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Book Reviews: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Authors + Illustrators, Authors, CraftLindsay Ward1 Comment

Happy Thursday Critters! Today’s post is all about handling reviews: the good, the bad, and the ugly. After almost ten years in this business, I’ve received them all. Glowing reviews, a starred review, bad reviews, and reviews that ripped my heart out. And I’ve learned something from all of them. Even the really bad ones.

Obviously, the glowing ones are fantastic. They give you confidence to keep creating and putting your work out there. Readers are connecting! It’s a wonderful feeling. But the bad ones…well those can leave you feeling angry, misunderstood, defensive, and make you want to crawl into a hole. I say that having felt that way myself. But here’s the thing— not everyone will love your work. And that’s okay. Truly. I took me a long time to understand this, and it’s something I wish I had known earlier in my career. If you created something that everyone loved, I’m not sure if it would really speak to the quality of the work, right? I mean, the point of storytelling is to spark a connection with your reader. That may not be every reader. And again, that’s okay.

So here are my tips for handling reviews, whether you’ve been doing this for a while or your first book is about to come out:

  1. Be proud of the creativity you put forth.

    Be proud of what you’ve done. You’ve published a book! That’s a tremendous accomplishment. Before I send in anything, whether it’s a manuscript draft, dummy, or finished art, I always ask myself if I’m proud of what I’ve done. If the answer is yes, I send it. If I’m hesitant, then I still have things to work out. Know that once your book has come out, you were at one point incredibly proud of what you’ve done. Hold onto that as reviews begin to come in.

  2. Decide if you are going to read your reviews. Then commit to that decision.

    I have friends who refuse to read their reviews. They have no interest in reading about someone else dissecting the work they’ve created. They know what they did, they don’t need to read about it. That’s one way to handle reviews. But if you are anything like me, then you can’t help but read them. You want to know. Do you people love it? Do they hate it? Either way, commit to how you want to handle reviews. Read them or not. But once you make that decision, stick to it. Don’t second guess yourself. If you choose to read them, see my next tip. (Also, please note, I don’t mean read every single one…that’s not a good idea. Online consumer reviews, for example, can be especially frustrating. Specifically when someone gives you a one star review because they can’t figure out how to read the e-book version on their tablet…seriously.)

  3. Take every review with a grain of salt.

    When reading reviews of your work, take them with a grain of salt. Constructive criticism can be great, it can push you to develop your craft further. Find what you connect with and leave the rest. At the end of the day, it’s your work and you have to be confident in what you’re doing. I can honestly say I’ve learned something from all the reviews I’ve ever read about my work. The great ones gave me a boost of confidence to try new things. And in a weird way, so did the bad ones. Those are the ones that taught me to get back to work and keep creating. Being kicked off the horse every once in the while is not a bad thing. It forces you to grow and really consider your work. Which leads to my next tip…

  4. Push yourself.

    How can these comments, good or bad, help you grow? I look at each book as another chance to push myself. To try something new. To stretch myself in a new direction.

  5. Keep creating.

    This is the most important thing. Don’t stop creating. Certainly not because of a bad review. Keep writing. Keep drawing. Keep putting yourself out there. You are capable of wonderfully creative endeavors.

Until next time,

Happy Creating!

Lindsay

Fighting the Writing

Craft, Authors, Authors + IllustratorsLindsay WardComment

Happy Thursday Critters! Today’s craft post is all about fighting the writing.

Being Type-A, I work around a pretty structured schedule, it’s the only way I can get anything done—and I stay pretty busy between all of the plates I’m spinning on any given day. That being said, there are days, more than I would like to admit, where getting words on the page is like pulling teeth. I sit, staring at the computer screen, waiting for something brilliant to come to me, which to be honest, never does when I try to force it. The cursor blinks at me, laughing. Or so it feels…

So how do you pull yourself out of that? How do you sit down and write when it’s the last thing you want to do? The answer is pretty simple, but you’re not going to like it: YOU JUST HAVE TO WRITE THROUGH IT. Write through the fog and the self-doubt and the fear. I’m a firm believer that you have to write a bunch of crap to get to the good stuff. I wish there was a more eloquent way to say that, but I’m sorry, there’s just not. The muse is fleeting and unpredictable, but when she shows up everything suddenly clicks into place and the magic starts to happen. Getting there…well, sometimes it’s hell.

I make the mistake of self-editing while I write. I want it to be perfect the first time I do it, which as anyone who writes knows, is just ridiculous! Writing is revision and inspection and constant consideration. We write because we have too. You wouldn’t put yourself through the agony of it all if you didn’t absolutely have to do it. If it wasn’t apart of who you are, right? Otherwise, you would be miserable constantly.

For me the trick is consistency. Make a commitment to your craft. Do it every day, in some form or another. Now, I say that because I’m not someone who physically writes every day. I tend to be very cerebral with how I work. I used to beat myself up over that, feeling as though I wasn’t writing enough. Conceptually, most of the framework for my books happens in thought, not with actual pen and paper. But I make time for contemplating my work every day, usually on walks with our dog. And when I say contemplating, I don’t mean procrastinating. I mean actual problem-solving. I generally only sit down to write and/or sketch when I feel ready (unless I’m trying to force it, as previously mentioned, which is never a good idea). Sometimes that’s days…months…or years (WHEN BLUE MET EGG is a perfect example of years).

Creatively, everyone works differently. Each manuscript is its own challenge and will require flexibility in variation from you. So don’t do that thing where you go on Twitter and you read about fabulous book deals while your blank document glares at you with its oppressively, blinding light. That certainly won’t help you get to the good stuff. Nor will it inspire you. As much as I love how connective and supportive social media can be, it can also be incredibly distracting and isolating. You have to learn to tune out the white noise. Which I realize is a lot easier said than done. Whether that white noise is you, your peers, or the internet, find a way to unplug and focus on the work.

So now that I’ve told you to make a commitment to your craft, I’m also going to tell you to take a break from it. Often. Creative work, and life for that matter, is all about balance. But it’s really easy to throw yourself off balance and continue stumbling around without even realizing it’s happening. So make time to get away. Experience the world. See new things. Spend time with loved ones. Read a book! Whether it’s for a ten-minute walk or month-long vacation, just step away. I can’t stress the importance of getting out of your own head and re-charging enough.

I’m a list person. They give me a sense of control and accomplishment in my busy life. Which, I know, sounds silly, but it’s oh so true. So I’m going to suggest this: write down your commitments. Your commitment to your craft and to taking a break. How much time will you allow yourself for both? Make a note of that. Then try to stick with it. I find that writing it down makes it more important and real. Preferably in a place where you can see it, first thing, every day.

I know how easy it is for life to get in the way. Day jobs, relationships, kids— they all require precious amounts of your time. But if you are really serious about writing (and/or illustrating) you have to make time for it amidst everything else. Because you have to. It’s what you are passionate about, right?

So go out there and write some good stuff!

Until next time…

Happy Writing!

Lindsay


What’s up on deck? Tune in next week for an interview with author/illustrator and art director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Lucy Ruth Cummins!

The Subtle Art of Pagination

Craft, Authors + Illustrators, AuthorsLindsay Ward3 Comments

Hello Critters! This week’s craft post is all about pagination, something that I think can make or break a picture book. All great picture books demonstrate a strong grasp of pacing, which is ultimately determined through the final pagination of the text and development of the manuscript itself.

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Take, for example, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Maurice Sendak has some seriously long, run-on sentences in that book that would even give Nathaniel Hawthorne a run for his money. But it doesn’t matter, because Sendak is a genius. He understood that it wasn’t the structure of the sentence that mattered so much as how he broke it up amongst the pages. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is the greatest picture book of all time for many reasons, but pagination is a big part of that. Sendak breaks sentences in the middle, straddling them across the pages throughout the book, not necessarily in conjunction with the punctuation. In 1963, that was pretty revolutionary for a picture book. Even today, I rarely see authors do that without an ellipsis.

I remember the first time I re-read WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE as adult. On the final page, the text reads “and it was still hot.” The line is in reference to Max’s dinner, which we know Max’s mother sends him to bed without in the beginning of the story. The pagination of this line is brilliant. It’s the perfect ending. It leaves the reader wondering how much time has actually passed? Did Max really leave? So many questions arise from this simple collection of words. It’s satisfying, and yet leaves us wanting to know more. It allows the reader to understand that even at our worst, there is still love. Max misbehaves and lets his inner monster out, but it doesn’t change his mother’s unconditional love for him.

Sometimes I wonder what Ursula Nordstrom, Sendak’s editor, thought of his manuscript the first time she saw it. I imagine it would have looked a bit like a short paragraph. The entire book is only made up of 10 sentences, totaling about 338 words. But it’s how Sendak broke those 10 sentences that created such dynamic pacing and anticipation for the reader.

For me, pagination is a feeling. I sit down with my manuscript and read it aloud to myself over and over and over again. I like to test raw manuscripts out on my three-year-old too. I’m always surprised by the lines or details he connects with instantly. As I read, I make a mental note of all the places I naturally pause in my speech to formulate or process the next set of words. Those pauses become part of my timing. I also note any hiccups I come across. Places where I stumble over my own words, or find myself self-editing as I read them aloud. Those are sections that still need revision work, which I finesse until I no longer struggle with them. The placement of one word can make all the difference.

I can’t stress enough the importance of reading your work aloud, whether it’s to yourself or a group. It’s the easiest, fastest way to hear issues in your manuscript. You have to understand how your words sound together when read aloud. It’s absolutely impearative as a picture book author.

Once I feel like the text is in great shape, I consider the reveal. I think of the page turn as a curtain on a stage. Every time the reader turns the page, I’m pulling back the curtains. Showing them what’s coming next. It’s my job to get them excited about turning that page. This is where pagination really helps. As an illustrator, I have the advantage of visualizing the illustrations as I do this, which is incredibly helpful. However, if you are an author-only, practicing and understanding how to paginate your own text will help your writing tremendously. It forces you to really look at your pacing and how it works in relation to your story.

Here’s a great exercise to try for this:

Print out three copies of your manuscript. Paginate each manuscript differently. Cut up the text and paste/tape them down inside of a dummy mock-up. You can use copy paper stapled together for this. Read each version aloud and see how the pagination has changed the pacing of your story. Is there a version you gravitate towards? A version that surprised you? A version that clarified a problem area for you? Usually one pagination will just feel right when you read it aloud.

Generally, if you are an author-only, you most likely won’t need to paginate your own text, the editor or illustrator will do that. BUT, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn to do it and get so darn good at it that it becomes second nature. It will only help you improve as a writer and storyteller.

Until next time, happy paginating!

Lindsay


What's up on deck? Tune in next week for an interview with picture book author Anika Denise!

Get That Raccoon Off the Table: Why Voice Matters in Picture Books

Authors, Authors + Illustrators, CraftLindsay Ward2 Comments

Sometimes I think one of the hardest parts of my job as a children’s book author is to keep my own voice in check when I’m writing. I’m constantly asking myself, would a kid say that? I think this is one of the reasons that creating a strong voice is incredibly difficult. We, as children’s book authors and illustrators, have this wonderful task to create meaningful literary experiences for children. We get to introduce them to new places, experiences, and voices. But in doing so create a new challenge for ourselves. How do we keep our own feelings, opinions, and reactions out of the voices in our books? How do you write a character that can make their own decisions, without your bias?

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t write your own experiences into a character. Obviously writers do that all the time. I myself do it. But what I’m talking about are the characters we write that aren’t us, who have an entirely different experience than we had, intentionally. It’s our job to offer up a fully developed voice in the context of the world we’ve created for them. And that’s no easy feat! 

Many times, I have read manuscripts where I see authors infiltrate the text. A character starts saying or doing something that seems odd or inconsistent with what we know about them. It’s really easy to let yourself slip in under the radar without realizing it. I've done this many times. For me, it’s not until I read the words aloud that I can catch myself and make the correction. To avoid this, I try to get to know my characters as best I can so they become fully independent from me.

I start by determining who they are. What are their likes? Dislikes? Hobbies? What is their environment? Who surrounds them? What do they care most about? Least about? How do they fit within the story I'm trying to tell? The list goes on and on. I make an entire character chart with this information. Keep in mind I write picture books. I don’t write novels. But I try to approach my characters as if I do.

I can tell you that Dexter T. Rexter’s favorite ice cream is Mint Chip, with rainbow sprinkles. I’ve never used this detail about him in any of the Dexter books, but I’ve spent enough time getting to know him, writing and rewriting him, that I know without a doubt, he's Mint Chip all the way. This may sound silly. But there is a method to the madness. The more you know your characters the better you will be able to write them and, in my case, draw them, independent of yourself.

When I sit down to write Dexter’s voice, I don’t even feel like I’m writing anymore. It’s as if he’s sitting beside the computer, telling me what to type, and I'm simply listening. He's very indecisive, neurotic, and slightly bossy because that’s just who he is. It isn’t so much that I can hear his voice when I'm writing, but I can hear the pacing, syntax, and structure of how he would speak. I know immediately if he would or wouldn't say something and if he would, how he would deliver it. Which takes time to develop with a character. I’m three books in with Dexter and I’m still learning things about him.

Age is equally important in developing voice too. Especially when you write for kids. You need to understand the age group you are writing for. How old are they? Where are they cognitively and behaviorally? What is challenging for them? How can they connect with your story? If you’ve written a character, who's supposed to be four years old, but acts and talks like an adult, then you aren’t paying attention to age and you won’t connect with your readers.

Before I had kids, I wrote about my experiences as a kid. I am an only child, so my voice seeped into my work. When Blue Met Egg is my love letter to New York City, after living there one summer during college. I was inspired to write Please Bring Balloons because my parents met painting carousels at an amusement park. This worked for me then because that was the point. I was trying to speak to the type of kid that I was. My early books are all about adventure and escapism because that's what I loved to read about as a child.

But now, it’s become more about being a witness, than first hand experience. I’m watching my kids see the world for the first time. And in doing so, I’m seeing things in ways I haven't since I was a child. As an adult it's really easy to forget how small moments can be so impactful when you're young. I find myself writing about their experiences as I witness them unfold. My books have become more and more voice driven, because those are the type of books that make my kids laugh and connect.

Recently, I was reading Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, (the same creators of Dragons Love Tacos) with my oldest son, who’s three. He loves that book. The first time I read it to him, I thought, I don’t get this. Why does he think this is so funny? And then it dawned on me. Duh! It’s silly. There isn’t anything to get. That’s the point. It’s a ridiculous book about a raccoon who loves pizza but rarely gets to have any because he’s always being chased off by the pizza man wielding a menacing broom. Thus the Raccoon Sniffing Broom Bots. I could continue the synopsis…but you should probably just read Secret Pizza Party because it is silly, ridiculous, and your kids will love it. The narrator's voice is written in a way that not only makes my son laugh, but it makes me laugh too because phrases like 'sweet sassy molassy' are hilarious. If that doesn't make you laugh when you read it, then I don't know what will. When driving to get pizza recently, my son shouted "GET THAT RACCOON OFF THE TABLE!" I couldn’t stop laughing. It was random and completely out of the blue. Just like Secret Pizza Party. And I knew exactly what he was talking about when he said it. 

My son also sings the Dexter song constantly (so much so there are days I regret writing it in the first place.) He doesn't understand that I wrote Don't Forget Dexter, or even the song for that matter. He doesn’t care. He’s three. But he’s my barometer now. He's in my target age group. If he likes it, then I must be doing something right. Right?

I mean isn’t that the ultimate test? Not how much you love your work? That's easy. But a kid. A real, live kid, who doesn’t get caught up in the bias. They just like it because they like it. It makes them laugh. Or think. Or feel connected. They are seeing your book for the first time, fresh and new, absorbing everything you have to offer them. And that's the best part about this job. Writing a book that a kid wants to read over and over again and becoming apart of their reading experience with their family.

I have read Secret Pizza Party more times that I can count. It's got 'pizza' and 'party' in the title. This book was always going to go over well with my son (who loves pizza). But the narrator's voice is what really sells it. It's the way the narrator tells Raccoon's story, empathizing with Raccoon's plight in life (lack of pizza), while pointing out the humor of it all. Kids connect with Raccoon. They get him. They are him. Because voice matters. Always.

So go out there and write some amazing voices. 

Until next time, happy writing!

Lindsay

What's Up On Deck? Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse Blog Tour Stops by Critter Lit! Check back next Thursday to read my interview with debut author Marcy Campbell.