Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Setting Expectations in Writing

I blog about writing and writers. This post has a writing message, I promise.

The Girl Scouts of America set me up recently. When the girl came to the door, I asked if they had a new flavor this year. We had already purchased a box of Thin Mints from another girl who came by earlier. The second Scout smiled at me. “Mango Crème,” she said. And I bought a box.

This is the first time in my history as a loyal cookie buyer (and eater) that I am throwing out a partially eaten box.
The Thin Mints were—as expected—thin and minty. Those little wafers of deliciousness are heavenly. But the Mango crèmes? They don’t taste like mango. They don’t taste like cream. Don't get me wrong--they don’t taste horrible—just a meh indiscriminate sweetness.
I thought it was just me and left the box for the rest of the family to try. The new cookie variety got three mehs for lack of mango flavor. Scanning the ingredient list, my family was right. There is no mango in the mango crèmes. There is natural whole food concentrate of cranberry, pomegranate, orange, grape, strawberry and shitake mushrooms—no mango.

What does this have to do with writing?

I’ve read—and written—manuscripts with great beginnings and endings that somehow still fell flat. And it wasn’t just the lack of a creamy middle.
Why do I think some of these manuscripts failed?

Yes, the beginning and ending may have been great—separately. But the ending didn’t bring the beginning to a satisfying close. When I read/wrote the beginning, I expected X. But the delivery brought Y. It was a great ending—for a different story.
The great beginning set up expectations that weren’t delivered. I promised mango and delivered some other tropical sweetness (see!?) Books--and cookies--aren't a game of horseshoes. It isn't good enough to be close. They need to deliver what is expected.

In some cases, the solution for me isn’t to rewrite the ending.  In the ending, I had delivered what I wanted. As Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music—“let’s start at the very beginning—a very good place to start.” 
The good news is that I don’t have to discard either beginning or ending. I just have to write a new beginning and ending for each because I have two different stories frankensteined together that need to be dissected to work.

So, I’m heading to the rubbish bin to toss the cookie box. It was a good investment after all. I expected a delicious mango cookie and instead I got a jolt reminding me of good writing technique. I’d say that’s good value.

If you want to participate in a very informal and unscientific poll on favorite cookie varieties—leave me a comment sharing yours!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Velveteen Rabbit - Perfect Picture Book Friday

I was astonished when I looked on the list on Susanna Hill's blog and The Velveteen Rabbit wasn't already listed as a perfect picture book. This book is a true classic.

As a mother, I've bought picture books for my kids. As a writer, I've bought picture books, new and old, to study. The Velveteen Rabbit is neither of these. I own The Velveteen Rabbit  because it speaks to the child in me, as an adult. It is my book because I love it.

I first read The Velveteen Rabbit when I was a child. I don't remember exactly when I read it the first time, but I know I was younger than fourth grade. How do I know? Because when I was in the fourth grade I was part of a program where fourth graders read books to the kindergarten classes. And one week, I picked The Velveteen Rabbit. I was already in love with the story, and wanted to share it with my younger friends. 

It's a perfect picture book. There's no reason not to share the book, right? Wrong!
As perfect a book as it is, it is NOT a great read aloud. It is a snuggle up close and breath in the magic story. Best read leisurely, with ample time to absorb the weight of the story and its emotions, The Velveteen Rabbit is a picture book that will be appreciated more as the reader grows. While the language is perfect for ages 4-8, the text is long, and may be appreciated more by the older more proficient readers at the top end of the target group. A box of tissues are always in order when I re-read this gem. 

Title: The Velveteen Rabbit

Author: Margery Williams

Illustrator: William Nicholson

Publisher: HarperCollins (reissue) 1999
The book was originally published in 1922. This shows you what staying power a truly timeless story has! There are many other editions.You can even read it HERE as part of the Gutenberg Project.

Audience: publisher says it is for 4-8 years of age (but I believe the older a child is, the more they will enjoy the book)

Theme: The transformative power of love

Opening:  “There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.”

            Synopsis: A stuffed rabbit toy is loved by a young boy. His fur is hugged off and he 
            becomes shabby, but when the boy's nanny tries to put the boy to bed without the rabbit
           he puts up a fuss saying: "Give me my Bunny!. He isn't a toy. He's REAL!" 
           When the boy gets scarlet fever, the doctor says the toy must go--luckily the 
           rabbit escapes being burned and is tosses in the garden shed instead where a fairy 
           visits and turns the stuffed rabbit into a living, breathing, animal. The final two lines still 
           take my breath away: 
          "Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!"

           But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who 
           had first helped him to be Real.

Activities/Resources:This book is so old and well-loved, you can find lots of things to do. I found pages of plays, (another play)  and teacher's guides. The book is an excellent jumping off point for discussions about the true value of things. Is something new and shiny always better than something old? For a science lesson, children can talk about what it means to be alive. If you're creative, one of the cutest activities I found involved making rabbit cutouts for a math game. The game didn't catch my imagination but the rabbit playing pieces are adorable!

This review is part of Perfect Picture Book Friday, an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books.

I hope you've all read this story--and now it's on the Perfect Picture Book list. A big thank-you to everyone who visited Susanna's blog on Wednesday to give me feedback on my own picture book pitch!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Would You Read It Wednesday - #77-find it today!

     Hi folks. I’m not going to give you a long post today. Instead, I’m going to ask you to stop by Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog tomorrow.

     First she is an amazing writer and her blog is chock full of useful information. If you haven’t stopped by already—you should. If you missed celebrating Ground Hog's Day with her character, Phyllis, you should mark your calendar for April Fool's Day. No kidding.

     And—drum roll please—tomorrow you have the chance to critique my pitch.
     Now if you’re wondering why my pitch is on Susanna’s blog when she isn’t an editor or an agent, here’s why. Every Wednesday, Susanna holds “Would You Read It Wednesday.” On these days, she posts a pitch with a request for feedback. From reading her posts, I’ve realized that I learn as much from reading other people’s pitches and analyzing them as I do from writing my own. Then Susanna made a call for more pitches. She was running out! So, I gathered my courage and sent something in. Look for it tomorrow (if it's already tomorrow, you can click here. Otherwise, you have to wait!)
     Thanks to Susanna for having me on her blog.
     Thank you for going to check it out. I'll be lurking on her blog, waiting to respond to comments there.

     See you on Friday for my next Perfect Picture Book pick (yeah, Susanna hosts that, too!)

Friday, February 15, 2013

ME and MOMMA and BIG JOHN by Mara Rockliff – Perfect Picture Book Friday

One of my first posts was about the Eastern Pennsylvania SCBWI Fall Fest conference I attended last November. We had a choice of workshops to attend. One of the sessions I chose was led by author Mara Rockliff. Mara came across as a hard-working, practical writer, humble about her achievements and generous with her time and advice to those of us in attendance. This is one reason I was especially excited when Mara’s book, Me and MOMMA and BIG JOHN was chosen as a Charlotte Zolotow award honor book for 2012.

Title: ME and MOMMA and BIG JOHN

Author: Mara Rockliff

Illustrator: William Low

            Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2012

            Audience: 3-7 years of age (but older children may
           enjoy the history)

           Themes: Pride, Dignity, Patience, Art

          Opening:  “Momma’s first day on the job, she comes
          home late, trudging up the stairs as if they laid that
          heavy stone right on her shoulders. She is gray as
          ashes, from her headscarf to her boots.”

Synopsis: Told from her young son’s point of view, ME and MOMMA and BIG JOHN tells the story of one woman stonecutter working to build the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The boy is at first underwhelmed to learn that what his mother has spent months working to complete is just one stone. One stone that will be lifted high on to the cathedral, becoming indistinguishable among the other stones. His visit inside the work-in-progress helps him realize how each individual contribution, even if not acknowledged individually, can be an integral part of a lasting work of art. The book was inspired by a real-life mother working on the project.

Activities/Resources: Use cooperation to build something where the final effort is greater than the sum of its parts. This can be a story where everyone takes a turn, adding their own part, or an actual physical structure. Talk about things people like to do-do they do them all for recognition, or for another reason?

Hope you enjoy this book! Now back to my own labor of love--writing!

Every Friday, bloggers join together to share picture book reviews and resources, thanks to author Susanna Leonard Hill’s brainchild, “Perfect Picture Book Fridays.” Susanna then adds the books (and links to the reviews) to a comprehensive listing by subject on her blog. Find the entire listing at her “Perfect Picture Books.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Three Pebbles and a Song by Eileen Spinelli

One of last week’s posts inspired my choice this week. If there is anyone who comes close to writing an unending series of perfect picture books, in my opinion that person is Eileen Spinelli. I was fortunate to hear her speak at a NJ-SCBWI conference where she talked about her writing process. It was good to know that although the final product looks effortless, she works as hard at her craft as the rest of us and (hard to believe) still gets rejections.

The image is dark-trust me, the mouse is adorable!

Author: Eileen Spinelli

Illustrator: S.D.Schindler

Publisher: Dial Books For Young Readers, 2003

Audience: Ages 4-7

Theme: Self-esteem, cooperation

Opening:"Across the moonlit fields crackly old leaves twirled and skittered. And so did Moses." (the mouse)

What I LOVE about this book: Writers are often admonished not to have messages or get preachy. Ms. Spinelli has masterfully crafted a story that demonstrates in a concrete way how members in a family can all contribute and be important to the family unit. This is a story where practicality and artistry find common meeting ground. There is no preaching, just a beautiful, lyrical story told with enough repetition to make the descriptive language easily grasped by young readers.

Activities/Resources: I couldn't find anybody who had already posted activities specific to this book. I think the book lends itself to talking about what three things a child would want to have with them if they were trapped in the house during a blizzard-- appropriate with the upcoming weather forecast! For older readers, this might be a chance to explore juggling! A family activity could involve having everyone list one way each other family member is important. The story takes place in a harvest setting, so an outdoor scavenger hunt could be fun.

I hope folks who haven't read this book will give it a look!