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  • Utility Words—Useful but Vague

    In WRITE A MARKETABLE CHILDREN’S BOOK IN 7 WEEKS, we advise writers to replace utility words with more concrete language that appeals to one of the five senses. What is a utility word? These are words we use a lot—wonderful, beautiful, good, bad, great, fine, and things. Unfortunately, they don’t enhance one’s prose.

    They tell us nothing really. They are vague and weak. Useful, yes. Effective, no. They will not impress a busy editor. Utility words will not make your book manuscript stand out from the others piled on an editor’s desk.

    Consider this sentence: Tommy could tell by the funny look on his mother’s face that she was mad.

    Can you picture the expression on Mom’s face? Probably not—words like funny and mad are utility words, but they aren’t very clear or concrete.

    Rewrite it using more specific diction: Tommy could tell by the (stern, scowling, stiff, pinched) expression on Mom’s face that she was (annoyed, angry, disappointed, furious).

    Look at this sentence: Penny had a nice birthday party with lots of cool games and fun food.

    The utility words nice, cool and fun may be suitable for an every day conversation, but not in a book manuscript. What made the birthday party nice? What kind of games did the kids play? Did Penny serve pizza or make-your-own ice cream sundaes? Editors love details. So do kids who read books. 

    You’re becoming a wordsmith now. Make every word count!

  • 10 MORE Battle Strategies for Combating Page Fright

            As I mentioned in a previous blog about page fright, most writers—at one time or another—find themselves facing a blank page or screen, wondering what to write next. Sometimes this unnerving experience happens at the beginning of a new writing project. Where to begin, you wonder? Other times it may happen in the middle of a work-in-progress. You ask yourself, now what? Where do I go from here? No matter what you do you just can’t seem to concentrate. Here are 10 MORE simple strategies that will help you get back in the writing groove.

    (1)   Clean out your file cabinet—sort, pitch, alphabetize. Catch up on filing. This is a time-honored activity that people other than writers have used for decades—some to avoid working and others to stimulate their thought processes.  I find that spending ten or fifteen minutes looking through file folders is a good way to jump-start my writing day.

    (2)   Sit in on a children’s story hour at your local library. Watch the kids as they listen to the story. If that doesn’t motivate you to finish that picture-book-in-progress, nothing will.

    (3)   While you’re at the library, take time to browse through the kids’ magazine section. Get acquainted with the various publications aimed at today’s youngsters—other than Highlights for Children. Then, go to the magazine section for adults. Peruse old issues of Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Good Housekeeping. Even Godey’s Lady’s Book, if they have it. I’ve often found new writing ideas by doing so.

    (4)   Start a collection of interesting names for characters. I did so for years, writing down first and last names that intrigued me. Many were the names of long-deceased relatives of my friends. When it was time to come up with a name for the old-fashioned ghostly character in my juvenile novel, Grampa and the Ghost, I flipped through the index cards in the file box and selected the names Tallulah and Farquar.

    (5)   Read a good book.

    (6)   Read a bad book and rewrite it or one of the chapters.

    (7)   Write a tantalizing paragraph or two about the photo or illustration on your wall calendar.

    (8)   Take a writing course online or through your community college or by correspondence, such as those offered by the Institute of Children’s Literature. That way, the instructor will hold you responsible for producing.

    (9)   Go on a shopping spree—for writer’s supplies: pens, notebooks, index cards, ink cartridges. 

    (10) Intimidated by that blank computer screen? Begin your writing efforts on a user-friendly tablet instead, perhaps in a soothing color like lavender or peach.

  • Are You Real?

             As the author of more than twenty children’s books and three romance novels, I am often asked to speak in classrooms, libraries, and at writing conferences. I am still slightly disconcerted whenever I overhear a child whisper, “She doesn’t look like a writer, does she?”
            What does that mean?  I’ve wondered.
             And it’s not just children who have these odd, preconceived notions of authors. Adults are also guilty. More than once, when I’ve mentioned that my byline has appeared in a wide variety of magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Mountain Living, Woman’s Day, and New Mexico Magazine, I’ve seen my inquisitor’s eyes glaze over with disinterest. He’ll shrug and say, “But real writers write books.”
            I have written books, I counter. Dozens of them.  Random House and Simon & Schuster have published many of them, I am quick to mention.
            “Have any of them made the New York Times bestseller list?”  I’m usually asked.
            No, I admit, but Lewis & Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President and Tentacles! Tales of the Giant Squid have both sold more than 200,000 copies each.
            “Oh, children’s books,” he says with a dismissive sneer. Read More

  • Woe is Me—Another Rejection Letter

    Writers know that rejection letters are part of the business, and we try to brace ourselves for them. The worst kind is the impersonal form letter or card that reads—

    Dear Author,

    Thank you for thinking of Only the Best Publishing, but your manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. We wish you success in placing it elsewhere.

    The Editors

    The form rejection letter is discouraging because if offers no suggestions for improvement. However, it may soothe your hurt feelings to remember that rejections only go to those who submit manuscripts, so you are further along than when you hadn’t submitted at all. That probably doesn’t help, so try this one—highly successful authors like Dr. Seuss and Madeleine L”Engle got the same treatment. Madeleine L”Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME was turned down 29 times. It’s rare for writers to sell their first submissions, and even if they do, it’s rare for them to sell all submissions thereafter. Only writers who persevere become successful authors with multiple sales.

    How much do you love writing? How much do you want to be published? The trite, but true answer to how to handle rejections is “Don’t give up.” I submitted 16 manuscripts to Random House before they bought my first book, Man o’ War, Best Racehorse Ever. All those rejections taught me a lot about craft and marketability.

    “Not right for our list,” that catch-all phrase of rejections, can mean many things. Read More

  • Beware These Grammar Boo Boos

    On page 75 of our workbook, Write a Marketable Children’s Book in 7 Weeks, we mention the importance of checking one’s manuscript for spelling and grammar errors. As competitive as the writing world is, one can’t afford to be careless with one’s writing, particularly when submitting a manuscript to an editor. I’ve heard editors state that if they find spelling errors on the first page of a submission, they automatically reject the manuscript. Another editor at a large book publisher company said he ticks off any grammar errors and once he reaches three, he reads no further. He said he doesn’t need to. After all, he has an overwhelming slush pile and knows he’ll find a better manuscript in the pile somewhere.

    Grammar is a three-headed beast that terrorizes victims in the following three areas:

    • punctuation and spelling,
    • diction,
    • syntax.

    Many writers resent having to contend with grammar at all and accuse editors of being “too picky.”

    But consider this—the main goal of coming to grips with grammar is:

    • To avoid awkwardness- Example: Being different from the next person in the crowd to make that person really stand out more is the greatest achievement a person could give himself.
    • To avoid ambiguity- Example: How do I talk to my kids about sex when I’ve never done it before?
    • To avoid inaccuracy- Example: They finished building the incontinental railroad across the United States in 1869.
    • To avoid embarrassment- Example: Announced from the PA system at a St. Louis high school: “Will the basketball team please report to the gym to have your photograph retaken. In the first photo, your balls were cut off. Read More
  • Writing Great Picture Books

    I enjoy reading picture books for the fun of it, the art, and to analyze what makes a good story. I would love to master the craft of writing wonderful picture books that become beloved favorites of children. From researching and reading the masters, I’ve learned that most of the factors below are in stories that stay in our hearts.

    A good picture book:  

    • Offers a creative approach or imaginative take on something common. 
    • Has at least one engaging, fully formed character that grabs my heart. 
    • Has a theme that is woven in naturally.
    • Has a plot that pulls me along. 
    • Flows in logical order.
    • Strikes a universal cord that children and adults respond to.
    • Uses vibrant language and natural dialogue.
    • Feels good on the tongue to read—lyrical language, rhythm, rhyme, patterns, repetition.
  • 7 Habits of Dismally Failing Writers

    Many of you may be familiar with Stephen Covey’s bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He recommends that if you want to be a winner—in anything you pursue—you need to:

    (1)   be proactive
    (2)   begin with the end in mind
    (3)   put first things first
    (4)   always think win/win
    (5)   first understand then strive to be understood
    (6)   synergize
    (7)   sharpen the saw emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally.

    After years of listening to wanna-be writers whine about their reasons for not succeeding, I’ve noted 7 things most losers have in common, besides their lack of perseverance. Believe it or not, their failure usually has nothing to do with their lack of writing talent or skill. Here they are—the 7 Habits of Dismally Failing Writers: Read More