Thursday, April 30, 2015

Reader Feedback – why you need it, and how it helps

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Have you heard the expression, "a camel is a horse designed by a committee?"  It's because they're lumpy and bumpy and funny-looking and inefficient, and, well, you get the picture.

One thing that's NOT meant to be "designed by committee" is a children's picture book. 

But I sort of went and did it anyway.  I created a page using Google Forms to help me collect feedback from pre-readers about a Jewish children's picture book I wrote.

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And you know what?  It really helped. 

Here’s the biggest thing I learned:

Even the greatest book in the world is still written only from your perspective.  Other people’s views can make it much broader.

Your book reflects you and YOUR world and YOUR point of view.  By opening it up to feedback, though, you let other people behind the scenes, into your creative process… and sometimes, their ideas and their perspective, are exactly what you need to broaden your book and make it more universally appealing.

Sure, some of the feedback I got wasn't helpful at all, like one person, who suggested I rewrite the whole thing in verse because she likes rhymes. But some really was, and it helped me figure out what the first draft of the book had been missing.

When you're asking for feedback, be specific.  Don’t say “did you like the book?”  Use questions that are specifically targeted to things that are within your power to change about the book.

For example, one of my questions was

Sunday, April 26, 2015

How to be a bolder, more confident writer (hint: don’t baby your book!)

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Once upon a time (don’t worry; this is a true story), when my older kids were little, my dad took them out to the park.  I came along after a while and saw he was pushing my son alarmingly high on the swing. 

“Daddy,” I said, completely on edge, “that’s WAY too high.”

“That’s okay,” he said.  “You can always make more.”

In that moment, a) I knew he was going to ruin my son’s life by pushing him too high, and b) my father knew it was perfectly safe and I was being a silly first-time mom (albeit one with two kids, but it was still early days).

(The fact that I did indeed go on to make two more kids is irrelevant.  My father knew nothing bad would happen.)

That’s how it is with your first book, too.

Getting over the apprehension

You need to get over it.  Just as I did with my new-mom apprehension.

When I put out my first children’s book, I really cared about every aspect of it.  I laid it out as well as I knew how at the time.  I threw myself entirely into editing and the cover.  (Those things are as it should be.  I hope you do them as well.)

But

Thursday, April 23, 2015

How to write an author bio that will sell children’s books

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Have you ever READ an author bio?

Probably you have.  That’s because you’re a writer, so you’re interested in other writers.  At least, I know I am.

Here’s the thing:  you’re not a kid.  Let’s be honest:  it’s not kids who will be reading your author bio.

Most kids couldn’t care less about who wrote the book, unless they’ve finished one and are looking for more of the same.  So it’s probably parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians who will be reading the author bio. 

There are two kinds of people who are reading your author bio:

  1. People who aren’t sure whether they should buy your book
  2. People who have read your book and want to know more about you

In both cases, a little honesty can go a long way.  In both cases, you want to make a connection that is friendly and personal (not commercial!).  You want them to trust you and – maybe, just maybe – to like you.

Let’s look at ways we can make the bio as appealing as possible without being crass.  What you don’t want is for your bio to sound like marketing copy.

Here’s the trick:  you want your bio to be relatable, which means not too weird.  But you also don’t want it to be so tedious that you are ultimately forgettable.

What should you call yourself?

For some writers, the hardest part of creating an author bio is describing themselves in the third person.  As tempting as it may be to say “I’m a mom of 4, a SCUBA diver and a cat lover,” resist. 

Suck it up, and keep yourself in the third person.  It just looks and sounds better.

The best advice I can give you is to read 5-10 bios of well-known children’s authors before you sit down to write your own.  I think it’ll inspire you, offering hints as to voice and how to streamline your message effectively.

Go long or stay short?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Spring with a FREE CHILDREN’S BOOK COVER TEMPLATE

DIY Classic Kids' Book Covers FREE with Write Kids' Books Cover Template

Around here, the weather is finally losing its chill (yeah, it gets chilly here in the land of sun, surf and palm trees!) and I just felt like celebrating.  We’re in that blessed period between “too cold” and “too hot,” and I feel great. 

Hope you do, too.

You probably know already that a great bookcover has the ability to move me.  You, too, right? 

That’s how we choose books, though sometimes we don’t like to admit it.  That’s also why I’ve put together the Indie Children’s-Book Cover Contest for independently-published books.  (Don’t forget to submit if you’ve published anything since November!)

So what does that have to do with celebrating???

It’s new – and it’s FREE

To help you really get into a party mood, I’ve created another FREE TEMPLATE – this time, to help you create compelling book covers.  You can use this template for any standard 32-page, 8.5" x 8.5" children's book.  And just to help smooth the process along, I’ve thrown in a 10-page help guide to creating dynamic, compelling covers.

Here's an idea of the kind of book covers you can create with this FREE template:

Sample children's book cover created FREE with Write Kids' Books Cover Template

Sample children's book cover created FREE with Write Kids' Books Cover Template

Monday, March 30, 2015

Illustrating your kids’ book on a shoestring budget: YES, you can! (here’s how)

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Your book is perfect… now, do you know where are the pictures are coming from?

The other day at my SCBWI meeting (have you joined yet?), I mentioned my easy technique for creating a Kindle book from Microsoft Word, and I said, “you just take the words and pictures and pull them together in Microsoft Word.”  To which someone asked, “yeah, but where do the pictures come from???”

Everybody’s ears perked up.  Where DO the pictures come from?

You see, most of us are writers, not illustrators.  Some of us couldn’t even draw stick figures, even if our lives depended on it.

If you write AND draw, you’re lucky.  For most of us, writing is easy… and drawing our own pictures is an impossible dream.

But don’t worry – that doesn’t mean you’re stuck!  Here are three affordable ways (from cheapest to most expensive) that I’ve managed to get great pictures for my own books at prices that didn’t bankrupt me (yet):

1) Super-cheap:  Stock illustrations & photos

I told you a couple of weeks ago about how I get stock photos and illustrations for only $1 apiece… and sometimes, even less.  I really recommend you check it out.

Not every book is the right fit for stock photos, but sometimes, they can add a lot of fun to a story.  I’ve written a series of Jewish holiday children’s books illustrated with stock photos of animals.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Best of the (Kids-Book) Writing Online this week: March 27, 2015

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An occasional roundup of blogs and other writings for kids’-book writers and illustrators… stuff that’s inspiring me, so I hope you’ll enjoy it, too.

1. Are we turning teens into readers… or turning them off reading?

Over at Writers Rumpus, Marti Johnson asks, ”why is it that our high school age students abandon – no change that to – are driven from reading?”  Does required reading instill great habits, or just make teens resent books? 

I had spent two months of the summer prodding, pleading, arguing, punishing and bullying this 16-year-old into reading a classic that he will now abhor for the remainder of his life. I decided to read it. Well, I hated it too. As a matter of fact, I didn’t finish reading it. IMHO, it was AWFUL.

Read more from Writers Rumpus in How to Build Better Readers: IMHO

2.  Want to write a book with “Happy Birthday” in it?

Or any other song, for that matter?  Chances are, you will write a book someday that has lyrics in it.  Do you know how to do it without getting yourself sued?  Helen Sedwick explains that it’s not as tough as you might think.  She also lays out some great alternatives if you don’t want to pay.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Beyond ABC and 123: 5 easy themes you can use to write picture books.

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Do you love the light in the tiniest kids' eyes when they listen to a picture book?

"Theme" books, like ABC's and 123's are time-tested favourites for a reason.  The very youngest readers (and listeners) love seeing familiar patterns and concepts - numbers, letters, colours, shapes, sizes.  What would be deathly dull for us, as adults, is absolutely the hottest thing with little kids.

Lots of writers make the mistake of trying to mix things up for very young readers.  You have to keep them entertained, right?

Wrong.  Instead, make your life easier and try one of these five familiar themes.

Of course, if you want to sell parents on your idea, you'll still have to make it original to some degree.  But remember that it doesn't have to be all that original to charm buyers and knock little kids' socks off. 

A lesson about kids – from Malcolm Gladwell

image Malcolm Gladwell showed in his fantastic book, The Tipping Point, that when little kids had a choice, they would watch the EXACT SAME episode of the TV show Blue’s Clues every day for an entire week. 

Even the show’s creators were shocked. 

Not only were kids NOT bored, they were more excited and engaged every single time they saw the episode.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Are you racist – and you don’t even know it? 3 easy ways to fix it.

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You know you’re not racist.  But do your readers know it?

Check your writing for signs of these 3 mistakes.  They’re probably there unintentionally, but rest assured that readers will find them – and take it personally, even if you didn’t mean any harm.

Be prepared to root out these problems wherever you find them.  Let’s try to create books that accurately reflect children’s reality, regardless of their skin colour or socioeconomic status.

Only one, or Tokenism

I’m sure you’ve seen this one before:  all the characters in a story are white… except one.  You can see the one black, or Asian, or East Indian, character hanging out in all the illustrations.  Maybe it’s one character in a wheelchair, or a girl in a hijab.  Or one character with some other type of difference, whatever it may be.

Yes, diversity is important.  But that doesn’t mean throwing in a single character of a particular “type,” simply to serve the goal of diversity.

QUICK FIX:

Monday, March 9, 2015

How to illustrate a children’s book for $1 a picture or less.

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The best price tag of all is free.  I’ve written before about finding and using free photos to create gorgeous children’s picture books.  (Don’t believe the haters; it really is possible.)

But what if you can’t find what you’re looking for at the free sites?

Stock photo sites can charge hundreds of dollars for a membership.  What a hassle, am I right?  That’s no problem if I’m The Huffington Post or some other big corporate website. 

But for little guys like us, it’s more than we’re likely to make back from all but the most successful kids’ books.  I really hope you will be that successful, but wouldn’t it be nice to keep that money in your pocket instead?

A stock image resource for the little guys

That’s why I want to tell you about a site I’ve been using for a while now that I absolutely love.  I think you’ll love it too.  Once you hear the name, you’ll understand what it’s about, start to finish. 

Ready…?  Okay.

It’s called Dollar Photo Club.

Why is it called that?  Um, because all the photos and images there are $1 each.  Totally simple, right?

It works with a monthly membership, so you get a certain number of “credits” each month; they roll over if I don’t use them.

Even though it’s called Dollar Photo Club, they have way more than just photos.

What can you find there?

There are lots of hand-drawn illustrations, ranging from cartoons to sketches and more.  You can even click on the name of an artist to find more in the same style. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stuck for starters? Viral story starters from 3 kids’ best-sellers.

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How should you start your story?  Every children’s book editor and agent will tell you:  the action needs to begin on Page One.

But hey, isn’t that a little unfair?  What if you have a great idea, but you need to take a few pages to get to it?  Shouldn’t the reader be patient and bear with you? 

The cold hard truth is that today’s readers won’t, and neither will today’s book-buying parents and grandparents.  Your story has to hook us on Page One if you want anyone to invest their time and read any further.

What does that mean for today’s writer (that means you)?  It means starting your story in the middle of the action.  (In Latin, if you want to get fancy, that’s called in media res.)

Let’s see how some of today’s hottest-selling kids’ books do it.  Take a peek at what’s flying off the virtual shelves at Amazon:

Viral Bestseller #1:  The Day the Crayons Quit

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt Take a look at the current bestseller The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.  How does it start?

“One day in class, Duncan went to take out his crayons and found a stack of letters with his name on them.”

Monday, March 2, 2015

Is your kids’ book blah or blechhhh? These 10 FREE font pairings add a professional touch.

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Picture a mom, surfing Amazon one morning.  Maybe she’ll buy your picture book?  It’s perfect for her kids.  The cover sure looks promising, she thinks.  She clicks on it to Look Inside.  She skips through a couple of pages, and suddenly, she’s shaking her head. 

Something’s clued her in.  She’s figured out that your book is self-published and she suddenly has no desire to read any further.

What went wrong???

Readers don’t usually know exactly what’s turned them off about a self-published book.  But a lot of the time, badly-chosen fonts are the culprit.  Maybe your fonts are amateurish?  Maybe you’re using cruddy novelty fonts that make your book hard to read or dizzying on the page?

Today, there are so many great great FREE font choices out there.  Your book doesn’t have to be the one she clicks shut.  It could be the one she clicks Buy for instead and eagerly waits for it to show up in her mailbox so she can share it with her kids.

You may not be a professional graphic designer, but you should have some understanding of the basics of what makes a good font combination.  The fonts of your book should be:

  • clear
  • readable (for adults and kids)
  • normal, ie not attract TOO much attention

I’m sure you’ve seen children’s stories that look like this.  The text is muddled and hard to read:

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So how can you rescue your book from falling into the same trap?

Ten free font combos to the rescue!

These 10 winning font combos are superheroes of the modern design world.  They’ll help you perk up any kids’ book and create just the right mood for your story.  These 20 fonts are all free, so there's no excuse to stick with Calibri, Times New Roman, Papyrus or (gasp!) Comic Sans anymore.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Does your children’s book have series potential? Use this 3-step checklist to find out!

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So your book is doing great.  You wrote it, released it, it looks terrific.  You’ve got a few reviews under your belt.  And now… it’s time for your next book.

Should you make it a brand-new story?  Or should you write a “sequel” – spin off a series that somehow picks up where your last book left off?

Series books are proven winners in lots of ways:  26 of Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime (that’s over 1/4 of the best kids’ books of all time) are series books.  Kids love them, teachers love them, librarians love them.  And writers love them, too.  Why?

Once kids are hooked on a series, they’ll read them one after the other, devouring them like Cheetos.  If my kids are typical, and I think they are, they’ll often go back to the beginning once they’ve read them all.  Series books also look great lined up side by side on a bookshelf (or in a bookstore!).

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(Once you have a basic cover idea, it’s easy to think up clever variations!)

Will your book make it as a series?  Here’s a three-step checklist to help you identify the most crucial elements that you’ll need to help turn it into a franchise instead of just a single standalone book.

1. Distinctive Character

image Think about your favourite children’s-book series.  Now… who was the main character or characters?  Arthur?  Madeline?  Frances?  The Baudelaires?  Greg Heffley?  Franklin?  Olivia?

The books that stand out – and the series that succeed – are usually the ones with a very strong lead character.  Strong as in unforgettable.

Olivia (fictional pig).pngThink about Olivia, from the books of the same name by Ian Falconer.  She’s a cute pig, but there are a million cute fictional pigs out there.  Actually, Olivia isn’t particularly cute, but the drawings are strong and distinctive, as is her personality.  I mean, she loves opera.  How cool is that?

Is your character unforgettable?  If so, read on…

2. Distinctive Setting

Your character’s world should be compelling enough to make you want to spin more than one story in it.