Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

The funniest thing about agents is that (at least for picture book authors) it’s easier to find a publisher. The conventional wisdom is that you need an agent to get published, but in many cases you now need to get published to get an agent. For instance, I had an agent at the Ronnie Herman agency agree to represent one of my titles. She was very supportive and gave great advice for polishing my work. I was so excited to have somebody handle the business part of writing and represent me to the major houses that I immediately began work on my next title. Exactly two weeks later, this same agent emailed to inform me that because picture book sales were “tight” she wanted to devote more time to her existing clients and would no longer be able to represent me. (Not exactly funny, ha! ha! but certainly funny, peculiar!)
But because I’m determined, I kept submitting to agents. A few months later I received a promising email from an agent at Muse Literary. I had sent a blind query and this particular agent replied back saying that my book was “very appealing” and showed “great promise.” She had taken the time to make a few notes and said that she “looked forward to working with me.” Again, I was so excited I sat down and began revising immediately. I made about 70% of her requested revisions and kept the other 30% as it was with notes explaining my reasons (pacing, plot, character development, etc.) I was looking forward to a wonderful creative partnership. A week later I received an email from this agent saying “children wouldn’t be interested” in my book and that she would not represent me. Really? My book went from “very appealing” to not interesting in one week? Apparently when an agent suggests changes, you should make ALL the changes without question. But what if that changes the tone of your book?
As I pondered this whole agent business, I received an email from a publisher (I had been submitting to publishers and agents at the same time.) Tiger Tales wanted to publish one of my picture books! Over the course of several weeks, I corresponded with my editor (who is wonderful by the way.) She suggested changes. I made most of them (what can I say, I’m a slow learner.) She listened to my defense on changes I did not want to make, and we worked TOGETHER to polish my manuscript till it shined! I’m so excited (for real this time!) and can’t wait for the release of my book next fall. So while you’re knocking yourself out trying to get the attention of that career changing agent, don’t forget to submit to publishers!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ask an Author: What's your favorite children's book?

Hazel: This is a difficult question for me because I’m rather like the child who names as his best friend whomever he has just been playing with. Lately I’ve enjoyed Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, Rick Riordan’s The Olympians series and Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Series (can you see a pattern here?). But my favorite book(s), at the moment, are the Harry Potter books. I return to them again and again, for inspiration, entertainment and sheer wonder at the breadth and depth of J. K. Rowling’s boundless imagination and her ability to make the richness of the wizarding world she created come alive in the words of her books.

Brian: I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I love the way Milne introduces us to a hapless stuffed bear who tries to think of a better way to come downstairs as he’s being dragged by the feet, head bumping each stair, on his way to his own stories. I love Milne’s dry, understated humor. I love the poems he gives Pooh to recite throughout his adventures. And I love the way Milne creates suspense and drama without any real conflict – a remarkable feat (and I think a hallmark of great children’s literature). In my early adult years Benjamin Hoff reintroduced me to Pooh and friends in his amazing book, The Tao of Pooh, and I came to appreciate the depth of A.A. Milne’s masterpiece on an even deeper level.

Lana: I'm with Hazel--it's so hard to choose one. I have a long list of favorites, but I think I'd have to say The Giver by Lois Lowry. That book works on so many levels. The spare writing is perfect for the character and the theme. The ideas really make the reader think and question. Even the open ending, which I normally don't like, was perfect for this story. This is the kind of book that you either love or hate, and I definitely loved it.

What about you? What's your favorite children's book?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

Mix Up Your POV! by Hazel Buys

What’s this? Point of view belongs to content, not the image makers. Think again. Point of view is very much the concern of illustrators. Mix it up, you say? Heresy itself!

Point of view, for an illustrator, is the angle and the distance from which the scene is viewed. Unlike the rule for writing content for a picture book, the rule for illustrators is: change is good!

Ask yourself: is your reader looking straight at the scene, looking up from below or down from above? Do your illustrations bring the reader up close to the scene where he is right on stage with the actors? Perhaps you have kept the reader at the edge of the stage, looking at each player in the scene from the same middle distance. Or is he far away, looking at a scene that is being played out off in the distance?

Be sure to mix the different points of view, straight on, looking from above and looking from below as well as the distance from the scene, close, middle and far, throughout the illustrations. It won’t help to have an interesting point of view if it is static from the beginning to the end of the book.

Be aware that these decisions must be made as early as possible in the design process for the illustrations. A scene designed to be viewed up close might need to be framed by scenes that explain or expand on a tight viewpoint because a very close view also crops visual information, some of which might be crucial to understanding what is going on.

Close-ups are great for highlighting expressions, such as intense emotions, that could not be offered in a middle distance or in a view from far away. On the other hand, views from a distance are great for showing context, such as environment or parallel plot points, that are developed visually to enrich the story line.

So mix it up and your illustrations will be livelier, more interesting and much more successful!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Whaddaya think?

We've added a new feature of the Richmond Children's Writers blog. Check out the poll on the right sidebar and click in your response. Add a comment if you like. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Author Interview: Amanda Cockrell

Richmond Children’s Writers: Amanda, thanks for sharing your insights with our blog readers. Thanks also for writing a YA novel that doesn’t feature vampires or zombies!
What was your inspiration for What You Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay?

Amanda Cockrell:
It started out because I thought that sainthood might take a person by surprise, so to speak. And all the various wars had been on my mind, and I thought the saint might have some battle scars of his own.

RCW: I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between the book’s main character and yourself. Both have writer parents, a California childhood, and similar physical traits. How much of you is in this book?

AC: Angie is a much more together teen than I ever was. But I did draw on my own adolescence for the setting, and for her parents to a limited extent. The book is kind of a love letter to Ojai, California, the town I grew up in. It was a wonderful place. I could ride my horse all over the valley and there was a hitching post outside the town library. Still is. I called it Ayala instead of Ojai so I could change things – like keeping the church in use. It’s actually a museum now.

RCW: You do a wonderful job bringing both your adult and teen characters to life in this book. How do you manage to create realistic teen dialogue?

AC: I think the key is to listen to people talk, and not to try to be too trendy. For one thing, you’ll get the slang wrong and look like a goon, and if you don’t get it wrong it will be dated in a few years anyway.

RCW: Your adult characters are supportive of your teen heroine, but they don’t solve problems for her. They are loving, but also flawed. What advice would you give aspiring novelists about the role of adult characters in YA novels?

AC: The adolescent has to solve her/his own problem, to the extent that she can. Otherwise it’s not her story. But adults are there – they are a part of any teen’s life, and the way that teen interacts with those adults is going to be important. I think it’s a mistake to just leave them out. Some things I read, I find myself thinking, where are this kid’s parents? And the adult characters need to be as well developed as the adolescent ones. Using Generic Mom and Generic Dad is wasting characters that could make your story richer.

RCW: Han Nolan praised What You Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay for its “deft use of magical realism.” I would say that your story is more “spiritual realism,” with references to Christianity, Judaism, Kabbalah, and reincarnation. Is there a spiritual lesson you wished to convey with this story? Or did you just want to introduce general concepts to teenage readers?

AC: I wasn’t really trying to introduce anyone to any particular concepts – they were just part of the story. But I do think any teen thinks about those things and wonders what in heaven or earth is going on. I do think it’s a good idea to see the connectedness between faiths and in that sense I like Angie’s family because they manage to do that successfully.
In any case, as Ursula K. LeGuin said so well, “I don’t speak message, I speak story.” What the reader takes from your story will differ with the reader and that’s as it should be. Tell your story and don’t try to teach anything. What we learn from story is subtle and can’t be forced.
Personally, I kind of subscribe to Helen’s idea that the theoretical ends of theology and physics get closer together all the time.

RCW: Did you gain any new insights in creating these diverse characters and watching their stories unfold on your pages?

AC: I learned, as I do with every story I write, that they will go their own way and be their own people, and you had better let them. I always like to get in the heads of my difficult characters. It gives me a sense that even unpleasant people may be doing the best they can. You don’t have to like your difficult characters but you do have to understand them.

RCW: In your story you talk about “shared dreams,” is there really such a thing? If so what research did you do in this area?

AC: I did some research on dreaming. There have been some experiments done on lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming as you dream and being able to influence the dream) and people dreaming the same dream (at the same time, which apparently does occasionally happen) and this is what Helen is talking about. There is no record of anyone having someone else’s recurring dreams, the way Angie does though. Google “shared dreams” and you’ll find some interesting stuff.

RCW: A lot of times a story can take on a life of its own. Were there any moments when your characters surprised you as the story evolved?

AC: Well, Lily (Angie’s best friend) turned out to be gay. She just was. I didn’t change her character at all, but we took that revelation out because my editor thought there were too many subplots.

RCW: Many of our readers are aspiring writers. Could you share with them how you secured your contract with Flux? Was it a conference connection or through an agent?

AC: it was through an agent, but I also know another writer who got a contract with Flux just over the transom, so it can still happen that way too.

RCW: How long did the revision/editing process take once you’d completed the first draft?

AC: Arrgh. Forever.
A friend had me send it to her editor, who liked it sort of, but wanted revisions. I made them. She wanted more... I made those, some of them reluctantly as they took out some of the magical realist element. Then her publishing house was bought by another house and the whole project just fell out of her sights. Then I sent it to Sarah Davies at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Sarah asked for revisions, some of which added back the magical realist things that the editor had wanted changed, which pleased me. But the main thing was in strengthening Angie’s relationship with Jesse and I blew it. I think I just didn’t want to put her through all that. So I revised, and not very well, and she turned it down. Long thoughtful period of thinking about not having been willing to tackle the tough stuff. Contrite plea for one more chance. Gracious permission. Five months of taking the entire middle apart and rewriting it. Then my editor at Flux wanted some revisions as well, but they weren’t huge. Sarah had been right in making me get it in the best possible shape before it got sent out.
And if there is one thing I have learned from that experience, it is that if you get to a scene or scenes that you just don’t want to write because they make you uncomfortable, that is a sure sign that they touch on the heart of your story and you had better write them.

RCW: In addition to being a talented writer, you are also the director of a master’s program in Children’s’ Literature at Hollins University. With that double dose of insight, what advice would you give to someone starting their career writing for children? And how should someone contact Hollins to find out more about their master’s program in Children’s Literature?

AC: I would say to read in the genre you want to write – the more you read, the better.
Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, )
The more you write the better, but don’t write in a vacuum – find a creative writing class that will give you good feedback; or a writers critique group; go to SCBWI conferences and show your work to the editors and agents who do manuscript critique there; if you really want to study your craft in depth, take a look at an MA/MFA program like Hollins’.
You can find out a lot on our website: . Once you look at that, if you are interested and have specific questions about the program, please contact me: or 540-362-6024.
And I have to put in a plug for our new graduate-level Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration, for any artists reading this!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Business of Writing

How Do I Get My Picture Book Illustrated?
Part I by Hazel Buys

There are really two questions here. How do I get my picture book illustrated and, very importantly, should I get my picture book illustrated?

In this post I’ll address the question, should I get my picture book illustrated? In September’s post I’ll address the question of how to go about getting a picture book illustrated, if that is the answer for you after reading today’s post.

You need to ask yourself the question, should I get my picture book illustrated, if you want to publish traditionally, as opposed to self-publishing. Traditional publishing means submitting to an agent or directly to an editor at a publishing house who will hopefully offer you a contract to publish your book. Illustrations are such a big part of a successful children’s picture book that it is not surprising that authors of such books are very interested in how their words will be translated into pictures and feel some ownership of that process. If you wrote the words, how can you be expected to keep your hands off the images that will expand on those words and bring your story to (visual) life?

But you must. If you want to publish traditionally, that is. When submitting a picture book manuscript to a publisher or agent, do not, repeat, DO NOT submit illustrations. In this instance, you get your picture book illustrated by letting the publisher who contracts with you to publish your book arrange for the illustrations as part of its publishing process.

This is the case because publishing houses have a branded approach to matching images to words and want to choose from illustrators with whom they have worked before. This approach means publishing houses have a “look” that is associated with their product (picture books, for example) and they have a stable of illustrators that have been vetted for compatibility with their brand. Sometimes, there is also a marketing strategy at work, e.g., pair a new author with a well-known illustrator to enhance recognition in the market place.

A “sometimes” applies here, if, and only if, you are also a professional artist/illustrator. Then you can illustrate your picture book yourself and submit the work as an author/illustrator package. But even for those who can wear both hats, be sure to research your submission targets thoroughly. Publisher websites or other sources will usually tell you if author/illustrator submissions are welcome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writers' Round Table: What is your most exciting moment as a writer?

Some people think being a writer sounds glamorous while others might think it dull. The truth is that writing is like any other job: it has exciting moments and mundane moments. Today we're sharing exciting moments (we'll keep the dull bits to ourselves).

Lana: About three-fourths of the way through writing my novel, I was in the middle of a key scene. Something was nagging me, tugging at my brain, like I had gotten it wrong. I went into free-write mode and one of the secondary characters surprised me with an unexpected plot twist. It was exactly what the story needed. When I went back to revise the earlier chapters to make the plot twist possible, I realized that I didn't need to revise. The plot twist was already in place in previous chapters, but I was unaware of it. Crazy!

Brian: I’ve had many exciting moments as a writer. Seeing the smiles on children’s faces every time I do a classroom reading is still way up there for me. But my most exciting moment was holding my first published book in my hand. I was no longer wishing to be a children’s writer or thinking I might be a children’s writer – I WAS a children’s writer from that point on! And that one moment is what led to all the other wonderful moments reading in front of children.

Hazel: I get most excited about writing when I get a new story idea I think will really work. Letting my imagination go to fill in the new idea is truly a “rush,” as I paint it with broad strokes and work it
just enough to confirm its viability. On a par with a new story idea is the thrill of figuring out just the right plot twist to solve a story problem or get me out of some hole I’ve written myself into. These ‘aha’ moments keep me coming back to my keyboard, luring me along when I’m most stuck and encouraging me to keep going.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Story Elements Series: Setting

by Lana Krumwiede

"When you choose setting, you had better 
choose it wisely and well, 
because the very choice defines--
and circumscribes--
your story's possibilities."
- Jack Bickham

A sign of a great story is one that couldn't happen in any other place.
Could Harry Potter have grown up in Waco, Texas? Um . . . no.

I feel like setting never gets enough credit. I hear writers talk about agonizing over characters and wrestling with plot, but what about setting? Imagine, for example, a story about a missing child. Now imagine that story taking place in the dust bowl of Oklahoma during the 1930's. This time imagine a missing child story that takes place in an urban, contemporary setting, say New York City. Now make that New York City in September of 2001. What about a child who goes missing in a lunar colony in the year 2109? Or in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1970's? 

Each of these missing child stories would be very different. Setting has a huge effect on characters, their roles in society, the choices they have, the resources they have access to, their attitudes and sensibilities. It also circumscribes, to use Mr. Bickham's verb, the playing field for the plot. Setting will dictate things like transportation, communication, weather and climate, geography, flora and fauna.

Use setting for all it's worth. If you get stuck, take close look at your setting. It can bail you out. It can present new courses of action. It can provide interesting details to will draw readers in. It can inject energy into the story. Here are some specific examples of what setting can do:

1. Advance the plot. Changing the setting (or some aspect of it) can give the story a sense of movement and progression. Even if it's the same room, you can change the lighting, the time of day, the weather, or some such thing. 

2. Challenge and shape a character. Think about the places that played a significant role in your childhood. How did these places influence the person you have become? The same is true for the characters in your story.

3. Increase tension. Settings can create obstacles, things that frustrate your characters and complicate their attempts to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. Setting can also introduce something that demands immediate attention. 

4. Reflect a character's state of mind. A rainstorm can be a source of healing and calm or it can be ominous, depending on how your character reacts to it. A writer can use the setting to reveal the character's thoughts and feelings. 

What are some interesting ways you've seen writers use setting?