KidLit Summer School is a summer blog event involving over 700 writers and illustrators of children’s books. The goal of Kidlit Summer School is to create a mentoring community where published authors share their methods, techniques, and secrets with any student who wants to learn. This is the first year that we are running Summer School, and we really didn't know what to expect -- before we launched, Kami and I figured 100 participants would be a great goal. That number was blown out of the water within the first few hours of registration!
What I love about Summer School is that it is like the independent study classes I took as a graduate student. There is a theme and suggested reading (all the blog posts) but the students really have the freedom to focus on what resonates with them on an individual basis. Writing isn't like calculus where you have to learn the one way to get to the right answer and there is no wiggle room. It is important to have nurturing environments to learn, and that is what we've tried to do with Summer School.
In addition, Kami Kinard and I are currently launching Kidlit Writing School where we will be coaching writers on all aspects of children’s publishing.
Woah! Congratulations! Sign me up! What is one unique component of KidLit Writing School that may help take writers to the next level?
We will be using the same nurturing atmosphere of Kidlit Summer School but we will raise the bar to not just get our students to inspiration, but really push them toward perspiration. Our faculty members will all be published authors so that they can teach both the craft of children's literature but guide our students through the business of publishing. They will also be recently published -- we know that the publishing world changes rapidly and in significant ways, and so someone whose last experience with actually publishing a book is a decade old really can't offer the same insights into what the market is looking for.
I know you asked for one unique component, but let me throw another one out there: our plan is to take you from craft to publication and beyond. We will have resources for what to do beyond your pub date, how to market to consumers, how to connect with educators -- everything a writer needs to make a career out of this.
My reaction was a mix of excitement and incredulity. On the one hand, as authors we wait sooooooooo looooooong so see our ideas and words become real that it is so exciting to see the reality that we couldn’t complain. But FOUR books essentially at the same time? When they were written over the course of 6 years? That's just crazy!
Crazy though it may have been, I definitely did celebrate. I threw myself virtual parties to mark the various book birthdays – in fact, I virtually connected with over 60 schools from January through May. And I also bought a lovely bottle of pink champagne and celebrated with some dear friends. It’s the simple things, folks. :)
Is there one common thread that holds your picture books together? (In addition, is there one common factor that you feel sealed the deal on your last four books?)
That’s a really interesting question. I think for the purposes of promotion, I try to find an overarching narrative that fits with several books at a time. For example, DUCK, DUCK, MOOSE, ORANGUTANGLED, and TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS all came out early this year, and they are all about having bad days (even though they resolve that issue differently). So when I discuss these books, I talk about taking bad days, mistakes, blunders, et cetera, and turning them into inspiration. These books are also about friendship, and the different ways your friends can help you get through a rough patch. When you have one narrative, that message starts to represent you as a brand instead of the individual products/books. And at the end of the day, you want fans of your brand, not just your book.
So while the goal is to find one narrative that encompasses your work, the truth is that it probably won’t work for everything, especially if you are very prolific. I could argue that there is an element of getting through a bad day (or night) in SNORING BEAUTY, and I could stretch it to claim that there is a friendship angle (between Mouse and Max), but that story is much more about perseverance than friendship. CHICKS RUN WILD is maybe slightly about perseverance (in that those chicks persevere in staying awake!), but it is more about the bonds of family, through good times and bad….which make it related to DUCK, DUCK, MOOSE….I’m being very long winded, but I think the answer to your question is that there are a limited number of common threads that link my work together, but that it would be difficult to identify only one.
Rachel Orr, of Prospect Agency is your literary agent. Has she offered you any secret niblets of wisdom that you would be willing to share?
Rachel and I have been working together for many, many years now, and we work quite closely from the concept stage through the line editing stage. One of the things I value is her strong editorial eye – that has been very helpful in moving my career forward.
I don’t know if this niblet is a “secret,” but when I was putting together lessons for my online classes about managing editorial preferences, I asked Rachel why editors can seem to be so resistant to rhyming manuscripts. Here’s what she said she looks for in picture book manuscripts that rhyme: “First and foremost, I look for manuscripts that have an even meter, and where the rhymes are natural, not forced. The manuscript should be easy to read aloud without forcing/slowing the tempo in places, or having to place the accent on the wrong syllable in order for the rhythm to work. I'm especially drawn to rhymes that are more complex or unexpected (i.e. rhymes other than your easy and typical "see/me", "do/too", etc.). And I also like rhyming picture books that fit into a 32-page format (typically with a four-line stanza per spread), as opposed to a six page, single-spaced manuscript containing only couplets. I also enjoy when there's some intentional repetition or a chorus in the rhyming manuscript.”
Your books all incorporate humor that appeals to young and “older than young”. (We won’t call it old.) What would you say is the secret to writing for the funny bone that appeals to any age group?
Another really great question, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. I think that writing humor is very different over different genres and age groups. The differences are reflect in language, vocabulary, tone, and subject matter. It is important to learn the differences between 5 year-old humor, middle grade humor, and young adult humor before you tackle any of these. If there is a “secret,” it would be to immerse yourself in the humor of your target audience to make sure you understand it forwards and backwards (and, yes, this means I spend waaaaaaay tooooooo much time watching Disney channel for “research” purposes….).
But to address this question with picture book humor in mind, while my thoughts above still hold (that the humor must appeal to the target audience of 3 to 8 year-olds), picture books are unique in children’s literature in that they are typically read by a completely different audience that the target audience of the story. An adult (a parent or a teacher) is typically the one who reads these books to the intended young audience. So the humor must be addressed to the child – but still be interesting to the adult. (Confusing, right?) I think there are a few easy tricks to achieve this. One is to use word play – calling a vampire pig a “Hampire” or a clumsy Tyrannosaurus Rex a “Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.” Another trick is to use idioms in both the literal and figurative senses. In PIRATE PRINCESS, when Princess Bea gets seasick from the crow’s nest, the line is: “She clutched the mast and then she just heave-hoed into the ocean.” In HAMPIRE, the monster yells, “I’m starved of course! I’d eat a horse!” when chasing the duck, chicken and pony, and the Duck comments, “Our goose is cooked indeed!” And in SNORING BEAUTY, when Mouse gets frustrated, he shouts, “Oh, rats!” All these idiomatic phrases have a humorous component. They are appealing to the adult reader, but relate to the story enough that the child listener is not out of the loop.
Would you mind telling us what it was like when you sold your first manuscript? Looking back, what advice would you offer to other writers who are hoping to do the same?
Do you mean my first picture book, or my first piece of writing for money? Let me answer both….
About two months after I started writing back in 2002, I wrote a short story for Highlights. It was about something that had actually happened to a friend of mine, with a bit of fictional dramatization. Highlights bought it and it was the first $200 I made writing.
I also randomly got my foot in the children's publishing door by mentioning my science background in a cover letter. I’d sent a picture book manuscript to Sterling, which they rejected, but in the rejection the editor asked if I’d consider writing a science experiment book for them. That became CHAMPIONSHIP SCIENCE FAIR PROJECTS, which still sells really well for me, and a few years later, my first picture book, TIGHTROPE POPPY, was published by the same editor.
Had I not done the science book, I’m not sure I would have had the relationship to get TIGHTROPE POPPY published. And so the advice I’d give to other writers has to do with relationship building – the single most important thing that has helped me get published outside of perfecting craft. Some of the editors who have acquired my books have been people I had been cultivating relationships with for years and years – I met them at conferences and kept the relationship going by listening to what their publishing needs were and trying my best to address them. So, if you have the opportunity, get out there and meet editors and try to form a personal connection.
And here’s a little bonus bit of advice that I wrote many, many years ago that still holds pretty true:
Top Ten Surprising Things About Being a Published Author
1. That the advances are so small that after everyone has had their cut and you’ve paid all your expenses (whether it’s permissions, or research costs, or just the cost of babysitting that allowed you to write the book) you have just enough money left over to take your family out to dinner. But only if they agree to go Dutch.
2. That you can’t just show up at a book store and expect them to have your book. Or believe that you are a real author.
3. That there’s a 50-50 chance that the number of kids that are biologically related to you who show up for a book signing will outnumber the number of kids that are NOT biologically related to you.
4. That no matter how much market research you’ve done, there’s a good possibility that there is a really similar book out there that no one has ever heard of – except the person writing the review.
5. That even though the publisher picks up the tab for producing the book, all of the marketing responsibility is on you. So if you want anyone beyond your mother and your best friend to know about it, you need to get your butt in gear.
6. That you know no more about writing or publishing after the contract than you did before. Even though everyone expects that you do.
7. That the more successful you get and the more books you publish, the less of your writing time will actually be devoted to writing.
8. That when you and a group of writing colleagues meet certain editors (who may now be agents…), no matter how many books you’ve done, the first comment he will make is, “So… you all are *moms*, huh?”
9. That it is a long time before you move “real author” into the list of things you consider yourself. I still haven’t really gotten there.
10. That going to a school for an author visit is as close to being Angelina Jolie as you will ever get. And it’s a pretty cool feeling.
Ha! That works for me! Poetic technique, as it’s called, incorporates more than just poetry or rhyme. What does it mean to you, personally, and how have you applied it in your picture books?
When I teach poetry and poetic techniques, I really emphasize that true poetry is about the beauty of the language, the rhythm of the words, the melody of the syllables. Rhyme actually is, at beast, a secondary concern. I try to use that philosophy in my writing.
Whether I’m writing in rhyme or in prose, my primary concern is most often rhythm and cadence. Writing rhythmically lends itself easily to rhyme, but again, it is so important on its own. I spend a lot of time reading the sentences and lines aloud to hear how they will sound to ears, not just within my own head.
The next concern is economy of language. In poetry or picture books, strong word choices elevate the writing. Not only does a word like “dash” or “scurry” sound more unique than “run quickly,” they paint a much more complete picture. In that way, I can make sure there is sound variety and interest in as few words as possible.
Teaching writing has helped me become a better writer. There are so many things we do as writers that are done on autopilot. You don’t even think about it, you just do it. But when you start teaching, you have to break down every action into baby steps so that you can show your students how to mimic your actions. This forces you to think through your methods, and in the process, refine them even more.
I’ve also discovered that the different types of teaching that I do offer unique rewards. When I work face to face with other aspiring writers, I get a chance to tailor my lectures to my audiences. Whenever I run a workshop, I come prepared with bullet points that I’d like to cover, but the specific sequence of sentences depends on where the audience’s interests lie. I use their expressions and body language – as well as their verbal responses – to guide my teaching.
When I’m teaching kids at school visits, there are many similarities to writer’s workshops. But a huge difference is that talking to children allows me to connect to “fans” and then inspire them to pick up their pencils to speak their minds. One of my favorite quotes to share with kids is this: “Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.” I love the opportunity to teach children that no one can silence them if they are writing.
Much more recently, I’ve started using the internet to teach writing. Going online was a scary concept for so long – but now that I am doing it, I love the opportunity to connect with people independent of geography. A great example of this is Kidlit Summer School, where we have 700 students from all over the world, all sorts of time zones, all kinds of passports – all united by a love of children’s literature. It’s fabulous.
This fall, I’m very excited to be launching a new Picture Book craft online writing course which will eventually become part of a master series (called The Picture Book A to Z’s) on writing picture books. The first course is called Picture Book A to Z’s: Plotting in Picture Books. I don’t have a set start date, but I hope you’ll visit our school website, www.KidlitWritingSchool.com , for more information!
You are inspiring! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us today!