Happy New Year! I hope this post finds you and your families well and off to a great start to 2017. Wow, 2017! Seems odd to see that number in print, but here we are. It’s time for setting both goals and boundaries as we each dive into projects that make our hearts sing! So, in the spirit of this brand-spanking New Year, I want to offer a brand-spanking-new picture book critique special.
For the entire month of January (OK, I’m a little behind since one week has already passed! LOL) I’m offering two PGWRites picture book critiques for the price of one! That’s right…it’s a buy-one-get-one-free opportunity that typically only happens once each year.
So, if you’re ready to start this writing year off with a bang, save those last few changes on that manuscript you’ve been working on and send it in! Then, when you’re ready, you can send in another picture book manuscript for a second critique absolutely free (a $50.00 value)!
Just visit the PGWRites Critiques page and follow the instructions for payment and submitting your manuscript. It’s that easy! Hope to see lots of amazing stories in my inbox very soon!
Here’s to the best writing year ever!
Sensibility– New years are for new beginnings. Dream big and take that important first step.
Sense– Set goals you can reach in a reasonable amount of time. Biting off too much in the first few weeks of the New Year can set you up for failure!
On deck for next week. . . an interview with newly-minted picture book author, Jodi McCay. She’s stopping by to tell us all about her new book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS. And she’s also offering a MS critique (double bonus!). You won’t want to miss it!
Looking for a way to jump-start a summer writing project or take your current work-in-progress to the next level? Then I have a deal for you!
Starting Monday, June 13 through Friday, June 24, purchase one PGWRites Critique and you’ll receive a second critique of a different manuscript absolutely free! Yep, you heard it. Absolutely free!
How to Submit
Simply click on the PGWRites Critiques tab above between June 13-24, follow the submission and payment instructions, and you’ll receive a second PB critique at no additional charge (a $50 value- good for up to one year).
!SHARING BONUS! !SHARING BONUS! !SHARING BONUS!
But wait, there’s more! Anyone who shares this post via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Linked In by Noon on Friday (June 10) and sends me the link in an email with their PB submission gets a free “second look” on their paid picture book critique submission (a $25 value). So with the BOGO and the SHARE, you’ll receive two picture book critiques plus one “second look” all for the low price of $50! Wow!
What’s so Special about a PGWRites Critique?
A PGWRites Critique goes above and beyond many picture book critiques by providing line edits, in-MS notes, a one-page explanation of those notes as well as a list of guiding questions for revision, all for the low price of $50. I’m so sure you’ll love my services that I’m throwing in an extra critique for free and a second look just for sharing this information with a friend.
So what are you waiting for? (Besides Monday, of course:) You’ve got just a few days to dust off that manuscript and get it ready for a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective! I’m looking forward to reading some great stories and helping make them even better!
In an usual turn of events, the top U.S. prize in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, recently went to a picture book! Unusual, because the Newbery focuses solely on the quality and message of a story and not the pictures. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers), is the story of a boy, CJ, and his Nana and the beauty, color and energy she helps him to see in the city around him. It’s a feast for the senses in both picture and story, as CJ’s eyes are opened to people and places he might not otherwise see if it weren’t for Nana’s wisdom and special way of looking at the world.
But how did this 760-word picture book (yes, I counted) manage to get the attention of the Newbery committee this year and come out on top? I would venture to say- not because I’m an expert, just a student of this genre who is always looking for reasons why to love a particular book- it’s the practically perfect and musical use of words and story-telling techniques that get the message of this piece across so clearly and vividly. Basically, you could hear this story read aloud with your eyes closed and still “see” what the author wanted you to see even without the pictures!
Now that’s not to say that the pictures are not equally as powerful to this piece as the words, but since we’re talking about the Newbery here, the story must work on its own.
But for those of us who write picture books, this honor sends somewhat of a mixed message (stay with me here, I’m getting to the point). In almost every workshop, class and seminar designed for picture book writers, we hear, “Leave room for the illustrator to tell the story through pictures,” “Don’t do the illustrator’s job,” “Don’t give away too much so the illustrator has room to create.” We hear it from editors, agents and even from other picture book authors. And all of those things are very true. However, in this case, Matt De La Pena writes a story that sings from beginning to end and does it so perfectly a reader might actually see exactly what the illustrator depicted even if he or she had never seen the pictures. That’s the power of his words and the magic that every writer/illustrator team hopes to achieve with a picture book.
For example, if you look on the very first pages you’ll read, “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain, which freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.” Did the author need to say the rain freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose? I mean, the illustrator could have just shown that instead. But having those words there, in my opinion, gave the illustrator complete freedom to set the rest of the stage. To put in the tree and the buildings and CJ and Nana walking down the steps of the church. To give the reader a true sense of place so that Nana and CJ’s story could continue, completely unhampered by the need to say more.
And each page does the same work. We read about Nana’s umbrella, and water pooling on flower petals and the bus creaking to a stop in front of them and sighing and sagging as the doors opened…absolutely beautiful and necessary words even though the pictures are also there to create an even richer environment in which the story can unfold.
Why does this excite me? Because I’m a lover of words. I love the music they make when they string together in just-right ways. I love the emotions they convey and the power they have to heal and hurt, teach and tease. I love the laughter they evoke and even the tears, because those things are real and in everyone and for everyone, no matter how young or old. Nana teaches these things to CJ while on their journey, and without her powerful words, guiding him at every step, he would not be able to draw the conclusions he draws about the world around him and the people in it. I want the stories I write to sing in this way, and the fact that this picture book received this well-deserved honor means there’s still room for people like me who like a story that works. Stories that work make room for pictures that make the story sing even louder and more beautifully.
So here’s to perfect picture books! LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET fits that description in every way.
Sensibility-Words have power. Use them to inform, enlighten and uplift rather than to tear down and destroy.
Sense- Take an honest look at your stories. Ask yourself if they work even without pictures, and make revisions accordingly.
What are some practically-perfect picture books you enjoy reading?
So I hit a bit of a milestone last week- OK, I don’t know when I actually hit it, but let’s say I noticed it last week. After a little more than five years with one particular company, I’ve written 161,468 words. Wow! That’s a pretty big number! At any given moment, though, I’m working for at least three companies at a time, so the actual number of words I’ve written in the past five years is most-likely three to four times that number; and that’s just my work-for-hire writing. And what did I get for reaching that milestone you might ask? (Begin drumroll) A water bottle with the name of the company printed on the side. Yep! A water bottle! But hey, in an occupation where even an “atta-girl” is difficult to come by, I’ll take it, and proudly drink from it.
But here’s the thing. . . when I saw that number, I immediately began beating myself up, and the misery lasted for almost 24 hours.
Here’s a sample of the voice in my head (steady, she can be brutal at times):
That’s almost three middle-grade novels. Can you believe that? That’s 161 picture books. How many chapter books did you leave unwritten and for what? You’re so behind all the other writers you know. No wonder an agent hasn’t picked you up yet. You’re 50, and you’ve only sold one book. That’s pathetic.
My husband was finally able to break into my internal dialogue (he’s one of my biggest cheerleaders) and said, “Yes, but think of all those words PLUS everything else you’ve written! Since you started, you’ve written two novels, one chapter book, a poetry collection and who knows how many picture books. And that’s on top of all those other words.”
Hearing that helped a little, but we writers are hard on ourselves by nature. So it wasn’t until breakfast at the end of my 24-hour beat-me-up marathon, that it hit me. Those 161,000-plus words represent piano lessons, violin lessons, trumpet lessons and cello lessons for three kids. They mean bills got paid and music trips to New York and Chicago happened, and field trips happened, and homecoming dances and proms happened and yearbooks happened and college tests and all the other little things that are very big things happened. And all because of words (and the strength from God to write them). When I looked at my youngest daughter across the table, now 17 and heading to college in a year, I realized again what those words had helped to accomplish, and I was thankful. So thankful. . .
So here’s to words, and the things they make happen that are the real stuff of life. They’ve let me be part of the three best stories I’ll ever help to write, and those are Wesley, Julia and Olivia. I love you guys! My three big kids!
Sensibility-Look at your writing in honest ways and celebrate all that you’ve accomplished since you got started. Then eat something chocolate. Chocolate is always good.
Sense- Even when you feel sidetracked by life’s responsibilities, be they writing or otherwise, find a few minutes each day to write something you love (like a blog post;).
What have your words helped you accomplish in the past few years?
Last year was a year of celebration at our house. It started with my youngest child’s 16th birthday. Wow, just writing that makes me feel, um, well-seasoned! That was January…fast forward to May and we had one college graduation, one high school graduation, one graduation party complete with tent, chicken salad sandwiches and a string quartet (thanks to my daughter and her friends). Then my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and that was June.
In July we took a road trip to Disney at my high-school graduate’s request. It was so HOT, but there was lots of laughter and great memories made along the way. August rolled around and it was time to pack my middle kid off to college for the first time. But just two weeks before she left, we decided to add a puppy to our family- enter Barnabas (Gracie and Willow still haven’t quite forgiven me). Crazy right? We said our goodbyes to our girl standing on the sidewalk after holding hands and praying, and my emotional roller coaster was in full swing. Fast forward to October, and I was dancing to “Don’t It Feel Good,” with my son at his wedding. Wow, what a year!
Now it’s January, and I’m finally getting around to my first post of the year. I don’t want to make excuses, but after reading that last paragraph, you have to admit I’ve needed a little time to catch my breath. Joy, while the best stuff of life, can be exhausting!
So here we are in a brand-spanking new year and you’re probably wondering what’s on my calendar now? Absolutely nothing. Now that didn’t sound quite right, did it? What I mean is, absolutely nothing big. You might be thinking that’s a bit of a let down after last year, but seriously, my essentially-empty calendar is such a beautiful thing to me at present. Why? Because it gives me room. . .
Room to think and create and write and revise. Room to commit to getting a major overhaul done on my novel. Room to look at my work with fresh, new eyes. And hey, even room to exercise (kind of fell off the wagon those last couple of months). And yes, room to breathe.
Do you have room to breathe in your life? Or are your margins crammed so full you can barely make it from one task to the next? Even in this crazy broken world filled with technology and the next new thing all of the time, that’s no way to live my friend.
So raise a glass with me (a few weeks late) to margins. May they be ever empty of busyness and filled with all the joy and grace and sweetness we can hold! Happy New Year everyone!
Sensibility-Margins give us time to recharge and reflect. Be wise in how you use them.
Sense- Get your new writing year off right by saying “No” to things that eat into your writing time. If it isn’t essential, let it go.
What are some ways you protect your writing time and the margins in your life?
Something pretty amazing happened to me near the end of August! I signed a contract for my picture book, A BLANKET IN THE SNOW: QUATIE ROSS AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS! The book is with 4RV Publishing, and is tentatively scheduled for a fall 2017 release. It’s my first contract for a traditionally published picture book, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
The contract came in the mail right around my 50th birthday, so that was awesome! It was also right in the middle of sending my daughter off to college and my son getting married. So the fanfare was short but sweet. About two weeks after I’d signed on the dotted line and done some requested edits, my son asked, “So Mom, what happens next?”
I chuckled then answered, “We wait!”
“What do you mean wait?” he replied.
“It’s like I said, we wait. . .”
“But don’t you have something else to do? When’s the book coming out? Aren’t there more steps?” he questioned.
“Yes,” I said, “but the first step is to wait. Wait to be assigned an editor, wait to be paired with an illustrator, wait for more editorial notes, wait for an exact publication date- you know, wait.”
“But haven’t you already waited long enough?” he said.
Haven’t I already waited long enough? I thought.
Sure. Of course. Absolutely. But really? Long enough? Let’s see. . .
We all know that behind the excitement of a book deal is a lot of hard work and waiting. But the question, “Haven’t you waited long enough?” just isn’t part of the equation. It can’t be for any serious writer.
There’s no way to measure how long is “long enough.” Writing is such a personal journey, and every person’s story and path to publication is different. I live my life believing that things come to us when it’s time. But that doesn’t trump all the hard work it takes to realize a dream. There’s a balance of responsibility to your calling, trust in the process, open doors and a sprinkling of talent for good measure. No one part can be rushed or missing. It’s only when the time is right and the story is the best you can make it that the contract will follow or it won’t.
So what do I do next? I wait. But while I’m waiting, I’m working like crazy on other manuscripts as well as submitting, so that the next opportunity is there at just the right time with just the right house. And when the next contract comes (see how I said “WHEN”;) I’ll sign it, send it back and, you guessed it, WAIT! It’s what we writers do best. . .well, at least you get better at it the longer you do it.
Here’s to working and waiting. You can’t have one without the other!
Sensibility- There’s no greater joy for a writer than opening your email and seeing, “We’re happy to inform you. . .” When it comes, savor it!
Sense-Once you hit “send” and submit your manuscript, it’s time to get going on something else. Make the most of your “waiting” time by writing and polishing your next story.
What’s the first thing you do after submitting a manuscript? Get started on something new? Revise a work-in-progress? Eat ice cream and chocolate? Do tell. . .
It’s November, and thoughts during this month naturally turn to thankfulness. Many friends on social media sites have taken the “30 Days of Thankfulness Challenge,” and I’m enjoying reading multiple posts on a daily basis. But this is a post about encouraging your muse, and you’re probably wondering what thankfulness has to do with getting that contrary gal (or guy) to work. Well sometimes it’s all about being thankful.
My muse is an odd bird. You might assume she’d enjoy rainy days filled with thoughtful music, multiple cups of tea and all the dark chocolate she can find; that a little over-the-top emotion from me is all it takes to get her creative juices flowing. You know, kind of like the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy pours his heart out on paper to Elizabeth (although he was pretty disgusted with her at that moment). The all-night vigil he keeps with feather pen in hand, desperately trying to explain how wrong she was about him (except for the part where he purposefully keeps Jane from Bingley). He writes with abandon, sealing his words with a big blob of red wax, and instead of going straight to bed, heads towards the grove where he hopes to find her (I’ve watched it way too many times).
But I’ve recently realized there’s a better way to get my muse moving. “Tell us please!” you say. “Don’t keep us waiting one more minute.” OK, here it is…BEING THANKFUL!
Yep, you heard me. One of the best ways to get my muse in the writing frame of mind is practicing thankfulness. Here’s how it goes…
I get up, pack lunches and help get breakfast. I send my husband and daughter off to school, look at my computer and sigh. “I don’t want to sit there all day!” I moan. “I don’t have anything useful to say to anyone. I don’t care about deadlines. I’m tired.” Then I walk by the offending machine to get a shower (and hopefully an attitude adjustment). By the time I’ve had my caffeine (Diet Coke), I’m feeling a little better, but not good enough. So I read my devotional and Bible and spend some time meditating. I close my eyes and open them, and there it is; the blank screen staring back at me. “It’s time,” I say aloud, “for some thankfulness.” My list goes something like this:
I’m thankful for…
The chance to work from home. When there’s three feet of snow outside, I don’t have to commute, put on a coat or even get out of my jammies if I don’t want to (but I always do). This is a very good thing.
My family. When you’ve seen your kid go through two major surgeries in two years and watch him graduate, get a great job and get married all in a few month’s time, that is something to be thankful for. I write to help all of them realize their dreams while I’m realizing mine.
My health. When you get diagnosed with RA and you think you’ll never write, or do anything, again, you don’t take little things for granted. Each time I wiggle my fingers or get up from my chair, I remember a time when I couldn’t.
The ability to think and process information in a way that others can read and understand. We writers take this for granted regularly and we shouldn’t. Just like you might wish you could run a marathon or play an instrument, there are many people who would love to be able to do what you do.
God’s grace in my life. Even if God never blessed me with one more thing, He has been very good to me. That is reason enough to work hard and be grateful for the gift each and every day.
My list gets much longer when my muse is especially contrary. But most days, after these five things she gets the message that it’s time to get back to it and be joyful in the process. And if there’s a little dark chocolate somewhere in the house that makes her even nicer.
Even if you don’t practice the “30 Days of Thankfulness Challenge” in your life this month, at least take time to be thankful for the gift of language and story and the heart to use both to bring others joy.
Sensibility- The ability to put words together into stories or information that can benefit others is a gift. Use it and treasure it.
Sense- If your muse isn’t showing up for duty, inspire her by creating a “Thankfulness Journal,” or “Family Diary.”
How do you encourage your muse? What are some things for which you are thankful?
Well let’s see, my last post here on Sensibility and Sense was July 21, and so much has happened in our lives since then . . .
The first major change was adding a big, black puppy to our family back in August! Barnabas is a bouncing bundle of joy and mischief and has become my new writing partner (currently curled up under my desk). He has destroyed a few phone chargers and some headphones, been a little slow in the potty-training department and succeeded in making our cat his mortal enemy, but other than that, he’s turning out to be a great dog!
About two weeks after Barnabas arrived, our Julia went off to college. We packed up her big old car (named Betty) and headed to Grand Rapids. She had orientation for a few days and officially became a college student on September 8! Julia is studying music education with an emphasis in violin. We’re so proud of her and can’t wait to see where this journey leads.
Of course, Julia’s leaving for college meant that our household of five was now a household of three. Our youngest, Olivia, is a high-school junior this year, and she’s learning how to live with all of the attention from her parents squarely on her shoulders! She’s doing a fabulous job adjusting to being the only child at home and is currently my hero;)
And finally, just a little over a month after Julia started college, Wesley, our oldest, got married to his sweetheart Katie! Our family gathered from as far away as Hawaii on a picture-perfect October day to witness their vows to each other and before God and celebrate their amazing love story. It was a happy day full of beautiful moments and special memories, and we are all feeling so blessed. . .
That was a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve settled into a steady fall hum here at the Richards’ house. Now that I’ve kind of recovered from all the activity of the last few months, it’s time to get back to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been working all along, but only on weekly deadlines and not other writing projects. And now, when I’m completely caught up on work and have all the time I need to dust off some things that have been waiting, I can’t seem to wrap my brain around getting started.
It’s like when you haven’t exercised in a while, but you can’t find the energy to take that first step. When you’re forced to take a hiatus due to celebrations, life’s changes, illness or other things that demand your time and attention, it can be hard to start putting your thoughts down again on a regular basis.
But like taking those first steps on that treadmill, getting a few words down at a set time each day will have you up and writing again in no time. At least I’ve found that’s what works for me.
If you’ve been putting off a project that seems to be calling your name, why not join me and get started? There are two writing challenges coming up that can help. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) may be just the thing to get you working again. Each event begins on November 1 and runs throughout the month. Sign ups are happening now!
So what are you waiting for? Kick that muse out of her recliner and get back to work. Trust me; you’ll be glad you did!
Sensibility-Take time to be fully aware when wonderful things are happening. Each savored moment creates a memory that will last a lifetime!
Sense-Pushing too hard after an extended time away from writing can create frustration. Ease back into your writing schedule by setting aside one hour each day to get a few words down.
What do you do to get back into your writing routine after an extended absence?
As writers, we all face the challenge of giving away too much or not enough when it comes to story and character development. The need to leave some room for the reader’s imagination is real and important. But finding that perfect balance between important details and just liking to hear yourself (or your characters) talk is difficult.
This week, I was reminded of this while getting ready for my son and his fiancés bridal shower. We each had to write down one of our favorite recipes on a 3×5 card to give to the bride. I think this is such a great way to connect with a young couple and help them share the parts of their childhoods that surround favorite foods and celebrations! So, like any good mother-in-law to be, I wanted to choose something that would let my sweet daughter-in-law know that she was now one of us. But I just couldn’t narrow it down to one, so I chose three! Now if that isn’t a sign of a writer, what is?
Anyway, the first recipe I picked was my grandmother’s cheesecake. Simple and delicious, this one has been in our family for a long time. But when it came to writing out the directions, I realized my card was way too small to tell her all the nuances of making this cheesecake come out perfectly every time. There was no space to include a description of the cracks in the top or that just-right color that says, “I’m done!” I had no room to talk about how sometimes I put four eggs instead of three depending on how I’m feeling that day or whether or not I’ve been to the grocery store. And how could I describe the specific moment when the strawberry topping reaches its perfect thickness and glossiness and you just KNOW it’s ready? There aren’t enough 3×5 cards in the world to get that part right. So, I had to let those things go and trust my “reader” to eventually make this recipe her own. Katie is already a wonderful cook, but would she make the cheesecake just like me, or my mom, or my grandmother? I think the better question is, “Does she have to?” And the answer is a definitive, “No!”
In writing (and in recipes), you must be willing to give away something that may never turn out exactly as you had planned. Just like I want to give Katie room to be Katie in everything she brings to our family, my stories must give my readers room to bring their own experiences, nuances and expectations into the world I’ve created. If I tell too much, the story is not theirs. It’s just a cheap representation of something that’s supposed to look like the real thing, but falls terribly short. But that kind of writing takes courage. The kind of courage that knows when not to write everything you’re thinking; to let the Master Storyteller take over and create something beyond what you ever thought possible. Through you, but not necessarily by you. Whew! That’s deep!
Take a close look at what you’re writing today and see if you need to give up some control and cut out a few (or a thousand) words you don’t need. Give your characters their head, and let your margins be just that, margins. Trust me, your readers will fill in the white spaces and each one will be unique and beautiful.
So here’s to recipes…guides rather than roadmaps…and to the best-tasting cheesecakes ever!
Sensibility- We all come into life’s seasons with our own stories. Learn to weave them together to create something special and new.
Sense- Take time to interview the characters in your stories. Write down their responses to important questions as if they were sitting right there in the room with you. This helps you understand the motivations behind their words and actions rather than having to include every detail in dialogue or description.
What are some of your favorite family recipes? How have you changed them to make them your own?