Monday, April 22, 2019

Keeping It Short

According to an article I recently read, my blog posts are way too long.  Robert Lee Brewer in "30 Day Platform Challenge" writes, "WRITE SHORT.  Short sentences (fewer than 10 words).  Short paragraphs (fewer than 5 sentences).  Concision is precision in online composition."  Uh-oh.  Concision and I aren't terribly good friends.

I blame J.R.R. Tolkien, whose descriptions could take up full pages of text.  Okay, his description of the lives and habits of hobbits took up full pages - but that's what stuck with me.  I was eight and fell in love with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and my writing has been something less than brief ever since.  This is, needless to say, a problem for a picture book writer and blogger.

I suppose blogs need to be brief because of the conventional wisdom which holds that online, people's attention spans make those of gnats look positively meditative.  Online, if you don't keep things short, you won't keep your readers.  Got it.  Can't DO it, but I got it.

I'm not so sure about picture books.  My last editor told me that publishers are wanting picture books to run shorter and shorter in word count because modern children, raised on tablets and e-devices, simply don't have the attention span to sit still for the sorts of stories their parents did.  This is wrenching to me... I grew up loving Pussy Willow by Margaret Wise Brown, Christina Katerina and the Box by Patricia Lee Gauch, and many other dear old wordy picture books that would never sell in today's brief marketplace.

It also makes me wonder... aren't we, in shortening our picture books, contributing to the problem, rather than taking a stand against it?  Isn't it worth saying, "No, child, not everything is bite-sized - but sometimes, things that require you to sit still and pay attention are good"?  Aren't books supposed to teach as well as to entertain?  And isn't teaching patience something worthwhile?

It's something to ponder, anyway.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What Goes Into a Picture Book Manuscript?

I've been working on drafting another picture book, and found myself contemplating all that goes into the piece even before it's ready to be polished and sent looking for a home. Like many others, I once thought - foolishly thought - that writing a picture book was easier than writing a novel.  It's certainly shorter, I'll admit to that freely, but easier?  Not really.

It starts with the matter of scope.  Novelists see things in terms of the Big Picture - sweeping settings, complex and developing characters, conflicts and plot twists and story arcs.  A good picture book can have all of those things, of course, but where a novelist has several thousand words or a few hundred pages to allow their story to take shape, a picture book is for the most part bound to the 32-page format, and an ever-dwindling number of words as the hypothetical attention span of young readers diminishes in bits and bytes.  So, easier?  Not really.  Just shorter, which can be its own obstacle to surmount.

But what goes into a picture book, really?  What thought processes are at work?  Well, for my current work in progress, working title Constellations on Vacation, my mental workings looked something like this.

1.  The Title.
The title came to me fairly easily for this manuscript.  Sometimes a whole slew of drafts goes by before I find a title good enough to pin on the piece, but in this case, the title came first.  I was looking up at the sky, thinking of the constellations I might be able to spot, and the rhyming phrase Constellations on Vacation popped into my head, and suddenly I was off and running.

2.  Which Constellations?
When I decided to google it, I was amazed at the wide variety of constellation characters I'd have to choose from.  There are the classical groupings, of which the twelve zodiac constellations are a part - Leo, Aquarius, Pisces, Cancer, and their ilk.  A good many of these are also human in form - Perseus, Orion, Andromeda, Cassiopeia.  Then there are the more modern shapes, which didn't seem all that useful, for the most part, as they're rather obscure.  The Air Pump and the Microscope might be interesting as a possible Jeopardy question, but I really couldn't see them vacationing much of anywhere.  I opted to go with the classical constellations, and focus on realistic-looking animals and people... Cancer the Crab and Leo the Lion were in, Capricorn the Sea Goat and Sagittarius the Archer centaur were out.

3.  Where Would Constellations Go On Vacation?
At first, the story unfolded in a series of mental "screenshots" - constellations lounging on a beach, exploring the plains of Africa, taking a sight-seeing tour of New York City.  But it needed to go further than that... and it needed refining.  Should I go with a general series of locations - beach, forest, city?  Or should I think specific - the Great Barrier Reef, Muir Woods, New York City?  Should I attempt a mixture of the two?  And should I focus on American locations, or try for a more global view of things?  That last question is still bugging me, though my first draft opted for specific American locations.

4.  Who is the Main Character?
This stymied me for a bit.  A book needs a protagonist, or at least a character to focus on.  In the book The Day the Crayons Quit, the story is told via letters written from the crayons to their erstwhile owner.  I'd already decided that the story would be told through a series of post cards from the constellations on vacation... but who would the post cards be sent to?  And why would that "someone" be interested in those post cards?

5.  What's the Problem Here?
And this question, my bete noir, kept hounding me on the heels of the main character question.  I tend towards sleepy, calm, sweet picture books - "going to sleep" books that progress softly from one scene to the next without much, or any, conflict.  Unfortunately for me, that's not what agents and publishers are looking for.  They WANT conflict.  They want the main character, your protagonist, to struggle with something and eventually achieve that goal.  Gone are the sleepy-time books I once dreamed of writing; it's all about the conflict. 

So... what could be the problem here?  I'd tentatively decided that the protagonist of the book would be the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog.  I wasn't so keen on the name, but dogs are almost universally appealing (pardon the pun), and I thought he would make a decent protagonist.  As for the conflict... what if Canis wants to go on vacation, but can't decide where?  What if he's afraid to leave his spot in the sky?  What if he wants to go EVERYwhere, and just can't decide where to go first?  One of those, I thought, would surely fit.

6.  Formatting the Story
As I already mentioned, I'd decided early on that the story would be a correspondence story... a series of post cards to Canis Major from his starry friends as they vacation on Earth.  I still needed to play with that format, however... Canis would need to respond to the reading of each post card, introducing the conflict (that this wasn't the place he would choose to vacation) and move the action along.  I decided that each post card would be followed by a single sentence, showing Canis Major's thoughts on the location.

7.  Time to Draft!
And this is where I am right now... with my prewriting done, I'm free to draft and revise, draft and revise, draft and revise.  This is also where the 32-page rule and the limited word count come into play; I may need to make a dummy copy of the text on the pages to see how this is going to fit together, page-wise, though strictly speaking, that's the job of the editor and art director.  I've also got to keep that word count in mind.  Right now, two drafts in, I'm running at just over a thousand words, a shade long for the modern picture book.  Some trimming will certainly be in order. 

But drafting, editing, and revising is a topic for another blog post!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Social Media Platform vs. Writing Time

It's been about two months since I started trying to build my social media platform, as advised by an article in the 2019 Children's Writer's & Illustrators Market.  My feelings are definitely mixed.

On Facebook, I have an "official author's page" which isn't all that different from my personal page, except that all posts go public.  I try to post two or three times a week.  On average, the only people who interact with those posts are my family and friends who "liked" the page to begin with.  Some people might wonder why I bothered with an author's page at all, as I was already active on Facebook before I created it.  The answer is that I prefer to keep my writing/ author posts separate from my personal life posts; I don't particularly need the world to hear my every thought or insecurity that I share with people I actually know.

On Twitter, I've been working to build up the number of followers I have, but doing it in a very methodical and cautious way.  I don't want just ANY followers; I want people who, ideally, have read my books and like me.  Barring that, I'd prefer they be fellow writers or agents in the children's book field - people I can network with.  I'm on Twitter pretty much every day, just as I am with Facebook, and I try to retweet or tweet at least one thing each day.  On the whole, I don't care for Twitter as much as I do Facebook; it feels very much like a zillion voices shouting into a void, and while I have been making an effort to become part of the #WritingCommunity there, my own posts don't get much notice at this point.

The thing with social media, though, is this: it's addictive.  I come home from work, shed my work clothes, and flop down into my favorite chair with my iPad to check the platform and see what's new.  On many days, it's a bit of a chore to think of something to post - as I said, I don't want to post just anything, and there's only so much I can say about my writing.  And yet, I find myself glued to the screen for hours at a go, reading other people's words, and telling myself that I'm doing all this to better my own writing self.

Only I'm not writing.

Writing and holding down a full-time job like teaching is difficult to begin with; on many afternoons, I'm just not at a good place in my head to try to write.  I'm tired, both physically and emotionally, and doing the social media thing is a lot less exerting than actually sitting down and trying to think of something to write about.  That's a dangerous place for a writer to be, though.  Social media is a time-consumer, something that FEELS like you're being productive... only you aren't, because every minute spent on social media is a minute you're not spending actually writing.  Too much of that, and you wind up becoming one of those people who's a writer only in their own mind - talking the talk, but producing little to nothing in the way of proof.

I'm really going to need to assess my use of social media.  It may get my name out there, yes... but it won't, at least as far as I can tell, help get me published.  Neither will this blog, of course, but at least when I'm updating this blog, I'm forcing myself to do some real writing.  Social media can be a wonderful thing, I think, when used correctly... but it's also a La Brea Tar Pit of self indulgence.  Put more than an exploratory toe in, and you risk getting mired and sucked down.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Turtle Writer

I've been introduced to a new term, courtesy of Twitter: turtle writer.  Or, as it trends on Twitter, #turtlewriter.

The hashtag was coined about two years ago by author Meka James for the Twitter group she and two friends, fellow writers Rosetta Yorke and M "Ladybug" Moos, co-host. It means precisely what you'd think it means: a writer who writes verrrrrrry sllllllowwwwwly.

I am a turtle writer.

When my last book got published, I was seized with almost manic energy: this time, things would be different.  This time, I would keep up the flow of writing.  This time, I would stop being a turtle writer and be a Productive Writer.

Alas, it was not to be.  I did produce a few manuscripts in the flush following the acceptance and publication of The Stable Cat's Christmas, but as of yet,  I haven't found a home for any of them.  I've sent two manuscripts to the editor I worked with on Stable Cat, but have heard volumes of... nothing.  Sigh.  And now, I'm in a writing slump, feeling like I'll never have another original, draftable thought ever again.

I'm back to being a turtle writer.

But there is, I think, more to being a turtle writer than simply having a slow turnover rate.  Turtles are more than just their lack of speed (which, to anyone who has known a turtle or tortoise personally, is highly exaggerated... they can be speedy little guys when the need arises!)  Turtles are... methodical.  Thoughtful.  They don't wander aimlessly at their "turtle's pace" - they have a clear destination in mind, and are simply taking their time in getting there.  Turtles don't "go" just anywhere.  If they don't have a place to get to, they simply stay where they are.  I like to think that turtle writers are like that, too..
. we don't spend our time on a hundred different projects or writing exercises that aren't going to go anywhere; we plod slowly along with that one good idea, that one spark that will carry us through to our end destination.

What's more, turtles are designed to be protected from the sharp and pointy bits of the wide world out there.  That lovely shell, so easy to pull back into, is one of nature's greatest architectural designs.  We turtle writers are just as susceptible to depression at rejection letters and non-responses (the new alternative to the rejection letter) as anyone else, and we pull back into our shells from time to time... but we don't stay there.  Like our reptilian namesakes, we know that if we're going to get on with this business of living, we have to come out sometime.  Oh, it's tempting to huddle back in one's safe and cozy shell, perhaps filling the time by building a social media platform on Twitter, but if we're ever going to be the writers we dream of being, we're going to have to get back out into the world.

And that's the turtle writer's credo, I think... Imitate the turtle: to make progress, you have to stick your neck out.  In a vocation where getting ahead means long months or even years of querying and rejection for every eventual publication, it's very easy to want to curl up into your shell, protected from the sting of hearing, "Sorry, but your manuscript doesn't meet our current needs" - or having to face the well-meaning family and friends who want to know how your latest project is going.

Inside a shell, however, you aren't getting anywhere.  A turtle who pulls into her shell may be protected, yes, but she also isn't getting to where she wants to be.  The only way to get through the rejection form letters and "don't call us, we'll call you" non-replies is to push past them, eyes firmly focused on the ultimate goal.

With all that in mind, I think I am proud to be a turtle writer.  I may be slow, but I'm moving towards my ultimate goal.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The UnQuiet Mind

It's another snow day, and I'd hoped to make it as productive as the last.  I brought home grading from school and set to it, planning to get it over with and on with the more enjoyable part of the day: writing.  The problem is, writing requires a certain mindset.  A certain quietness of the mind to let the words and worlds flow.  And my mind, as it so often becomes these days, is far from quiet.

You hear a lot about mindfulness lately, about the importance of thinking and feeling in the moment.  I'd love to live a more mindful life, to shed the buzzing whir of my thoughts that don't seem to want to slow down, to be rid of my desire to be anywhere other than where I am.  I feel a bit like T.S. Eliot's cat the Rum Tum Tugger - when I'm in, then I want to be out, always on the wrong side of any door, when I'm at home then I want to get about.  I have a great deal of difficulty being in the "now."  When my presence at home is mandated by bad weather, as it is today, the feeling only intensifies... I need to get out, to be somewhere other than stuck in the house.  Cabin fever is something that sets in all too quickly for me.

This feeling is not conducive to writing, to say the very least.

So what to do?  I tried stretching... an uncomfortable interlude, to say the least.  I threw in a load of wash.  I did my social media duties, trying to build my "platform."  I'm here right now, updating my blog.  And still my thoughts are all a whir and a whirl, and I want, of all things, to go to the GYM.  This is not like me at all, and only goes to show what an odd place my head is in.  It's as if it's consciously trying to keep me from writing.

I think I may just go haul the space heater into the room, make myself a cup of something warm to drink, and try to muscle my way through it.  Try to get some of the buzzing in my head out onto a page.  Quieting my mind may never work, but perhaps I can find a way to make my unquiet mind work for me.

It's worth a shot.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Super Bowl Sunday: Pondering the Question, Is Writing Hard?

My husband and son, who couldn't really care less about football any other day of the year, are in the living room flipping between the Big Game and Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl.  I'm pretty sure they're more interested in the Super Bowl commercials than they are in the game itself.  As for me, I'm at the computer, typing out this blog, and trying to get some thoughts together to write with.

Someone on Twitter just posted a poll... Is writing hard?  I selected yes, but not because I actually find writing hard.  Writing, once I get started doing it, comes as naturally to me as breathing does.  It's the "getting started doing it" part that is hard.  Today, for example, my writing needed to wait for a visit to the in-laws' to be finished, a study guide for an upcoming science test to be written, and Twitter to be perused (because, for some reason I'm still not entirely certain of, I'm trying to build my Platform.  Please don't ask me what that means.  I'm honestly not sure.)  

And now I'm writing.  But wait, Chris, aren't you updating your blog right now?  Well, yes, but writing this blog counts as writing time for me, because a) it IS writing, and b) if I wasn't updating my blog, I wouldn't be getting any writing done at all, because my muse has taken time off to watch the Super Bowl.

THAT is the hard part about writing.  When the ideas come, I can grab them and jot them down in my handy-dandy notebook, but when I settle in for some actual writing time, the words may or may not be there.  Some writers say to just glue your butt to the chair and stare at the screen or page until you can write something.  Others advocate writing exercises, prompts and the like.  Still others say, snarkily, that if you can't commit to writing when you make time for it, you're not a writer.  And there's some truth to what all of these writers say or suggest.  

But for me, if I'm not in the proper zone, with words moving through me like waves through water, just sitting and trying to muscle my way through it is about as helpful as trying to give my son Algebra advice.  (Note: I failed Algebra in high school.)  I'm bound to write something, but it's almost certainly going to be something that I hate.  Something I'll never use.  So... yes, writing is hard, in a way.  Writing itself is easy.  GETTING to the writing... now, that's hard.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Snow Day, Writing Day

It's been a good day for writing.  A surprise snow day off from work can do that - a chance to sleep in, then get up and attend to Things That Need Doing (in my case, correcting papers that were building up), then... WRITING TIME!

It's not often that my muse cooperates with my schedule... in fact, I've gotten rather used to her abandoning me whenever I actually have a moment to sit down at the computer.  Today, however, she stayed with me as I chugged through a first draft of a picture book and revisions of two others.  Huzzah!  For the first time in too long, I actually feel like a writer!

Now, to just find a way to replicate this miracle more often...