Flexing Your PB Muscles

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but picture books are stinkin’ hard to write. Creating a compelling story arc with memorable characters that appeal to both kids and adults is hard enough. But aiming to keep the story under 500 words? Ideally 300 words or less? That’s incredibly difficult.

When I write my PB manuscripts, I tend to start long, then edit down with each draft. This is effective for many reasons. It allows me to form my arc and flesh out the characters. I can fully realize the story before I have to slash words.

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Do the Dang Thing

Last week I started plotting my new middle grade novel. The one that has been nagging at my brain for months.

I’m an office-supply-loving dork, so naturally I took to plotting techniques that allowed for colorful Post-its and spiral-bound notebooks. I must admit, I was having childlike fun laying everything out. On stickies, I wrote story milestones and increases in tension, then moved them around on my bulletin board. It was an awesome visual exercise.

The notebook was super useful as well. I carried it in my purse and anytime an idea, sentence, or relevant story thought popped into my head, I captured it in my trusty journal.

Yay for being a planner, right? Until you realize you’re waiting for the plan to fully realize itself in front of your eyes before you even start writing. Until you’re able to admit to yourself that you’re creating your own form of writer’s block by expecting to have all the details figured out first.

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The Beauty of Glimmers

Writer’s retreats are beautiful things, my friends. Especially those put on by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

This weekend I attended the SCBWI Orange County Spring Writer’s Retreat in Temecula. I filled my notebook with insight and tips from editors and an agent. I enjoyed the intimate experience of a small event. And I soaked up Southern California wine country.

But of all that happened this weekend, I experienced three—count ’em, three—unforgettable, happy-dance-inducing, I’m-freaking-out-inside, WOW moments:

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PB Gush: There’s a Giraffe in My Soup

As a kid, I’m sure most of you, like me, claimed to see shapes or faces in your soup. A la veggies or rice, of course. I know all of you saw words in your vegetable broth courtesy of alphabet noodles. Those were fun, right? But a GIRAFEE in your soup? An alligator? A whale? That would have been crazy. That intrigue drew me straight toward Ross Burach’s There’s a Giraffe in My Soup. It’s ladles of fun!

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Rejection: So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance

Last week I couldn’t bring myself to write. This week I’m making up for it with revisions galore. I knew I wouldn’t be out of the game long. But I’ve got an extra spring in my pen.

A couple days ago I got some serious feedback from an agent on a story. And by serious, I don’t mean an offer. I mean constructive feedback. A lot of it. Some of it was hard to read, but I agreed with many of the comments.

Solid critiques always knock me down a few steps. I love that.

As a writer, you work at a piece for a while. You have others critique it. You revise it. Critique, revise. Critique, revise. Then you’re happy enough with it. Heck, you may even think it’s good.

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When Life Disturbs the Writerly Groove

I’m a creature of habit, a lover of consistency, an admirer of all things routine. Which is why this past week has been difficult for me.

Dixie, my pit bull mix, had an unexpected yet inevitable and necessary knee surgery last Friday. She had the same painful procedure done three years ago on the left knee, and I was told she’d likely need the right knee done eventually. Though I knew we’d go through this again, it isn’t any less exhausting.

Aside from work, all my time has been devoted to caring for Dixie and stressing over the pain she’s experiencing. I haven’t been sleeping well and I feel the constant, nagging pain of a displaced vertebra from snoozing on the floor and couch to be near her.

So my writing routine—like my running, walking, and reading routine—has been interrupted. I’m not complaining; Dixie is one of the most important parts of my life. She’s family. She’s blood. I’d do anything for her.

But I’m dealing with a noticeable and frustrating change in my writing habits. I tried to draft a new story Monday night, but faced with using the dregs of my creative energy or watching Wicked Tuna (yes, I love that show), I chose to mindlessly binge watch.

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Hook ’em with the First Sentence

The hook. Without it, a story can fall terribly flat. The more compelling the first sentence of your story, the more likely your readers are to keep reading. The sweet spot for picture books today is around 300 words, which means you better hook readers from sentence #1.

There’s no standard formula for a hook, but there are different ways to focus it to better grab attention: setting, story problem, in the middle of the action, etc. In fact, Ann Whitford Paul shows this in her book Writing Picture Books. She rewrites the first sentence of The Three Little Pigs many times, honing in on one of nine focuses each time.

One way to exercise your hooking muscle is to study first sentences. Below I’ve analyzed some PB openings that have hooked me like a hungry fish:

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