Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More Thoughts on Writing Critique Groups

Yesterday I wrote a little bit about the benefits of attending and participating in a writing critique group, but I'm not sure I adequately described just how important it is to have another set of eyes read a manuscript before sending it out before being considered for publication.

Even the most polished manuscripts could be improved by the critique of another reader. Other writers understand your goals and can help guide you through the process of the writing and revising your manuscript. And each reader notices something else that can help you improve and strengthen your work. When critiquers start noticing the same thing, you know that they've hit on an important point that needs to be addressed. But even if they are not all in agreement, writers can benefit greatly from taking the advice of those readers who have experience writing and publishing.

So try it! Find a supportive group of people whose opinions you trust.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What a Writer Needs

One of the things that I have learned a writer needs is the support and assistance from a writing critique group. This is not a support group, per say, but a group that gathers regularly to review and suggest edits to each other's projects. Tonight my writing group is meeting in a fire station. I've met in church basements, libraries, over coffee at a coffee shop, at a friend's house, at Cici's over potato pancakes (I miss you, Carol!)...it doesn't matter where, but a chance to get together with people working in the same genre is extremely helpful.

I suggest to new writers (and oldies too) that you meet face-to-face with a group. Chances are that there will be at least a few people in your neighborhood who would like to meet and discuss writing. Only as a very last resort would I suggest an online group unless you already are acquainted with the other writers.

The reason why I suggest face-to-face meetings is because

1) writing can be lonely and we can get lazy. If writers have a designated time to meet (weekly or monthly or whatever), then it helps not only create a social gathering, but also a deadline. That has really helped me get projects done.

2) It is easy to be critical of another person's writing when you cannot talk with that person and interact with him or her personally. But the truth is that for many people, their writing is tied very closely to their egos. It's easy to offend someone when you are critiquing their work, and it is important to be able to explain why you are reacting to a certain passage or word or sentence or whatever.

Some tips for writing groups:

- If possible, read the work before the session. Most people cannot react immediately to a work of fiction or non-fiction with super-helpful suggestions without having a little time to consider it. Give each other time to think through responses.

- Meet at regular intervals and don't skip sessions. Weekly, monthly, whatever works, but make it regular and don't change from the schedule.

- If possible, meet somewhere that is free (a location that doesn't require a rental fee). Libraries, fire stations, community buildings, etc. are all good options.

- Celebrate publications and commiserate with each other over rejections. Support each other's book signings. Introduce each other to editors, agents, etc.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

How to Write a Children's Picture Book

Yesterday I read another section of the Eve Heidi Bine-Stock book, How to Write a Children's Picture Book, and in this chapter on transitioning from one sentence to the next, Bine-Stock focuses on actions and reactions.

What's an action?

A cat walked in front of the dog's house.

What's a reaction?

The dog growled at the cat.

What would be confusing for children at their more basic level of reading comprehension would be to reverse the order of the action - reaction. Bine-Stock instead, like most children's writing instructors, encourage authors to first state the action, and then the reaction. Here's how this could look:

Action - Reaction
The cat sauntered by the house, and the dog growled ferociously.

This shows the action, followed by the reaction.

Here is the opposite:

The dog growled ferociously at the cat sauntering by the house.

There is nothing wrong with this last sentence grammatically or otherwise. The question, however, is: what will help the readers best understand what is happening in the story? For very fluent or adult readers, action - reaction is not as important. The writing can be more free flowing without going back to the basics. But when writing for children, following guidelines like these can help children to grasp the meaning without a convoluted thinking process.

By the way, I recently discovered a new blog: Alice's CWIM Blog, written by the editor of Children's Writing and Illustrating Market. Check it out!

Friday, January 16, 2009

What I'm Reading

So I've made it my goal this winter to get through some new writing books. The first I've chosen is: "How to Write a Children's Picture Book" vol. 2, by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock.

I really enjoyed the first book of this series which discusses how to structure a picture book. This volume focuses more on individual sentences, scenes, words, and story. The author approaches the task by examining classic and timeless picture books. In this volume, she looks at Leo the Late Bloomer, Harry the Dirty Dog, Frog and Toad, Harold and the Purple Crayon as well as many others. She explores how the picture book authors use refrains, repetition, syntax, the arrangement of sentences within a scene, etc. in order to achieve the maximum result.

For example, she looks at the following two sentences:

A) Mommy Mouse gave Little Mouse a gift.
B) Mommy Mouse gave a gift to Little Mouse.

Each sentence has the same meaning, but what is emphasized in each? The placement of the word at the end of each sentence emphasizes it. So in A) the gift is emphasized; in B) Little Mouse is emphasized. In order to decide what to emphasize, you, as the writer, need to know what will come next. What is most important--the gift or the relationship with the Little Mouse? Either option could be correct. The question that the author needs to answer is what comes next, which determines what should be emphasized.

The concepts in the volume are fairly straight-forward, but as writers and readers, often ones we take for granted. Good writers, natural writers have an instinct for these things. But accomplished writers not only have the correct instinct, but also employ these techniques at the best time in the best way.

I've often thought that picture-book writing is sort of like poetry (even if the text isn't written in verse). A picture book story is the "boiled down" version. It's the sparest form of a story, told in simplest, best, most enduring language filled with charm and imagery.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January blues

This is a difficult time of year for me. In Indiana in the winter, there are two parts of the day: night and a-little-less-dark-than-night. The skies are marbled gray. The snow and ice keep me indoors. The slick streets keep me from walking the dog and getting sunshine (which doesn't exist anyway). Looking out the window is like looking at a black and white photo--all of the color is missing. These past two days, my wish all day long is to get back to the couch, curl up with a dog, a cat (or perhaps two), and a good book. I find it easy to be lazy and difficult to be productive. But these kind of "cocoon" times can also be helpful. When I spend time reading, I am absorbing ideas for content and the process of writing as I see how other authors create their stories. I also learn compassion as I can relate to the struggles of others. Coffee and hot chocolate take on an all-new appeal. Fresh fruit never tastes as good in summer as it does in winter. Fresh-cut flowers are a fond reminder that summer will come again. And I know it will.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wishing for a warm, sunny spot

This is a photo from our trip to Cape Cod this summer. Ah...sun, surf, sand...

Right now in Fort Wayne it's lightly snowing. They were calling for 6-10 inches of snow, but so far we've gotten only a couple of inches. It's at this point in the winter, after the excitement of the holidays, that I am really looking forward to summer.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A small start...

It's been ages since I've posted anything, so I'm forcing myself to at least write something today, to at least get the ball rolling.

This is a picture of one of the shattered trees on our street (our house is in the right corner). We're still seeing the effects of the ice storm, which pounded Fort Wayne on the Friday before Christmas. We lived a pioneer existence, sort of, for five days without electricity, which, looking back, I'm grateful for. I have a new-found appreciation for washing machines, dryers, furnaces, hair dryers, dishwashers, computers, lamps, TVs, cable, all charge-able electronics, blenders, microwaves, cordless phones, and the list could continue ad infinitum. I heard on the radio yesterday that the cost of restoring power to Fort Wayne residents cost $10 million. Amazing, eh? We got a kerosene heater, which was fabulous. The cats loved it so much that I'm almost willing to use it even with the furnace working. Almost.

Today is another snow day. Only got a skiff of snow, but apparently the roads are icy. But snow days WITH electricity are a gift.