Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Writing for Children, Day 2

I began the day by visiting with author (who happens to be LDS) Martine Leavitt. I asked her what she thought of having an MFA. (She got hers from Vermont College.) She answered that she felt that the MFA was extremely valuable to her—also, very expensive. She had already had books published before she entered the program.

She mentioned that she had heard that the average time it takes a writer to get published in the children’s market is ten years from the time they start writing seriously.

She said she used to struggle sometimes about the amount of time she spent writing instead of doing service, for example, but has since decided that “writing is a form of service. You are the voice of a child.”


Then I met with Margaret Miller, editor at Harper Collins (who spoke at the plenary yesterday). I asked her opinion on whether a writer with a manuscript that is getting personal and praising rejections with the phrase “but it’s just not right for me” should switch to looking for an agent. She said that’s not a bad idea, and that if she were a writer she would be looking for an agent at the same time she was looking for a publisher. But she thought my problem might be a lack of research on my part about what kinds of books individual editors like. (I agree. But the research is hard. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.) She recommended I google each editor whose name I get from the SCBWI list to find out what they edit. (I have tried contacting publishers of individual books to ask who edited them, but have had no success.)

Before the main session, Jeanette Ingold read from her most recent book. As I mentioned before, she’s not really my type of speaker and, I discovered, not my type of writer. (The nine-year-old asks her former violin teacher why his eyes are shining. Right.)

Dandi Mackall read from a middle grade novel and I was amazed at her ability to do great voice. I’d like to read some of her stuff for more ideas.

Krista Marino, Editor at Delacorte Press spoke about how editors are just as emotionally involved in the books they edit as the authors are. (Delacorte does no picture books, BTW.)

I went to Ann Cannon’s workshop on “How to Create and Use Back Story for a Novel.” She said her thoughts were more for when you need to bulk up a novel because you haven’t written enough. Some ideas that the class brainstormed: “As questions about your ms, your MC, etc. Why? Why? Why?” “Add more details, especially sensory.” “Find lose ends, things you’ve mentioned once and can go back to and pick up.” “Reinforce some things, especially aspects of characters.” “Add in a subplot.” “Look at backstory.”

Ann recommends we go back and look at minor/secondary characters and see if we can change or add to them so that they can play a bigger part or at least carry more weight. She recommends writing character sketches, things like what the character watches on TV, what makes him angry. She had us think of a character in a current work of ours and imagine him getting angry (why?) and write a scene about it.

“If you want forward motion, give a character a problem to solve.”

Be careful of flashbacks, especially too early in the story. The reader is only coming to know and like the real story; flashback is confusing or boring.

Resolution: keep from rushing to it. Keep adding problems. Let one problem grow out of another.

My last workshop wasn’t my first choice, but the one I wanted had been canceled. So I went to Dandi Mackall’s on Rhyme and Rhythm. I really like Dandi, but I didn’t want to waste time on stuff I already knew. (Yes, half the class hadn’t heard of scanning and we needed to spend a few minutes explaining just exactly what was wrong with “Tommy crossed the busy street, tripped and fell and hurt both of his feet.”) But there were some interesting things.

Rhyming books are shorter as a rule than other books, averaging about 200 words.

All picture books should be poetry, rhyming or not (I agree!).

Try not to use the same old words that rhyme. Avoid say/day. How ‘bout macramé? Consonant endings are more pleasing to the ear in rhyme.

Imagine what you want reviewers to say about your book: “Fresh, lyrical, great read-aloud.”

Dandi asked an editor about when a picture book ms is really good and the editor almost acquires it but decides not to, what is missing? Answer: rhythm.

They say that a picture is worth 1000 words. Don’t let that be true of your work. Make your words worth more than that.

She passed out a handout on the rules of rhyme. It had five rules: 1. No off-rhyme. 2. Meter must match. 3. No unnatural wording (“of which I speak”). 4. Use variety. 5. A story is still a story.

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