Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Chris Cheng's Picture Book Workshop--Learning from Experience

Chris Cheng and Eastern PA SCBWI RA Marilyn Hershey

On Sunday, January 27, 2013 the dynamic Chris Cheng was the workshop leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania’s SCBWI chapter picture book event. It was a frigid day in Philadelphia, but despite the weather approximately thirty people turned out for the event.
If you haven’t “met” Chris, I suggest you visit his website. Chris has a fascinating background, teaching at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia and working as a bookseller. Now, Chris is a full-time author, with more than twenty years of experience in the business. If you have a question, Chris probably knows the answer. Chris just asked that people from the workshop wait two weeks to contact him as he is quite busy in the U.S. until then. The U.S. version of his picture book Python, is being released later this week.

Some of the big “take home” messages from Chris’ presentation.

1.                          If there is a single thing you aren’t sure about in your manuscript. A single thing you might change—don’t send it off. “You only get one bite at the cherry!” Chris worked ten years on one poem before he submitted the manuscript that became his book Spooky Sounds. That is not a typo—he worked ten years on one poem BEFORE he submitted.
2.                          Be part of the writing community. Chris is RA for the Australian/new Zealand SCBWI and believes that workshops and the exchange of ideas between writers will make your work better. (this puts the 12x picture book group in good stead :))
3.                          Write a good story. Chris spent time talking about book trailers and digital publishing. But he kept reminding us that this part of the writer’s journey isn’t important until we have written a good story --a story that avoids being preachy or message driven. Even for author/illustrators, finish story-boarding the story before you submit. It’s all about the story.

Chris started his career submitting without an agent. He did recommend that if a writer is lucky enough to sell to a publisher, then contact an agent right away (Use the SCBWI’s "THE BOOK"). Chris uses an agent now.
Interestingly, Chris doesn’t use a critique group for his own work. He works on it, solo, until he believes it is the best it can be and then he submits it to his agent. 

One key message I got from my day with Chris is to be hard on ourselves. Be professional. Be tough with our work. Don’t put out bad products, written or digital. When you dip your toes into the big pond that is the writing industry you are building a reputation. Spend the time. Put in the work. Be sure that your work is the best it can be.
If you have the chance to attend an upcoming workshop with Chris, I recommend you sign-up.
Chris took a great photo of our group--I'm in the second row! In the pink, as the saying goes.

Yesterday, Marcie Colleen (one of the 12x picture book group) had a post about combining passion and mastery. If you didn't have a chance to read her post and if I haven't inspired you to sign up for a workshop yet, she will! She's inspired me to look for another.

I also had the pleasure of attending a friend and fellow writer’s author appearance at the Doylestown Library last weekend. My post about that event with children's author Debbie Dadey will be forthcoming.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Perfect Picture Book Friday-Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

          Last week I treated myself to three new picture books. New to me anyway. I keep a list of books I want to read, and when I go to the library I look for them. If the library doesn't have them, sometimes I make a request. 
          Except when it's for picture books.
          I can't help feeling guilty about putting a hold on the picture books. If they're not there, it's because some kids have taken them out and are, hopefully, enjoying them. That's what they're in the library for, after all. So, I went to the local bookstore.

          When I get a chance, I'll share all three books. But today I thought I'd start with the recent Charlotte Zolotow award winner. This year's winner (for books published in 2012) was Each Kindness by the Newbery Honor-winning author Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning E. B. Lewis (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012).
          One of my prize possessions is a copy of The Other Side by this same writing and illustrating team, autographed by Mr. Lewis when I met him at an Eastern PA SCBWI event. I was anxious to see their new collaboration, and tired of waiting for it at the library.

           In Each Kindness, Maya the new girl tries to make friends with Chloe. Maya wears thrift store clothes and never penetrates Chloe's circle of friends. Chloe is never physically or outwardly cruel, just dismissive. By the time Chloe recognizes the importance of small acts of kindness, Maya is gone.

           As someone who grew up wearing hand-me downs, the story struck a chord. 
           As a writer, one of the first things I did was a word count. 

           The editors at recent writing conferences have talked about their desire for picture texts under 500 words. Ms. Woodson's poignant text is 869 words (give or take--I counted twice, but disclaim any errors in this regard). 
          Despite the call for shorter and shorter picture book texts, I think an adage I have heard several times is true. A writer should use as many words as necessary to tell the story. No less, no more. Sometimes this may be 100 words, sometimes it may be 1000. 

          Another story element that I found particularly interesting is the ending. The story arc is complete, with the lesson if not yet learned, at least recognized. But Chloe isn't happy. The lesson is a hard one, and as a reader I was left with a strong sense of Chloe's regret.Woodson leaves us haunted with the message of missed opportunity, rather than allowing Chloe to find complete redemption.

          My favorites of Mr. Lewis' paintings are the final two page spread, the reverse image of which is also used for the cover (for its color) and a painting of the main character, Chloe, holding a rock, not being able to think of a single nice thing she had done (for capturing a moment, the hint of a frown and uncertainty).
          If you haven't had the chance to read Each Kindness yet, don't wait at the library. Go out and get it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this book.
This weekend I'm headed to my friend Debbie Dadey's author appearance at the Doylestown Public Library and Chris Cheng's picture book workshop held by my local Eastern Pennsylvania SCBWI. Find out what I learned, next week.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Writing Priorities

I don’t think anyone can tell you how to prioritize your life. After all, we all need different things and are at different points in our lives.
There was a time when I’d gladly put in 100 hours a week at my real job. There was a time when I was Room Parent, Cub Scout Den Leader, classroom writing workshop volunteer, stray dog fosterer and community activist (Yea! We got the new library built).
I believe it's important to write down your goals, so you have some idea where you're heading. But setting rigid benchmarks, on how to prioritize goals and the time necessary to achieve those goals just doesn’t work for me.
So now I have to come clean. My introductory sentences are just my personal rationalization for a failure.

Yes, last week I failed Katia Raina's Gimme 31 challenge.
Failure is such a harsh word. But if you could see me, you’d see a big smile on my face.
It's not because I'm loopy.
A few days ago I had to prioritize, and a family member’s illness was clearly more important than anything else on my to-do list. But here’s the part that is making me smile. After I “failed” I got back on board. Okay, so I won’t get in the prize drawing. But I joined the challenge to follow my dream. That’s the real “prize.”
Whatever happens on one day, doesn’t change my determination or my dream.
And not only am I back on board, but in the next days I more than made up for the day I missed. With laser-like focus I have been writing, revising, repeating.

Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 picture book group submitted query letters for critique by the amazing author, editor, reading advocate Emma Walton Hamilton yesterday, and I was ready! In a few days, the window will open for submissions to the incredible February agent, Stephen Fraser, via the same 12x12 group. And I’m ready!

Writing is hard work. I think Malcolm Gladwell might have been wrong in his book Outliers when he said that people who become extraordinarily accomplished in their fields have to put in about 10,000 hours at their craft. For writers, it may be even more. But that doesn’t discourage me. Uphill battles are just a little extra exercise. 
And I can use a little extra exercise to burn off the amazing chicken tangine I made last night. (Thank you NY Times Diner's Journal!)
Up, down. One, two. I’m off!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why I joined the 12 x 12 and a Giveaway!

Last year I jumped into several writing challenges with both feet. Two great ones are targeted to picture book writers.

In November, I completed Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo challenge. But if you write picture books and you want someone nudging and inspiring you All Year Long, that would be Julie Hedlund. Her challenge is the 12 x 12.

Coming up with picture book ideas is hard. Completing the manuscripts. HARD. Sometimes I found myself abandoning a great idea, because more great ideas came along. The competing voices in my head were a tough audience to ignore.

But to complete the 12x12, you had to stick with it. If I had the time, I could work on a hundred manuscripts at once, but I don’t think many of us have that sort of time (or energy!). I had to learn to pick and choose.

Like PiBoIdMo, the 12x12 has great posts on craft and inspiration. In fact, reading (and re-reading) the posts was often the best way to get “unstuck.” My writing problems aren’t new--they're just new to me! The “ah-ha” moments from reading about craft were priceless.

The one twist for me this year is—I’m not dead set on “winning” the challenge. I know, how can I admit that, the horror! But hear me out.
After last year’s 12x12 I have a stack of completed manuscripts, begging for time and attention. And as much as I want to keep writing more—and I certainly plan to keep writing more new manuscripts, and I’m hopeful that I will complete at least twelve—I also believe that my primary goal for 2013 is to separate the wheat from the chaff and get the wheat out to market! That means I need to focus on polishing, revising and submitting.

A completed 12x12 manuscript isn’t necessarily a polished, ready-for-submission manuscript. This became abundantly clear to me as the last year progressed and I went back and re-read the manuscripts from earlier in the year. And it wasn’t just that I am (hopefully!) becoming a better writer all the time. Nope. Manuscripts just need to sit and steep awhile. Getting a critique is great, but it's often only with time that I can really "get" what the critiquers meant. Coming back with fresh eyes is invaluable to me.

If I'm still working on revising last year's manuscripts, why did I re-join the 12x12?
This year, it's BIGGER and BETTER. In addition to the Facebook community there are manuscript critiques and special submission windows to agents who accept picture book manuscripts! Critiquing other writers and having my work critiqued is just what I need this year.

So, with the help of the writing community there, no matter how many new manuscripts I write in 2013, the year’s going to be a success. Hope to see you there!
To celebrate all the help I’ve received on my writing journey, I’m giving away a copy of one of my first publications!

For a chance to win Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul, you'll need to do two things:

 1. Be a follower of my blog
2. Leave a comment with your contact information so I can contact you to  get a "real" address if you win. Remember you can use (at) and (dot) instead of @ and . so the internet gremlin bots can't read your information.

Pretty easy, huh? Don't look back, just do it!
I'll pick a random entry one week from today, on January 18th. Good luck!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Meet Katia Raina and the Gimme 31 challenge

Today I am guest posting on Katia Raina's blog.

If you haven’t met Katia, I encourage you to click over (above) and say hi. Katia is just starting the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes novels for young adults and is represented by Jessica Regel of the Jean V Naggar Literary Agency. Her first novel, “Castle of Concrete,” will be published by Namelos.

But she is writing YA and I write picture books and middle grade fiction. What do we have in common you might ask? We’re both moms with two kids, but that isn’t the important bit. We "met" online when I became aware of Katia's commitment to her craft.

The writing community is amazing. It doesn’t matter what you write. I’m sure there are outliers, but the folks I have been fortunate to meet in person, online, are generous spirits. This is a concrete example of a win-win community. Katia and I both have dreams. Writing dreams. Dreams to be the best writers we can be. And we are sharing her "Gimme 31" goal to pursue the dream EVERY DAY.

Check back with me here on Friday for my post on another amazing writing community—Julie Hedlund's picture book 12x12 'ers. It doesn’t matter what you write—the inspiration is out there!

Please leave a comment for me or Katia. We’d love to hear where you find your writing inspiration! Thanks.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Jet Pilots Don’t Need Rear-view Mirrors: Writing for 2013

When I thought of a New Year post, the title I used immediately sprang to mind. I wasn’t sure who I first heard this expression from, so I googled it and it appears that a famous motivational speaker, Joel H. Weldon may have coined the phrase. But I never heard Joel speak, so that wasn’t where I heard it, although I give Joel full credit if he is the originator.
Whoever it was that told me—I thank them, too. Because they brought it to my attention and it sums up my feelings for each new day of each new year.

Look forward.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe there’s a lot to be learned from experience. In fact, I would say that experience is my best teacher. Sometimes a social grace, a theory, seems vague or inapplicable to my life. Then I do something stupid. Whammo—lesson learned.
The way I look at it, learning the hard way is better than not learning the lesson at all.
But once the lesson is learned, it’s part of me today. I don’t have to look back again and again, reliving the moment. I’m moving on. Until Jules Verne or Dr. Who or someone else brings me a time machine, the past is the past and there’s no sense stewing in it. Sometimes the mistakes I’ve made were things I’d truly do differently, if I could.
But I can’t.
And I know I will continue making mistakes, hopefully just not the same ones!

What does this all mean for writing in 2013?

As a writer, I have the chance to revise my plot lines. A luxury I don’t have in the real world. But once I hit the send button to an agent or editor, the manuscript is out of my hands. At first, I found myself agonizing over plot twists and tension raising devices I thought of after the fact. I stopped submitting. I read each manuscript aloud a second, a third time, and put each away again.
But that’s just more writing time wasted.

I can be a worrier or a writer, but unless I’m going to make a career of re-writing old Seinfeld episodes, I can’t be both. And I’m a writer.

So, I’ve ripped the rear-view mirrors off my computer monitor and I’m blazing forward into 2013. This year, if I'm using a mirror it's going to be to deflect a laser beam or make sure I remembered to brush my hair before I dash out the door. The manuscripts that I’ve been holding back out of worry whether they’re good enough, timely enough, fresh enough, they’re going out on submission! I’ve got to trust my critique partners enough to think they won’t let me make a fool of myself. I’ve got to trust myself enough to believe the stories will resonate with someone. Maybe not someone at the first agency or house that reads them (although that would be nice) but with someone somewhere.

Come join me for the ride! Turbo boosters engaged…

To celebrate my New Year's resolution of blazing into the future, trying new things, next week I'm offering a book giveaway. Check back with me then. Something to look forward to already!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When a Picture IS Better than a Thousand Words: My Gift

The best part of the holidays is relaxing with family and friends. Hands down, no contest. But for most people, gift-giving and receiving is also a part of it and my family is no exception. This year, my husband gave me a gift that brought me to tears, so I thought I’d share the story of my gift.  

Over the years, our family has had three four-legged family members. Now just so you know, I’m not the kind of person who dresses her dogs up or thinks they’re human. I know they’re dogs. But I also know that from the moment they came through the door, they were part of the family. They were living, breathing family members, not furniture or play toys.
Warning! The next part of the story is sad, but then it gets happy again.

Our “last” dog died shortly before Christmas. Frisbee was a black lab Rottweiler mix who became part of our family when I volunteered for Twyla's Friends, a dog rescue group in Texas. We fostered a litter of puppies and Frisbee had not yet been adopted when we took on another canine family member, a severely epileptic cattle dog Weimeraner mix named Angel. We decided to keep Frisbee, too. 
Angel and Frisbee’s full story is in Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul: Stories of Canine Companionship, Comedy and Courage, which is being re-issued by the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise sometime in 2013. But here’s the short version:

Angel had multiple seizures every day. And not the relatively calm petit mal staring off into space kind of seizures. If no one was there to hold her she had the ‘bash her head on the floor, run full speed into walls during seizure blindness, jump through the kitchen window’ kind. She was on phenobarbitol, potassium bromide, and Keppra. We found a series of incredibly valuable websites that talked about how to help seizure dogs. But the one thing that was guaranteed to help Angel was if someone put an arm under her head and spoke calmly to her as the seizure came on. Instead of being upset by our presence, she came out of it quicker and without damage. The only problem was—not knowing when a seizure was coming, someone would have to be with her 24/7. Tough to do. Even the most devoted pet lovers have to go to work and school and grocery stores and...you get the picture. It was tough.
One day I was at the other end of the house and heard Frisbee making a strange noise. I ran to find her lying partly across Angel, holding her down. Somehow, she knew that Angel was starting to have a seizure and since I wasn’t in the room, Frisbee stepped in. From then on, she held Angel for us until someone got there. The vet initially said Angel wouldn’t live more than two years, but she died last year at the age of fourteen years, one month.
Frisbee died at home, in my arms, shortly before Christmas this year. Painfully, achingly tough. 

Even though dogs’ muzzles get white, and in our heads we know they are aging, dogs have an uncanny ability to stay young at heart and to live each day to the fullest. Maybe it’s because of this that their death is such a shock. 

Without my knowing, my husband took a stack of family photos with our dogs in them and sent them to the incredibly talented Wendy Trommer in New Hampshire (another Wendy!). He had met Wendy while they were both volunteering for the FIRST robotics program that one of our sons was a team member of, and knew she was also is an artist.

All I can say is WOW!
Wendy Trommer never saw our dogs. But from a series of pencil sketches that she had my husband approve, she created an amazing oil painting. She brought Angel and Frisbee to life on canvas for us. For me.
If the house was on fire, it’s get the family out—then the painting. It means more than any other “thing” in the house. If you get a chance, I’m sure Wendy would love for you to stop by her website and tell her how great the painting is!
Hope you all received what you were hoping for—or in my case what you needed but didn’t know you did.