SCBWI Canada East Blog

April 24, 2017
April 3, 2017
Picture Book Length and Layout

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I've been working on a couple of picture book dummies but I can never remember how many spreads I can have! I usually use Debbie Ohi's templates. Although lately I've been marking down tiny boxes in my sketchbook that are literally thumbnail sized to help me explore pacing and page turns as I work through revisions. As illustrators we do have a number of options for using those pages.

Most of the hardcover books in my own collection are 40 page self-ended. I asked around various kidlit groups and have been reassured that the vast majority of picture books are 32 pages. A browse through one of my local libraries revealed very few 32 page self-ended books but many 32 page separate-ended books but 40 page picture books were definitely not a rarity. If you're not sure what I mean by self-ended, separated-ended, or endpapers there are links at the bottom of Debbie's post that explain. I also found this endpaper Q&A with Cecelia Yung by Robin Rosenthal over at PenandOink very helpful. 

My conclusion: when writing, write with 32 pages in mind. When illustrating, focus on variety, pacing, and strong page turns. 

I thought I'd share what I've dubbed my Picture Book Layout Cheat Sheet - a handy little reminder of the possible options with examples that I can refer back to. If you've found other unique or interesting layouts I'd love to hear about them.



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March 23, 2017
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Nowadays there are so many distractions that can tear us away from what we want and need to do on a daily basis, especially for those who work at home.

I’ve found social media to be a key diversion and it goes hand in hand with procrastination, which strives to be my best friend along with its buddies, resistance and avoidance.

One of the things that keeps me focused and helps me manage my time is the ‘WHY’ behind what I do. Even when I prioritize my activities for the day, this question is never far away from my thoughts.

As a writer and translator, my two main priorities -- apart from my family -- are meeting my translation and writing deadlines as well as my self-imposed writing targets. External deadlines are easier to meet so the real challenge for me is to stick to the hours I allocate toward completing my works in progress. 

It’s inevitable to run into obstacles, and I don’t just mean situations or stuff that crop up. That’s life! The way I respond is what determines how well I’ll manage my time. If I get stressed and overwhelmed very little gets done no matter how well I have scheduled my day. And it’s at times like these when I will most tend to seek distractions like social media to get me out of my funk.

Sometimes, taking a time out can save me hours of worrying. A ten-minute walk or even a good workout at the gym can do wonders, particularly when stress is wreaking havoc. It’s amazing what the mind can come up with when away from your desk or computer. Pen and paper are two of my very best friends at these times. Ideas as well as solutions to challenges flow like water when my mind is relaxed and in the moment. Mindfulness: this is a huge concept these days.   

There’s a word that comes in quite handy at times. That word is ‘No’, specifically when I need to stick to a schedule.  It’s tricky to say ‘No’ with love and firmness, especially to family, friend and even my clients. And this is when my ‘Why’ becomes important. Should I accept a translation job or work toward completing the draft of my WIP by DATE? Should I revise the draft today, as planned, or go shopping with my daughter? 

This might sound like oversimplification but managing my time properly also boils down to self-awareness. Knowing what I need to accomplish in order to have peace of mind so I can focus on what’s important is as crucial as knowing what distracts me, what triggers me and what I need to do to stay centered and productive.

  
You can find more about Ann Marie Meyers on her website - http://www.annmarie-meyers.com
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March 12, 2017
Time Management

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I have posted here many times about my lack of self discipline. Although I am by no means perfect, I have made progress and I hope to make much more. 
I realize that I am most productive when I am not at home. There are just too many distractions, even in what is supposed to be my office. I could be watching M*A*S*H *;  washing dishes; knitting another scarf; and the ever important, playing match 3 on my iPhone. 
I guess I could say I'm like my dog when he sees a squirrel. Well now that I know. And knowledge is power. 
So, I make arrangements to write with a friend. This is something new and I need to make it a habit. But it has  made me more productive and that it the goal. 
I also have a critique partner. She is amazing and patient. I am working through my first round of edits and she has been great at be gentle with her suggestions. And even better, she is open to me leaving things as is, if Iwant. We met at a SCBWI function and I feel blessed to have her in my corner. 
Finally, there is something more intangible that helps me. After a day of writing or even a half hour, I get some warm fuzzy feelings. It's another step closer to my dream. I feel more confident and feel less like a poser and more like a writer. 

No, I am not spending 6 hours a day writing. I do not have a published book. (For Now). I do not have a publisher or an agent. But I am a writer because I write. 

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February 25, 2017
Choosing the Picture Book to Query

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Choosing the Picture Book to Query 
By Beth Elliott

                  It pains me how much I agonise over what picture book manuscript to query an agent or editor with. I would like to call it strategizing, but I end up agonizing sufficiently that it really does describe my process best. Here’s how things typically unfold.
Step 1. Read everything I can about agent or editor that I am planning to submit to, who is often someone from a conference or course.
Step 2. Agonise about if we would be a good fit. Agent X really thrashed one of my pieces during the first pages reading at last year’s SCBWI conference, maybe they won’t like this manuscript, too? Publishing house Y doesn’t seem to publish books like mine, or maybe they would if the right manuscript presented itself?
Step 3. Read over my submission-ready manuscripts with the agents or editor’s likes/dislikes and ‘what they’re looking for right now’ in mind.
Step 4: Agonise some more about what may appeal to the agent or editor. They like anything that makes them laugh, so Broccoli Dude should be what I query with. BUT, they have a new baby girl so Your Dance may resonate with them, and I think it’s my most compelling story.
Step 5: Read over my submission-ready manuscripts again.
Step 6: Agonise some more. Suzy from critique group #1 keeps telling me how she cannot get the main character from Broccoli Dude out of her head. But Collette loves The Dance. To really complicate things, Myrna in critique group #2 thinks my in-progress, The Cover-Up, is my best work yet. But the submission deadline is in two weeks and it won’t be ready by then!
Step 7: Sleep on it.
Step 8: Have a glass of wine and re-read all of my best manuscripts again.
Step 9: Just make a decision already and hit send. Finally, now the agonizing can stop! Or can it?
Step 10: Agonise about why the submission process is always so agonizing. I suppose it is because I care. And I should care. But as Elizabeth Gilbert shares in Big Magic–lighten up! I take my writing seriously. It’s really important. But it’s not. The world will keep turning and my life will march on even if I, despite my best efforts, make the wrong choices about what story to query with. Gilbert’s words help remind me to travel through my really important writing journey with a lighter stride.
                  Something shared by an author (I cannot remember who) during a writing podcast that I listened to a few years ago also stuck with me: write stuff, then share it. Get it out there. No one will read it and certainly no one will buy it if it sits on my computer. Even though I may not send just the right manuscript to just the right agent or editor, at least it’s ‘out there’. And who knows, maybe one of these times just the right manuscript will get into just the right hands, and all that agonizing will have been worth it.
Beth Elliott writes, blogs and agonises about picture books from her home in Ottawa (www.bethelliottwriter.com).


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February 21, 2017
Getting the Most Out of a Conference

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Reworked illustration based on feedback received during the 2016 conference.

The May SCBWI Canada East conference is still 3 months away but I’m already making preparations. Are you attending? Undecided? Either way, ask yourself this question: What do you want to get out of a conference?

  • For my first conference I wanted to enjoy the experience, learn as much as I could, and get a feel for how my art would be received.
  • Last year my goal was to get as much feedback as possible on my illustration and writing as well as to learn what needs improvement in my art.
  • My goals for the conference in May? Practice my networking skills, receive further feedback, reconnect, share, & give back

Knowing what you want to get out of a conference will help you decide when choosing between conferences or between streams/workshops when registering. As a writer/illustrator I often struggle choosing between the author sessions or illustrator workshops. Wouldn’t it be great to be in two places at once?

To ensure you achieve your goals I recommend turning them into specific & SMART goals. Yes, I actually sit down & write it out!

Here’s mine from last year:
    • Gain as much feedback as possible by:
      • entering a portfolio with PB Dummy,
      • purchasing portfolio review & ask about areas for improvement
      • Purchasing a manuscript review using a different manuscript,
      • entering first pages session using a third manuscript
    • Reconnect & Make new connections by:
      • taking & sharing sketchnotes (this is a great conversation starter!)
      • participate in sketchcrawl

I got a lot out of the conference last year but I think I would have gotten even more from it had I taken the time to repeat this exercise for my portfolio review. With only 15 minutes, coming prepared with questions would have been helpful for myself and the art director.

The same illustration in my 2016 portfolio with it's ho hum background. 


There are things you can start doing now to reach your conference goals. Especially for illustrators!

What can you do now?
    • Start preparing manuscripts, portfolios, & dummies (if you don’t regularly update your portfolio, now is the time to review - cut your weakest pieces, make note of what you want to add to your portfolio - this might mean revising an older piece, adding in new works already completed, or planning new works that might be good portfolio pieces)
    • Networking - calculate when you’ll need to order business cards/postcards
    • Anticipate time needed to complete pre-conference assignments for illustration workshop! Starting your other conference preparations now will give you more time once the assignment is sent out.
    • Make note of the deadlines!
    • Have a look at other resources available on conference preparation (google 'conference preparation SCBWI).


Please comment with any other tips or advice!


My redesigned business card.

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February 12, 2017
What is Querying

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What it’s not:
You can find terrific advice on the internet with plenty of Dos and Don’ts and a plethora of advice on the mechanics of a good query letter.
Mechanics
See here:
also here for agents to query: http://www.agentquery.com/

The mindset you need for the long game.

Do:
Learn. Learn. Learn. Find out everything you can from industry professionals about the format of a good query letter. queryshark
Research. Research. Research. Check out sites like agentquery and/or Publishers Weekly to gain a sense of who might like the kind of work you produce.
Write that query.
“Be brief.” Alethea Kontis
“Be upbeat.”
Be professional.
Find some distance from your work. The emotions and investment required to write well mean that we grow attached to our creations. Find a way to put some space in between your manuscript and your ego. Let is cool. Then take on a clerical persona when submitting. Wear a different hat if you must! "Put your heart in the writing but put your head in the selling."  Helene Boudreau.

Send your manuscript out. I know . . . it’s tempting to hide your masterpiece so that it never runs the risk of rejection. That’s the safe option, and you can take it. But, as author Sidney Salter said to me once, “Then nothing happens.”
I once read a many-times-submitted manuscript in a critique circle and mentioned that I was tempted to tuck it in a desk drawer. Lucky for me, my writing friend Michelle Jodoin said, “The only thing you should do with that manuscript is tuck it in an envelope and put a stamp on it.” I did, and it found a home.

Lean on friends. Anytime we hope, we are vulnerable. And I’m going to assume that you are hoping an editor or agent will fall in love with your writing. Nobody says it’s easy to wait and bite your knuckles while you bide your time, wondering if your labor of love will be embraced. Draw support from others who know exactly what nervousness you are suffering. This advice goes for both the waiting period and the
Remember the long game.
Persistence is the key to a robust, long-lived career. Jane Yolen, prolific writer and encourager extraordinaire, often posts on Facebook when she receives rejections. How heartening! Even Jane receives rejections. “Not the right editor,” says Jane, and she moves on.
Nikki Grimes, who just won the  Award for her body of work, posted on Facebook that she is glad she didn’t let all those rejection letters stop her.
Don’ts
Don’t take rejection personally. Don’t make a “no” answer the definitive judgment on your ability as a write. Jane Yolen.

Don’t stop.
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February 7, 2017
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Hey SCBWIers
Peggy Collins, one of our amazing illustrators and SCBWI Canada East Volonteers, has shared a great link for all of us to use to prepare for a conference. 
I know quite a few writers and Illustrators are going to New York and/or coming to the Canada East Conference this Spring. 
Read this article and increase your chances of success. 


Have fun and don't quit five minutes before the miracle happens. 
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February 3, 2017
To query, or not to query.

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So. You’ve written a book. You’ve sat in front of the computer and poured your heart and soul into the screen for hours upon hours until blood dripped from your fingertips. You’ve typed those magical words, the words every writer yearns to type: THE END. Congratulations! Now, you’re ready to send it out into the world. You’re ready to query!

Or are you?

I’m going to tell you a hard truth: nobody is really ready to query when they start querying. I definitely wasn’t. And it took a couple few dozen or more manuscripts, and a couple of years of querying too soon, before I WAS ready to query.

So, how do you know when you’re ready to query your manuscript?

First, I’m going to lay out some ground rules. Think of these as general guidelines – basic requirements. These are the boxes that every writer needs to check off before even CONSIDERING querying.

1: You’ve researched comparative titles. You’ve gone to the library and read a dozen or more books that are similar to your manuscript – in theme, in target audience (which is more specific than age range), in topic, in tone. You know exactly which area of the bookstore your book would sit in, and you know which books are already on that shelf. You know where your book fits into the current marketplace, and you know what your book offers that other books don’t.
2: You’ve read through your manuscript and looked for plot holes, characterization problems, issues with the story arc, weaknesses in the treatment of setting, info dumping, and poor sentence structure, and you’ve revised it AT LEAST once (but probably more like two to five times). You’ve made sure that this story says what you mean it to say.
3: You’ve joined a critique group, or found some other writers (NOT friends!) with whom you’ve agreed to swap manuscripts for feedback, and had your manuscript read by these people. You have listened to their feedback, and you’ve revised your manuscript again AT LEAST once (but probably more like two to five times). You’ve checked that this story still says what you mean it to say.
4: If this is a story with characters in it who represent an underrepresented group, you have had AT LEAST ONE (but probably more like two to five) member of that community read it and advise you on stereotypes and other elements of representation. The industry term for this is a sensitivity read. (I think everyone should do this – even if you are a member of the underrepresented group you’re writing about, you should have other people within that group read it. No cultural group is a monolith, and different people have different perspectives and experiences.) You’ve checked that this story still says what you mean it to say.
5: You’ve proofread your manuscript. You’ve also checked that it’s formatted properly, with page numbers and all that jazz.

Okay, so, you’ve done all that stuff. How do you know if you’re ready to query?

This might sound counterintuitive, but I’ve found that the best way to know if you’re ready to query is to write the query.

There are a bunch of GREAT resources out there on how to write a query. I’m not going to get into it here, because this is already a long post. (Google is your friend, folks!) But the best summary I have ever heard is this: a good query should read like cover copy. Which means that if you own any books at all, you have a whole bunch of examples of good queries right there in your own home. Or, you can go to the bookstore. (I recommend the bookstore over the library, because you really need to find books that were published within the last five years.) Spend an hour or so reading those enticing paragraphs on the backs or the inside cover flaps and trying not to blow your monthly budget. Then, go home, google “writing queries”, and write one for your book.

Now. Now you’re ready to find out if your book is ready to query!

Look at the query you wrote and ask yourself these questions. Better yet, give it to your critique group, and ask them:

1: Are the stakes clear? Are they high? If you can’t write a clear sentence summarizing the stakes, it’s probably because you’re muddy on what they are in the manuscript. Go back and revise your book. And if the stakes aren’t HIGH STAKES, then your book is probably boring and you need to revise it. High stakes don’t actually have to BE life or death, but they should FEEL that way to the main character and, by extension, the reader.
2: Is the main character’s goal clear? The same rule applies here as in the question about the stakes. If you can’t write a one-sentence statement about your MC’s goal, then either you have too many plot threads going on, or the goal is muddy in the manuscript. Go back and revise – weed where you need to, clarify where you need to.
3: Is the language specific? There should be no phrases like, “average kid” or “save the world” or “his life gets turned upside down”. These are the word equivalent of stock photos – they’re fine in the frame at the store, but when you get home, you throw them away and replace them with something that is more interesting and that has meaning to you. Your query needs to have meaning for the agent reading it, and that means you have to be able to tell them specific things about your MC and their problems. What makes your MC tick? What is her greatest fear? Her greatest need? Be specific. If you can’t, then you need to revise your manuscript, because that is where these specifics should be coming from.
4: Does the voice come through? Does it sound unique? Does it match the book? If your query reads like a copy of the dictionary or an instruction manual, fix it. But also, go back through your manuscript and make sure it doesn’t have the same problem. Voice is a tricky thing, and it takes time to develop a strong voice. Give it the time.
5: Have I researched the agents I’m planning to send this to? Do not make the mistake of querying every agent in the world of Children’s Literature. Do your research: find out which agents represent your genre, which agents have a working style that you like, which agents are taking on new clients. Get on Query Tracker. Do your homework. People who don’t do their agent research end up pissing off agents, and you don’t want to do that, ever.

Okay, you’ve asked yourself all those questions. The answer to all of them is, YES! You are ready to query!

No.

No, you are not. There is still one more thing you need to ask yourself. It is the hardest thing that any writer ever has to ask.

The question is this: Does this manuscript meet the standard set by other, already published work?

Another version of this question is: When I read this, are there any niggles squirreling away at the back of my mind?

Look: you know what a good book sounds like. Your bookshelves are lined with them. You’ve spent your entire reading life subconsciously soaking up the nuances of language, and rhythm, and storytelling. if those niggles are there -- if you have any doubt, any nagging feeling at all that something might be wrong – then it probably is. Find it, fix it, let the manuscript sit for two weeks or more. While you wait for those two weeks to go by, read a WHOLE BUNCH of really good books. Remind your literary palate of what good books sound like, of the shape of a solid story arc. Take your manuscript out and read it again. Wait. See if the niggles come back.

When the niggles are all gone, when your critique partners have nothing more to say, when your manuscript is absolutely the best that you can make it: then, and only then, are you ready to query.

NOW: the journey isn’t over. Here’s how querying usually goes: in the beginning, you get a lot of form rejections. If you send out ten queries and get nothing but form rejections, revise again. If you get requests for pages, but then those pages get form rejections, definitely revise again. If you get requests, and those requests garner personalized rejections that are all saying the same thing, guess what? Yup. Revise again.

All of this takes time. That’s okay. Let it take the time. Remember that publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember that you only get better as you go along. Keep writing, keep revising, and don’t give up.

Good luck.


Ishta Mercurio is an actor, author, dog lover, and homeschooling mom. Bite Into Bloodsuckers, a non-fiction book about vampire bats and mosquitoes and other blood drinkers of all shapes and sizes, is nominated for the Red Maple Non-Fiction Award and is available now. She is represented by Laura Biagi, of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency.
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