Picklesburgh and Pickle Juice

 

picklesburgh photo

Drink me.

I’ve loved pickles all my life. While I’ve only lived in Pittsburgh for sixteen years, I love the city. And I love that there is a festival all about PICKLES! It’s called Picklesburgh.

From their site:

What’s the big dill?

Picklesburgh is for everyone – from pickle fanatics to just pickle curious. With the help of our sponsors, vendors and volunteers, we’ve assembled a two-day event around all things pickled. It’s not just about pickled food though.  No celebration would be complete without music. A broad selection of local musicians and genres will grace the stage, all set to the backdrop of a glorious Downtown Pittsburgh.

I wish I could attend Picklesburgh, because there’s a pickle juice drinking contest. And I know just who would win. The main character of my novel Dare Club, a klutzy but brave kid with the unfortunate nickname Scabs.

Here’s an excerpt:

 

“We’re going to test your taste for danger.” She smiled and I gulped.

She set the items on the table in front of us.

“Are those pickles? I love pickles,” I said.

“What’s the butter for? Dry skin?” Inky said.

“What are you talking about?” I laughed. “People don’t put butter on dry skin!”

“I do,” he nodded. “It feels soft.”

I made a mental note not to eat butter at Inky’s house anymore.

Marta moved the jar of pickles in front of me. It was a half-empty jar and the long pickle spears splashed around in the green juice.

“I dare you to drink all of the pickle juice in this jar.”

“What?” I yelped. “The whole jar?”

She nodded and smiled.

“That’s so gross!” Inky laughed.

“But why? I don’t get it,” I stalled.

“Think of this as your initiation into the club,” she said.

“What club?” Inky asked.

“It’s a secret club,” she said.

“But what do you do in the club?” he insisted.

“Nothing big. Just figure out your fears and face them,” she said.

The small flame inside me sparked. That sounded exactly like what I wanted.

“So this is the test to see if you two can handle it. It’s not for little kids,” she said.

“We’re going into sixth grade,” I reminded her. “And Honors classes.”

“Grades aren’t everything,” she said. “This is about real life.”

“But what do we do?” Inky asked again.

“I already told you. You face your fears,” she said.

“Is it dangerous?” Inky said.

“It can be. Not always. But yeah, you have to be ready to for some danger.”

Her words were a SuperSoaker aimed right at my little flame of excitement. I didn’t need any more scrapes or scratches.

“And if you decide to do it, you have to do it all the way,” Marta continued. “No quitting. No backing out.”

I wasn’t sure this was such a good idea.

“But if you do it, you’ll be a different person.” she promised.

Never mind. It was a great idea.

“I want to do it,” I said.

“So you accept?”

I squinted my eyes shut and pictured myself at the mouth of the Tunnel. I felt nauseous. I pictured Gunderpants laughing at me. My nausea turned to anger.

“I’ll do it,” I picked up the jar of juice. “I’ll join the club.”

“Seb, maybe you just think about this,” Inky put his hand out to stop me.

“I know I want to be different,” I told him. “I don’t want to be Scabs anymore. Is there a time limit on how fast I have to drink this?”

“How about before I die of boredom,” Marta put her hands on her hips.

“OK,” I twisted off the lid and the familiar scent of vinegar and dill hit my nose and my mouth watered. I love the taste of pickles but I had never drunk just the juice. At least it was a flavor I liked. I decided to go big at the beginning and took a huge gulp from the jar. The cold liquid rushed down my chest and when it hit my stomach, I already felt different.

“Ah!” I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Not bad!”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this!” Inky said. “You don’t even know if that’s actually pickle juice!”

I stared at Inky in shock. I hadn’t thought of that.

“No, I did not poison you. But I like the way you think, Leo,” Marta laughed.

Inky smiled.

“And now it’s your turn.” Marta pointed at Inky.  His smile disappeared. She slid the butter toward him.

“What? Why me? He’s the one who wants to go through the Tunnel!” Inky jabbed a finger at me.

“Not by myself!” I yelped. “I thought we were in this together!”

“But–”

I interrupted him. “You’re my best friend! You can’t abandon me now!”

“But–”

I interrupted again. “I’ll owe you so huge!”

“What do I have to do?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. He was going to do it, too, but I could tell by Inky’s voice he wasn’t thrilled.

“It’s basically the same as Sebastian’s dare,” she said. “I dare you to eat that stick of butter.”

“Nope!” He shook his head.

“I double-dog dare you,” she said. I took a big gulp of pickle juice.

“Come on, Marta. Enough with the butter.” He crossed his arms.

“I triple-black-cat dare you,” she held up three fingers. “Last chance.”

“Not a chance,” he said.

“You better do it,” she said. “Or you’ll be sorry.”

“I’ll be sorrier if I eat that entire stick of butter,” he said. I took three little sips of pickle juice. It was harder to force myself to drink it, but I kept going.

“Aren’t you worried about what might happen if I get mad?” Marta asked.

“I’ll take my chances.” He shook his head and looked away from her.

“I see,” she said. “Not worried about yourself, are you?”

Inky definitely didn’t look worried. She slid her gaze over to me. There was about a half-inch of green juice still swirling around the bottom of the jar so I quickly put the jar to my lips and tilted my head back and the tangy pickle juice rushed into my mouth.

“Leo Martinez, I dare you to take one enormous bite out of that stick of butter or I will make life miserable for your friend Scabs here.” She put her hands on the table and loomed over him.

I coughed and spit out some of the pickle juice. “What? Why me?”

Inky shook his head.

“This is so dumb,” he said. He picked up the butter, unwrapped one end, opened his mouth wide and stuck the butter in. Slowly his teeth sunk into the creamy yellow rectangle and the bite broke off into his mouth.

“That’s a big bite,” I noted. I glanced at Marta to make sure she agreed, but she was just watching Inky.

He chewed slowly at first and I could see the butter making his cheeks bulge out. He took loud breaths in and out his nose. Marta watched him with a huge smile on her face. It took forever but Inky finally managed to swallow his enormous bite of butter.

“Gah! It’s stuck all around my teeth!” He kept smacking his mouth and moving his tongue around to get the leftover butter bits out.

“Thanks, Inky!” I grinned. I knew he’d never let me down.

“Finish that,” Marta told me. I swallowed once, twice, three times until it was gone. I opened my mouth to ask her if we had passed the test, but instead a huge pickle-stench burp came out. I cracked up.

“Disgusting, Seb, that’s not funny,” Inky complained and fanned his hand. Marta didn’t seem to notice.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she said. “I think we all learned a lot from that little experiment. Come back tomorrow morning. Be here by nine. And bring some donuts.”

“9 a.m. Got it.” I said.

Marta walked back to her house and left us standing there. I couldn’t wait to come back tomorrow and do the club.

“Marta!” I called. “What’s the club called?”

“You haven’t guessed already?” Marta shook her head at my slow wits. “It’s called Dare Club.”

How to Write a Story A Month

If you want to be a writer, you need to write and you need to write a lot. In fact, there’s a lot of advice out there that suggests writers should write a story a month.

I’ve been writing regularly for many years. I have a tidy stack of rejections that serve as a time capsule of my development as a writer. I juggle several projects at one time, but aside from that, I do try to write a story a month to keep producing new work and letting those creative juices flow. So far this year I’ve revised several stories that I started in late 2015, but I have at least four brand new stories I created in 2016:

  • Schadenfreude (essay)
  • The Hunter Case (adult short story)
  • Weirdest Creature in the World (picture book)
  • Digit (picture book)
  • Good Friend, Bad Choices (essay)

That’s five new stories or essays in four months. This doesn’t count the pitches, blog posts, or articles I have sent in to magazines and doesn’t count the progress I made on my new middle grade novel.

You don’t need to write each story perfectly and you don’t need to try to publish all of the stories you write. But you need to write a story a month. The big question many people face is how to write a story a month. 

Keep your writing tools handy

If you want to write a story a month, you can’t run around searching for paper and pen every time an idea strikes you. You also can’t rely on your memory. I carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I go. That way whenever creativity strikes I can jot down my ideas. But I also have a smartphone and a mini-keyboard in case a get a story idea and I’m in a spot where I can type out more details. Smartphones are also useful for recording ideas when you’re sitting in a dark bedroom waiting for your child to sleep.

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It’s like an idea net

Go on autopilot

It’s not always easy to come up with ideas when you want to write a story, but sometimes inspiration does strike. It just doesn’t strike when you want it to. So you have to let yourself be open at times when you’re busy. Driving, showering, cooking – those are all times when we’re on autopilot and often ideas will float into our brains.

Force It

It’s ok to force yourself to be creative, too, by generating lists of things you like and don’t like. Just write down all your thoughts. One of them could lead to an idea that becomes your story of the month. One of my favorite tips from a writing conference was to think of twenty possible outcomes or solutions to a problem. After you write all of those down, even the dumb ones, you start on twenty-one and that’s when things get exciting.

Move

Blood flow helps the brain and you need your brain to write a story. So go for a walk. Go for a run. Ride the stationery bike. Move. Aerobic exercise tends to lead to more creativity, but strength training is good for balance.

write a story

Ideas come on the go

Listen

You don’t have to come up with all of the ideas for your stories on your own. Listen to other people! Yes, we all hate it when people tell us “you should write a story about…” but sometimes, every once in awhile those ideas aren’t that bad. My first fiction story ever sold to Highlights came from me listening to my eight year old.

write a story

Doodling also inspires ideas

Get accountable

Joining critique groups are a great way to motivate you to write a story a month just so you have something to bring and share. SCBWI has info on critique groups for children’s writing and Pennwriters has groups for all kinds of writing.

If you want to go virtual, write your story and share it on Scribophile.

There are also monthly activities out there to help you reach your goal o writing a story a month. There’s PiBoIdMo or “Picture Book Idea Month” that encourages participants to come up with one idea for a picture book a day for a month. Out of those 30 ideas you’re bound to find 12 that could become stories in the next year. And you could then join in with Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 or start your own Facebook accountability group.

 

 

 

Protagonist v. Main Character v. Antagonist

protagonist

A bumble bee, cousin to my characters, hard at work

 

Protagonist v. Main Character

I’m struggling with characters in my story and their jobs. I think I have one main character and one protagonist. But I was thrilled to find this post from elements of cinema that provides great examples of stories where the main character isn’t always the protagonist, or the protagonist isn’t clear until deep into the story, or even complex stories with an ensemble cast  each going through their own struggle.

I’m working on my bee story and I want my protagonist, the one who chooses, to be my queen been.

I loved finding this post online outlining the differences between MC and Protagonist. The post author says that the main character of The Great Gatsby  is the narrator, Nick (who isn’t even mentioned in the Amazon review!!!!) while the protagonist is of course, Gatsby.

What is the job of the main character? Is just it the narrator? Not exactly. According to another writing blog I found, the main character is the one through which the reader experiences the story. The protagonist is pursuing the story goal.

So with that distinction clarified, I have decided I want my main character to be a worker bee, one who has the job of Forager. She can do tasks that set my protagonist up for the choice that is essential to the story. My main character will also have a choice or two.

Ensemble Cast

I love the idea of an ensemble cast. I’m not looking to create anything as epic as Game of Thrones, but I think I could possibly produce something approaching the Breakfast Club, where the different honeybees come together to save their Hive, which is sort of a character on its own.

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2014/02/17/tips-for-creating-an-ensemble-cast-of-characters/

Antagonist or Villain

Now I have a problem when it comes to antagonist. I had several problems facing my sweet sister honeybees:

  1. Winter
  2. Food source disappearing
  3. A strange new kind of bee that is out to destroying them

But I didn’t actually develop a character as antagonist. I have nameless foes. I have internal conflict and external conflict, but no villain. I’m thinking I need one.

I found this site gives three good elements: vulnerability, believability and invincibility.

Part of me is thinking a drone might make a good villain. A drone would want the natural order of the hive disrupted. A drone is born only to mate with the queen and then lives off the food produced by the workers and then kicked out to die as winter arrives. A drone who likes the sweet life might not want to be kicked out to die as winter arrives. He might look for a queen who is willing to change the way she lives so that he can live his lazy, luxurious life a little longer. He might feed her desire to make her own decisions. I think he could be a good tempter who tries to entice her to give in to her selfishness…which would lead to the end of the Hive. Ok, I think I have my villain.

For more lists about villains, here are five elements. I like intelligent.

Is the Problem Bad Reading or Bad Writing?

reader symbol bad writing or bad reading

Is this innocent reader to blame?

Let’s say you’re reading a book and the author makes a reference to something and you just don’t get it. It could be a phrase, a symbol, a name. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make sense to you. Some readers might feel confused and give the book a bad review. Some readers might just skip over parts they don’t get, finish the book or story, and go on with their lives. Some intrepid readers might do a little research online to try and understand what they read. I think the worst scenario is the reader who doesn’t even know they didn’t get some understand some reference, finishes the story and says, “huh? didn’t make sense” and then leaves a bad review.

Is the problem bad writing or bad reading? Is it the writer’s fault? When is it the reader’s fault?

Binge Watching

I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Wife lately. Yes, I’ve been binge watching. But this is a darn good show. First, I love the focus on female characters. Second, the story line is strong and compelling. Third, it also explores a lot of psychology and motivation of people. Many episodes also explore the concept of blame and responsibility.

(See, binge watching can be good for writers!)

I think it would be really cool to have a courtroom style drama to explore whether bad writing or bad reading is to blame when certain parts of a story are not understood.

“You Honor, the book didn’t make any sense. No writer can expect a reader to understand the phrase Plumtree’s potted meat.”

“Objection, your honor! Any well-read reader knows that a home without is incomplete!”

[the above is excerpted from my not-yet-written one-act stage play in which James Joyce is charged with obstruction of instruction.]

Yes, I’ve been reading Ulysses and learning a massive amount from his densely symbolic writing. Let me just say it’s been quite an education. But seriously, Ulysses is an excellent example.

I don’t have the grounding in the daily life of early twentieth century Dublin to get all of his references, just as much as I didn’t get all of the references in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or those short stories by David Foster Wallace.

Is it really Joyce’s fault if I don’t quite get all of the things he has to say in his really excellent, moving, comical, intellectual, insightful story?

Is it bad writing or bad reading? I think in Joyce’s case, it’s not bad writing.

The condom and the burka

(Here we come to another interesting question. Do symbols really have meaning once they leave the hands of the writer? Once a writer puts a symbol in the story, they are leaving the symbol open to the interpretation of the reader. As a reader, I can imbue those symbols with something that matters to me and that something could be quite different from what the writer intended. I did this recently at my critique group where I applied a much deeper meaning to a condom and a burka than my fellow writer had intended. This is a longer discussion.)

pyramid reader symbol bad writing or bad writing

Fraught with symbolism

Bad Writing or Bad Reading?

But back to the main question. Let’s say it’s important to the story, When is a failure to understand a reference a problem with the reader’s background, or with the writer’s writing?

At a recent critique group, we faced a problem I often hear when reading someone’s work and we have the chance to question the author.

I used the name “Selene” as the name a Moon base, used the phrase “star sailor” to describe a Greek astronaut, and had a character make a claim to another character that “we are all made out of stars.”

More than one person didn’t get my references and suggested I take them out of the story. But my story is about a child celebrating Christmas in his home on the Moon. Is it my fault as a writer that they didn’t get my carefully chosen words and phrases? And if it is writer error, how can I address that?

This story about Christmas on the Moon is intended for kids and it’s meant to be a short story. I have word limits, and I think adding in things like “the moon base was named Selene because that’s the name of the Roman moon goddess and NASA has a history of naming their space projects after mythological deities” is a bit awkward for story flow.

How else do readers figure out symbols and meanings when they aren’t in English Literature classes writing papers? Maybe they won’t get it. But if they don’t get it, then they might not enjoy my story as much. But is that my problem? It could be, if it gets bad reviews or if people feel I’m a terrible writer because of it.

Maybe it’s question of finding the right audience. But wow does that feel like a gamble.

(P.S. – I just asked my husband about this and he said, “it’s your fault.” Then he said, “know your audience!”)

(P.P.S. – Then he just made a huge claim that not every symbol needs to be gotten! Then I countered that it feels so disheartening to think people would read my story and miss out on some of my favorite little symbols. And he said, “Some will, some won’t. Those that do get it will enjoy a happy accident, a little serendipity.” So I said, “it’s not serendipity when I put it there on purpose.” And he said, “touche.”)

Now what do you say?

2016 Writing Goals

Ready for some writing goals? I’m gearing up for another year of reading and writing (and running, because that helps more than you might think!) I’m not setting resolutions per se, but I do constantly set goals and work on them. I like to set a mix of short and long term goals, that way I can feel good about meeting short term ones along the way and keep up my momentum on the long term goals.

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading Goals

For my reading goals, I’m going to aim for 100 books again in one year. You can find me on Goodreads and see what books I’m reading, but I generally don’t write reviews of books. I just move on to the next book. I do love working off of lists and I think this year I’ll find the list of Newbery Award winners and see which ones I’ve read and seek out the ones I haven’t. I also don’t know the criteria for the Newbery, so that will be something good to learn.

 

writing goals

Brainstorming ideas. Go crazy!

Writing Goals

For my writing goals, I plan to continue to submit my existing stories (including Dare Club, The Red Deer of Fal and Mission: Compostable!) But I want to have a new manuscript ready to pitch at conferences. I have two drafts of middle grade novels I can revise, and I think I’m going to work on my magical realism one and get that ready for the spring.

My process for the magical realism novel has been a little unusual. Here’s a brief outline:

Step 1: Write the novel during NaNoWriMo 2014.

Step 2: Let it sit for over a year.

Step 3: Ask myself “what’s funny about gaining the ability to read people’s thoughts?”

Step 4: Ask myself “what kind of character would get himself into trouble from hearing people’s thoughts?”

Step 5: Read books like Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence and think about what people love to read.

Step 6: Attend conferences, like Pennwriters, and learn about brainstorming 20 ideas of things that could happen to your character.

Step 7: Accumulate rejections for other stories.

Step 8: Try not to think about how long it took to revise Dare Club to something I was proud to share.

Step 9: Finally sit down and brainstorm ideas in my super-creativity-enhancing notebook.

Step 10: Read a Reddit post about the pros and cons of mind-reading.

Step 11: Take a nap.

Step 12: Wake up and decide to go to Target. Suddenly get inspiration for a starting point while driving!

In this story, which doesn’t have a great title but I’ve been calling Buyer Beware, a middle school boy finds a piece of magical technology that allows him to read people’s thoughts. I know I want to tell a story that follows the lines of “what starts out seeming like an amazing discovery that will solve all of his problems and make his dreams come true eventually gets him into trouble.”

See, the story can’t be about the mind-reading device. It has to be about the kid. And for it to be something I love, the kid needs to be funny and likable, and the kid needs to mean well but screw up, and the kid needs to win in the end. I’m not the person to write about child refugees and kids dealing with horrible experiences. I’m the person to write about ordinary kids (like myself) who thought they wanted to be extraordinary and made some dumb mistakes as they figured out how to get through life.

I think I’ve got a plan, now. I think I have a problem and a desire for my main character, and a framework for things that my character will do, and how it might culminate into an interesting climax with a satisfying conclusion. If you’re interested let me know and you can critique my next draft – when it’s ready!

 

 

 

Highlights Foundation Workshop

In October, I was made the decision to take the big leap and attend my first Highlights Foundation workshop. The workshop I chose was called “Creating Page-Turning Non-fiction for Middle Grade Readers and Up.” I’ve had a fair number of non-fiction pieces published in really great children’s magazines and I would love to also create non-fiction books for children.

Lucky for me, this workshop was taught by the incredible Deborah Hopkinson, who also has a ton of experience writing page-turning historical fiction, one of my ‘dream genres.’ I love the way a really skilled writer can weave a great story around accurate historical facts.

We also had the chance to hear from and talk with Steve Sheinkin, a two-time National Book Award finalist.

The setting for the workshops is the Barn, a retreat in the woods outside of the small town of Honesdale, PA. It was almost a six hour drive from Pittsburgh, so I chose to fly to Philadelphia, then take a connecting flight to Scranton, then a driver from Highlights drove me the last hour or so to the Barn.

On site there is a lodge and cabins, and I stayed in cabin 10, a short walk from the main building where we had our classes and our meals. The food, by the way, was very healthy and fresh.

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In our classes we discussed so much, from standards to research methods to what librarians want and teachers need, to what readers want – but Deborah reminded us that our job is to tell the story. She gave each of us two thoughtful critiques and plenty more listening time outside of class. We learned a tremendous amount from her about constructing a solid non-fiction book proposal. Deborah comes from a grant-writing background and she really knows how to show the value of a project. She’s also a fine writer. I read her book Titanic: Voices From the Disaster in one day.

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It was a productive three days. During my time there I read (and loved) several books, including Sheinkin’s Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War. At the end of this workshop, I felt like I was in a great place to put together at least one solid non-fiction book proposal. Deborah also coached me through the elements of my planned historical fiction story and a new novel about running. On the flight home, I revised my butterfly story and came away with a very strong new version. The runs on the woods, the walks around the grounds, and time spent with thoughtful writers was really invigorating.

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We were also able to take a tour of the Highlights offices and Boyds Mill Press in Honesdale. I enjoyed seeing the “where the magic happens” and connect with some editors.

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I have been considering doing one of these since 2012, but they do require a fairly significant financial investment and for some workshops, I’d have to be gone for a full week.

But I knew these workshops also offered significant resources and information. Back in 2012 I thought I might bring my first novel to a “whole novel” workshop, but I’m really glad I did not. I’ve learned a lot in the past three years and I know if I had attended that session it would have been heart-wrenching. Instead, by waiting for the right moment, I think my first Highlights Workshop was a real success.

Planning for NaNoWriMo 2015

So a year ago I put out a tweet asking people what story I should work on for NaNoWriMo 2014. I got more votes on the second project and have put the first project aside for awhile (but it’s still in the back of my head).

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2014 NaNoWrIMo Ideas

For this year, instead of waiting until the last minute to write a novel off of the top of my head, I decided on my NaNoWriMo project well before November 1. And I started getting to work on the backstory! My planned project was going to be about two young lovers in Pittsburgh during the Civil War who both want enslaved people to be free and to keep their country whole. But they believe there are different ways of doing this. So are a part of my planning, I started sketching out scenes. I named characters. I described my characters. I ordered books about Civil War era Pittsburgh from the library. I went to the History Center and located original documents and learned how to access records of newspapers from the time period!

WHEW did I plan.

Then I spent October 18-21 at the Highlights Foundation learning how to write page-turning non-fiction for middle grade readers. While it was only a few days, when you’re in a small group workshop all day, for all meals, you learn a lot about people. And the instructor of the workshop, the wonderful Deborah Hopkinson, took the time to listen to my idea for my NaNoWriMo project. She pointed out some flaws and asked good, hard questions. I’m interested in writing a book during NaNoWriMo, but I’m also interested in writing publishable, marketable books. Then she asked me a very important question: why wasn’t I writing a book about running?

I admitted that I felt it would be self-indulgent and selfish. I worried it wouldn’t be marketable. I worried I couldn’t write it in a way that shared how important running has been to me as a woman and writer. She pushed me a little more and we discussed a possible character and the story arc. I felt overwhelmed and emotional. I felt exhilarated. I left the Barn (where we had our classes and meals) and I walked to this spot on the trail and I cried a little, overwhelmed at the idea that I could write this story about a girl who comes of age and unlocks the secrets to happiness thanks to running.

Where I decided on NaNoWriMo 2015

Where I decided on NaNoWriMo 2015

 

This novel is a lot more of a pantser project than my first idea, which is nice and planned. But maybe this is a good thing! Maybe I write one with emotion and on the fly and I write the second (the Civil War one) after NaNoWriMo when I can really read info and add in the important historical details.

I know I can do this. Thanks to my experience as a runner, I know it’s all about putting in the work daily. And running isn’t just a theoretical part of my writing. It’s a practical part because  I think through plot, flesh out characters, and sketch scenes in my brain during every workout.  I can write both of these stories. I have already written full manuscripts for The Forest of Dreams, Runner’s Luck, and Dare Club. I have completed two big revisions on Dare Club. I can write both my planned story and my pantser story. 

Make a Picture Book Draft

I’ve been trying to make a picture book draft once a month, every month, this year. I’m a member of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 and the focus on productivity and creativity – the art of creating – has been really useful. I know I can come up with an idea once a month and it doesn’t take long to make a picture book draft. These drafts are typically less than 1000 words so it doesn’t take more than an hour to sketch out the first version.

The drafts that seem to work, that could possibly morph into a story for a children’s magazine or perhaps something to bring to critique group and then later to a writer’s intensive at a conference get revised.

As part of the revision process and to test the strength of the story I’ll make a dummy. A dummy is a more detailed draft of the picture book story, laid out with illustrations. Dummies help you see if there are page turning moments, if each set of words can be illustrated, if your story is droning on or getting repetitive.

I’ll also bring my drafts to children to read and critique. My kids are used to being honest about what they like and what they don’t. My kids are also used to seeing picture book drafts that don’t have pictures. But other children aren’t. That’s another good reason to make a dummy.

Make a Picture Book Draft

When you make a picture book draft or dummy, you are working on storyboarding. I have experimented with three different ways of making picture book dummies and storyboarding my tales.

The first is very visual, a traditional storyboard approach. I used this format a lot when planning out the text and illustrations for Dinosaur Boogie.

make a picture book draft

Just needs a story.

 

The second way is a bit more traditional. The instructions come from Ann Whitford Paul’s book Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication. She advises you take four pieces of paper and cut them into quarters. Staple them together and you have the pages you need to lay the text and illustrations for a traditional 32 page picture book.

Make a picture book draft

Long and short stories.

Following Whitford Paul’s advice I created books of different sizes and orientations to accommodate different amounts of text. But I innovated a little with this method and used scrap paper. Yes, that means I can’t write directly on these pages, but I can write text on post-it notes and move them around inside the book pages easily. I can also scribble something on a post-it regarding illustration and move that around, too, and experiment with a little bit of graphic design. Do I want the text above the art? Below? Around the side?

Which leads me to my third method that I use to make a picture book draft or dummy: InDesign. I’m no expert, but I can get around in InDesign. So I will create a document with lots of pages, put my text in and then search on Google for free images. I’m not going to use these images for a profit so I could probably use images that aren’t free, but I like to keep things honest. Then I print out a simple version of an illustrated dummy. These are the versions I take into my favorite test classrooms and try out on kids that aren’t mine.

picture book draft

Ready to read.

Not too shabby! And I find bringing illustrated dummies to classrooms helps me get a sense of the kids’ real reaction to story instead of them being confused about where the pictures are. And they love learning the phrase “picture book dummy.”

So how do you go about making a picture book draft or dummy? Do you have a favorite method? Are you hi-tech or old school?

What Books Made You Cry?

What books made you cry when you read them? For my oldest son, I think the first book that made him cry was the story of Ivan, a gorilla kept in a cage at a mall. In this book, it was the death – and treatment after death – of Ivan’s one friend that brought my son to tears.

My oldest often has a little trouble expressing his emotions, especially when he’s upset. But when characters he loves die, he really feels this deeply. I remember when he was watching the old school Transformers and he got to the part when Optimus Prime died. My husband and I were outside doing yard work when we heard him screaming and crying. He rushed outside, tears streaming down his face, telling us Optimus was dead. It was a horrible, beautiful moment. When I was his age, I specifically remembering crying my eyeballs out thanks to two books about the death of animals, specifically dogs.

The first is Sasha, My Friend. This book is so old it’s no longer being printed so you’ll have to get your hands on a used copy. But it’s a wonderful book and I cried for good reasons.

The second book I can specifically remember crying while reading was A Dog Called Kitty. Both this story and Sasha, My Friend involve the main character building a friendship and then losing the friend. I know that’s kind of a spoiler, but I already told you these books made me cry, so you can’t be too surprised.

Right now I’m reading a biography of Barack Obama to my youngest who is in Kindergarten. It’s his choice of book, I didn’t tell him what to read. His older brothers devour chapter books so he wants to read them to and he picked this one. We just finished the part where Barack visits his father’s grave in Kenya and cries. I noticed my son wiping his eyes and looking away. He felt so deeply for Barack he couldn’t help himself from crying. I think this is quite possibly the first time my youngest cried during a book.

As you know, I’m writing books for children (and adults who like to read children’s books). Some of the best advice I received about telling a good story is to work hard to make readers burst into laughter as well as to tears.

Most of the adult books I read today explore the horrible things happening in the world, but I really believe the books that made you cry as a child explored the simplest emotions of love, friendship, loneliness and loss. I can’t think of a book for adults I’ve read that’s made me cry as hard as Sasha and Kitty tore my heart apart. But I do remember losing it during the movies District 9 and Hero. I’m not sure Hero counts though, because I was pregnant at the time and full of hormones.

I have a book planned out in which the main character, someone I hope readers will not like very much at the beginning then grow to love, dies. This sounds horrible, but I hope some readers will cry when as they read my (future) book. It’s not being mean, it’s a hope that I can someday write a character so real, so meaningful, so worth caring for and loving, that I touch readers in their heart.

What books made you cry, as a child or adult reader?

Pitching Your Writing

pitching your writing

Every day should be Coffee Day!

Pitching your writing doesn’t come easy to every writer. In fact, I have a friend who just shared on Facebook that she recently sent out her first query in a long time and “didn’t die.” Of course she didn’t die. Sending out queries should not be life threatening. But for many writers, pitching your writing is super stressful and not something that can be done everyday.

I don’t pitch every single day, but I try to pitch something every week. And sometimes I get on a big tear and pitch a lot of things in one week that keeps my monthly average high. For instance, September was a mighty busy month for me. I submitted several non-fiction pieces to children’s magazines, my novel manuscript to some carefully selected agents, and finalized my new children’s ebook for it’s October release.

Maybe you like pitching your writing is something special, that you should save up and do it big, do it right.

But I suggest you think about National Coffee Day. National Coffee Day happens once a year. If I treated National Coffee Day like some amazing holiday, I might plan a huge party, decorate my house, invite my closest friends, raise my expectations and demands to incomprehensible levels. And when the day finally arrived, if the roast was a little weak or the water not quite hot, or no one showed up at all, I could be sorely disappointed. Hopes dashed, coffee grounds strewn across the counter, stumbling around blinded by my caffeine-headache in despair.

Which is why I drink coffee every day. I don’t wait for one special day a year to enjoy it.

And that’s why pitching your writing should be an every day, or at least every week event. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect cup of coffee/article idea you’ve ever written. It should be GOOD. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggested you go about pitching your writing crap. But you shouldn’t wait for that perfect moment. Work on it as often as you possibly can. Pitch frequently. Pitch to new places. Pitch to your old favorites. Put it out there.

You need to pitch often for one important reason: so you can practice. Because pitching your writing isn’t something you’re going to be great at the first time. And if you don’t practice you’re not going to get better. I certainly was not any good at pitching when I started back in the early 2000s. But I’ve experimented, learned, practiced, learned more, taken classes and practiced even more. And I force myself to write pitches even when I’m not sure the editor is going to bite because the act of practicing pitching your writing is an essential part of being a freelance writer.

(Just like you have to practice running to get better).

So if you don’t want to send out what you think are weak pitches to editors, send them to your writing partner. But send them. Force yourself to hit send. Then celebrate with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. And get ready to pitch again tomorrow!