Saturday, November 30, 2013

Suddenly This Is A Familiar Story

Teacher/author/blogger Monica Edinger's book, Africa Is My Home, was recently included in a a New York Times Book Review column, 
a very positive response for a first book. But as Monica said in a comment to yesterday's post, Africa Is My Home is another picture book that took thirteen years to write, sell, and publish.

My observance of Picture Book Month is ending on an unexpected note. These stories of the realities facing picture book authors coming one after another like this are inspiring/reassuring for people well into a writing life. But I'm left wondering if people outside writing realize this is the way publishing can work. I think there's an understanding that it's a hard field to break into, but I'm not sure how many people know that just breaking in isn't necessarily getting you "in" to anything. At any stage in their careers, writers can find themselves with a decade or more of work and hurry up and wait on one project or another.

So my Picture Book Month is ending with a detour away from picture books themselves to a little coverage of the picture book writing life.

Friday, November 29, 2013

You'd Better Be Able To Work A Long Time

Earlier this week, I told you about Melissa Stewart (NESCBWI colleague, by the way) sticking with a book project for ten years. Then I heard about Anne Broyles (whom I also know) working on Arturo and the Navidad Birds for thirteen years.

Now I'm thinking that this should be the test for any project a writer is considering taking on: Do you think you could work on this for at least a decade, maybe more?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Picture Book Artist's Obsession

The new issue of The Horn Book includes an article by Leonard Marcus called Northward Bound: The Picture Book Art of Isol. Isol recently won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in children's and young adult literature.

Yes, she's notable for that reason. But what I found interesting about her was this bit from Marcus: "The two most celebrated Argentinian writers of the twentieth century--Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar--share with Isol what the artist, in a conversation I had with her in Stockholm this May, spoke of as an Argentinian obsession with the role of chance in every aspect of life."

There's something I don't hear about at many SCBWI events.

December Connecticut Children's Literature Calendar

December is a slower month for author appearances than I recall it being last year. We do have two illustration exhibits continuing, though.

The Art of Picture Books: Creative Process In Visual Storytelling continues this month at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven's Sumner McKnight Crosby, Jr. Gallery, New Haven, Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM

 The Maurice Sendak Memorial Exhibition continues at the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Thurs., Dec. 5, Peter Lerangis, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 4:00 PM

Sat., Dec. 7 Deborah Freedman, Byrd's Books, Bethel 2:00 PM

Tues.,  Dec. 10 Yevgeniya Yeretskaya, R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, 10:30 AM Story Time

Fri., Dec. 13, Chris Grabenstein, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, 4:00 PM

Sun., Dec. 15, Adrienne Werle-Austermann, Byrd's Books, 1:00 PM

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Long Can You Work On Something?

Years ago, I met a guy in a hiking group whose wife had just had a baby. When he heard I wrote children's books, he said his wife was considering writing some children's books while she was home childrearing, to generate some extra income. I didn't know how to respond to that.

If only I'd had Melissa Stewart's timeline to publication for her picture book No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Ten years, folks. Ten years. You can be home with a lot of kids in that time.

Keep in mind that Melissa has written and published many books. Many,  many. And many of them were written and published during the ten year period she was working on No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Projects must be juggled. Sometimes for a long time.

Time Management Tuesday: A Case Study In Situational Time Management

I've written here frequently about situational time management and the need to constantly adapt how we manage time to the new situations writers (and all people who work for themselves) are always finding themselves in. Last week author Laurie Calkhoven wrote at Smack Dab in the Middle
about authors who work regularly for hire and their need to set criteria for the jobs they'll take on.  But I think her post also was a case study in how a writer's work situation can change and how rapidly it can change.

During a period when Laurie was working on a book of her own, she was offered a freelance job with a deadline that was only a month away. She accepted the job on a Friday, meaning her work situation for the next four weeks had suddenly changed dramatically. Then on Saturday she became ill. On Monday she had to quit the job she had accepted only three days before. Suddenly, her work situation had changed again.

I usually write here about more modest situational changes for writers: dropping everything to respond to a request for a proposal or an appearance inquiry or having to dedicate time to promotion, for instance, instead of generating new work. (Reactive vs. creative time.) But authors who do work for hire face these more extreme situational changes. Early this fall a Facebook friend posted about having just accepted a writing project with a Thanksgiving deadline and last spring I met an author/illustrator who had accepted a job that meant her next two years would be tied up illustrating another person's books. These are changes in work situation that can be sudden and intense, and the use of the author's time while in those situations has a big impact on their work output.

Monday, November 25, 2013

More Gender Issues With Picture Books

Last month I posted here about Barbara McClintock's presentation at UConn on the imbalance between the number of women illustrators in children's publishing and the number of women who win the Caldecott Medal. They dominate the profession but have only won 22% of the Medals, according to McClintock's figures.

Today author Laurel Snyder has a post at her blog relating to the Goodreads Best Picture Book of 2013 nominees, which are almost all written by men. (In defense of the list, this is the final round. There were more titles originally, though I have no idea how well women were represented.) She points out that the Goodreads' final round list was made by Goodreads' readers (after voting on that earlier list.) The earlier list that the final round list came from may have been determined through some kind of popularity figures available to Goodreads from its readers.

Laurel asks, "WHAT’S GOING ON? Do men actually just make better picture books than women? Do men get better marketing and publicity budgets than women for picture books?  Or… as I’m beginning to fear… do we, the (largely) women who buy and blog about picture books have a tendency to elevate books by men?"

She then lists picture books published by women this past year, recommended to her by readers posting in comments.

If you are a children's litblogger who belongs to the Kidlitosphere community, that group has been discussing this issue today at its listserv.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Weekend Writer: Picture Book Edition II

Earlier this month, I offered my limited knowledge of picture book writing. This weekend I can direct you to a couple of blog posts that will offer you more. They're both at Writers' Rumpus, and they're both written by Joyce Audy Zarins.

Why Thirty-two Pages? deals with the length of picture books, at least in terms of pages, not word count.

3 Ways to Pace Your Picture Book is a very meaty piece of writing on pace, how drawn out or rapid  writing feels when being read.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Oh, Look. An Article About A Picture Book With "Adult Appeal"

The current issue of The Horn Book includes an article called Hey, Al and the Choice by Kathleen T. Horning. Hey, Al, illustrated by Richard Egielski and written by Arthur Yorinks, won the Caldecott in 1987, even though it is, according to Horning, "clearly an adult's fantasy."

The entire article deals with the issue of Hey, Al being signaled out for an award for children's books when its protagonist is an adult. Horning says, "...I'm not sure it's a completely satisfying story for children. Essentially, it's a retelling of their mentor's masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, told from the perspective of a middle-aged man."

It's not a definitive article on picture books for adults, in general. Think of it more as a variation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Writer Talk

I often hear that networking is one of the big side benefits of any professional gathering. Wheeling and dealing and making connections with people who can help you is supposed to lead to all kinds of good things. Intellectually I get that. Practically speaking, you could make an argument that I don't even know what networking is. Though I do know not to follow editors or agents into an elevator or public restroom and "network" with them there. I've heard about that happening at professional writer gatherings, too.

Yes, I'm one of those folks who tries to time her arrival and departure at events so as to get as little of the meet and greet and fun evening stuff as possible. What I do really like at a writer gathering, though, are the bits and pieces of writer talk you pick up at odd moments. Examples from this past weekend's retreat:


On Friday night I met a writer who is also an Episcopal minister.She's working on a YA historical novel dealing with a Biblical figure. (I'm thinking maybe something like Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean.) We got into a discussion of sermons (of which she has written many) as essays. She pointed out that the formal essays of the nineteenth century involved making arguments, whereas many ministers today use story in their essay/sermons. (Creative nonfiction?) Church attendance, she said, is supposed to be a transformative experience. (Now that I think about it, I believe I've read that reading is supposed to be, or often is, a transformative experience.) She wondered if an essay developed as a story would be as transforming as an essay developed around an argument created to convince listeners. Seriously, if you're into essays, this kind of discussion is golden.

On-line Research


On Saturday morning, a writer in my critique group told us about using YouTube for research. She's working on a book that is set, in part, in China, and she found YouTube videos of Chinese factories. Just what she needed. This is marvelous news. Need some convincing? Laura Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and is extremely limited in how far she can travel and how long she can work, researched Seabiscuit on eBay. Before she wrote the book, Seabiscuit memorabilia was dirt cheap. The Internet is also golden.

Public Readings (Like Talking)

Saturday night, we had a sort of open mic night, with volunteers doing short readings for the group. We're gathering beforehand, and I start thinking, Oh, shoot. I keep forgetting. I don't like listening to readings. Should I run? But readings are much more enjoyable when you know some of the readers. And the readings are very short. And there's cake. Something to keep in mind.

The Hero's Journey Conversation

Finally, on Sunday morning I was walking to our meeting room with an editor, and we're talking about the hero's journey. The hero's journey freaks me out because of all the steps and charts associated with it. So I was telling her about a Salon essay I read in which the author argued that the hero's journey was a cliche, particularly in movies and YA literature, and that viewers and readers are getting tired of it. The editor said something along the lines of, "Oh, I totally disagree. The whole point of the hero's journey is that, if done properly, it fits every story. It's just more obvious in some than in others." Now, she didn't make me a believer in the ol' journey of the hero by any means. (Did you look at those charts?) But what struck me about that conversation was that it was a conversation.

Why Writer Talk Matters

So much of what I take in about writing, my work, is through reading. I don't get anyone else's take on it, because a writer can go a long time without being with another writer. And then you've got to find another writer who has read the same piece you read and cared enough about it to file some memory of it away. I like to think I'm a moderately analytical person with a data base of writing knowledge to apply to anything I read. But it's still just me, me, me. It's really quite marvelous to hear someone say something about the things I've been thinking about, even if I don't agree with it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Those Adult Picture Books I Was Talking About

When Picture Books and Adult Literature Collide at  Cultivating Culture deals with the issue of picture books for adult readers, which I was talking about yesterday. It doesn't go into the subject very deeply, covering mainly parodies (I have a copy of Goodnight iPad) and adult writers writing picture books. It doesn't address straight picture books written on subjects of interest to adults rather than children or using vocabulary or a voice that adults will appreciate more than children will.

I hope that before the end of Picture Book Month I'll find some more on this subject.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

And What Is This Supposed To Be?

I received It's a Book by Lane Smith for my birthday. I recall it getting a lot of attention when it was published in 2010, and I can remember something else, too, though I'm having some trouble putting my finger on it. Was there just a little bit of controversy over this thing? Maybe because of the text on the last page? Because some considered it too adult?

I think the whole book is kind of adult. It's all about a monkey trying to get through to a jackass that a book is a book, not an electronic device. The whole issue of children being too plugged in too early seems to be a very adult concern to me, not one that children are even aware of. You could make the argument that that is the point, to make children see this before they become too enamored of electronics. But if kids haven't yet become enamored of electronics will they understand terms like "text," "tweet," and "Wi-Fi?"

There's an overt message in It's a Book, I think, one that adult readers concerned about keeping reading a traditional book-centered activity will embrace. That's okay. I'm a big fan of picture books for adults. In fact, it could be a fun read-aloud for them with their little ones. I don't know how many young picturebook readers will get this on their own, though.

Time Management Tuesday: How Does A Retreat Impact Time?

  1. Last week I covered my concerns about committing an entire weekend to a writers' retreat. Would it be worth the use of that time? I think it's pretty clear from my last two posts that I think Falling Leaves was a valuable experience and well worth the two days I spent there. Specifically, I did meet my three goals. 
  1. Weekend Writing. All of Saturday afternoon was committed to free time for writing with one twenty-five minute critique with an editor, and there were plenty of other ways to snatch twenty or thirty minutes here or there to work.
  2. Escape. I most definitely got away from Gail Universe.
  3. Community Building. I did meet a number of people I'd be happy to stay in touch with, but I suspect that community building is one of those things you have to wait a while to assess how things went. Will we become part of a writers' community? I can't make that judgement at this point.

An Impact On My Time Now

What I didn't expect was that the retreat would have an impact on my time after it was over.
  • I'm struggling with re-entry, in large part because I keep a pretty tight schedule working in units of time and planning my week. I broke training for 3 days and have been wandering around with a cold for 2 more. I am definitely having trouble getting up to speed. If I went to more retreats, I'd probably know about re-entry problems and be able to plan some way to deal with this time issue. Live and learn, as they say.
  • I brought two manuscripts to Falling Leaves with me. One was critiqued by the editor, one was critiqued by a critique group. Now I feel a need to work on both of them. As an organic writer, that could be a problem. No, it most certainly is going to be a problem. One of the ways organic writers generate material and plot is by immersing ourselves in the world we're working on. I have a plan for flipping back and forth between both my worlds, with most of my time going to one rather than the other, but this is another thing I didn't foresee. Bringing two manuscripts to a retreat is probably a mistake. Again, live and learn.
  • The big post-retreat time impact, however, is that as a result of my weekend experience I'm now interested in finding a critique group because Saturday morning's went so well. To be truthful, I have been thinking about this a bit since the NESCBWI event in May, when a workshop leader gave us some critique time. I haven't been in a critique group for 6 or 7 years, finally quitting the one I was in because it was an enormous time drain. We prepared our critiques on our own time, meaning that in addition to the two evenings a month we met, we could end up using 4 or 5 hours of our work time each month on reading and critiquing other members' work. It was also an open group at a bookstore, so we weren't necessarily working with experienced writers or writers who had writing training through workshops or course work, even if they hadn't been published themselves, as happened with both the one-stop critique groups I was part of at SCBWI events this year. Just finding a critique group could be time consuming, and then working with one on a regular basis could cost me a lot of time.This is a big risk that I wasn't that keen on taking before this past weekend.

A Retreat  Should Have An Impact On Your Post-Retreat Time 

If any kind of short, intensive learning experience (as we used to call retreat-type events back when I worked for consultants) is worthwhile, it  should have an impact on what you do after you're back at work. That's the point of going, to improve yourself in some way. I forgot about that because I was so fixated on what was going to happen during the retreat, itself. Once again, live and learn.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Heart Of The Matter Weekend

On the first night of the Falling Leaves Novel Master Class Retreat, Kathy Dawson of Kathy Dawson Books ran a program she called The Heart of the Matter. It involved participants creating pitches, summaries, and catalog, back cover, or flap copy for their manuscripts, not for the sake of preparing marketing materials but to help them seek out a deeper element of their stories. The point was to help participants pinpoint what they believed they were saying in their books so they could make sure it was, indeed, in the books.

A Specific Case

The other editors totally got what Kathy was talking about and "the heart of the matter" was referred to over and over again over the weekend. I, however, didn't get it until towards the end of my meeting with Mallory Kass during the critique of the material I'd submitted. She kept talking about why my protagonist wanted to do what he was doing? And what about that relationship with his brother? How about making the older brother more of a problem child? I thought I'd been clear about why he wanted to do what he was doing, and was she talking about some kind of trite teen angst thing for the older brother? Hey, I don't do trite.

And, then, right there on the porch where we'd been talking for about fifteen minutes, I suddenly realized that there was something deeper going on with my protagonist. I had even hinted at it a few times. And his relationship with his brother could be a big part of it, in a very nontrite way. This book had a heart to its matter that I had only been toying with.

Not every book will have some kind of deeper heart, and not every book has to. A book that's all about action, in which the action is the point, can often get along with just that. But if you have a story that does, indeed, have a deeper element, maybe something thematic, maybe a so what?, why not find it and bring it out, like a thread in a the pattern in a piece of material?

A Reverse Halo Effect

Back in the Dark Ages when I worked for a management and personnel consulting office, we ran workshops and distributed evaluations to participants after the events. The professors were concerned about the halo effect, the tendency to believe that because you had a good time at a workshop, liked the instructor, and enjoyed the lunch, the content of the workshop must be good, too. Participants who evaluated a workshop at the end of the day and again a few weeks later, often gave lower scores on the second go-round. By that time, the glow was off and they'd had a chance to see whether the workshop content had been beneficial to them.

If I had evaluated the Heart of the Matter presentation on Friday night, right after hearing it, my response would have been, "Yeah, this is okay." It was only in the context of the whole weekend that I appreciated what the "heart of the matter" is about and how it could impact my work. In a twist on the halo effect, I would rate it higher now that more time has passed.

An Interesting Comfort Book

I've had The Dark by Daniel Handler writing as Lemony Snicket, with illustrations by Jon Klassen. floating around the house for a little while because, quite honestly, I didn't quite get the first volume of A Series of Unfortunate Incidents by L.Snicket. Life is short, time is limited. Should I spend any of it reading another Snicket book?

Why, yes, I should.
What I particularly liked about The Dark was its coherence. It both seems to lead you astray, suggesting this is going to be a creepy piece of fluff or a clever joke, and then with that same material makes clear that all this time this was a very straight story. Anthropomorphizing the dark could mean turning it into a monster or it could mean turning it into a logical, calming follow.

Which way did Handler/Snicket go?

The Dark is a Cybils nominee this year in the fiction picture book category.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Next Year's Master Class On Picture Books

The Falling Leaves Master Class Retreat sponsored by SCBWI Eastern New York alternates its topics among novels, nonfiction, and picture books. Next year it will be time for another picture book retreat.

"Don't Hold On To Desire" And "Always Say Yes"

Well, my plan to blog my experience at the Falling Leaves Novel Master Class went up in smoke when I couldn't get on-line while I was there. This was due to my inability to control my new laptop and make it understand that I am the boss, because other participants were getting on-line with no problem. This is too bad because I had an initial post planned about how 70 percent of any writer excursion is getting there in the first place. I'll have to save it for another trip. And now I can wring more blog posts out of the experience, because I've had time to overthink it. This is what people mean when they say, "It's all good."

I was able to deal with the collapse of my blogging plan because the whole mindfulness/do not hold on to desire (as in a desire for how things are supposed to be) thing is becoming a science for me, an absolute science, I tell you. Another big factor in the success of my weekend was the book I was listening to in the car, Bossypants by Tina Fey. Fey has a background in improvisational comedy, and listed some basic improv rules, only one of which I remember, "Always say yes." As in, yes, I will build on whatever my improv partner shoots my way. She sees this as a life skill, by the way, which can be used in many situations. "Don't hold on to desire" and "Always say yes" were big factors in the success of this weekend.

I had a fantasy about what this retreat would be. It involved intensely working on my manuscript with other writers who were working on theirs in some kind of monastic situation while one of the editors in attendance walked among us doing the "When you can take this stone from my hand, grasshopper" spiel. I do not know where this came from. It was delusional. By the time I went to bed Friday night (I've included a picture of my bedroom--and yes, I am slovenly--because I love that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff.), I realized that wasn't going to happen. We were 35 writers  working in reading and responding workshops, not the sweatshop of my dreams. There was a lot of weekend left, and I made a conscious effort to let go of my desire for things to be one particular way because it seemed like the best new plan at the time.

Now, Saturday morning we divided up into critique groups, and in the afternoon we each had a twenty-five minute individual critique with an editor. This is where Tina Fey's "Always say yes" came into play. In order to get anything from critiques, you have to be willing to say yes. Probably not to everything that's said to you, especially when you're in a group where some of the feedback could be contradictory, because you would go nuts. But overall, you have to take the attitude that yes, something here could do me some good.

In this case, "Always say yes" is similar to the zenny/martial arts admonition to "Maintain the mind of a beginner." The beginner who knows little has opportunities to learn. The really knowledgeable are kind of scre...ah, out of luck...because if you know it all, what more is there for you to gain? Not a good situation to be in.

I almost did that to myself in the afternoon while working with my editor, Mallory Kass of Scholastic. She's talking about wanting to know my protagonist's problem, and I'm thinking, Oh, problem, problem, problem, that is so cliched. (Please, God, don't let me have said that out loud, though I suppose it's too late to be praying for that now.) All of a sudden, as we're batting thoughts around, I come up with the beginning of something that is desire/problem like enough to be a desire/problem but new enough to keep me happy. This could, indeed, add depth and maybe even some more logic to the manuscript in question.

At the last minute, I managed to "say yes" and "maintain the mind of a beginner." The picture to the left shows the spot where I worked for an hour and a half revising my first chapter after talking with Mallory.

Today on the way home, I listened to the rest of Bossypants. Fey talks about working with Alec Baldwin. She said something along the lines of  "Working alongside Alec may not make me a better actor, but now I know why I'm bad."* This weekend's retreat may not make me a better writer, but now I know why I'm bad. With many skill-oriented activities, knowing why you're bad is a big step toward becoming less bad.

Lots more retreat thoughts to come.

*Remember, I was listening to an audiobook. Quote is pulled from my memory.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rethinking Richard Scarry And Those Animals Who Drive Trucks

Last month's Carnival of Children's Literature included Playing by the Book's post on a new edition of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever. I'd been planning to share that this month, anyway, but a quick conversation with a family member earlier this week made me decide to blog about it sooner rather than later. The family member didn't remember Richard Scarry, possibly because his mother didn't care for the author and moved him out of those books as fast as she could.

What was objection to the Scarry books? No narrative. She was a story person and needed something happening to somebody with her reading.

No harm was done, but in thinking about Richard Scarry recently, I realized that this is another situation in which adult gatekeepers and children aren't necessarily going to be interested in the same things. And do adult interests have to trump every time?

Sometimes, I decided, when you're sitting with a two- or three-year-old, you just have to suck it up and look at random pictures of bears dressed in clothes and riding around in vehicles. There are worse things you can be doing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Anyone Remember Rabbit Ears?

Okay, so you remember a few days ago I said I was going to do a blog post about a discussion I had with David Johnson at the Connecticut Children's Book Fair? And you've been waiting and waiting for me to get around to that? Well, wait no longer.

David pointed out that his book, The Boy Who Drew Cats, was published by Rabbit Ears Entertainment, a Connecticut company. Rabbit Ears, Rabbit Ears, I thought. I started accessing my memory files. David is telling me that Rabbit Ears made children's videos with narrators such as Meryl Streep. Rabbit Ears...Rabbit Ears...goes the google search  in my mind.

"Theater?" I may have said out loud.

David had done the art work for some of the Rabbit Ear videos, The Boy Who Drew Cats being one of them. And now Rabbit Ears had published the story as a picturebook with the art David had done for the video and perhaps more. I was busily going Rabbit Ears? Rabbit Ears? and wasn't as mindful with my listening as I should have been.

You all know I am just obsessive enough not to have left this alone. And after seeking out the Rabbit Ears website, I found what I was trying to remember, not Rabbit Ears Theater but Rabbit Ears Radio, a program on public radio distributed by Public Radio International in the 1990s. It sounds as if the radio productions were the audio of the video productions. Rabbit Ears Radio brought a marvelous and really different angle to public radio, which is news and arts for adults.

Rabbit Ears Entertainment appears to be publishing picture book versions of its videos, which is interesting because usually it goes the other way--the book comes first and then a film version.

Writers, Check Out KidLitCon Recaps Regarding Blogging

I am not a writer who has a blog. I am a writer, and I am a blogger.

I often get the feeling that many writers who self-identify as writers who have blogs instead of as bloggers don't  feel that blogging is a specific type of short-form writing and certainly don't understand the community building aspects of it, which could be incredibly helpful to them. Their blogs are often pretty much a hole on the Internet that they throw a hodgepodge of things into every now and then.

Therefore, I am referring any writers seeing this to Jen Robinson's Book Page and her post in which she rounds up nine blogger posts on the recent KidLitCon held in Austin. I suspect that a lot of writers aren't familiar with KidLitCon, since the blogging events held at BEA have been getting a lot of attention in recent years. But KidLitCon is a blogging convention that goes back seven years and involves many bloggers who got involved with blogging early on, when blogging was new and edgy and the litblog that just serves as a conduit for writer and publisher produced content hadn't been thought of.

Children's literature blogging started with these people.

In addition to checking out the individual links for recaps, note Jen's list of the subjects covered at the conference. This is the kind of stuff writers can use to help them with their blogging, whether we're talking writers who have a blog or writers who are also bloggers.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can This Picture Book Be Saved?

My library is running a little project in which the staff is asking the public's opinion about culling some picture books from the collection. We get to vote on specific titles, one of them being George Shrinks by William Joyce. I am a Joyce fan, so I expected to vote to keep it just on principle. Come on. Joyce.

It turns out, though, that George Shrinks is better than I remember, mainly because I remembered nothing about it. It's a Kafkaesque tale about a child who wakes up, not a bug, but tiny. And he manages just fine on his own, thank you very much.

Though why is he on his own? Merely an adult question, or is it significant here?

In addition to being a good book, George Shrinks inspired a PBS series that's still running. I'm a big believer in connecting series like that to their print versions. It seems like a golden opportunity to encourage a littlie with reading.

So you can guess how I'm voting.

Time Management Tuesday: Writers' Retreats

This weekend I'm off to the Falling Leaves Master Class for Novels Retreat that I told you about back in September. This takes place over a weekend, a weekend is a unit of time, what am I going to do with that time? For that matter, all retreats take place over a unit of time, a unit of time that writers could use for anything, the retreat being just one of their options. There is an opportunity cost involved with our choices on how to use our time. Do we gain enough from a retreat to justify the time cost?

What Is a Writers' Retreat, Anyway?

I tend to have a very formal, traditional writers' retreat fantasy that involves going some place remote and working away from the distractions of family, home, and day jobs. My fantasy does include getting together with other writers for meals and doing some exercising and reading. Okay, it pretty much involves doing only what I want to do.

That isn't necessarily what other writers think of as retreats, though. A writer friend once told me she didn't see the point of going away to be with other people and then work and not be with them. I've also heard a writer discussing a  retreat she attended at which writers worked together on a couch while either instant messaging or tweeting each other. The writer telling this story had a good time.

Additionally, many writers' retreats have programs and events scheduled for most of the day. They're like mini-conferences for limited numbers of people often in a remote, scenic area. My guess is that the big difference between a conference and these kinds of retreats is the size and the number of programs offered each hour--one at a retreat versus multiple at a conference. At any rate, many retreats appear to be about something other than actually working.

How To Get The Best Bang For Your Time


Choose Carefully.  I contacted the Falling Leaves staff to see if there would be any writing time during the weekend before applying. In addition, this is a master class retreat. While there are four presentations from editors, those presentations are related to the manuscripts we submitted in order to be accepted, and we've had to prepare for them. This could end up being like some kind of monastic study experience. I'll actually be bringing two projects to work on.

Create Objectives. I had three original objectives for the retreat when applying.
  • Community-building.
  • Writing
  • Getting away from Gail Universe and enter another for a couple of days. 
I've been prepping for over a week for the editors' presentations, and now that I'm back into this project I would switch the writing and community-building objectives. I'd really like to get more work done, even if it's not traditional writing but some kind of revision or planning.

Now, I have far more experience obsessing about time and how I'm using it than I do with writers' retreats, but the way I feel right now, it's unlikely I would take the time to go to a writers' retreat that is primarily presentations without a specific work project involved.

But we will see how I feel about the time involved for writers' retreats next week. At the very least, I'm expecting to meet my objective of getting away from Gail Universe for a couple of days.


Monday, November 11, 2013

The "How I Live Now" Movie Almost Got By Me

I saw a movie review for How I Live Now this weekend. The movie seemed to come out of nowhere. This was a big book when it was published and a good one. I can't find the movie review I read on-line, but it was pretty similar to the one in The New York Times, saying that Saoirse Ronan is good, but who is this movie for?

More On Aaron Becker

I just met Aaron Becker on Saturday,  and here he is again at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. It's a beautiful post packed with images. And what did I notice? Aaron meditated two hours a day for eight years.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

My One-Hour Tour Of The Connecticut Book Fair

I was only able to get to the Connecticut Children's Book Fair for one hour yesterday afternoon, but I had a particularly good time. I wasn't able to attend any author or illustrator presentations, but I did get around the room meeting people.
My first stop was with Tui T. Sutherland, author of the Wings of Fire series. I heard on Twitter just this past week that Wings of Fire made the NYTimes series bestseller list. Tui also writes under other names, meaning she is producing a lot of work. And yet she doesn't look worn out or exhausted.
Then I talked with Jonathan Bean. Jonathan has won awards for both his writing and his illustrations. I've been seeing his newest book, Big Snow, mentioned all over the place.

Terri Goldrich, co-chair for the fair and curator of the Northeast Children's Literature Collection, for which the Connecticut Children's Book Fair provides support, happened by when I reached Aaron Becker and offered to take a picture of us together. Don't know how he felt about that, but I jumped right into the frame and forgot all about getting a photograph of him by himself. I had a copy of Aaron's book, Journey, at home. Another book and author/illustrator who happen to be getting a lot of attention right this minute.

I hustled across the room to meet Ann M. Martin because I heard some people talking about her around one of the book tables. Ann created The Babysitter's Club and continued writing the series for years. She's also the author of stand alone novels. Particularly interesting moment when I was with Ann--my first picture of her included a woman who was assisting her with signing stock. She was there from Ann's publisher. That is the big time.

 The man to my right is David Johnson. He's going to get his own Original Content post later this week because we got into a discussion of something that I want to go on about for a while. It's also something that will make a good Picture Book Month post. One of the books he was signing yesterday was The Boy Who Drew Cats.

Phoebe Stone,author of The Romeo and Juliet Code and eight other books for young people, including a Romeo and Juliet Code sequel was the reason I got myself to the fair yesterday. Phoebe and I attended the same high school, though at different times. I knew her younger sister, Abigail Stone, also a writer, when we were in either eighth or ninth grade. Phoebe now lives in a town in Vermont that borders my hometown. In fact, my father was born there.

When I was growing up and wanting to be a writer (without having a clue what writing meant), I thought Vermont was the end of the Earth. Wanting to be a writer was like wanting to be an astronaut or president. And here is Phoebe, someone from the same place who is doing the same thing. I can't help but be amazed by this. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Narrative In Pictures

I'm sure that Journey by Aaron Becker is probably viewed as being about creativity because it involves a young girl using a red marker to create the devices she needs--a door, a boat, etc.--to function in a world she has found. What I like about it is that, like Bluebird by Bob Staake, it's really all about narrative even though the story is told without words, just images. I think that narratives are almost stronger in these silent picture books.

Becker says at his beautiful website, "My debut children’s book, Journey, follows the adventures of a young girl who escapes the boredom of home to find a magical realm – in which she can control her destiny with her imagination." The question of whether or not we can control our worlds has become a favorite theme of mine in my own writing. I love seeing it in a picture book.

Aaron Becker was one of the authors and illustrators at the Connecticut Children's Book Fair today. I'll be posting about my journey there tomorrow.

Friday, November 08, 2013

A Picture Book From The North

Today I'm directing your attention to Loula is Leaving for Africa by Anne Villeneuve by way of Julie Danielson's review at Kirkus. Quite honestly, what caught my attention here is the author's name, Villeneuve. I have Villeneuve cousins in Ottawa. No connection whatsoever, but I thought, what the heck, this is an opportunity to recognize a writer and a picture book from outside the United States as well as Julie, who has been showcasing children's book illustrators, and therefore picture books, at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for around seven years.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Sendak Exhibit Comes To Connecticut

A touring Maurice Sendak Memorial Exhibition hits Connecticut this weekend. This is the fourth children's literature event planned for the weekend of November 9th, which is either brilliant planning or a really impressive lack of communication.

"Maurice Sendak" opens on Saturday at my favorite Connecticut museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art. It continues through February 9th.

Related events:
  • Mon., Nov. 11, A Family Day developed around the exhibit will be held from 11 AM to 3 PM
  • Wed., Nov. 2o, "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Sendak," a talk geared toward adults, will take place at 1 PM
An exciting event for Picture Book Month, though I'll probably have to wait until after Christmas to get there.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Science Fiction For The Picture Book Set

What Do We All Do All Day carried a neat post on science fiction picture books back in August. My favorite, and not just because it's the only book on the list that I've read, is Company's Coming by Arthur Yorinks with illustrations by David Small.

I read Company's Coming to my sons the day before I got the idea for my first book, My Life Among the Aliens. It was the jumping off point for that book.

Writing Students And Nonacademic Jobs

Several years ago I read an article on the two writing worlds, one that is focused around traditional publishing and one that is focused around academic publishing. (This was before the self-published entrepreneurial e-writer appeared on the scene. That seems to me to be a third writing world.) According to this article, traditional publishing involved publishing in order to support a writing career, and academic publishing involved publishing to support a teaching career.

Erika Dreifus has a piece today on the chances of a writer with a graduate education finding a tenure-track university position. (Imagine an expression of shock here.)

In addition to the information she covers from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Dreifus adds this "...unlike other disciplines, creative writing essentially mandates that a new assistant professor bring a published book to the table as a job applicant; moreover, it can take a very long time to see one’s first book published." (Imagine another expression of shock.)

On a more positive note, she suggests taking "a broad view of “nonacademic jobs” and search more diligently for writing-intensive jobs in universities, publishing houses, cultural organizations, and so forth (not to mention non-writing jobs, such as accountancy positions, within writing organizations and centers)..."

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

An Illustrator Talks About Voice

Facebook Friend Hazel Mitchell recently did an interesting guest post at Cynsations. She wrote about illustrators finding their style and at one point used the word "voice," something writers look for.

Hazel also mentioned having been in the Royal Navy. There's something I don't see every day.

Time Management Tuesday: What Can You Do With A Month?

This is National Novel Writing Month, which I'm not taking part in this year, though I did back in 2004 when I said...wait for it...wait for it..." I see this as an opportunity to force me to structure my time better." (I'm telling you, the time thing has always hung over my head.) However, I did just finish a month-long writing unit with the May Day folks. I didn't finish a novel during that time, though we don't try to in that group. We try to use these month long "set asides," as I sometimes call them, to generate some work or do something specific.

The Original Plan

As I'm sure you all recall, I planned to do four things:
  1. Sprint at least five days a week
  2. Generate two pages of material as many days of the week as possible
  3. Allow the two pages of new material to include new scene planning, if need be
  4. Learn to do what I'm going to call skim writing, meaning I'm going to try not to stop to get obsessive about perfecting factual bits, names, etc. I want to leave ______ or bold placeholders, which I hope will help me move ahead generating material that will provide the solutions for those blank spaces and placeholders that I can then go back and correct. I get bogged down much, much too often with those types of things for my taste.
That may have been too many objectives for a one-month writing goal, but I did pretty well with the first two, and made an effort, at least, with the third and fourth ones.

The Best Results

  1. Sprinting, or doing a quick, intense writing session, has been great, and I'm hoping it is becoming part of my writing process. I've been doing a twenty minute sprint in the midst of my workout period because I've been walking outside for a half an hour after whatever else I do in the morning. The sprint comes before the walk, and walking after the sprint can often lead to breakout experiences related to the work done during the sprint. Just this morning, for example, I realized while out in the street that I needed to change the house one of my main characters lives in in order to make it do more to define him.
  2. I started a new book, which I haven't done in a year or so. I'm three and a half chapters in as a result of the October set aside, and didn't get further, even though I'd started before October, because a lot of my new work involved rewriting chapters one and two.

What Next?

 I can't continue working on this project several hours a day because I'm preparing to attend a master class retreat in less than two weeks, and that involves another, completed novel that I need to bring myself back up to speed on. But part of what you gain from working intently on a writing project, as we did last month, is the involvement with the world of the book. That's particularly important for organic writers like myself who don't have a plot outline to anchor us and bring us back to that world, if we've been away. Even with an overall, big picture idea of what's going to happen, a lot of our plot evolves as we're working, as we're deeply into the project. Walk away and when you come back you'll find yourself having to make a big effort to figure out where you were going with this thing.

What I'm trying to do to prevent that is continue with those sprints. I'm doing what I call "mummy sprints" (the book was originally about a mummy; not so much now) as many days of the week as I can. No, I'm not suggesting I'm going to write a book in twenty minutes a day, though I imagine a person far more patient than I am could. What I'm hoping to do is to stay in this project mentally so that when I can get back to it, maybe at the end of this month, I can simply continue working.

And, yes, I should have finished chapter four by then.

Regarding NaNoWriMo

Speaking of NaNoWriMo, as I was in my first sentence, oddly enough, I got some ideas just this past Saturday for my 2004 NaNoWriMo project, which I've barely touched since then. I'm trying to get some notes down on that.

And Facebook Friend Kimberly Sabatini is doing NaNoWriMo this year and has shared a little news of how she's doing. I'm hoping to hear more about how she's using this time.


Monday, November 04, 2013

But Where Was Bess?

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was a big fan of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. No idea how I stumbled upon that in one of my one-room schools. I was on Team Bess. I remember next to nothing about the highwayman, except, of course, that he came "riding--riding...up to the old inn door." "Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair" was so clearly the hero of this thing.

Many years later, I would read a critique that suggested that The Highwayman wasn't high art. I was stunned, stunned I tell you.

You can understand, therefore, what drew me to The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson with illustrations by Axel Scheffler. Get it? Highwayman? Highway Rat? The book is about a...well, highway rat...who rides a horse and steals food. The story is told in verse with some of the same style as The Highwayman. "I am the Rat of the Highway, The Highway--the Highway..."

There's no Bess, though. There's no romance for junior high readers to get excited about. Yes, that's probably because this is a picture book for much younger children.

If you want to overthink this, and I do, The Highway Rat is quite a deep book. Highwaymen were thieves and murderers, not romantic heroes. The rodent highway rat is probably more true to life in that sense than the human highwayman of the poem.

November Connecticut Children's Literature Calendar Update: Not Your Mother's Road to Publication

I missed this event while pulling together this month's Connecticut Children's Lit Calendar. This post should turn up when accessed through the Connecticut Children's Lit Calendar link to your left.

Nov. 16, 1:30 to 3:30, Not Your Mother's Road to Publication: Hear a panel of authors discuss the traditional and non-traditional routes they took to get published. Moderator Laura Toffler-Corrie, author of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz and the newly released, My Totally Awkward Supernatural Crush, will discuss traditional publishing and obtaining an agent. Sari Bodi, author of The Ghost in Allie’s Pool, will talk about working with a small press. Mary Beth Bass, author of Everything You Know, will discuss publishing an e-book. Elizabeth Yu-Gesualdi, author of Broken Road, will talk about the self-publication process. For teens and adults.

Event will take place at the Harry Bennett Library in Stamford

As it turns out, I met Sari Bodi years ago at the Rabbit Hill Festival. That was back when there still was a Rabbit Hill Festival. Sari is part of the ever increasing pool of people with whom I've had lunch.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Weekend Writer: Picture Book Edition

I have made two attempts at writing a picture book. The first time, the editor I submitted it to said the humor was more appropriate for middle grade students, suggested I rewrite and resubmit it. That became my first book, My Life Among the Aliens. When I tried again, a writing group partner suggested that effort would work better as a chapter book. My editor agreed with her. That evolved into A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat.

My take away from these two experiences is that not every idea is appropriate for a picture book. Unfortunately, I've got nothing on what exactly is a workable picture book idea.

I have another take away on picture books from a teacher's conference I attended in 1999. Cecilia Yung explained that the pictures in picture books don't just illustrate text. They actually carry part of the story themselves. Things like setting, characters' emotions, some action don't appear in the text. They appear in the illustration. A reader takes in the whole story at once through text and image. The illustrations in a picture book can even have their own storyline.

This was kind of mind boggling to me. It's one thing for author/illustrators to create a picture because they can work both aspects of the story at the same time. But how do writers working on their own create a story that doesn't include large amounts of the information that goes into the illustrations but isn't so bare bones that agents and editors don't find it uninteresting?

Clearly, I've never been able to work that out.

Friday, November 01, 2013

November Is Picture Book Month

Okay, people, Octoberfest is over and Picture Book Month begins today. No, I'm not a picture book writer, but I enjoy a picture book as much as the next person. Plus we have family members who are into them. So Original Content is supporting Picture Book Month with links to articles, blog posts, and the like on the subject, as well as my own reader responses to picture books.

Today I'm directing to you to the article Persons of Interest: The Untold Rewards of Picture Book Biographies by Barbara Bader, which was published in the September/October issue of The Horn Book. I tend to obsess about definitions and to me a "biography" has always been the story of a whole life. So what's with calling these nonfiction picture books that can't possibly cover decades "biographies?"After reading Bader's article, I'd have to say that these bits and pieces or flash overviews of lives are biographies because all lives are made up of a whole array of stories, not just one lengthy one. As Bader says, "Why one picture book biography after another about the same person?...Because, especially in picture-book form, it's always possible to tell a different story, to express different feelings."

A story is the point here. We're not looking for the story.