character is in Japan -- uh how did she get that package if she was at the airport? Hey, I need a datebook to manage my life, and my book gets a calendar, too. I print out a journal calendar and fill out the timeline of the novel. Takes time to do, but saves time in the end.

3. Search for "-ly" in your manuscript. Use the "Find" feature in Word. Do you really absolutely need all those adjectives and adverbs? Expand this search to word abuse. Do you use the word "just" too much? Do characters "walk "everywhere? Search on these keywords and delete some of them and improve others. Your manuscript will thank you.

4. Want to see your manuscript in a new light? Change the margins and the font of your manuscript. This will help you see your manuscript with new eyes and find errors you literally weren't seeing.

These are some simple hints. I hope you find that your manuscript is buzzing.

I'm really against reinventing the wheel; here are some genius quotes from folks that have been there and done that:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Mark Twain


I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

Truman Capote


I can't write five words but that I change seven.

Dorothy Parker


Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"

James Thurber


The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do.

Thomas Jefferson


This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.

Oscar Wilde


Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.

Oscar Wilde

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fiery Shapes

Tomorrow I turn one year older. Every year during mid-August, when the Earth passes close to the orbit of Swift-Tuttle; the bits and pieces ram into our atmosphere and the glorious shower comes down -- The Perseid Meteor Shower. I feel so blessed.

My daddy sent me a deep dish pecan pie from the Colin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. Yum. That's kind of like a star falling from the heavens.

Neil Gaiman's Stardust opens today. Universe is going so far out for my birthday! Thank you! (If you don't know who Neil is, you should really read more.) His movie is about about a falling star , so appropriate. Neil's one of the peeps --a bona fide children's book writer - Coraline. That's going to be a movie, too. Neil's on my list of awesomely cool people I'd like to meet.

The current book: Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time". Pure genius.

Have I mentioned that I'm a great fan of Will Shakespeare? I really miss Texas around my birthday. I miss Shakespeare at Winedale. I saw at least 20 plays there as a teenager. I watched Shakespeare productions in a old barn; the bard's words were spoken with twangy Texas accents -- does it get better than that?

So I close with this quote from my main muse:

At my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes
Of burning cressets, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.

William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 1, act 3, sc. 1, l. 13-7.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Holly and Molly Show

I hope that you are reading your SCBWI Bulletin. Check out my bonus material for my article "Phoenix Rising". Also check out Holly's article. Holly Cupala, my wonderful friend, wrote about MySpace and networking. Holly is the reason that I have a MySpace. From cookie parties, to long phone chats, occasional munching of hamburgers, posting on each other's blog and always being there in the thick and thin of life, knowing Holly has helped me get all out of my shell. I want Holly's books to be published more than mine. I can't wait to get my copy of Brimstone Soup as soon as someone in publishing world wakes up to her freaking absolute genius. We met in Peggy King Anderson's class just about six years ago. Holly knew immediately that we were destined to be friends. I knew that we would be friends when she told me she'd seen every episode of Star Trek. Shh. I think we are both characters or parts of characters in each other's books.

Next to the great joy of writing books is the pure joy of making friends, remember that as you go toward that goal of publication.

I read The Plain Janes! Whoa, the terrorist attack shocked Jane touched my life. I'd have been so P.L.A.I.N. in high school and actually did some of that in college. My poor bike ended up welded at the top of a giant sculpture in front of the Academic Building. Once, I got this column of hundreds of red and yellow balloons filled with helium. They were part of an architectural exhibit. I asked for the balloons after the exhibit and they gave them to me! I ran for hours with a mountain of balloons up and down the hallowed paths of A&M; I've never had so much fun --please note --will be a BIG KID my whole life.

I've added Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson to the reading list. Is it true that M. T. Anderson is her brother? (OK, authorities are chiming in and saying this is a myth.) I will have to continue to celebrate the genes of Aaron Eckhart, Paul Fleischman, Brian Selznick, Rose Wilder Lane, and Crescent Dragonwagon. Do you know any others? I have cool genes, too. My sister is the awesome Lee Kuruganti.

I'm going to see Becoming Jane later at the local theater. I'm going by myself and I'm going to munch popcorn. So much fun. I'd probably buy cable if there were a Jane Austen channel.

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."

“Why not seize the pleasure at once, how often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparations.”

Jane Austen