Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Writing Picture Books

Writing Picture Books, A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication, by Ann Whitford Paul, 248 pages.  Ms. Paul has created a workshop in a book.  The reader drafts then polishes a picture book manuscript via the following six sections:
·         Before you write your story
·         Early story decisions
·         Structure of your story
·         Language of your story
·         Tying together loose story ends
·         After your story is done
The best aspect of this book: it includes very explicit “how to” examples followed by specific practice tasks.  For example in the section on voice, we examine and practice several points of view: third person, first person, journal, etc.  The next section discusses some less common points of view such as apostrophe (narrator speaks to something that can’t speak back) and mask (narrator is an inanimate object observing or receiving action).  In another section we examine how the various tenses can affect a story and then rewrite parts of our manuscript using them. By the time you have worked through the first five sections, you have a pretty good picture book manuscript.  Guaranteed Best Seller?  No, but guaranteed decent if you can write at all.  While Writing focuses on picture books and their unique requirements, much of the instruction and many of the exercises apply to all writing.  It’s a good addition to my library.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ready to Launch, But…

I still haven’t sent out any query letters for my picture book.  Is it “analysis paralysis,” an occupational hazard for a former scientist/engineer, or recognizing that I was about to “ready… shoot… aim”?  I was researching agents and agencies – web sites are wonderful.   One of the prospective agents lists books she is reading, included was Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books.  If the agent considers this book good enough to list on her website, I'm thinking I should at least skim it for Do’s and Don’ts that could make it or break it.  Neither the local library nor Barnes & Noble had a copy that I could skim.  Additionally, it couldn’t hurt to comment in my query that I bought the suggested book.
So for less than $10 I ordered a copy on-line, and it arrived in less than a week.  Now that I have it, shouldn’t I read it before sending out my query?  All of the agents I researched want the picture book manuscript included in the query.  Keeping in mind I’m an unknown rookie, I only get one shot - the first impression.  If it isn’t the best I can make it… slush pile.  So instead of reporting on my first rejection, I’m studying Writing Picture Books.  See this week's book review.  I think the delay to study the book and make revisions will be worth it.  At minimum, I’ll know I gave it my best effort.
Good fortune to all, and have a safe & sane 4th. 
p.s. We're into workshop and conference season, anybody have a surprise success or lesson learned disappointment to share?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review:The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, The British Isles from 500 to 1500, by Sherrilyn Kenyon, 232 pages. This book is just one in the series, The Writer’s Guide to….Lenora Good recommended that I read this book, or one like it, as a way to improve my Princess and the Blacksmith’s Son story by improving the day-to-day details with respect to the period.  Some of my assumptions, filling in for knowledge, were wrong.  I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Most folks aren’t ignorant because they don’t know stuff.  They’re ignorant because they know stuff that ain’t so.” Here are a few examples of information that surprised me.  Clothing worn by both peasants and nobility was very similar, not because of “noble” or democratic intentions, but because there were few choices. Roads were poor and travel was dangerous, so there was very little trade.  The primary way for the nobles to dress up was to wear jewelry.  Another interesting fact: only the title of King and associated land were automatically inherited.  Although the king frequently granted the title and land of lesser nobles to the oldest son upon the nobleman's passing, he might choose to keep the land or grant it and the title to someone else. 

The book is divided into four sections:
·         Everyday life
·         Rank & Privilege
·         God & War
·         People and Places
Each section includes several chapters so the reader can go directly to the desired information.  For example People & Places includes: Saxons, Vikings, France, Normandy, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Also the vocabulary for the section or chapter is arranged alphabetically.
If you are writing a period piece, books like this will save you much effort and time researching the details.  And to paraphrase from Apollo 13, “Getting it wrong is not an option.”  Too many people potentially involved with your book, especially readers, do know the details.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Good is Good Enough?

There are two enemies of excellence, and they are two of the enemies of our writing career: perfection (analysis paralysis) and “good enough” (laziness).  No book is a perfect “100,” and a killer “95” manuscript (arbitrary scale) on our hard drive is of no more value to our career than submitting an “80” that’s likely headed to the slush pile. I’m very close to submitting my picture book manuscript.  I’m just not sure it’s good enough to hit the “90 to 95” sweet spot of excellence, i.e. good enough to be accepted with comments and/or final polishing.  It’s been through multiple read/comment/rewrite cycles and two rounds of review and comment by a professional editor, so I’m confident the mechanics, punctuation, and grammar are sound.  I’ve read it out-load several times and made little refinements.  Now I want to review it one or two more times looking at each verb, “Is there a better one, more exciting, more descriptive?”  Are there still sections of narration that could be replaced by action or dialogue?  After that, I think it will be time to roll the dice and see what happens.  This is the scary moment. 

Using a car restoration analogy, you spend a lot of time eliminating dents and lumps, making the surface as smooth as possible. This is emotionally easy because there’s always tomorrow to make it a little better.  However, if you want to put the car on the road, eventually you have to cross the point of no return: mix the paint, load the paint gun, and start spraying.

A famous author, I can’t remember who, was invited to join some friends on a weekend adventure.  He declined, wanting to work on his latest manuscript.  Upon their return, they stopped in to see how much progress he’d made.  His answer was something like, “Great weekend.  On Saturday I added a comma to the closing sentence, and on Sunday I removed it.”  To my mind, this manuscript is ready; he’s revising the revisions.

Bottom line: there’s no pat answer.  I think we work on our book until we can’t think of anything else to improve it, or until we can’t stand to work on it any longer.  Then we commit an act of faith in our skills... and query/submit.  Good fortune!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: It’s a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World

It’s a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World, a writer’s guide to surviving and thriving in today’s competitive children’s book market, by Olga Litowinsky (1936-2003), 234 pages.  This is the one “How To Write” book that I’ve borrowed from the library a couple times.  Maybe I should buy a copy?  It opens with an interesting history on children’s books, then goes on to provide information on the entire process: writing, editing, submitting, and marketing children’s books.  The book includes some very important counter-intuitive information such as, “When submitting a story, especially an unsolicited one, generally do not include illustrations even with your picture book because many/most publishers have in-house or favorite illustrators.”
The biggest weakness of the book is that it was written at the turn of the century (2000, not 1900 - wow that phrase makes me feel old).  Therefore it says very little about e-books or e-publishing.  That said, Litowinsky shares her extensive knowledge of the children’s book genre’ gained as the author of eight children’s books and a former executive editor of children’s books at Simon & Schuster.  The book is well worth a read, particularly for us rookies trying to break into writing children’s books.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Writing: 10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration …or… “Work, Work, Work”

Writing, especially writing something that someone will pay to read, is an activity that appears to defy that old adage…until you tackle it in earnest.   The work starts with the first draft.  Just being disciplined enough to sit down and type that first sentence takes effort.   Thus we begin Anne Lamott's (bird by bird) “shitty first draft”.  For the record, I enjoy crafting words into sentences and ideas, but the laws of physics apply to writing, and writers. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an external force.   I can always find six to ten things to do (make coffee, read paper, entertain cat…) before starting to write.  We have to be our own external force, and keep nudging the object at rest, until we’ve completed that first draft.
Then when we finally finish that first draft, the most fun part of the process, we start the seemingly endless rounds of editing.  I’m on the fourth draft of We Can Give Our Grandchildren a Better World, and expect to need two more drafts before spending good money on a professional editor.   Editing is tough because it involves all that mundane grammar and punctuation stuff, plus the craft work of shaping the characters (fiction) or ideas (nonfiction).  This mostly takes perspiration, with a little inspiration to solve the trouble spots.
Finally when we’ve pruned, trimmed, and smoothed until we’re confident we have a marketable product, it’s time to start marketing.  This can be the hardest step of all.  I’m pinch-hitting for Deidre so she can concentrate on marketing. 
If writing is so much hard work, why do it?  Because each of us believes that some day someone somewhere will open our book and be entertained, inspired, or both.  I’ll close with a thought from Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture.  The brick walls of life don’t exist to stop us from achieving our goals.  They enable us to appreciate our victories.  They are there to stop those other, less motivated people.  We dedicated people find a way to go over, under, or around them.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Book Review: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird- Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, 257 pages, lives up to its subtitle.  I read this book a few years ago more for recreation than education.  The book provides practical advice on writing, an informative peek into the emotional and psychological side of writing, and many parallels between writing and life in general.  The first of these dual purpose insights on life and writing is on the back cover.  It’s advice from Lamott’s father to her brother, struggling to start a school report on birds, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”  It’s easy to be intimidated by big projects.  But isn’t that how we conquer them, one step at a time?  A second insight, and possibly the one Lamott is most famous for is, “Shitty First Drafts.”  She puts this at the top of the first page of new projects to remind her that the first draft is just that, a first draft, not the finished product.  In life there is a time for bold action and a time for precise action.
More than any other book I’ve read (a relatively short list) Lamott describes the internal, psychological, and entertaining side of writing.  She shares much of what is going on in her head and her friends’.   I don’t know about you, but my brain often feels more like a population of hamsters in cage wheels, than a precisely mated set of gears in a race car’s transmission.  After reading Lamott’s book, I don’t feel alone.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Planning a Great Virtual Book Tour

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ASPIRING WRITER... just for your entertainment!

So as many of you know, I've been busy planning and executing a virtual ebook tour for my spiritual memoir Saving Mary: The Possession. For those who may not be hip to what a virtual tour is, it's like a book tour but instead of visiting bookstores in and around your city you instead visit blogs! Why would we do this? Exposure of course. I've signed up with four blog tours.
Tourz De Codex -3 week tour

Which means I will be featured on over 60 blogs over the next 2 months. Each of these tour hosts offer to link my book up with a range of bloggers who will feature my ebook on their blog through: an interview, a feature, a personal author post, a review, or an excerpt. The tours I signed up with cost anywhere from 25.00 for a two week tour to 150.00 for a month-long tour. The tour host is responsible for hooking my ebook up with appropriate bloggers, contacting those bloggers to ask what they would like to offer on their site (book feature or interview etc.) and then making sure they post on the right day and with all my right information. A good blog host will also send out a list of interview questions, along with a list of blog post topics for you to answer. They should also keep you up to date on any changes and keep you from falling behind on developing and delivering your posts. A great tour host does all this without causing you any stress. At the end of my tours, I will let you know which tours I recommend.

* This is a great way to find reviewers, and all reviews are strictly personal opinions (you do not pay for a positive review).

Having launched my ebook tour, I have learned a few things. (And if you're thinking about embarking on your own tour, I'm hoping this will help you). I've learned ebook tours are not simple. And the more work you do beforehand, the smoother your tour will go. If you plan on doing a 1 month - 3 month book tour, I would suggest that you first develop your own material.

An author tour package prepared beforehand can save you a lot of headache. What is a tour package? It's a file that bloggers can use to get to know you and your book. It contains material and links they can post on their blog site:

Author Tour Package
-book cover image
-author pic
-author bio
-links to your author website, Amazon author page, Goodreads page, blog, Facebook fanpage
-links to your purchase pages (including B&N, Smashwords, Amazon, and your UK Amazon page--since some bloggers are in the UK)
-YouTube link to your book trailer
-average review rating on Amazon
-best way to contact the author
-a list of interview questions (if you are doing a 1 month or more tour then you will need about 20 answered questions)
-a list of quick answers (What's your favorite book? Favorite quote?)
-a list of blog posts (5- 20 posts depending on the length of your tour).

Also, before you leave for your tour remember to:
-get a professional author pic
-write an author bio
-set up your author page on Amazon (bloggers often pull material from here)
-set up your Goodreads page (many bloggers post to Goodreads)
-set up your Amazon UK page (don't forget that this is a completely different page and your author bio must be re-added here along with reviews...ask people to re-post reviews here.)

Writing the blog posts takes the most time. They need to be about 500 words and should include material that other writers or readers would want to read. Adding YouTube videos to a post can help.

Sample Ideas for Blog Posts:
-Writing to me is...
-What is your favorite genre and why?
-What are the mistakes you see in beginning writers?
-How would you change the publishing world?
-How did you come up with the title of your book?
-What are your thoughts on ebook marketing?
-What is your favorite scene in your book and why?

Samples from my tour:
The Masquerade Crew-review
Beauty and Books-ebook feature
Inky Pages-blog post

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Review: Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write

Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, 310 pages, by Elizabeth Lyon.  Last week I blogged on Ms. Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, so even though I haven’t read “Proposals”, it’s appropriate to cover it this week.  (And it’s the next book I’ll read on my “how to become a writer/author” reference stack.) The subtitle is the enticing hook, “How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book.”  This might sound like an over-commitment by the author, except that it’s consistent with other books about the business of writing.  Nonfiction book proposals do not include manuscripts, just a couple of sample chapters.  A nonfiction proposal is a sales pitch, a promise of greatness that piques the agent’s, the editor’s and the publisher’s imaginations.  Just as “Writer’s Guide” provides a step-by-step description on writing the book itself, “Proposals” provides the same logical guidance for your equally important proposal. At 300+ pages this is one of my longer reference books, but skimming tells me it’s a fast read.  Why am I reading multiple books on writing proposals, plus getting additional input from Deidre on similar books that she’s read?  That simple cliché: “You only get one chance at a first impression.”  Assume I spend two days reading Proposals, and pick up one good idea that makes my proposal a “95” versus a “90”.  It might be the difference between “Tell us more” and the slush pile.
And that’s the key point for reading “Proposals”. While we may get help from agents, editors, and book doctors with a book, we are essentially on our own preparing the proposal.  Without a compelling sales pitch our brilliant idea or manuscript remains nothing more.  For the writer seeking a traditional book deal, the proposal is at least as important  as the book itself.
Have a good weekend