Monday, September 28, 2015

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a PLAY!

To Act or Not to Act
by Hilde Garcia

Say the word "theatre" at my elementary school and there's a mad dash for my classroom as students knock each other down hoping to make it into my Drama class.

Why the drama? Well, the shows I produce are fun and the kids love them.  My first year, we did The Canterbury Tales with 41 kids. Then it caught on and I had 70 sign up for the next production. Holy guacamole! So I did a monologue showcase entitled, One Singular Sensation. And then I had to do it, it killed me, but I held auditions for the Spring.

We premiered Wagon Wheels A Rollin'- a hootin', tootin' western with only a mere cast of 45.  And 15 had group lines, but they wanted in no matter what, so there came the town of Vinegar Bottle!
I had to turn away the other 30.

My daughter in Wagon Wheels.
I just love the tin type.

So why all the hoopla for drama? Well, we think kids don't want to speak or perform in this age of texting and Facebooking, but truth be told? They are hams, each and every last one of them. That hasn't gone away, only our commitment to developing those skills.

The real drama is that for today's youth, speaking out loud is not a skill that is developed, not at home, not in school, and certainly not on the play ground.  They have so much trouble expressing themselves, role playing, pretending.  If it isn't in front of a screen, they don't know what to do.

Yet, when my students are reading in their literature book and they come to a "play" selection in the book, their hands shoot up in the air until, I fear, they have left their arm socket. How can that be?

My students love to read, but they also love to speak, to perform. And when they come across meaningful literature that is written in a play format, they really relish it.

When we write for young audiences, do we even consider this genre?

I know we write fiction and many of us even do non-fiction. We have picture books, graphic novels, edgy YA, middle grade series, fantasy, poetry, and books in verse, but where are the plays?

This week I spent about 50 hours rewriting many fairy tales- I love fracturing a good fairy tale- so I could create 75 roles for my 75 actors who managed to make it into my class. That's mostly because no matter what limit I set for the class, I seem to always go over it.  Sigh, I just can't say no when there is such a need for developing speech, presence, confidence, and imagination.

What I do find is that the plays out there from various publishing sites are indeed fairy tales, old legends, or fables, and our kids today are over the whole princess thing. They want more.

Last year, I did a play- a monologue showcase with 70 kids. I wove them together with a through line that ended up being a kid's soapbox.  It was great and I wanted to do a scene showcase like it this year.

The only problem, the scenes I could find were from sophisticated plays that weren't actually appropriate for elementary school. Just because it had a child in the scene, doesn't mean we can actually do the scene.  The students don't have the social context for it.  There was really very little out there. And what was out there needed to be edited, so I simply begged my husband, an excellent writer, and we "created" a play.

It made me think- what plays haven't I written, that would really make a difference for kids today? What plays haven't YOU written?

Maybe parts of your current MS could work as a play. Or maybe you can take something that is important to kids today and make it into a dialogue.

No matter what, I realized that we do have this rich format that appeals to children, and we would be remiss if we didn't explore it!

D. W. Griffiths has nothing on me! It's showtime!
The Cast of Wagon Wheels a Rollin'
May 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

Picture Book Queries

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.

Krysta Wittmore and I have nothing but our words. Together we hammered out the best queries we could. I don't have permission to share theirs, so I will share two of my own. I wrote short letters and did not follow the advice given above, although I did try to write letters that that my voice in them.

Dear John,

Your blog says are looking for fast paced/thrilling/heart-breaking stories. Villains with vulnerability.

So I'm submitting my picture book, Fat Cat and Nat, the Rat (or War and Peace for the challenged reader) complete at 170 words. It's a crime story between rival gang leaders.

Besides writing, I volunteer with young students who are reading challenged. When I ran out of books I wanted to use to help them read, I started writing them. 

I am a member of SCBWI .My Great American Novel, Log on Log, complete at 65 words is contracted by Beach Lane Books.

Dear Linda

 My son’s best friend was terrified of undertows, which she called Undertoads. It set me wondering what would an undertoad look like? I wanted to see their world.

The Undertoads, complete at 463 words is a cautionary tale told by an older child to a younger child. It's in (hold your breath.) rhyme.

NO! Please don't stop reading! It's in meter, I promise you. I was seduced by Dr. Seuss at a tender age. 

I am a member of SCBWI and RWA. My Great American Novel, Log On Log, a picture book, complete at 65 words. is under contract with Beach Lane Books.

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!                   



Monday, September 14, 2015

Dispatch #41: The Spirit of 1976

by Lupe Fernandez

In our last post, Pen and Ink Blogspot writer Hilde Garcia wrote about documentary novel Revolution by Deborah Wiles and her memories of segregation in 1976.

I commented on her post.
Ah ye good olden days of yore. In 1976, I was at Winton Jr. High. All I thought about were girls, monster movies, girls, special effects movies, girls, ancient astronauts and girls. Hmm...I smell my next blog.
When I write fiction placed in 1976, I include historical references to important events. But what do I really remember from those days. I’d like to think I was well informed about the issues of the day. I wasn’t. I remember the Bi-Centennial – the celebration of 200 years of these United States - was a big deal. I remember singer-guitarist Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive big hit album. “Do you feel like I do?”

I remember the Israel Commando raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue hostages. My brother and I discussed a rumor that actor Steve McQueen would star in movie version.

My dad – in a rare act of clarity – drove me up the hill to the California State University of Hayward to attend a showing of 3-D photos taken by Viking 2, the second unmanned probe to land on Mars. Viking 1 transmitted only black and white images.

Jimmy Carter is elected 39th President of the United States.

Did I mention the nation-wide Bi-Centennial celebrations?

And television. Lots and lots of watching TV.

Then there were girls. Sigh.

What’s the point of all these recollections? Things I wished I knew about.

The Vietnam War. The Cold War. Watergate. CIA involvement in Latin American countries. Why was my father unemployed? Why was my mother always working? Why did my brother become aloof after he started high school? Why did I have to sell school-sponsored candy door to door?

Stuff I could have known and stuff nobody knew.

Especially about girls. Kissing in the hallways. What was that all about?

No. I wasn’t a well-informed citizen. I was thirteen-fourteen. Liked Language Arts. A passable clarinet player.

During P.E. a guy named Hines noticed I was too skinny to heave the basketball near the hoop. Hines took sympathy on me.

"You need to build up muscle," he says in the locker room.

I had P.E. before lunch. Hiss of showers. Clank of lockers. I stayed after with Hines and he had me bench-pressing a bar. My scrawny arms shook pushed the metal bar off my chest. Since I was too passive to complain, I missed lunch. Hines must've noticed starvation on my face; he shared his sandwich with me. It tasted of warm mustard and tangy pickles. I hated mustard. I hated pickles.

Our weight lifting sessions didn't last long. A couple of days maybe. Then Hines forgot. I was grateful.

I wasn’t who I wanted to be. But I’ll write as if I was.

The next year of 1977 would see the release of a modest motion picture called Star Wars.

May the memories be with you.

I still hate mustard.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Freedom Summer

It's Time for a Revolution.
by Hilde Garcia

Deborah Wiles' documentary novel, Revolution.

What. A. Book!

Deborah Wiles was one of the key note speakers I had the pleasure to hear at this year's SCBWI conference in L. A.  She was this year's SCBWI Golden Kite winner for fiction.  Her book, Revolution (The Sixties Trilogy), was also a 2014 National Book Award finalist.

It's 1964, and Sunny's town is being invaded. Or at least that's what the adults of Greenwood, Mississipppi, are saying.  All Sunny knows is that people from u north are coming to help people register to vote.  They're calling it Freedom Summer.

Meanwhile, Sunny can't help but feel like her house is being invaded, too. She has a new stepmothers, a new bother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool-- where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

So as I read Ms. Wiles' book, my 8 year old self couldn't help feel like Sunny, confused about everything that was happening, asking questions no one was willing to answer.

It made me think about Tisha, my best friend from 2nd through 4th grade.

Tisha on the right, me on the left,
with our amazing 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Flynn.
Miami Seaquarium, 1976.
Funny, I don't remember her last name.  I do remember, she and I were the only two 2nd graders that could scale the metal monkey bars without touching the ground, we could jump rope better than most 3rd graders, that we both liked cherry flavored stuff, and that we both loved to read.

And then she disappeared, after 4th grade, to a school in a different neighborhood.

"Why can't Tisha come to school in Hialeah?"

"Because her new school is closer to her neighborhood."

 It was 1976, Miami. And segregation was still being practiced, only I didn't know it.

Ms. Wiles uses stories and images to envelop us into the tapestry of 1964 Mississippi.  Her story has parallel narratives-- one black, one white-- about Freedom Summer.  Her book places non-fiction quotes, articles, editorials, biographical sketches, and even songs throughout a fictional account of that summer's events as told through the eyes of Sunny and Raymond, two kids from 1964.

Even though her novel takes place during Freedom Summer and I was not even born yet, I remember 1976, a segregated school, and a best friend that was forever lost to me because of the color of her skin.

Revolution is book two of her Sixties Trilogy.  Her first book, Countdown, focused on 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I love how one of the main characters from Countdown plays prominently in Revolution.

She is currently working on her third book in the trilogy.  You can check on her progress on her page.

The characters in Revolution are complex. I love reading a book that has multiple perspectives and story tellers.  I feel immersed in the genre through the photographs, quotes, and historical facts of that tumultuous time.  The connection to history from that time period and current issues of today really struck a chord with me.

And they should, for they affected me in 1976, and I am sure continue to affect some today.

This documentary novel is a great way to get a reader zapped into the story, its sounds, its people, and the place.  I teach 5th and 6th graders, and I am planning to read this book to them a loud and really show them how it was different and how, at times, it is still the same.

In the author's notes, Ms. Wiles says:

"At heart, Revolution is a story about what it means to be a citizen of this country, to live in a democracy, to be a member of a family, to nurture your friendships, to look beyond what you understand, to ask questions, and to tend to your community, your own backyard.  

What are your responsibilities? What must you do to empower yourself and others?

Your vote is your voice.  

It is your most powerful weapon of choice.  

It can change the world."

Dr. Dorothy Height, the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,
as referred to by President Obama, in the background
while Dr. King gives his speech 1963.
In 1964, black Mississipians couldn't register to vote.  In 2014, 28% of Mississippi's state legislature was black, and there are scores of black mayors, police officers, and county officials.

She quotes U. S. Congressman, John Lewis, former chairman of the SNCC and tireless civil rights activist, as saying, "If it hadn't been for the veterans of Freedom Summer, there would be no Barack Obama."

Your vote is your voice.

And the voices spoke in 1964. And they haven't been silenced since.
Dr. Dorothy Height with President Obama, 2008

An exceptional documentary novel that I highly recommend.

What experience do you remember?