Interview for StoryTeller Academy

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Happy New Year one and all. The holidays are often a busy time, so I will start this off with a short post and interview with Myrna Foster at Storyteller Academy who was kind enough to ask me some questions about my writing journey and what I’ve learned.

You can find that interview here: https://www.storytelleracademy.com/2019/01/02/member-stories-johnell-dewitt/

And I want to give you all a heads up about the Writing With the Stars mentorship contest that will be opening up for submissions on January 9, so read the rules at the link and get your submissions ready.

Wishing you all a glorious new year.

 

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Interview with Author Penny Parker Klostermann

klostermann_pennyPenny Parker Klostermann is the author of There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight and A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale (Random House Children’s Books, illustrated by Ben Mantle). She has an informative website with gobs of great info about poetry and rhyme. She recently made a comment on my art notes post that I thought deserved its own space, so I asked if she’d answer some questions for me. She’s given back to the writing community in so many ways, and I’m grateful she took time out to teach us what’s she’s learned about art notes and rhyme.

Thank you, Penny, for your time!

Note: When I got Johnell’s interview questions, she asked about two things — art notes and rhyme. These are two topics that come up often in the picture book writing community. And these are two topics that I had many questions about when I started writing. 

The ONLY reason I have published books, and that I think I have some insight to share, is that while I asked questions and thought about the answers, I worked on my craft. I don’t feel any advice will make much sense or help you unless you’re constantly working on and improving your craft to apply the advice.

Think about all the advice, rules, and information that we hear about writing picture books: 

  • Word count
  • Voice
  • Character development
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Pacing and page turns
  • Art notes
  • Queries
  • Arc
  • Etc.

I wouldn’t have gained understanding about any of these things, if I’d just read articles and blog posts and asked questions.

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A Shell Apart

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We made another international move recently. I gave myself permission to leave my site alone during that time and focus on the needful. We’re still clearing away the dust, but a few glimmers of time have given me space to write something that’s been on my heart.

We visited the beach near our house the night after we arrived. I still love looking for shells, so I combed the beach collecting dozens of pretty, white shells with maroon ribbings.

I soon had both hands full, but I continued to pick up any shell that caught my eye. As I went on, I became pickier–if the shell was cracked, incomplete, or looked too similar to ones I already had, I immediately passed. I left behind a beach-full of perfect, shiny shells. I just didn’t have room to add one more of the same kind of shell to my already full pile.

I kept my eye out, though, for a different kind of shell. Eventually, I found one. It wasn’t shiny or uniform like the others, it was irregular and matte, but it drew my attention because of that. I slid my overflowing shell pile into the crook of my t-shirt so I could pick it up.

I rubbed my thumb over it–rough, not smooth, and not the usual half-clam shape at all. Because of its asymmetry, I wasn’t sure it was a complete half until I felt the smoothness of the edges–then I turned it over and gasped.

Before I finish that thought, I’ll interject something more prosaic: I was, in fact, thinking about writing as I was hunting for shells. Agents and publishers hunt through a sea of lovely stories that meet the highest of standards, but don’t have room to add another like-mannered manuscript to an already over-loaded pile of shiny, maroon shells.

So when I stumbled upon this sort of seemingly bland, but distinct shell, I could see how an agent or editor might feel when a story stands out. I just had to examine this shell–it was so different from all the others. I shifted things around so I could pick it up. And blessedly, its oddities were even more intriguing up close: it’s curved but complete shape, rough but well-suited texture, and its matte but intense color. Then when I turned it over and found the whole underside coated with glorious mother-of-pearl, I was hooked, line and sinker into its unexpected beauty. You can bet that I made room for that shell.IMG_8053

It’s my favorite shell so far. I keep it by my bed to remind me that uniqueness matters, but if your story has that spark of something special–that mother-of-pearl coating–it will become a keeper.

 

The Cat Sent My Query: And Other Cautionary Advice

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It’s true, there I was pulling up my query that I’d been marinating for a few days–re-reading, re-tweaking, resting to read again. That day was the day–I’d done everything I could think of to personalize it, tighten it, make it shine, oh, except for that one line and this word and this one …

Right in the middle of changing a word, my foster kitty decided to attack. 

The swirling icon of doom assured me that her pounce had hit the bulls eye. Once the swirl’s hypnotic effect wore off, it took all of one second to realize that my query had been sent—mid-change and without a final edit. 

At that point, I figured that all illusion of professionalism had tucked tail and fled, so I hurriedly replied back and explained that my cat had sent the query and that here’s what that line should have said and btw, “can I interview you for my site.” 

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Why Critiques Matter: And What I Learned from the ‘Slush’

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I recently had the opportunity to review more than a hundred stories in a short space of time–all from writers seeking feedback. By the time I was done, I felt like I’d had a master class on writing—I learned as much from the stories that needed work as I did from the ones that were ready. There really is no substitute for critiquing—both the giving and receiving of it.

If you belong to a group such as SCBWI or 12×12, take advantage of the critique forums. Read as many stories in a row (and the feedback) as possible—it’s like a mini slush pile. You’ll learn buckets just reading stories in all sorts of stages. And when you’re ready, return that blessing by critiquing and adding your own stories.

I remember feeling overwhelmed as a newbie to comment on the stories of other writers. I also remember feeling petrified to allow others to see my work, but my writing didn’t progress until I sought those critiques.

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Illustration Notes: To Include Or Not To Include…

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Illustration notes—the bane of a writer’s existence. There are so many conflicting opinions about illustration notes, it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, an illustration note is a quick description of what the author envisions at a certain point in the story. The notes are intended to stand in place of an illustration that might be needed in order for the reader to understand what the author intended.

An illustration note is not a play-by-play of how the author sees the characters, settings, and scenery of the story.

Here’s an example using Where the Wild Things Are:

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“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind …” [Art: Max is wearing a white wolf suit with buttons down the front and is nailing a line of tied-up clothes to his bedroom wall.]

That is a bad—scold it and send it to time out—illustration note. In fact, you DO NOT need an illustration note for that line at all. It’s perfectly fine just the way it is.

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Proofreading: How To Trick Your Brain When it Wants to Trick You.

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Picture from Pixabay

I wish I could say that I’m a proofreading genius, but alas, I make dumb mistakes daily. When I worked in PR, we had a system of proofreading each other’s writings, which was a luxury.

We’re not always in a position to get a second read on our writing before we have to send it out on a deadline of one sort or another (I’m not talking about manuscripts, you should always get multiple critiques of those). If you’re writing a post, or a query, or if you had a manuscript edited then changed something at the last minute, you still want to make sure you go over your work.

I spent an evening nit-picking, literally, my kids’ hair (you have to love those ‘lice has been found at school’ notices), then I had to sit down and nit-pick a post I’d been working on. I missed things I shouldn’t have missed.

Let’s face it, writing is just one of many roles we take on each day and some days we aren’t as fresh as others. And even if your eyes are rested, your brain fills in mistakes. So it’s possible to read something a thousand times and not catch a glaring typo. Sadly, that typo becomes brighter than the noonday sun once you click the send button on a query to your dream agent. So what can you do when you truly don’t have a second pair of eyes to proofread something that has to go out ‘right now?’

These are tricks I’ve used before:

  • Read you’re text backwards. sdrawkcab txet er’uoy deaR. This method is great for catching double spaces after periods (for those like me who grew up with word processors and can’t kick the habit), misspellings, apostrophes in places they shouldn’t be and pesky words like your and you’re. Did you catch that, in fact?
  • If not, then read your stuff upside down to.
    upside-downDid you catch the two errors above? I often don’t in my own writing. You’re, your, to, too don’t show up on spellcheck and even if you know the rule for each one, your fingers may miss a key and your brain may skip over it because it knows what you meant. If you don’t know the rules regarding the use of each one, see here: http://www.livejournal.com/resources/homonyms.bml
  • Use Find on your keyboard to catch those pesky homonyms. Ctl F for MS Word/PC Command F for Mac. Put in your, too, their, etc. and go through with the Find option to double check each one.
  • Copy the text out in long-hand. Read each word as you write it.
  • E-mail the document to yourself and read it in your email. Any change in format will help re-awaken your brain and give you a chance to catch the things you may have missed.

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Storyboarding for Picture Book Writers

IMG_1528A picture book text can paint a picture or it can set the stage for a corresponding visual story. Sort of the difference between

… and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day…” (Where the Wild Things Are)

and

In the great green room there was a telephone …” (Goodnight Moon).

The first one paints a mood that the art alone can’t tell. The second one creates an image that accompanies the text. Both are good for the story they are telling, both create a visual without taking over for the artist.

The trick, as a text-only picture book creator, is to realize that you are a visual artist. Your text needs to create moods and images word by word, sentence by sentence, and it has to do it page by page and beginning to end.

One way to set yourself up for success in this area is to storyboard. Storyboarding your text will give you visual feedback on how your text works on each page. If you have a text-heavy page, you’ve either stepped into the artist’s area, or you have too many words, or your story may not be best suited as a picture book. You also need to be aware of your page turns.

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