Tag Archives: children’s writing

Halloweensie Writing Contest

Happy Halloween!  Six years in, and I’ve finally learned about Susanna Leonard Hill‘s fun Halloweensie Writing Contest.  The challenge is to write a 100 word children’s story about Halloween using the words Spider, Ghost, and Moon.

Check out her blog to read all of the great entries… and submit yours!

Here goes…

Halloween in Korea

No zombies, witches, or ghosts prowl the apartment building.  Just one tiger and her dad.

“Trick-or-treat,” says Teagan.  Her dad speaks a slew of Korean.

Jamkkanman,” they answer, then disappear.  They return with ginseng candy, a pear, or stickers for Teagan’s pillowcase.

One ajumma holds a fresh steamed bun in her spidery hand.  Teagan nibbles the warm red bean center.

Teagan knocks on Mr. Moon’s door.  Her dad bows.  When Mr. Moon disappears inside, he returns with a girl.  Teagan smiles and takes off her ears.

Now, two tigers prowl the apartment building on Halloween night.

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

Wild thingsLast spring, a children’s librarian that I regard very highly recommended a book, whose author happened to be giving a talk at a local bookstore that week.  I went to the talk and read the book, and it is hands down my favorite book I’ve ever read about children’s literature.  The book is Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

The book defies “fluffy bunnies,” or the misconception that all books for young readers are simple and sugary-sweet.  It is packed with examples, anecdotes, and author interviews that show instead the subversive side of kidlit.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

For example, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, who had recently been knocked in a Kirkus review, painted a graveyard scene for the picture book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? that snuck in a headstone with an epitaph for Virginia Kirk.

Or how about when librarians, teachers, and parents objected to Charlotte’s Web including death, and the author, E.B. White, responded by telling his editor, “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a littler of hyenas.  The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

The book delves into many other controversial topics addressed in children’s books as well as some behind the scenes mischief in the lives of the writers themselves, and even a media uproar fondly referred to as “Scrotumgate.”  Needless to say, I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

The best thing about the book is that, while many of the stories are shocking, it’s not a book advocating for shock value.  Julie Danielson, one of the book’s three authors, said that when she gives talks on the book, audience members will sometimes remark that they should write more subversively.  “Don’t be subversive just to be subversive,” she said.  After all, there is a time and a place for fluffy bunnies, too.

“Don’t be subversive just to be subversive.”

Instead, the book advocates for children’s writers to be genuine.  It shows that children’s literature must adapt to the times, and that often it is even at the forefront of helping the times to adapt.  It shows that the most successful writers were not condescending, that they were good writers who wrote from the heart whose audience just happened to be children.

That takeaway was a good reminder for me when I received feedback from an editor on a picture book that I entered into a contest this summer.  It was a story based on an experience that was important to me, and he gave me high marks on my writing style and even compared me to *blush* a young Oliver Jeffers!  Yet he told me that the story was essentially unmarketable.

Should I scrap the story and write to the market? I wondered.  But with Wild Things! in mind, I determined to persevere writing from the heart and then trying to find my market, or tweaking my stories to make them marketable, but making sure never to lose the heart in them.

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But Does “Happily Ever After” Pay?

Last week, my SCBWI Carolinas chapter sparked an important and honest discussion of the various ways that people financially support themselves as writers.  Their stories ranged from balancing full-time jobs, parenthood, and eking out early morning writing time, support from spouses, writing after retiring, and some, after many years of invested time and multiple publications, who were able to support themselves with just writing.  They shared this article of a writer’s full disclosure of relying on spousal support.  Among all of these stories, there was a consensus.  It’s tough to pay the bills with writing alone.

It just so happened that the same week this discussion blew up, I received my first ever advance (YAY!).  Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.  By which I mean day jobs.  I have five.  But I thought that I would add my own story to this healthy conversation that brings clarity to writing as a career and dispels the myths that writing generally leads to typing on an antique typewriter whilst sporting silk robes in your Swiss chalet.  Although maybe one of these days I’ll come back and un-bust that myth…

Anyone want to pay for me to go get inspired here?  Don't all jump up at once...

Anyone want to pay for me to go get inspired here? Don’t all jump up at once…

I wrote a story on a whim that I submitted to a couple of children’s magazines on an even bigger whim.  Spider Magazine shockingly accepted it at a time when I was feeling disillusioned with trying to make “saving the world” into a viable career.  I decided that the time was right to come back to my childhood dream of becoming a children’s book writer.

After the incredible luck I had with Spider, I decided to try my hand at writing for one whole year, and if it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, I would step onto a more solid career path.  With that addendum, my family was very supportive.

So I took a part-time job bussing tables, and I wrote for a year.  Then I wrote for three more years.  It still wasn’t going anywhere.  But my part-time jobs were.

During these four years of trying to make it as a writer, I moved through part-time jobs that grew closer and closer to my heart, becoming jobs that I would hope to be involved in even if I could afford that Swiss chalet.  They allowed me to pay my bills and still find time to write, but they did much more than that, too.

For one thing, they provided me with a safety net.  If I threw in the towel on writing while bussing tables, I would also throw in the rag that I was wiping crumbs with and have to start fresh.  But working jobs that I loved gave me something to believe in those times when I didn’t believe in my writing.  It took some of the pressure off of my writing, and so I wrote more and better.

Loving my jobs also gave me confidence.  It was hard spending so much time at a job that paid my bills but was unfulfilling (and yes, I know how lucky I am to be able to choose fulfilling work!).  It was hard telling people that I was bussing tables and trying to make it as a writer.  But telling people that I taught kids creative writing and art and Spanish and that I was a writer?  That felt great.  And so I told people more and more.

It was working one of those part-time jobs that I love and putting myself out there as a writer that led to the fortuitous circumstances of my picture book contract.  I still haven’t “made it” as a writer.  Not even close.  And that chalet?  Well, let’s hope I have enough saved up to pay my taxes this year.  And I don’t have a family yet or a house or big medical expenses, so I know it will get harder.  But just making ends meet by teaching kids creative writing and art and Spanish and writing is by far the happiest I’ve ever been in my work.

Among all those stories of the various ways writers support themselves, I said that there was a consensus, but actually, there are two.  It is tough to pay the bills with writing alone, but there are ways to make it work.  And if you’re not in it for the money, but for the love of writing, then being a writer really does pay.

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How Deadlines Can Be Lifelines

Today is the day that I am contracted to turn my finished illustrations, updated manuscript, and bibliography to my publishers.  And I will.  Just as soon as I finish that last illustration.  Which I am painting on my last piece of water color paper.  And I’m almost out of brown paint.  Did I mention it’s a holiday and art stores are probably not open today?  And then there’s that bibliography…

Yet here I am, writing a blog post.  Why?  I like to think that it’s to add even more pressure.

Print me out and mark me up with deadlines!

Print me out and mark me up with deadlines!

I always thought that I was the free spirited artist that took my time, did things my own way, and wasn’t motivated by other people’s agendas.  Deadlines don’t make me plan ahead and start early so that I can pace myself efficiently through a creative process.  But deadlines do something much better for me.

Deadlines make me procrastinate until just the point where I have enough time to complete everything.  And I do, I get it done.  But the really magical part isn’t just that I get it done.  It’s that I don’t leave any time for that inner critic to come and admonish me, make me start over or give up completely.  When crunch time comes, the critic goes.

So if you are considering making any New Year’s resolutions this year, make them with deadlines built in.  Even if you are not a “deadline” kind of person.  Instead of “I will write more this year,” try “I will write my rough draft by May 1” or “I will submit to 3 agents by February 28.”  Then take your deadlines seriously.  The night before your deadline, find yourself cleaning your entire house to put off your goal.  But in the morning, pour yourself a big cup of coffee, lock your inner critic in the cabinet and crank your work out, because you have to get it done.

Happy 2015, and may you meet all of your deadlines!

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In the words of Doreen Cronin: “Clickety-Clack-Quack!”

The other day, I was typing in my backyard and I set my computer down for a second.  Our pet ducks quickly became curious, and within moments they discovered how to type with their beaks.  Here is what they wrote:

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep.

Just kidding.  They’re no Shakespeares yet, but we’re working on it.  Here’s what they actually wrote:

-0tg .]b ‘/.,n[[+-+/*’  55
989
And here are our ducky writers in action:
Ducks Typing photo (2)

Charles Duck-ens? Barbara Wing-solver? William Fowl-kner?

I wanted to share this anecdote because I think it’s entertaining and because I’m a mama who likes to brag about our ducklings. But it also serves as a great reminder that EVERYONE is a writer.  Everyone has stories or ideas or something to say.  If you think you’ve run out of stories, just let your fingers peck at the keyboard for awhile.  Surely what comes out won’t be as fowl as what these ducks wrote.

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Counting Your Words (but not before they hatch…)

The picture book market trend is to keep the word count low.  I’ve found that this can be both a frustrating limitation  and a helpful guide for my writing.  The trend may be due to a push for students to start reading chapter books earlier, or it could be kids’ seemingly shorter attention spans.  I think it’s because the lower word count challenges our stories to be better.  So, regardless of whether or not you like it, it can be helpful to learn how to work within it.

The key to writing great, concise picture books is understanding that fewer words does not mean simpler, less substantial, or ‘dumbed down.’  In fact, the low word count pushes our stories to be all heart.  It ensures that every word is exciting, plot advancing, or character revealing.  Mo Willems is a great model for crafting surprising plots, humorous situations, and relatable characters in minimal words.

Keep your story lean and trim. It’s less likely to get eaten by a fox.

To expect to sit down and write a perfect 500 word story would be unreasonable.   Don’t count your words before your story is fully hatched.  The easiest way to find those 500 choice words is to first write thousands of them, no counting allowed.  Get to know everything about your character, then choose which actions and interactions reveal the most about them and still pertain to the plot.  Take the long and winding road to discover your plot, then seek out convenient shortcuts for the reader.  Ask what set-up is really necessary, then jump into the action as quickly as possible.  Give yourself a strong sense of setting so that you know how it affects the character and the plot, but then cut out any imagery that the illustrator can show instead.  Play around with tongue-tingling words and pick out your favorites that tickle the reader without distracting from the story.  To write picture books that are all heart, you have to write out all the meat and then become an expert at trimming fat.

If your story simply cannot be contained in a short picture book format, you might consider whether yours is actually a chapter book.  And that would be good news for you, because those sell better anyway.

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