Thursday, February 28, 2008

Stings and Things

Today I submitted a manuscript to my agent that I was really excited about. I had already sent it through my critique group with positive feedback. One of my fellow authors even said, “I love this. I predict a quick sale.” And then WAMMO! My agent rejects it. She says, “I don’t get the concept here.”

Now, I should mention that I love my agent. She’s direct, no-nonsense, honest, and driven. (Did I mention I've worked with her for five years and have no idea what she looks like? One of the strange parts of this business.) She’s very savvy with negotiations. I won’t part with her. Yet it stings like crazy when she turns down a piece. That’s normal I guess. It’s just that you give birth to this idea, dress it up, and take it out into the word and then somebody says, “Your baby's not so cute. There's something wrong with it.” It feels a little bit like that. So either you perform surgery to correct the flaws, or you start over again with another "pregnancy." Alright, I suppose that analogy is a bit brutal. I’ll be fine in a day or so. Sniff.

Some basic stuff--I’m planning several author signings in April and May, and I’m going to the ALA convention in June. Oh--a few days ago I got some “COOL DADDY RAT” mugs in the mail. They’re really fun. A big framed canvas print of Mike Lester’s Times Square spread is also on its way. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to see some of my books in print in the next few months. Life still has so many challenges—really difficult ones--and that seems to be the norm for me, but I’ve got seven wonderful kids, a husband who loves me, and the chance to do something I enjoy. I can handle the tough stuff.


And hey, my fifteen-year-old got braces today. Purple bands on the top and green on the bottom. He’s smiling, saying, “I’m a real teenager.” Life is good.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ducks, With or Without Friends

I started writing children’s stories as soon as I could write words. I have no idea why. My parents read stories to me just like most parents do, but they weren’t particularly book crazy. We didn't know any writers or authors. No one had ever discussed the profession with me or put the idea in my head. The dream was just there, driving me my whole life, and has never left me. Here’s my first children’s story I wrote when I was four. It might be hard to read here, so I'll type it below.


"The Day of The sunny Day and the duck with his friend. The duck was sad he was not Bad, But he was very sad Because he did not have a Friend. The And."

Hooooo boy. Good thing I started young.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Being a Knight Writer: Critique Groups

Years back I was fortunate to be invited into an exclusive online critique group of published authors when I was yet unpublished. The group consisted of authors with three, ten, and even fifty picture books under their belts. I felt totally unworthy to have gained access to their insight and talent. It was like being a peasant invited to sit with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

I think they wanted some new blood, or maybe they were just feeling generous. But my whole life changed with that invitation. Suddenly I was in the midst of skilled writers who could tell me what was right and wrong with my work. I was over-writing, leaving in too many details, using too much dialogue, and trying too hard to force a moral or message. They were patient with me. They were honest. It stung a little, but I improved. Despite what many people think, there really are particular techniques you need to understand to craft a picture book manuscript.

Writers in my critique group send out draft manuscripts via email, and everyone gives honest feedback within a few days. Honesty is the key. Group members have got to be willing to give and receive constructive criticism, or the membership loses its effectiveness. Feedback from serious writers is worth more than gold. In my opinion, you’ve got to have many sets of eyes read your piece before you send it off to an editor. You want those eyes to catch what you’ve missed. You should crave the opportunity for effective revision.

You might find critique groups on the internet, or at writer’s conferences. Join one, my noble ones, and godspeed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My First Review!


Tonight I read my very first official review of COOL DADDY RAT. I was really nervous, since I’ve heard these things can rip your heart out. But the Kirkus review called the book “Terrific Fun!” It also said, among other things: “Crow’s rhyming text pulses with liberally laced scat—“huggy wuggy boo bat”—and syncopated sound words: Zow! ... Daddy Rat, from his Diz-patch and glorious crimson double-breasted jacket down to his toothpick legs in hip slip-ons, is a hoot. Daddy and Ace hail a cab for home and well-earned rest, but kids might well request repeat scat-alouds.”

Ya-HOOO! I’ll be scatting around the house tonight.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Revisions, Baby.

Yesterday I was comparing a manuscript I wrote years ago called “Manhattan Rat” to my book coming out next month, “COOL DADDY RAT.” Although the first was a loose framework for the second, when I compared the two pieces word by word and line by line, COOL DADDY RAT is 80% different. I'm not just talking about word placement but entirely NEW words. Also, another character was added to the story, it was given a new title, and the vast majority of the piece was completely re-written under the guidance of my agent, my writers group of about ten authors, and my editor. I remember one nine-word line, in particular, which took weeks of revision to get exactly right. I was literally grappling with three letter words, rotating different ones in and out until they were finally okayed by my editor. So yesterday I looked back at that first piece and thought, “you came a long way, baby.”

My agent told me the manuscript would never have sold if I hadn’t added little “Ace.” “That’s when the story really came to life,” she said.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Joe Cocker, Live in my Back Yard

I’ve got a great dog. He's the kind of dog that is gentle, loyal, and pretty much does whatever he's told. He learns tricks in about two minutes. He howls protectively whenever my husband play-wrestles with our daughter. He's just a big, sloppy-kissing, shaggy-eared guy who wouldn't hurt a flea. His name is JoJo, after Joe Cocker. Obviously he’s a cocker spaniel. However, my sister is convinced that JoJo comes from the Beatles song, “Get Back.”


Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner

But he knew it wouldn't last.

Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona

For some California grass.



Right now I’m missing some California grass—that is—the green grass that grows on your front lawn. We’re still up to our belly buttons in snow. I'd like to get back to where I once belonged.

Get back, Jojo.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is that YOU in There?



I thought it was really fun to discover that my little boy character in Bedtime at the Swamp, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan, was patterned after Macky himself. He says he’s the boy wearing the cape, and the white puppy is his dog, Winter. Some of his relatives are the other characters in the book. You can read his blog by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

OH NO!

Got your attention, didn't it?



As a storyteller, if you really want to capture the attention of young listeners—if you really want their eyes to widen and their faces to freeze in attention, there’s something your story must contain. I call it the “OH NO” moment.

It’s that moment in your picture book manuscript when something has gone wrong for the character. Maybe dreadfully wrong, or maybe just a little wrong. Maybe wrong in a silly way, or maybe wrong in a gasp-and-hold-your-breath kind of way. But the “OH NO” moment makes things interesting. It gives the story a little tension, a little suspense, and sometimes a little humor. I’ve found that when I critique manuscripts for other writers (or my own manuscripts) and the story feels somewhat dull or missing a spark…it’s that “OH NO” element that is missing.

Recently I experimented with six three-year-olds, telling them a picture book story aloud. I paid attention to their eyes, which tend to wander all around the room. But suddenly during the story I gasped, animated my voice and said, “OH NO!” and every eye darted up and fixed on me in immediate attention. It was so cute I had to bite my lip not to laugh.

A good exercise to help polish your skills at using tension in your picture book manuscripts is to search for the "OH NO" moments in current picture books. Go to the library and see if you can find trends in how tension is introduced. I'm talking about the gulp, the gasp, the what's-going-to-happen-next moment. You might be suprised at how quickly it happens. Usually before the third page.

Kids naturally think in “OH NO” terms, and I have proof. My third grader recently created a comic strip which I think could be a great model for a picture book layout. Check out the very literal “OH NO” moment. My son had no prompting from me, and had no idea I would be looking at his work. (Hopefully you can click on the image to enlarge.)



This comic helps give a glimpse into the mind of a child. Notice how it begins with a kingdom, but "something went wrong" right on "page" two. It's almost immediate. A few more pages, and "OH NO!" said the king. There isn't a lot of descriptive text, the pictures have a lot of action, and the problem starts out right away. Great stuff for a picture book. Sometimes we adults forget what it's like to think like a child.

Oh no. My van just slid down the driveway. Out to shovel snow again.