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On Pooh and Writing Our Lives

pooh-balloonI’m thinking about storytelling. I was in Boston for the weekend at my daughter’s graduation from college. Not only am I someone who’s in the business of stories, but I can’t help but see the stories in the raw material walking and breathing around me. So besides the story of my own daughter’s graduation, for me the weekend was a series of vignettes coming together and fading away.

We heard the Korean student who delivered the student speech at commencement tell a story of resilience and perseverance, taking 7 years to finish his undergraduate degree, with stops and starts in the army, and as a journalist reporting on North Korean atrocities. So inspiring! Hosts of families beaming with pride or stressing about getting into the stadium for graduation; the grandmothers and grandfathers; the single moms and single dads; siblings who looked like they wanted to be elsewhere or looked to their graduating brother with envy or looked up to their graduating sister; a family with a dog in a carrier; the students who lined up for a picture standing on the seal of the university, which you’re not supposed to stand on until you graduate; the sorority girls doing that sorority pose, in their caps and gowns; the multitudes! Sheesh, if I could only capture it a fraction as well as Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass!

And my daughter. What can a parent say to their child at the culmination of their education? Besides the pride I felt at her achievement, besides the happiness of sharing this special time, besides the feeling of accomplishment I personally felt, knowing my husband and I have done a good job raising her, I felt at a loss for the right words to speak. What “wisdom” do I want to impart? I realized that what I want to tell my child is the same thing I delivered a keynote on a few years back at NOH-SCBWI and that I’ve touched upon intermittently here on the blog, as advice to writers.It’s this:

We are the authors of our own lives. We write the narrative. Things will happen in our lives that are out of our control. What we do with those things, how we contextualize them, speak about them, internalize them, are in our control. And we each get to decide about so many other things, that are in our control. We get to decide when we’re going to do something brave or risky or outside the box. We get to decide when to do things considered totally “normal.” There are so many things that are in our control! Life may be long or short. We never really know how much time we’re going to have on this earth. I firmly believe in following one’s dreams. I’m not saying be reckless or dumb about it, but I am saying not to settle for anything less than a glorious life.  Writers, are you listening? This message is for you, too!

And to the little girl who I watched the VHS tape of The Blustery Day with too many times to count, to whom I read the poems in When we Are Six and When We Were Very Young before bed, who painted “Think, Think, Think” and a picture of Pooh flying to his future on the string of a balloon on the mortar board of her graduation cap, I also have these words for you, just as Christopher Robin spoke them to his friend Pooh:

“You’re braver than you believe,

and stronger than you seem,

and smarter than you think.”

 

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The Low Down on Writing Picture Books

children-s-book-clipart-booksDon’t kid yourself thinking that writing a picture book is easy. In my opinion, writing a picture book takes more skill and craft than writing a novel. Well, perhaps that’s not true, but it takes a very specific kind of skill and craft, that not everyone has. Here are some of the things you need to think about if you’re going to write picture books.

  • The current market for picture books supports very low word counts. When I started in the business 6 years ago, we were looking for word counts of <1000. Now, it’s not unusual for word counts to be <500. Keep this in mind when you’re writing.
  • Some of the things that make a picture book manuscript work are interesting word choices, repetition, assonance, internal rhyme, meter. Pay attention to this. It’s not only about the content of your story, it’s about how you tell your story even on the sentence level.
  • If you’re going to write a rhyming picture book text, have the rhyme serve the story, don’t jam a story into a rhyme.
  • Picture books can’t be too teachy-preachy or didactic, or kids aren’t going to want to read them. If you have a “message,” don’t slam your reader over the head with it.
  • Don’t talk down to the miniature humans you’re writing for. Kids are astute and will pick up on a condescending tone.
  • The world that you build in your story usually has rules to it, even though it may only be 467 words long. Don’t break those rules, or the story won’t work.
  • If you’re not an illustrator, you just send your manuscript text when you’re submitting to agents or editors. You don’t need to find an illustrator. The publisher will want to do that if/when they buy your manuscript.
  • Only include illustration notes if you need something in particular in the illustration to tell your story. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re micro managing the illustrator’s job. (Plus it’s unprofessional and will peg you as a novice.)
  • Picture books are usually 32 pages long. If this is new information for you, read this blog post to familiarize yourself with just how picture books are laid out.
  • There are all types of story structures: cumulative, circular, increasing/decreasing, parallel, linear, etc… As with rhyme, have your story structure serve your story, don’t jam a story into a particular structure.
  • Remember that the game is to write a book that kids are going to want to read again and again and again and again.

This is not a comprehensive list. What other things do you think picture book writers need to keep in mind? 

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Writing Informs the Yoga. Yoga Informs the Weekend.

1warrior2-1As many of you may know, I co-lead a writing retreat each summer on Long Island, The Writing Yoga Retreat. It’s all kinds of good for oh so many reasons. And you don’t have to already do yoga to attend. “Why,” you may ask yourself, “would I want to do that?” Honestly? Because we do stuff at our retreat that you won’t find anywhere else. Seriously. Also, at the Writing Yoga Retreat you’ll learn how to bring something different to your writing, and learn new ways of looking at what you’re working on. Now you might say, “Oh yeah? Like what?”

Ok, so one of your choices for a one-on-one consultation is to work with Tarot cards. WHO ELSE DOES THAT?! Nobody. We’re not fortune telling or anything. We use the Tarot deck as a jumping off point to explore character, theme, setting. We’ve even done readings for our participants’ characters. Come on, how cool is that?

During the twice daily yoga (and you know I’m not one of the people at the early morning class, right?) our instructors tailor the class to each person’s skill level, with modifications for beginners and greater challenges for advanced practitioners. At the beginning of the class when the yoga teacher does a dharma talk, the teaching connects the yoga you’re doing with writing. Actually, writing and the writing process is kind of woven into the whole class. It’s fantastic.

There’s also a Participant Showcase like you’ve never experienced before. Imagine this: We go off site to a delicious Italian restaurant, where we have dinner in a private room and endless glasses of wine. You’re at a long table with these people who you now count as friends, and you have the opportunity to read your work. Not a critique. Not a workshop. You just read. And then bask in applause! Our past participants have told us this was the highlight of their weekend. Last year’s participants wrote adult fiction, YA, middle grade fiction, picture books, and memoir. It was amazing hearing their work!

Our dinner with editors is pretty darn cool, too. We have 2 adult editors and 2 kidlit editors join us for dinner. You know, just a casual, Friday night dinner with SOME OF THE TOP NYC EDITORS THAT THERE ARE. Sorry for shouting. I just really want you to get how cool this is. This year’s editors are Justin Chanda from Simon & Schuster, Jill Davis from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, Naomi Gibbs from Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, and Connor Guy from Metropolitan Books/Macmillan. I’m so psyched for this part, I can’t even…(Oh my! I just made that “squee” noise people write about.)

To get a more yoga-y view of the weekend, check out Stefanie Lipsey’s post at writingyoga.com. She’s my partner in Writing Yoga crime, the yin to my Writing Yoga yang. And for more detailed information or to apply, go to writingandyogaretreat.com. (FYI – We have people apply rather than just register so we can make sure that you already have a work in progress and a commitment to your writing. We’re not judging or assessing.)

Ok, any questions?

 

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