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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Post-Its Don't Stick to Grass Cloth (Adventures in Plotting)

So about a year ago I was excited to put up grasscloth wallpaper in our office. I love the way it looks and the office seems, well, more like an office. See? Yeah, sure, there MIGHT be duplo blocks and Lightning McQueen all over the floor, but that's immaterial, right?

But then something unexpected happened. I was working on my children's book (middle grade, that's around grades 3-5 for you non-writerly folks), and well, I couldn't remember things. Around 10,000 words I was going, wait, WHEN did that happen? Hmmm, I mention this character and then I wait four chapters to mention him again? The parental conflict is a central plot point but it doesn't really crop up until Chapter 6. Basically, I couldn't remember squat so I was constantly scrolling up and down my Word document like a crazy fool. That's when it was time to break out the post-it notes.

I decided to do individual notes for each chapter and each major plot point, and stick them up on the wall so I can see them. As I need to find something, I know where it is, and if I want to move a major point to a different chapter I can just flip things around. Except there's a problem. Yep, post-its don't stick to grasscloth. What they LIKE to do is fall off and flutter around on the floor, collecting tufts of dog hair. Luckily, with some extra tape they DO stick to the world map from IKEA. So this is now the main view in my office. The downside is that my geography-loving second grader can't see much of South America and, Africa is quickly going. One day it will all be worth it, right?

There are many different ways of plotting. Some people like a detailed outline of their books. And while I was losing track of some of my plot points, this book isn't so complicated that I need a more in-depth system. At least not right now.




Thursday, November 7, 2013

So You Think You're Ready To Pitch: Do You Have a 'Yes' List? (Picture Book Version)

After I write a manuscript (and by 'write,' I mean finish, fuss with, belabor and destroy-by-editing), I have a series of questions I ask myself before remotely considering if an editor or agent would be interested. Blindly sending out a just-whipped-out story to a slush pile or agency is the quickest way to rejection. I try to give my work the best possible chance, and I have a series of questions I ask myself.

Before I pitch a picture book manuscript, I must answer YES to all of these questions.

1. Would my kids want to read it? 
This may sound like a no-brainer, but there are a lot of books out there (and even more DOA manuscripts) that are mildly interesting to adults but not to kids. I pitch my story ideas to my kids, and if they say "Oooh, can we read that?" then the idea is worth pursuing.

2. Would I want to read it?
If this story were published, and my child loved it and went to grab it from the shelf every night for a week, would I happily read it again? Or would I groan and convince them to pick something else, anything else? (Come on, you know you've done it: "Now, I know you LOVE it when Brother and Sister Bear go back to school AGAIN, but can we try something else tonight? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?")

3. Does every word count?
I finished a manuscript last March that I worked on for several weeks and edited down to a respectable 700 words. I thought it was finished. I just picked it up a few weeks ago and cut it down to 376. I know now, for sure, that every word in that manuscript counts. There is nothing superfluous. 

4. Did my critique partner read it? Does she like it?
I trust my writing partner very, very much, and if she hasn't worked on it, it ain't ready.

5. Does it have a LOT of illustrative moments?
The story cannot get by on the strength of its words. The best picture books being printed today have a unique interplay of story and words. Unfortunately, I cannot draw one iota. So when I write, I have to provide areas that would allow an illustrator's imagination to run wild.

6. Does it have a good narrative arc?
If the story doesn't have an interesting problem, build-up to climax and then resolution, forget it. This is really, really hard to do in a few hundred words. It takes a lot of practice and a LOT of reading. When I read books to my kids that don't have a good narrative arc, it makes me absolutely crazy. No one cares about an interesting character if he doesn't do anything interesting.

7. Does it have a surprise ending?
This isn't a "must" for some writers, but it is for me. I absolutely LOVE the final page turn in a picture book to find one last joke, hook or surprise. A great example is the final page in "Never Babysit the Hippopotamuses!" by Doug Johnson. The last page spread says "So. Never babysit the hippopotamuses. Unless, of course, your only other choice is to babysit their neighbors," ... page turn ... "the MONKEYS." That kind of ending gets kids (and adults) every time.

I have several manuscripts languishing right now because they answered NO to just one of these questions. One story is well-loved by my family and friends, but I know it lacks a narrative arc -- it's just too episodic to be interesting to a publisher. Another is a great story without enough opportunity for illustration. It could potentially be turned into a short story, but it's just not a picture book.

If a story answers a YES to all of these questions, I feel really good about it. If I send it out and it gets rejected a million times over, honestly, I still feel really good about it. That sounds a bit too Pollyanna, but it's true. I know I gave it my absolute, best shot. And then it's time to get back to writing some more.

p.s. I didn't include one thing because it may seem too obvious. But it's a no-brainer. No spelling errors. No grammatical errors. DON'T BE A MORON. The people reading your manuscripts read for a LIVING. If they see an error in a few hundred words, they probably think you are dumb. Don't do it.



Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday's List: 10 Great Cover Songs

I'm going to post a list of books, songs, movies, etc. each Friday. Enjoy!

Here are 10 of my favorite cover songs, in no particular order:

1. Everybody Knows, Concrete Blonde
2. Make You Feel My Love, Adele
3. Turn Your Lights Down Low, Lauryn Hill w/ Bob Marley
4. Wild World, Mr. Big
5. Landslide, Dixie Chicks
6. Use Your Love, Katy Perry
7. Bold As Love, John Mayer
8. Southern Cross, Jimmy Buffet
9. All Night Long, Jason Mraz
10. Love Is Blindness, Jack White

Honorable Mention for:

Down Under by Colin Hay, acoustically covering his own Men at Work song

Don't go blowing your budget on iTunes now. :)