Thursday, April 9, 2020

Covid Blues and Links to great first lines

by Susan J Berger
Wow! Are we having crazy fun or what?  My hair is gray and red because I have two weeks of filming left on Joel Coen's Macbeth and I can't cut or dye my hair till it's over. Production shut down March 13 along with every other film. Production to be continued when Shelter in Place ends.

I don't know about you, but I am finding it hard to concentrate. I only want to reread books. Books in which I know what will happen. Books I know will leave me happy.

I watch little TV, Zero news, and try to visit Facebook only once a day. I find it to be a sinkhole.
I did find this wonderful video there: Some Good News with John Krasinski and a couple of wonderful surprise guests.
I cried for happy at the end.

My picture book critique group held its first Zoom meeting last Friday and it was so soul-satisfying to see everyone.

I forget who mentioned the SCBWI Digital workshops. When The Zoom meeting was over I headed to SCBWI and signed up for the next one.You can do that here:
. While listening to this workshop I realized that I had used all of Sara's and Lin Oliver's examples for great first lines in blog posts on Pen and Ink. Here's a link to the list of First Line Posts
If you fell like some great first lines, please start there.
First lines can be really inspiring.

If you can't write now, that's okay. You are storing up.
Please take care of yourself.
Stay panic-free. Avoid News and Facebook rumors. 
If you have a critique group, please consider a Zoom meeting.
Sending you all air hugs.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Meet Andrea J Loney Picturebook Author and So Much More

Reprinted from November 2015 with exciting new details.
By Susan J Berger

Andrea J Loney is a lot of things. Teacher, Activist, Screen writer, Picture book writer, Ex circus girl? Circus?!!!!!
Yup, I ran away from academia to join the circus. 

How did you end up in a circus?

After I earned my Masters Degree in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I realized that I’d spent my entire life as a student with no time off to explore the world I was writing about. When the chance to join a traveling show came along, I leapt at the opportunity. I originally joined The Big Apple Circus to work as a roustabout crew girl, but I barely lasted three hours in that job — once I broke my pinky nail on a floor board, I was out of there!

So I ran back to the office trailer where I worked for a year as the assistant to the General Manager, the House Manager, and the Concessions Manager. I also served as a Tour Guide, an Usher, and an unofficial liaison between the crew people and the executives in the show’s New York Office. I got to know people (and animals) of all ages, from all around the world, and from all walks of life.  And I got to watch the entire lifecycle of a show from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night, to multiple performances almost every day. It was a great hands-on education in entertainment. 

That's awesome!

The most exciting thing about Andrea right now is

Her latest book, Double Bass Blues  , illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, is a 2020 Caldecott Honor Book. 
 I am so happy for her because I know she fought for the kind of illustrations she wanted.

Previously, Andrea won the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Award for her biographical picture book, Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee  illustrated by Keith Mallett.

And her first book, Bunnybear , illustrated by Carmen Saldana, was selected for the 2018 ALA Rainbow list.
I am so happy for her. I met Andrea when we were fellow volunteers at Reading To Kids. And then we were in a couple of critique sessions together. I love her work.
When did you first see yourself as a writer?

My grandmother was an English teacher and a literacy specialist so she taught me how to read when I was three years old. As soon as I could read stories, I wanted to write them too. I won my first award for writing at the age of eight — it was a story about a swan in the park. From then I was hooked! I wrote poems, short stories, comic strips, plays and more.

You have a Master degree in writing, what made you decide on picture books?

I distinctly remember reading a book in the second grade and thinking, “Someday I will make a book like this and some little girl just like me will find it and fall in love with words forever and ever.” I’ve always dreamed of telling stories so compelling, they could stay in a child’s heart for the rest of their lives, just as the work of Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, and A.A. Milne still live in my heart to this day.

Also, as a young black girl growing up in the suburbs, I did not find many books that reflected the reality of my life. Now as a supporter of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, I am committed to do what I can to expand the range of heroes and heroines in children’s books to reflect the range of diversity our society. Lifelong impressions and biases — positive and negative — can form quite early in a child’s life so the earlier a child sees broader representations of race, gender, class, ableism, and more, the better it is for our society as a whole, in my opinion.

 Finally, I love the unique challenge of crafting a character’s story in as few words as possible, while invoking an entire universe without the use of actual images or the overt description of those images. When it works it’s magical! Even though I have written professionally for film, television, and theater, picture books have always been the most beloved form of storytelling for me.
I love firsts, so tell me about the moment when a publisher told you they wanted to publish your book.
When I first got the call from Lee & Low, about Take a Picture of Me James Vanderzee
I was on my way into an appointment so the unfamiliar New York number went straight to voicemail. Back in my car I listened to the voicemail, which said that the publisher wanted to discuss my New Voices submission, my first thought was, “Oh man, they hated it. They hated it so much they had to tell me on the phone.” Crazy right? So I wrote the number down in my notebook and just waited it out because they were three hours ahead of Los Angeles and their office was already closed.  

That night I didn’t sleep a wink. Was it possible that I won the Honor Award? I couldn’t have won the big award. Anyway I sprung out of bed at 5:30 am, ready to call them at 6 am which would be 9 am New York time. And just as I started to call them, my kitten jumped at the phone and erased the number. It was just gone.

After a moment of panic, I realized that I had written the number in my notebook, which was in my car. So I ran outside to my car in my nightgown and tried not to hyperventilate as I dialed the number. I was completely shocked when when the editor, Jessica Echeverria, told me that I had won the New Visions Award. She told me how much everyone loved the manuscript and the story about my subject. I could hear in her voice how my passion for James Van Derzee and his work had somehow traveled to a publishing house across the country and how she was excited to share that passion with others too.

My impulse was to blurt out something ridiculous, so I just kept saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much!” Then when the call was over I screamed and cheered and bounced around in my car. In my nightgown. And it was December 22nd — what an amazing Christmas gift!
Yes! Love this story!

Other than your own, who are your favorite (heroes/heroines/writers) in your genre?
Wow, there are so many writers whose work I adore. At the moment though it would be Jacqueline Woodson, Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, Jonah Winter, Mac Barnett, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Joyce Sidman. And so many more!

 What is the most exciting moment, so far, in your writing career?
Honestly, it was the moment I met Jacqueline Woodson at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. I told her that I won the Lee and Low Award as she signed my well-loved copy of her masterpiece BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and then she said, “Yes, I know of James Van DerZee. Which illustrators are you considering?” I don’t even know how I replied because all I was thinking was, “Holy moly, I am actually talking shop with National Book Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson! Just like a professional author! How is this happening?”  

What is your favorite pastime, other than writing?
If I am awake and not writing or driving, I’m probably reading. Other than that, I like to play video games with my family, make jewelry, knit, hula hoop, and nap. Wow, do I love naps!

How do you motivate yourself when inspiration takes a vacation?
Deadlines! I belong to a few different critique groups and I submit manuscripts regularly to my agent and editor. I usually have about five writing projects going at any given time, so if I get stuck on one story I just hop into another one. If I am on a deadline or tackling a particularly stubborn problem, I journal about the story instead of trying to write the text. Sometimes I write a series of questions about the plot or characters before I go to bed, then see if the answers bubble up the next morning.
Other inspiration jumpstarts include drawing or coloring, talking to a friend, listening to new music, going for a walk, making lists, reading something fascinating , and, of course, napping. Most importantly, I try to see inspiration more as a bonus than a requirement.

Any advice for new writers just starting out?
The best advice I ever got was to read stories that work and then figure out how and why they work. After that, my suggestion would be to write regularly — it doesn’t need to be daily but it does need to be often enough to build writing chops and to give inspiration a space to show up. Oh, and always keep a pencil and paper handy to capture ideas.  

The best choice I ever made for my children’s writing career was joining SCBWI, reading their articles, attending their events, meeting other writers, and sharing my work with a critique group (and finding a critique group that suited my needs).  

The next best choice was joining Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo in November to find great tips on how to come up with ideas, and then come up with at least 30 new picture book ideas of my own and then…

…Signing up for Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 Picture Book challenge to join a community of other picture book writers as I refined those ideas and submitted them to agents. Also Kristen Fulton’s Nonfiction WOW website and Facebook group introduced me to the wide world of Nonfiction writing.

 Oh and the best advice that I stubbornly refused to follow for years? While waiting to hear back on one manuscript, write another one. And another one after that. And another one after that. Keep writing NEW pieces while revising the old ones and once they are ready, keep sending them out. By the time my first picture book sold, I had already recieved over 25 manuscript rejections. But I was determined to keep going until someone said “yes”. And eventually they did!

Tell us about James Van De Zee. How did you find your subject.
James Van DerZee was a studio photographer in Harlem, NY, who took photographs for nine decades. He was prolific and creative, but most of all he took elegant and glamorous photos of the black residents of his neighborhood — whether they were rich, poor, or middle class. He just loved people and that compassion came through in every shot. From childhood I was always fascinated by this charming old-time black photographer who was “Photoshopping” pictures long before computers were invented. The more I learned about his astounding life story, the more I wanted to share it with others.

 What’s your current WIP?  
At the moment, I am working on three picture book revisions, four new picture books,  a middle grade historical fantasy, and a cozy winter scarf.

And finally, where can we find you?

andreajloney on Twitter 

andreajloney on Pinterest

Or in the children’s section of a local library, squished in a tiny chair behind a stack of picture books.

Congratulations, Andrea. I am so proud to know you!

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Accountability How to Submit


I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to force myself into submission mode.
I keep an excel spreadsheet to track my submissions. I pulled it out in November and realized it looked sparse. It’s so easy to put off submitting.
Even if you have achieved a good query letter, and wrestled your synopsis into shape there is still all the trauma of researching the right agent to submit to.
Three months ago I designated Thursday on my Google calendar as Submissions Thursday.
That simple act gave me accountability.
And improved my submission pattern 100%
Now on the Thursdays I do this (I'm averaging two Thursdays a month which is infinitely better than one submission every three to six months.)
 But I digress.
I'd much rather digress than submit.
 On Thursday I pull out my  spreadsheet and open Twitter on my computer. I search for #MSWL
I find an agent who says they are looking for what I am querying.
I go to their website and read their submission guidelines.
Some have forms. Some have email query requirements.
I follow the guidelines for the ones I think have possibilities and I click Submit.
I do at least two. Sometimes three. And I feel good. 
My friends, it is so easy to convince yourself that no one will ever want to read whatever it it you've written.
Fight it.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

It’s NaNoWriMo Time Quotes To Keep You Writing


November 10, 2014

It's Nano Time. Quotes to keep you writing

By Susan J. Berger

It's NaNoWriMo time again.   I am following Dawn Knobbe's lead  and using this years' NaNo to make last years novel into a readable 2nd/3rd draft.
She also did a post on inspirational quotes for NaNoWriMo.
If you've never tried National Novel Month, it's a great way to get a first draft. Deadline is everything . You have thirty days to do it.

This isn't about being perfect. It's about getting the words out. If you get the words out, the story will come. I guarantee there will be lots of surprises.

"Here's the bottom line; writers write. Sometimes words flow easily. Sometimes it's like sloughing through mud. Either way a professional writer keeps writing." 
 "A word after a word after a word is power." - Margaret Atwood

Dory and I have so much in common. I often stop to Google.

“Don't worry about what you're writing or whether it's good or even whether it makes sense.”  
Lauren Oliver
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
Ray Bradbury.
Advice from a Hollywood NaNoWriMo coordinator.
"When all else fails, throw in a Zombie."
Will you revise after NaNoWriMo? Of course, but right now the trick is meeting the deadline.
"There's an old folk saying that goes: whenever you delete a sentence from your NaNoWriMo novel, a NaNoWriMo angel loses its wings and plummets, screaming, to the ground. Where it will likely require medical attention.”
Chris Baty
“You can't edit a blank page”
Happy writing.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Picture Book Querys

Picture Books queries are a different animal from Mid grade and YA queries. You are going to be emailing your entire ms.

I met with two of the four other members of my picture book critique group this week and we each tried to hammer one out.
One question that came up immediately was what do you put in the "experience" part of the query letter when you have yet to be published? 

Everybody had to have a first query. Even Dr. Seuss. And we all know how that one went. It took him lots of tries to get a "yes" for To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. And he had illustrations!

Then there are those of us who write stories only.  Doreen Cronin's first book was Click Clack Moo. Cows That Type. What did she put for experience?
 Best advice I could find was if you have not yet been published. Don't put anything. Except that you are a member of SCBWI.

Advice from Query Letter Wizard:
The first paragraph. Always. Why? Because most query letters are not read top to bottom. Sad, but true. Agents, buried under mounds of submissions, will give your query only a quick look to determine if the first paragraph grabs and sustains their interest.
This is why you must write and re-write those three sentences so they tell the plot and give compelling information about your protagonist and their challenge.
SENTENCE ONE: Introduce your protagonist (main character) and what they want in the first sentence.
SENTENCE TWO: Describe the obstacle (s) that stand in their way.
SENTENCE THREE: Hint at the possible outcome and the terrible "or else" that could happen if your protagonist does not succeed. Write this "tease" to motivate the agent to read your query second paragraph which expands the plot as it involves your protagonist.

Here's another POV Mary Kole's From

 Since most agents ask that the picture book manuscript be included in the submission, writing a really meaty query for that short a manuscript seems a bit silly. When I see picture book queries — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — I keep it very simple.

I’ve had a book by Katie Van Camp and illustrated by Lincoln Agnew called HARRY AND HORSIE in my sidebar for a while as an example of a great picture book with an outside-the-box friendship hook. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m sorry for you, because you’re missing out.

If I were writing a query for HARRY AND HORSIE, it would read something like this:

Harry and plush toy, Horsie, are the best of friends. One night, Harry is trying out his bubble-making machine when one of his bubbles swallows Horsie and hoists him into outer space! Harry has to rescue his best friend — and go on a wild space adventure — before returning safely home.

A quirky picture book with a great friendship hook, spare text and retro-style illustration, HARRY AND HORSIE is sure blast your imagination into the stratosphere! This is a simultaneous submission and you will find the full manuscript of XXX words pasted below. I look forward to hearing from you and can be found at the contact information listed below my signature.

Easy peasy. No need to write an elaborate letter. Just present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook (“great friendship hook,” above), and sign off like you normally would with a novel query.

After that, just paste the picture book manuscript. If you are an author/illustrator, include a link to an online portfolio where the agent or editor can browse your illustrations. Do not include attachments unless the agent requests to see more illustrations or to see a dummy.
If you are an author/illustrator you provide a link to your portfolio. One of my PB critique members, Cassandra Federman has a wonderful website. Check out her portfolio. She also has a wonderful book to query.

Places to Query. Things to do.

Here's a link to Manuscript Wish List agents who are looking for Picture Books. I know you always go to the agency website and check guidelines. Here is a link to more picture book agents. It includes link to their websites and my notes. (Suggest opening it in Excel.)
Do set up your own excel sheet so you can tract your queries. I have columns on my submission sheet for Agency, Email, Project queried, Date sent, Date responded and a note about the response  - or lack of response. So many agents do not respond. I know it hurts. We put so much time and thought into querying. But don't let lack of response stop you.
“It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” 
Martha Graham

 How do you query your picture books?   Want to show us one?    Leave it in comments or send to Write on!