Thursday, July 27, 2017

If you want to write kids’ books–read, read, READ! (with 6 of this summer's favourites)

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What’s the best way to ensure that you’re writing kids’ books that are relevant to today’s readers? 

When I say readers, by the way, you can assume I also mean all the gatekeepers between you and your readers: editors, agents, publishers, and anyone else who gets to vet your book before it’s approved for publication.

And the best way to make sure you’re writing the books they want to see is… to READ kids’ books.  A LOT of kids’ books.

Now – just to be very, very clear here, I’m not telling you a) to read books in order to copy them, or b) to read books in order to write more marketable books.  You probably shouldn’t be thinking about marketability as you’re actually writing your book.

But reading what’s out there on the children’s-book shelves will give you an edge in a few ways, by helping you answer the following questions for yourself:

  • Who are the protagonists of kids’ books today?
  • What kind of situations do they find themselves in?
  • What’s the art like?
  • How wordy are they?  (hint: not very!!!)
  • What kind of vocabulary do they use?
  • What kinds of resolutions / messages do publishers seem to prefer?

Now, if you’re like me and you live in a non-English speaking country, all of this puts you at a distinct disadvantage.  And even if you live in a totally English-speaking country, there are a few reasons you might not have visited your local bookstore or library lately. 

For example, many children’s authors are older parents or grandparents – you may have read a lot of kids’ books at one point, like when your kids were younger.  You just haven’t checked out new books recently.  But why should you bother?  Classics are classics are classics, and what makes a book great doesn’t change from one generation to the next… right?

WRONG.

Even when it’s difficult, you must check out what kids’ books are out there, not just to scope out the competition but to make your own stories stronger and more contemporary-feeling.

Here’s one tip that I sent around to my local SCBWI chapter a few months ago:  search for current popular kids’ books on YouTube.  We had just had a Skype meeting with a publisher in L.A., so everybody was fired up about writing books for a U.S. audience, but many people in the crowd weren’t really sure what that entailed. 

Fortunately, there are MANY popular kids' books being read aloud by native English speakers on YouTube, including many of the books the agent had placed on her recommended-reading list for authors submitting to her. 

Wondering what books she suggested???  Here are the two books she mentioned most:  Llama Llama Misses Mama (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xB6i1ReuT8) (along with all the other Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney!) and Dragons Love Tacos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUTmRJqwI_c).  I'm betting that whoever can write the next book like those will get a sweet deal from her publishing company!

I’m very lucky to be in Toronto visiting family right now, so I took this opportunity to walk into my local library last week to scope out (aka “take home half of”) the kids’ picture-book section. 

Here’s my haul:

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These are all fairly recent.  I’d heard of two of these beforehand and was psyched to see them in stock:  School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, and Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, from Kar-Ben, the same publishing company that published my book Yossi & the Monkeys.

The first of these, School’s First Day of School, has been on my wish list

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Blog tour for SCRIBBLE & AUTHOR! by Miri Leshem-Pelly

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I am so, so thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the month-long blog tour for my real-life friend and faithful critique group companion Miri Leshem-Pelly… and her new book, Scribble & Author (Kane-Miller Picture Books, 2017)!  Check out yesterday’s stop at PUYB Virtual Book Club – as well as tomorrow’s stop, when it’s posted, at Interview at Literarily Speaking.  So much fun!!!

As children’s writers all know, though, the book isn’t really about us, the writers.  It’s about our CHARACTERS.  And that’s why, for today’s blog tour stop, I decided to host an interview not with Miri herself (check out this interview for that, or Miri’s website, if you’re interested!) – but with her character, Scribble!

Why did I want to talk to Scribble?  Well, take a look and see for yourself:

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Isn’t she adorable???  Just so sweet and full of spunk.  Miri is an author/illustrator – so she gets to create her own characters.  I’m so jealous.  But it’s not enough to CREATE a character – as writers we know that we have to put our character in fascinating situations. 

Here's what the book is about, in a sweet little nutshell (from the publisher):

In Scribble & Author, Scribble's journey starts on a peaceful shore called THE BEGINNING, continues to the rough, adventurous MIDDLE, and leads finally to the gate of THE ENDING, but it's not at all what Scribble expected...
Scribble is a scribble and Author is an author, but who really gets to tell the tale?
An innovative picture book about finding your own voice, making your own decisions, and writing your own story.

Most importantly, as Scribble learns in the book, whether we’re illustrating our story or not, we also have to CHALLENGE our characters – even though we love them, we have to put them in plenty of danger and then let them find their own way out.

All of which is to say, it’s not easy being a character in a children’s picture book – especially given that element of danger.  So naturally, Scribble had lots and lots to say about her own adventures and being a character in this amazing book. 

Let’s listen in:

WKB: Hey, Scribble. It’s great to meet you! How does it feel now that you’re getting all this attention?

Thank you! Finally somebody’s paying attention to me – the main character! You know, the name of the book is Scribble & Author, not Author & Scribble, but for some reason, all other bloggers chose to interview the author instead of me!

WKB: Can you tell me how you first met Author?

When I first opened my eyes I saw Author, right there in front of me. I was very excited to discover that I was inside a book. But let me tell you something - I’m the only one who gets to see Author. Readers don’t see Author. They can read what Author says but they don’t really know who Author is: a man or a woman? Maybe a boy or a girl? I’m the only one who knows. And I’m not telling! It’s my secret.

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WKB: Tell us the truth. Does it tickle when you’re being drawn?

You bet it is. I love being

Monday, May 15, 2017

Becoming a writer: Why knowing your strengths and weaknesses MATTERS

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Are you feeling discouraged and thinking of giving up?  Or maybe you’re thinking about writing something but you just can’t get started?  Maybe you figure it won’t come out right – so why even bother.  Does any of that sound like you?

Maybe you just don’t know what you’re good at.

I talk a lot on this site about not just writing a book (just one book?) but about becoming a writer – looking at writing as a career (even if you already have a career!).  And part of becoming a writer is figuring out what you’re great at doing… and what doesn’t come so easily for you.

I think I’m good at writing – but when it comes to marketing, which is a big part of being a writer today (like it or not), I don’t think that’s one of my strengths.  What about you?

What are you super-good at?  I bet you know already, but maybe you haven’t spent enough time basking in it.  This could be something you’ve heard from a whole bunch of people.  Maybe you’re secretly proud but don’t want to seem like you’re gloating.

Take the time to enjoy your strengths.  In the table below, you’ll find a bunch of different writing tasks and you’ll have a chance to see exactly how many things you are probably quite good at doing.

Unfortunately, unlike in many careers, you can’t just work on a sub-specialty and ignore the rest.  You will eventually have to deal with everything I’ve listed in the table below – and then some.  But there are some very good reasons to go into writing with your eyes open – with a keen awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses.

Why figure out your strengths?

Identifying your strengths makes you feel good about yourself!  I’m not big into self-esteem just for self-esteem’s sake.  But if you genuinely ARE good at something, you deserve

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Be grateful for editors!

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Yesterday, I got the phone call I was dreading – a call from my EDITOR.  I spent half an hour on the phone yesterday with the person in charge of editing my next children’s book, and I have to admit, I had been dreading her call for a while.

I got an email from her when the book was first accepted by the publisher (yay – details to come, I promise!) saying, basically, “We love your book, but naturally, we’re going to have to make some changes to the text.”  Which is their prerogative, right?  I can’t force them to publish my book as-is, no matter how much I love the text, so my best bet if I want to be published is to roll with things.

So.  I was prepared to roll with things.  But that doesn’t mean I was looking forward to her call, in which we would “discuss the changes.”

Ugh.  Did she not realize how much I’d sweated over every single word of that story?  Written, revised, erased, gotten it to the point where it was just about perfect?

Let me tell you – I didn’t feel particularly grateful about the spectre of her call.

When you read a commercially-published book, you’ll often see a bit at the beginning or the end where the author thanks her family, her agent, and then her editor (or editors).  I always took that part for granted until I started working as a novice journalist and working with editors who actually hacked and slashed and carved up my writing to find the most important points within it and bring those to the fore. 

And at first, dealing with those editors, what I felt was mostly ingratitude.  How dare they tell me how to write?  Isn’t writing supposed to be an art form?  And if so, would they swipe their red pens across a Degas or Van Gogh if they didn’t like what they saw on the canvas?

I was being – feel free to slap me now – frankly ridiculous.

Oh, I was gracious enough.  I wanted to keep making money and getting published, so I rolled with it, like I said, and even said “thank you.”  But I wasn’t feeling it.  Oh, boy, was I not.

But gradually,

Sunday, February 5, 2017

From Manuscript to Commercially-Published Book in 12 VERY Easy Steps

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Have you ever asked the question – if I self-publish, does that mean I’m stuck self-publishing forever?

A lot of writers think they’re stuck defining themselves as one or the other, either a “self-published writer” or a “commercially-published writer.”  I hope you haven’t fallen into that trap!

In fact, you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself that way, as I hope I’ve proved with the release of my first book from a commercial publishing company, Yossi & the Monkeys (Kar-Ben, 2017).

So what’s it like having a book commercially published after so much self-publishing experience?

It’s weird, that’s all I can say.  It’s all about sitting back, relaxing, and WAITING, because this thing took – well, forever.

But still – I thought it would be fun to break it into steps, like in my last post, so you can see what was involved along the way.  So here we go… with Step 1.

Step 1.  Contest submission.

It all started back in 2014 with a Jewish kids’ story contest at Barbara Krasner’s website.  I entered, didn’t win, didn’t even come close.  But a real editor was reading!

Trouble was, my story came in at around 10,000 words (what was I thinking???).  It had 10 chapters, it was an EPIC.  Oops… wayyyyy too long!  Here’s Chapter One.

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2. Contest rejection

Well, needless to say, this 10,000-word behemoth was rejected – with just about the nicest rejection note I have ever, ever seen:

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She liked it!  She really did!  Considering I hadn’t paid anything to enter this contest, it was a delight to receive a positive reply like this.

Only trouble was… how to get the story down THAT small?  10,000 words to 850 words???

From Manuscript to Self-Published Book in 10 Simple Steps

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What’s next? 

That’s the question I hear most often from writers out there.  Maybe even from you.  It’s what everybody wants to know, so if you’re stuck on that question, you’re not alone.

You already have a great story, one you really believe in, and you’re READY – you just want to get your story out there into the world.

Here’s the great news:  you CAN!

You can self-publish your book, in ten not-so-tough steps I’ll lay out for you here.  You’ll have to put in some time, some energy, and there is absolutely a learning curve.  But I believe this process is so simple that just about anybody can master it with a little experience.

I’m going to illustrate these steps with a book that I actually did self-publish.  It’s called Shabbat Monsters.  It’s a good example because it’s a pretty classic 32-page rhyming picture book. 

Let’s get started… at the very beginning, with

Step 1.  Your MANUSCRIPT.

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Looks pretty plain, doesn’t it?  I hope you’ve had it professionally edited.  If not, go do it – NOW.

Okay, you’re back.  Your story’s ready.  Let’s move on to…

Step 2. Your dummy

No, I’m not CALLING you a dummy!  It’s time to make a dummy.  32 pages, 2-page spreads.  Time to start planning what we (the reader) are going to see on every single page.

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So that’s the first stage of planning what the pages are going to look like.  Once I know what illustrations I’m going to need, it’s time for…

Step 3.  Artwork

If you’re not an artist (you’ll know if you are), I strongly recommend you get a professional to do this step, even if you have to pay them.  I loved the artist I worked with for this book.  A little slow, but she was very responsive.  First, she sent me sketches…

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Want to teach values in a kids' book? Put them in the background!

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Got a message you’re dying to share?

I’ve been there.

But those of us who do have a real problem.

I’m sure you’ve heard before – and I’ve certainly said it before – that kids’ books shouldn’t be used to preach at kids.  If you put that message first and fill your book chock-full with good healthy values, you’ll end up with a terrible book that kids simply won’t enjoy.

Think of zucchini.  Nobody in my family likes zucchini very much.  If you adore zucchini, think about another vegetable.  Eggplant, maybe.

Now, you know you should eat zucchini.  It’s super-good for you, right?

But if I were to cook up a big batch of zucchini for my family, they’d all sit and stare at it – myself included – and not know what to do with it.  That zucchini would sit uneaten on the plate.

Now here’s the cool part:  we actually eat a LOT of zucchini.  We eat it sliced into chicken soup every Friday night; we eat it grated into latkes and any number of savoury dishes; we eat it pureed into potato soup.  I’ve even baked zucchini bread, though yes, I understand, it’s not entirely super-good for you if it’s surrounded by flour and sugar!

The trick to zucchini, or whatever veg you don’t like very much, is to put it in the background, and the same is true for morals, values, or any other type of lesson you’d like to embed in your book.

In my new book, Yossi and the Monkeys (2017, Kar Ben Publishing), there are a ton of what the publisher probably calls Jewish values, but which I consider pretty universal.  Here’s the first page:

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What values are here – in the background?  There are things Yossi really wants, but they are not selfish wishes; they are things he wants for his family. 

(So I don’t have to come out and say something annoying like, “Don’t be selfish!”  Kids know that already anyway, so they’ll just tune you out if you try.)

The holiday itself is another value right here on this front page:  I love writing stories with Jewish holidays in them but which aren’t about the holiday.  There are too many “what is Chanukah?” books out there for me to want to contribute to the genre, plus those kinds of books have always bored my children, who have known since infancy what all the holidays are about.

(Notice I haven’t said: “Shavuot is a wonderful festival in which Jews…”  This book isn’t about Jews in general, so forget about them.  This is Yossi’s story.  Just in case the reader isn’t familiar with the festival, the publisher has included a short paragraph about it on the copyright page.)

Here are two more pages from later in the story:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The most depressing thing that will ever happen to you as a writer (and how to deal)...

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Are you feeling discouraged?
Is your writing career just not taking off the way you'd dreamed it would?

Yup, it happens to the best of us.

And get ready for the most depressing thing that will ever happen to you as a writer.
It can happen to you no matter where you are in your career.
Even if you've been published before.
Even if you've sold a ton of books.
Even if you adore them; heck, even if readers adore them.

Here it is, the very worst, most devastating thing that can happen to you:

Feedback.

Good, honest, reader feedback.  Critiques from true friends and writing companions.  It can be devastating.  It can hurt, not just a little, but a lot.

When I read feedback on my stories, I can’t help it, I’m flooded with feelings of inadequacy, a devastating inner monologue that goes a little like this…

I suck.  My story sucks.  Nobody liked it (even if they explicitly SAY they liked it!  That just means they're lying.).  Nobody likes me.  My writing is lousy; the story is stupid; it will never succeed.  I should cling with all my strength to my day job.  I am just not cut out to be a writer.  Even if I have succeeded before, I have cut off more than I can chew with this particular piece of crap.  I’d better just throw it away, forget about it, never look at it again.  Never write a word again.

How does it feel when you submit a story for critiquing?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Critiquing a Manuscript? Do it in a sandwich!

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Are you writing on a desert island?

It probably feels like you’re all alone sometimes.

There’s only one way to change that.  Meeting other writings.  Working with them.  Critiquing each other’s stories.

If you’re like me, you’re the only children’s writer in your circle of “real life” friends.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t surround ourselves with other writers – if not in real life, then online.

Why bother reaching out?

There are so many reasons to network with other kids’ writers!  Being around other writers makes me more creative – and I don’t mean stealing their ideas, which I’d never do.  It gets my own creativity going and lets me bounce ideas off other real human beings. 

But here’s the most important reason…

We all need feedback to make our writing better. 

Hands down, the best way to get feedback is to SHARE feedback with others.  If your feedback is helpful, your own writing circles will expand and you’ll have an even bigger group you can exchange ideas with. 

And the VERY best way to share feedback is in a sandwich.

The feedback most writers are hoping for is known as a critique.  Sometimes, people get together in loosely or formally structured critique groups.  However you find one another (a topic for another post!), you must know how to craft a critique that can help other writers without discouraging them.

That’s where the sandwich comes in.

You simply cannot have a sandwich without bread.  And bread, in this metaphor, is… PRAISE.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Bare Naked Manuscript: how to format your story for submission

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Is your manuscript naked?

If it is – give yourself a hand.

If it isn’t, or if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read on… I’m going to give you in a few simple steps explaining how to get naked – and why you MUST, if you want to give it a chance of success with agents and editors.

Before you send out that manuscript, hold on a second… take a minute to make sure it’s naked.  By which I mean absolutely clean and clutter-free, ready for an agent or editor to take one look and say… YES!

Who wouldn’t want that?  Yet many writers I’ve known spoil their manuscript by adding things, covering up its nakedness.  Trust the agent; trust the editor.  They’ve handled more books than you’ll ever write, and they’ll be able to see your story’s potential even without the fancy touches.

Even bare naked.

Here’s a quick and easy checklist to make sure your book is as naked as possible before you send it out:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The 5 biggest mistakes when you’re choosing your book title

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Are you killing your chances before anyone even starts reading your book?

I hinted in my post last week that you can’t really go wrong when you’re choosing book titles.  Except you can.  It’s not easy, but it is definitely possible to choose a lousy title for your kids’ book.

It’s all about cracking the “cover” of your book, real or virtual.  Whether you’re self-publishing or sending your book around to agents or publishers, you need a title that’ll get readers onto page one, where hopefully, your story will do the work of hooking them in for good. 

True, publishers may change the “working title” of a book once they decide to publish it, but you’re still going to need a name for your book that hooks them into reading the thing in the first place.  So try to avoid these FIVE big mistakes.

Friday, September 2, 2016

What should you name your children’s book?

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Hi, there.  What’s your name???

It’s the first question we ask most people, and when we’re looking for a book, we ask it (in our minds), before we even crack open the cover.

But what if you can’t think of a good name?

What is a good name, anyway?

A lot of writers worry that they might choose the WRONG name and that it’s going to hold their book back.  So before we get started, I have some great news for you:

Your book’s title doesn't have to be awesome… or even poetic.