Monday, June 27, 2011

Story Elements Series: Got Plot?

by Hazel Buys

You’ve come up with a great plot, one you know will keep the reader’s interest. It will surprise, fascinate, scare, amuse and even educate the reader. A real winner!

But is it logical? Developing a plot that is rich with twists and turns and still makes sense from beginning to end is one of the most difficult tasks a writer faces. It’s easy to put in a plot twist and never get it turned back to the original problem you devised for your protagonist.

Ask yourself, does the solution presented at the end of the story match the problem set up at the beginning? One way to test this principle is to state your premise and your conclusion in a sentence or two. For example, you want to write a story about Rover, a puppy. At the start of this story, Rover, more than anything in the world, wants a home where there is a little boy to play with. But there are no little boys where he lives. The conclusion is that at the end of the story, Rover finds a home with a little boy who, more than anything else in the world, wanted a puppy to play with.

Compare your statements with your story. If you’ve written a story that concludes with Rover finding a home on a farm where he learns to herd sheep, that’s a great outcome. But it doesn’t match the problem you set up. If Rover is taken in by a family with three little girls who love him and give him lots of attention, that’s also a great ending. But you are still missing your mark.

Some mis-matches are obvious, like the ones I outlined above, but many are subtle and easy to overlook. And even the little misses make a difference. Your story will seem off kilter and, although they may not be able to tell you why, readers will not enjoy it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Don't Forget Nonfiction

by Stephanie McPherson

Summer reading fun! – It’s a phrase synonymous with lavishly illustrated picture books, fantasy, mystery, series books with spunky heroes and lots of action I’d like to think that nonfiction elicits the same enthusiasm as more fanciful books, but I’m a realist. Can a well-crafted bio or a thoroughly researched science title compete with Harry Potter? Well, “compete” may not be the right word. But true stories can engage and intrigue young readers too.

Perhaps author and editor James Cross Giblin said it best: A nonfiction writer is a storyteller. Whether it’s the history of the Women’s Rights Movement, the life cycle of a star, or the story of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, a story is still a story. Rightly told (that doesn’t mean fictionalizing), it should capture and hold the attention of young readers.

Nonfiction picture books are especially exciting to me. Aimed at somewhat older children than fictional picture books, many are informative, creative, and, in my humble opinion, wonderful. Here’s a handful of titles I’ve enjoyed recently.

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig – Juxtaposing the biblical beatitudes with highlights from the Civil Rights Movement, Weatherford has created a profound and beautiful meditation.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond – The husband and wife team that created Curious George had a narrow escape from Nazi Germany to the United States during World War II. 

Testing the Ice: A True Story about Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson – Sharon Robinson recalls incidents from her childhood as the daughter of the first African American to play in a major baseball league.

Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World by Margot Theis Raven, paintings by Chris Soentpiet – Ever wonder where the beloved song came from? I’m not telling, but I can promise a good read.

Johnny Appleseed: The Story of a Legend by Will Moses – Written and illustrated by the great-grandson of the renowned artist Grandma Moses, this book represents visual and narrative art at its best.

That handful of books I mentioned could easily become a wagon load. I’m reminded of a story about Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. As a child, he sometimes traveled with his family from Michigan to Portland, Oregon. They always carried an empty suitcase to be filled up with volumes from their favorite bookstore! I love that! Having researched Larry, I’m sure that a good many of those titles were nonfiction. I don’t know where he got the biography of Nikola Tesla he devoured at age twelve, but he lists it as a prime source of his ambition to found his own company one day.

I could go on about Larry or about other successful book-lovers. But it’s time to stop. One of the nice things about picture book nonfiction is that it DOESN’T go on and on. Succinct, clear, and engaging, it generally provides a quick and humorous, thought-provoking or just plain fun experience between weightier tomes. Creative nonfiction – it’s not just for school anymore. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

AAA = Ask An Author

Today's question is:

How do you come up with a plot?

Hazel: One of my favorite ways of developing a story line is to ask “what if?” I use this anytime, anywhere, in response to something I see on TV or from my window, read in the newspaper, or observe while sitting at a café drinking coffee. It’s a one-size-fits-all plot generator and works especially well if I let myself be really silly and outrageous with possibilities for a story. From the loopy, unlikely series of images, I sort and blend and edit until I have something that I can commit to paper as an outline or story board. If nothing develops, the only energy I’ve expended is in exercising my imagination and that’s a muscle you can’t over use!

Lana: I'm always looking for ways to complicate things. That's basically what plot is, a series of complications that builds toward a resolution. So I ask myself, what is the worst thing that could happen to this character (short of dying, that is)? What would make him or her the most uncomfortable? How could the decision he has to make be more difficult? Those are the things that have to happen in order for a person to experience growth. So next time you have a bad day, just tell yourself you're experiencing growth!

Plot is a series of complications that build toward a resolution. Can't you just imagine the plot of this book?

Pat: I never begin with plain flat plot. Instead, I listen to interesting characters. Just as I choose to listen to interesting people, especially those with good stories, I will listen to one or more characters involved in a drama. Plot grows out of what these fascinating characters do and their perspective on the events of life—their own and others. What’s more, I seldom follow a story from beginning to end. Instead, I write in scenes and then play with the scenes to develop a well-structured story. Many scenes fail to make the cut, but that’s true of writing anything. I think this process lends more immediacy to the action and authentic voices among characters.

Brian: I usually start with a character. I get to know everything about that character: what he likes, what he loves, what he fears, what he desires. Once I know a character and know how he’ll act in various situations, I give him a goal. Plot is simply putting obstacles between my character and his goal.

Leave a comment--we'd love to hear your ideas about plot.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Light Bulb Lab: Mining your Memories

Meg Medina's new book, Tia Isa Wants a Car, sprang from the memory from her childhood. Your memories are a great source of ideas for your writing. Think about all the experiences, emotions, and thoughts that make up you. That's a lot of writing material! 

When you write stories with a child as the main character, you'll need to dig through the layers of adulthood and remember what it's like to be a kid. Here are some great writing prompts to help you:

     Write about the first family car that you can 

     Did you ever live with a relative or have a relative live 
     with you? Was it fun or annoying or both?

     Who were your favorite cousins? What events stand 
     out about them?

     Write about the most unusual family vacation you can 

     Write about a time you felt misunderstood as a child.

     Write about the most eccentric neighbor from your 
     childhood. What seemed strange to you about him or 

     What style of clothing did you wear when you 
     were a child or a teenager? Did your mother ever 
     make you wear something you hated? Did you ever 
     insist on wearing something that your mother hated?

     How was your hair cut or styled when you were a 
     child? Did you ever have a really bad haircut?

Have you ever used your memories as a spring board for your writing? Tell us about it!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

The funniest thing about rejection letters is that they’re actually Good News! With more publishers moving to a “we’ll only respond if interested” policy, any correspondence from a publisher is good. Even a standard form letter is proof that someone somewhere took the time to read your story.

But just like in personal relationships, there are different levels of rejection in publishing. There’s the, “I will NEVER go out with you!” rejection; which is when the rejection letter specifically comments that your writing is not up to their standards. If you get this one, there’s no need to resubmit anything to that publisher. There’s the, “Talk to the hand!” rejection; which is a standard form letter. If you receive this one, chances are an editorial assistant rejected your submission before it ever made it to an editor. There’s the, “It’s not you, it’s me” rejection; which is when you receive a form letter, but it’s personally signed by an editor. That means the editor has no interest in the story you just sent, but they may be interested in something else in your style. There’s also the, “I don’t want to go out with you this Friday” rejection; which is when you receive a signed form letter with one or two handwritten sentences commenting favorably on your writing. That means the editor likes your style, but for whatever reason, it’s just not a good fit for the publisher. If you get this type rejection you should quickly send a new manuscript to that same editor.

And finally there’s the, “I can’t go out with you this Friday because I’ve already made plans” rejection; which is when you receive a personal letter (or email) from an agent along the lines of, “I liked your story, but we just released a similar story about tap dancing cats.” This means the editor really likes your style and would like to see more of your work. If you get this one -Congratulations! You’re on your way to building a relationship with an editor. You should contact that editor IMMEDIATELY. Thank her for reviewing your manuscript. Ask permission to send another one. And ask if she has any specific topics of interest that she is seeking. Then pick (or create) whichever manuscript of yours fits her wish list, Re-Edit it (with help from your writer’s group if possible), and send it to her ASAP.

Publishing is a business based on relationships. And if you don’t live in NYC, or can’t afford to attend 20 writer’s conferences each year, then your best way to build a relationship with an editor will be through that first rejection letter. In fact, my forthcoming picture book, With All My Heart, was acquired by an editor who rejected the first manuscript I sent her. So next time you get a rejection letter, remember; it’s not an end - it’s just the beginning!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bits and Bytes

What do Richmond Children's Writers and Publishers Weekly have in common? We've both been touting Meg Medina this week! To see what PW has to say about Meg and her new book, click here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Review by Hazel Buys

"Tia Isa Wants a Car" by Meg Medina, Illustrated by Cludio Munoz

When they are read out loud, stories take on a life more akin to the stage than the library. I experienced a wonderful reminder of this when I had the good fortune to hear Meg read her book "Tia Isa Wants a Car" at her BBGB book signing.

The best elements in a family drama unfold visually in Claudio Munoz' beautiful illustrations. Filled with light and movement, the images evoke the sun-filled island of the little girl's parents and relatives, as well as her own urban world.But when we hear the story, we are bathed in the lilting rhythms of English, sprinkled with Spanish, spinning into our ears and imagination.

Tia Isa, the little girl's aunt, decides to buy a car, a family first. Her niece never doubts this is possible, in spite of her uncle's derision and the enormous cost. Their first priority is to send money home for the family waiting to join them from across the sea. How can they save enough money to buy a car? Little by little, of course.The little girl finds several small jobs and it is her contribution that finally moves the "save for a car" pile over to the "buy" pile.

This simple story is layered with subtle messages about teamwork, the importance of family, keeping a larger goal in mind, patience and the rewards of perseverance. Like saving for a car, wrapping all these lessons into a small book is quite an accomplishment and it is very well done.

Leave a comment on our blog any time this week and you could win a copy of this delightful picture book. One winner will be chosen at the end of the week. We know you'll love this book as much as we do!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bits and Bytes

Win a Kindle from Writer's Digest!
Just go and fill out a quick survey about your writing goals and interests and you'll be automatically entered in a drawing for the Kindle prize.

Good luck! And keep writing!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Author Spotlight: Meg Medina

This week we're celebrating the release of Meg Medina's new book, Tia Isa Wants a Car. Today we have an interview with Meg, Wednesday we'll have a review of her book, and Friday's post will include fun activities to go along with the book. And . . .
We're giving away a signed copy 
of Meg's book!
More details about the giveaway at the end of this post. Without further delay, we welcome the fabulous Meg Medina to the Richmond Children's Writers blog!

Congratulations, Meg, on your latest book! In your blog, you mention that your writing is a celebration of your Cuban-American roots and that you draw heavily from the culture you know so well. Is this story based on an event from your life? 
The story is loosely based on real events. I have a real tía Isa, who was the first person to drive in our family. She arrived from Cuba with my grandparents in the late 1960s. Eventually, she learned to drive and bought the first family car, an ancient Buick Wildcat. The purchase of that car was so important to our family. It was a step into American culture and our first feeling of independence from bus routes and limitations.
One thing that is definitely different from real life is that tía Isa was a truly terrible driver. ¡Ave Maria purísima! She was possibly the worst I’ve ever seen.
Yikes! Good thing you left that part out of the book. Please share with us a little about the process of the book, from idea to first pages to the finished product. What was the biggest challenge in the process of writing this book?

I wrote this book by accident while I was between novels. It was actually a very restful process for me to play with phrases and just follow a simple story. That said, picture books are never truly easy. There are confines of the form: Thirty-two pages. The main character and her problem should be introduced inside the first page-and-a-half. There must be room for the illustrator to contribute visual story. It may seem easy to write a short picture book, but in fact, it’s harder than novels. It requires being very choosy about what gets in and what gets left out.   

How was writing Tia Isa Wants a Car, which is a picture book, different from writing your first book, Milagros, Girl from Away, a middle-grade novel?  Are there differences in research, in preparation, in storytelling?
Oh – they are completely different beasts. In picture books, I’m telling a big idea with very few words and events. It works almost like a poem in that it is exposes a larger truth by examining a small moment. Picture book writing also requires me to think of two readers:  the child reader and the adult who is reading the story, too.

For novels, on the other hand, I typically work with a big cast of characters as well as a main plot and sub-plots. At times, it’s unwieldy, but I have many more ways to move the storyline forward. I also assume only one reader, which is helpful. What is hard about a novel, though, is having the stamina to sustain the world you’ve created over 300 pages. Since I don’t work from outline, I always risk getting lost or writing my way into a scenario that doesn’t work.

Let's talk a little more about Milagros: Girl from Away.  Strong, competent girls and women, such as Tia Isa and Milagros and her mother, take the leading roles in this book. Is this a conscious decision, or do they simply grow out of your own early experiences?  How did these girls begin to speak to you as you wrote about them?

Oh, I love writing about strong girls. I’m intrigued in real life and in fiction by girls who refuse to be crushed by images of what they’re supposed to be or by any difficult circumstances. That was certainly true in the lives of the girls and women I knew growing up, and we still see them in every classroom, in every family. Girls facing down troubled parents or poverty, social horrors at school, bullying boyfriends, self-destructive habits. They’re everywhere and they survive. I could write about them forever.

Tell us about magical realism. Is it part of your style as a writer, or was it simply the best fit this story? Did you know from the beginning of writing this novel that it would include magical elements?

I can’t say what my style is as a writer, except that I write literary pieces. I like to experiment with all kinds of things, and for Milagros, I dabbled in magical realism. Using magical elements in everyday life has long been associated with Latin American literature, so I especially enjoy experimenting with it for a bicultural audience. It gives me a chance to introduce young readers to the traditions of our literature in an English format that is just as familiar to them. It definitely fit Milagros, and it will appear again in my new YA novel (due out next March) called The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. But I also enjoy working in a contemporary voice. Tia Isa is contemporary, and I just sold a manuscript for another YA novel called Finding Yaqui Delgado. That one is contemporary, too.

We’d love to hear about your next writing project.  What’s on the burner for now?

In the very immediate future, I’m very excited to be working on a curated reading list called Girls of Summer with my friend and fellow Candlewick author, Gigi Amateau. (Here’s the link to my website where I’ve posted the trailer: It’s our answer to dreary summer reading lists. You know the ones I mean. All the titles we have selected feature strong girls as protagonists. GOS will roll out in early July 2011. It will be in a blog format, and we’ll have author interviews, giveaways, reviews, etc. Several amazing writers are going to lend their thoughts and talents. We’re also going to do a live launch of the list at the JRW Writing Show on July 28, 2011. Authors Steve Watkins and Valerie Patterson, whose beautiful works are part of the list, will be joining us for a panel discussion. We’ll also be giving away one entire set of the Girls of Summer list. So, mark your calendars!
Tía Isa Wants a Car will come out en español next year, and so will The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind (Candlewick Press). In the meantime, I’m happily at work on Finding Yaqui Delgado.
Terrific! We'll look forward to more books from Meg. This week, we're giving away a free copy, signed by the author, of Tia Isa Wants a Car. Just leave a comment any time this week, include your email address in the comment (you must be an adult to enter) and we'll draw a name on Saturday. ¡Vamos! 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

QR Codes, Tags and the Emerging Multi-Media World of the Writer

by Hazel Buys

You want to get the word out about your writing? Be prepared to do it yourself! The World Wide Web, and all things digital are on the leading edge of this DIY strategy: build a web site, write a blog, develop a Facebook page, get a Twitter account, post a book trailer on YouTube, network in the cloud in a universe of virtual interviews, presentations and publicity mailings. Technology is the modern way of building your brand, an abbreviated representation of you as a writer. But how do people find you, in the vast expanse and countless choices of the internet?

Enter the virtual equivalent of the retail bar code, the QR Code or Tag. A QR Code or Tag is a small graphical image that carries a digital pointer to a location on the web. This could be your web site (or a page on your web site) or blog, Facebook page or book trailer on YouTube or text, almost anything. It’s a real world connection to your virtual world. And it’s all free!

If you read the newspaper, or almost any publication these days, you have seen QR Codes or Tags. They look like this:

QR Codes were the first virtual bar code system and have been widely used, starting in Japan. The Tag is a Microsoft product and is a second generation bar code system. It offers many improvements over the QR Code, although it is less well known. Microsoft Tags can be read on every smart phone platform and can be fully customized (meaning your logo can appear on your Tag), scalable (you can get different sizes), is tolerant of different camera lenses and lighting conditions, and is very reliable (scans easily).

The link between the Tag (and QR Code) and your web presence is any “smart” device, a phone, e-reader or laptop that has a camera lens and a connection to the internet. To read the Tag, download a small application (app), free for the asking, onto the smart device. Click on the app and the camera lens becomes a scanner. Hold the device so that the lens can “see” the Tag and presto! The app reads the embedded web location and automatically displays the web page on the device. A single source gets you started with a Microsoft Tag reader app and a Tag:

I created a Tag for my web site and it has scanned perfectly every time. Think of the possibilities! You can put it onto the cover of your best seller, print it on bookmarks, business cards and postcards, directing your readers to your web site, blogs or videos. Its uses are limited only by your imagination. Welcome to the 21st Century ad agency – you and your Tag(s)!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Business of Writing: Submissions 101

The first thing to keep in mind about the business of writing is that writing is a business. So the first rule for submitting your manuscript is BE PROFESSIONAL.

Be professional when creating your manuscript. This means know the genre you’re writing for. Understand the difference between a board book and a picture book or the difference between an early reader and a chapter book. There are tons of great websites that expound on this topic, but for starters you may want to visit the Literary Rambles blog post on word counts. Once you know your genre, create the best story you possibly can. If you haven’t edited it and revised it several times, it’s NOT the best it can possibly be. I strongly recommend joining a critique group to help with the editing process. To find a critique group, please check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Be professional when presenting your manuscript. No colored paper, no hand drawn pictures, no letters from friends telling how great your story is, no personal photos, no gifts of chocolate. You do want your manuscript to stand out to an editor, but not for all the wrong reasons. Your manuscript should be computer printed in a standard 10 or 12 point font and double spaced throughout. Your margins should be an inch to an inch and a half on each side. You should have a header with your title and page number. You should include a cover page with your title, author’s name, word count and your contact information. Again, don’t be afraid to use online resources like and others to make sure your manuscript is formatted to editors’ standards.

Finally, be professional in your query letters. If your query letter isn’t done right, editors may not even look at your manuscript. Take the time to research which companies and editors publish your genre. Never send a query “To whom it may concern.” It may pay to subscribe to resources like SCBWI, Children’s Book Insider or Children’s Writer to receive monthly leads on editors looking for specific genres. The query letter itself must be short and to the point; using only four paragraphs (as outlined by Noah Lukeman:)
1. Intro (explain why you chose this particular editor for your story)
2. Synopsis: (briefly describe your story, highlighting your character’s main conflict)
3. Bio: (list your writing credits, classes or experience with most relevant first)
4. Conclusion: (thank the editor for taking the time to review your manuscript)

So there you have it. Be as spontaneous, care-free, crazy, uninhibited, and unorthodox as you can when writing your story. But be as professional as possible when submitting to editors.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Getting Kids into Books

Summertime . . . 
        and the reading is easy.

As far as I’m concerned, summer was made for pleasure reading. When your child sees you reading because you enjoy it, that sends a powerful message. Here are some ideas for summer reading, family style.

Each family member sets a reading goal. Mom and Dad are included! Make sure the goals are attainable, but also require a bit of effort. Your family can plan a fun activity—a trip to the ice cream parlor, a backyard campout, an amusement park outing-- as a reward for everyone reaching their goal.

Have a reading party. At my house, this involves three stages. First, we create the atmosphere. We pile pillows, cushions, and blankets in the family room and build a reading "fort." Next, we gather reading materials of all sorts—books, comic books, and magazines. The third necessary element is snacks. Now let the reading begin! We usually read silently for 20 minutes, then take turns reading aloud for a while. We'll usually read for a total of 60 to 90 minutes. Good summer fun!

Give your child a flashlight and let him read in bed. Take advantage of relaxed summer bedtimes by allowing more reading time. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, suggests saying something like this to your child: “You can stay up and read if you want. If you don’t want to read, that’s okay too. We’ll just turn out the light at the usual time.” What a great reading tradition.

What summer traditions nurtured your love of reading?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writers' Round Table

Writing advice. It's out there. Some of it good, some of it not so good. Today we are sharing the best advice we've gotten on our writing journeys. 

Hazel:  Always throw everything you’ve got at whatever you are writing. This is not permission to use hyperbole without restraint, rather to use every applicable idea and tool in your mental work basket every time. Don’t save a great metaphor for a later time, or a dramatic plot point for another story, or a wonderful twist, surprise, or subtle but powerful reference for the “even better story” you are going to write later. Make this story, the one you are crafting now, that better, even best story. Creativity feeds on itself. You will find that you will not run out of ideas by using your best ideas. Quite the contrary, your mental work basket, where creativity begins, will grow ever larger. You will have more exciting plots, more delightful twists and turns, more interesting characters to choose from than you ever thought possible just by using it all up every time.

Lana:   The best advice given to me came from my very first boss. My first job was working in a bakery for Mr. Cross, who lived up to his name very well. He gave me a long list of chores to do whenever there was a lull in costumer traffic. I suffer from a life-long daydreaming disorder, so Mr. Cross would often snap at me. “Get back to work!”  This has been the best advice in my writing endeavors. As with any difficult task, there have been unexpected obstacles, dead ends, and frustrations. Rough critique? Get back to work. Another rejection? Get back to work. Write something that stunk to high heaven? Get back to work. It really is the best advice.

Brian:  WRITE! Not to oversimplify, but sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in attending conferences, reading “how to” articles, searching for editors and agents, working on query letters, etc. and that’s if we have time left after work and family! The bottom line is: writers write. And the best way to improve as a writer is to write more. Just like reading a book about hitting is no substitute for batting practice – reading writing tips is no substitute for writing.

What advice helped you with your writing?

Bits and Bytes

Jane Friedman at Writer's Digest has compiled a brief but rewarding list of "5 Free Ebooks Every Writer Needs"
The ebooks offer terrific advice on everything from the nuts and bolts of writing to query letters to marketing your published works. "What Publishers Want" is an especially good place to start to get a feel for what is involved in submitting a manuscript to a publisher.