Sunday, December 29, 2013



To mark the end of 2013, I'd like to share some of the words of wisdom I've gleaned from other writers over the year. These are random with no particular theme but I'm hoping they'll inspire (and sometimes make you smile) you the way they've inspired me!
Only bad writers think their work is really good. (Anne Enright)

Just leave out the boring parts. (Elmore Leonard)
Backstory developed early on crashes down on a story's momentum like a sumo wrestler falling on his opponent. (Donald Maas)

Every true writer, I believe, starts a new story with a troubled mind. (Pierre Burton)

Rule #5 Keep trying to top yourself.
Some years ago, my old college friend and fellow broadcaster Lister Sinclair asked: "Is writing getting easier for you?"
"No," I told him. "I'm trying to make it harder."
(Pierre Burton)

Strong characters are at the heart of great literature. Not many readers could outline the plot of The Sign of the Four, but no one has any difficulty bringing Holmes and Watson to mind. (Andrew Miller)
We live in the best time for dialogue heavy books because it's fast and we're fast. Pace sells and dialogue is pace. A reader who falls into good dialogue on the first page of your book is in your pocket. (DBC Pierre)

Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. (Margaret Atwood)

Give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. (Roddy Doyle)

Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue. (Helen Dunmore)

If you are going to be obsessive about anything in the writing business, make it your word quota. (James Scott Bell)

What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. (Elizabeth George)

You will be published if you possess three qualities - talent, passion and discipline. (Elizabeth George)

A lot of writing is simply showing up. A lot of writing is being willing to show up day after day, same time and same place.
Lots of people want to have written; they don't want to write.
(Elizabeth George)

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. (Stephen King)

Let me end with a wonderful story that Stephen King tells about James Joyce:

According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
          "James, what's wrong?" the friend asked. "Is it the work?"
          Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; wasn't it always?
          "How many words did you get today?" the friend pursued.
          Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): "Seven."
          "Seven? But James. . . that's good, at least for you!"
          "Yes," Joyce said, finally looking up. "I suppose it is . . . but I don't know what order they go in!"

Tuesday, December 17, 2013




As I work on my picture book manuscript, I can see the pictures clearly in my head. I can visualize each page and I am full of ideas for funny little details the illustrator could add. I am dying to make notes in the margins for the illustrator because I know how this book should look.


Unfortunately not.

My job is the words. I have to trust the illustrator to do his job which is the pictures.

I admit I was dismayed to read the following list of Don'ts in The Business of Writing for Children by Aaron Shepherd:

Do not find an illustrator on your own.

Do not send sketches or a dummy (mock-up of a book) or show page turns.

Do not write notes describing illustrations - unless an essential element cannot be described in your text.

The problem is, I know what I want the pictures to look like.  It's going to be hard to let someone else make those decisions.

But that is exactly what a picture book writer must do unless you illustrate your own books. Trust the illustrator. Allow him his own opportunities for creativity. You wouldn't want someone to tell you what words to use.

The end result may not match the pictures in your head.   It may be even better!  I have a friend who visualized her characters as people and the illustrator turned  them into animals - it turned out to be a charming book that everyone was happy with.

 Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books says "Ironically, while we must write with a visual image in our mind, we must eventually let that image go."

Whose story is it? Both of yours. 





Thursday, December 5, 2013



The more I study the craft of picture book writing, the more I realize that so many of the things I'm learning apply to all writing for kids. Using as few words as possible to convey your meaning, using carefully chosen words, leaning towards dialogue and action with limited description, avoiding adverbs and going light on adjectives - all these things are important when I write a juvenile or young adult novel as well as a picture book. You can just get away with mistakes a little easier in a novel.

In a picture book, every word needs to go under a microscope. When you're used to writing novels like I am, it's challenging to tell your story in  1000 words. You absolutely don't want to waste any of them! And when you're choosing your words, one of the things you need to think about is rhythm.

  I like what Theodore Cheney says about rhythm in his book Getting the Words Right. He talks about ancient storytellers and how "stories with the most satisfying sounds and rhythms were remembered easiest and longest."

That's what we want -  children to remember our stories and, with picture books, to ask for them again and again.

The best way to test for rhythm is to read your story aloud. Picture books are meant to be read aloud so this is doubly important (novels can benefit from being read aloud too). Try reading your manuscript into a tape recorder and listening to it. Or ask someone to read it out loud to you. 

There are some tried and true ways to get rhythm into your writing.

1. Vary your sentence length. A longer leisurely sentence slows the pace. A short snappy sentence gives punch to your story. You want both.

2. Use alliteration (repetition of initial consonant.) Don't overdo this and create a tongue twister (unless deliberate!) The words don't have to be side by side but can be scattered throughout the sentence. eg. There are some tried and trued ways to get rhythm into your writing!

3. Have fun with onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds.)  eg. slish slosh swish

4. Pay attention to where the stress falls naturally  in your sentence and how changing the order of your words can change where the stress falls.

Listen to the difference between:

He fell over with a crash.

Over he fell with a crash.

A comma can change the stress.

Listen to the  difference between:

And he never said a word.

And, he never said a word.

Time words and superlatives are often stressed:

Lyle could spend hours watching building construction.

Harry's bath was the soapiest one he had ever had.

I'm planning to print a copy of my manuscript-in-progress and mark the stressed word or words in every sentence. Maybe I'll move some words around and make some changes. I'm sure I'll learn something.

 In The Business of Writing for Children, Aaron Shepard says . .

One of the greatest compliments a reviewer can bestow on a children's story is to call it a "great read aloud." But how does a story come to merit such praise? The secret is rhythm.

Rhythm. It will make your story sing.

Favourite Kid's Book of the Week:

Mr. Zinger's Hat by Cary Fagan

A story is trying to escape from Mr. Zinger's hat. Leo contributes all the important details and learns that his cap has a story in it too!

A terrific story with charming illustrations.