Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday Hiatus

It was harder to blog over the holidays than I expected. We went to my in-laws in CT and then to my parents in the Berkshires. My son, true to form, threw his guts up in the car. (And my husband, true to form, let the F word fly). I somehow couldn't concentrate enough to write, though I did manage to read 500 pages of my new Wally Lamb book, The Hour I First Believed. I purchased this book on the author's name alone without any idea of what the novel was about, so I was a caught off guard when I found that the narrator and his wife are teachers at Columbine at the time of the shootings. Can you write historic fiction about an event that happened less than a decade ago? Apparently, you can.

I hope to get back to regular blogging this week. In the meantime, if any of you want to try a JOP (a "junk on paper" writing exercise), go to Becky's site.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hop! Plop! - Life of a Picture Book, Part III - Labor Pains (a.k.a. The Contract)

Okay, I know I am stretching this metaphor a bit too far. But I am already entrenched.

We sent Hop! Plop! out to publishers in the fall of '02. It was late Sept, 13 months since we had come up with the idea. It might have gone out sooner, but it had been a crazy year. I had gotten engaged, pregnant, and married, in that order. (I was 36, so I figured "why wait?") Then, at the end of July, in my 22nd week of pregnancy, I lost the baby. I was devastated.

Subbing Hop! Plop! was a way to try to get my life going again. Our manuscript went out to a half a dozen carefully researched publishers, and the waiting game began. It turned out that my friend, Katie, had a friend, Beth, at Walker. By November, I got the scoop that Walker was interested.

I was desperate to get pregnant again. My life consisted of the following:

1) Peeing to a stick to see if I was ovulating
2) Checking the mail
3) Checking answering machine
4) Checking AOL
5) Peeing on a stick to see if I was pregnant
6) More checking the mail, voice mail, and email
7) Repeating steps 1-6

It was not a great way to live. Because I had been expecting a baby in Dec, I was underemployed, with far too much time on my hands. I tried to write, but I was anxious and depressed and didn't get much done. One by one other rejections trickled in till all my eggs were in the Walker basket. I continued to hound Katie who hounded Beth, but all I could get was "We are still interested, but because Corey is a no-name author, we don't want to make an offer till we have secured a very established illustrator. But she shouldn't get her hopes up. It can always fall through. " How long could it take to sign on an illustrator? Month after month passed. No pregnancy. No contract.

I tried to imagine what the phone call would be like. "Hi, this is Beth Marhoffer. I'm calling to offer you a contract." Would I scream? Jump up and down?

In the end, it came by email. Tali had just walked out my door. I went to my computer and there it was. A note from Beth. I ran to try to catch Tali by the elevator but I had missed her. I called her on her cell and got her in my lobby. She came back up and we screamed together. I felt joyful for the first time in months.

The contract came on June 9th. Three days later, I went for IUI and conceived my daughter, Jordan.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


When my son was two, my husband went to pick him up from the babysitter at the gym and was informed, "Your son dropped something and said 'F*ck it.'" We were embarrassed, but not terribly shocked. My husband curses whenever someone vomits all over the place which is fairly often at our house. I, too, have been guilty of letting some bad words slip out now and then. We vowed to be more careful, but we were relatively unfazed. "It could be worse," we told each other. You might be thinking, "What could be worse than the F word?" Well, I'll tell you.

Today, my son, who is now three and half, went on his first play date without me. His friend Emily's mom picked him up at school and brought him over to her house. I got a phone call. Josh apparently told Emily's housekeeper, "I don't like your dark face."

I am completely mortified. I have no idea why he would say or even think anything like that. We don't live in a particularly diverse part of NJ, but he visits Manhattan regularly. He takes Spanish classes. He has his own Obama T-shirt.

We will certainly be reading The Skin You Live In tonight!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Picture Book Swap, Anyone?

I've only been blogging for a month, but I have already met tons of cool people. One example is Aaron Zenz over at Bookie Woogie. I had visited his blog, but it wasn't until he left me a comment here that I investigated further and discovered that he is the author and illustrator of The HICCUPotamus. If anyone read my post on one way to make a picture book stand out, you will see immediately why I love this book!

There once was a hippopotamus
Who hiccupped quite-a-lotamus.
And every time he got-emus...
He'd fall upon his bottomus.

Could anything be sillier or Seussier than that?

I went to order it and found that it wasn't available anywhere. I contacted Aaron and he explained that the original publisher went out of business, but it will be re-released by Marshall Cavendish in the fall of '09. Great news! But, I couldn't wait that long. (I'm a lot like a three year old in many respects.) So, I asked Aaron if he had a copy at home that he could send me. That's when he had the fabulous suggestion of a book swap.

We're dropping signed copies of our books in the mail to each other this week. That got me thinking... anyone else interested in swapping picture books?

P.S. Guess who I will be purchasing my next piece of picture book art from?

Friday, December 12, 2008

How We Get a First Draft Started

I tend to have writer's block around 364 days out of the year. On my one good day, I'll get a decent idea for a picture book. It doesn't just pop into my head. It comes from a brainstorming session with whoever is my current writing partner. Right now, that's Becky. We throw out ideas until one resonates with both of us. This can take forever because Becky and I are very different. (Becky voted for McCain-Palin... enough said?)

But even after we have a solid idea, we often have trouble getting the first few lines down. This is where JOPs come in handy. JOP stands for "junk on paper'. Becky and I set a timer for ten minutes and each just free write. We write whatever comes into our head without censoring. This is super hard for me, but I just tell myself that I am not going to show it to her when I am done. When time's up, we compare notes. One of us almost always ends up with something that we can use as a jumping board.

There is something about having a short time limit that forces me to ignore that annoying critical voice in my head and just get words down. I am often amazed at what comes out. I'd share one so you can see a real-life example, but Becky won't let me (See, I told you we were different!)

What about you? How do you get a first draft started?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is There Such a Thing as a New Idea?

I am pretty much convinced that EVERYTHING has already been done! After writing Hop! Plop!, a picture book in which a Mouse and an Elephant go on a seesaw, I discovered Just a Little Bit by Ann Tompert, a picture book in which... you guessed it! A mouse and an elephant go on a seesaw. The characters are the same. The setting is the same. The problem is the same. The style and solution are different.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my first PB manuscript was about a mouse who fell into a hole. Well, I recently read the delightful Help! A Story of Friendship by Holly Keller. Yup! It is about a mouse who falls into a hole and can't get out.

Does it matter that all ideas have been done before? I say a definitive NO. I actually think it is great. What better way to show kids that an idea can be executed in a number of different ways. Fractured Fairy Tales are deliberate retellings of the same old story in a new way. So, don't worry if your idea has been done before. As long as you find a unique way to present it, you are fine. You can't copyright an idea. You can only copyright the expresson of that idea.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quote of the Day

I don't even know who to attribute this to, but I saw it on Tales from a Rejection Queen and it made me laugh:

Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to those who have none.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hop! Plop! - Life of a Picture Book, Part II - Gestation

Okay, so we had our idea: Mouse and Elephant go on a seesaw. Now, it needed to be developed. Tali and I brainstormed all sorts of solutions that could be attempted:

1) Mouse jumps up and down to make the seesaw move
2) Mouse and Elephant switch sides
3) Mouse and Elephant switch seesaws
4) Mouse eats a watermelon to make him heavier
5) Elephant ties balloons to his trunk to make him lighter

We generally like to follow the "Rule of 3" - three failed attempts before a successful solution, but this story was so short and simple we decided to go with all of them.

Now, all we needed was a solution. After some debate, we decided that Mouse and Elephant can simply abandon the seesaw and go on the swings. Little kids are like that. They are fickle. It had a Pooh-esque feeling to us and we worship A.A. Milne.

I then pretty much wrote the story myself. (As in all pregnancies, the mother does the work, while the other parent sits back and relaxes and offers occasional words of encouragement such as “You’re doing a great job.”)

Once we had a draft, I took it to my Gotham class. My teacher, Alex Steele, broke the strict format of the class to ask everyone a question. "Raise your hand if you liked the ending?" Half the students in the class raised their hands. The other half found it completely unsatisfying. They felt that Mouse and Elephant had not succeeded in solving their problem. Obviously, this would not do at all!

We went back to the drawing board. One further comment from Alex stuck in my mind. "What about the rest of the playground?" Why don't they go on the whirly-bird or the slide? I started a new version. I won't spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, but the story that began as a funny "problem-solving" book suddenly turned into a sweet "friendship" tale.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hop! Plop! - The Life of a First Picture Book, Part I - Conception

Hop! Plop! was conceived on a dark olive-brown couch in an apartment on E 81st St in August of 2001. Tali and I had met at a kids Internet company where we developed educational games and interactive stories for 3-6 year olds. When we both got laid off in the dot com bust, we decided to give the old-fashioned media of books a try.

Our first attempt took place at the cafe of B&N on the upper west side. We wanted to expose kids to creative problem solving. Here's what we came up with: Mouse falls into a hole and can't get out. After many unsuccessful attempts, his friend, Elephant, fills the hole with water from his trunk and Mouse floats out. We thought we were geniuses.

We made the classic mistake of all new authors; we sent it out way too soon.

In our second Mouse and Elephant story. the duo find themselves separated from each other. They try all sorts things before finding a successful solution to their problem. It was sweet and funny and tightly structured. But again. we sent it out before it was really ready.

Miraculously, Alison Keehn at Barefoot Books contacted us. She said both stories were cute, but neither had enough substance to stand alone as a picture book. Did we have others? If so, she would consider an anthology. We were ecstatic. We were at this for a whopping two months and we had been plucked from the slush! We whipped out four more which we thought were equally cute and clever and sent them off. After several months (we did not at that time understand the snail's pace of the publishing world), she wrote that she had met with the president of Barefoot and they were sorry to say that they didn't feel the additional stories were as strong as the original two.

But I have digressed. One of the new stories was Hop! Plop! We had sat on the exceedingly comfy couch on which Tali had a hard time staying awake, and I had asked, "What other problems could a Mouse and an Elephant have? What if Mouse and Elephant tried to go on a seesaw?" And voila! Hop! Plop! was conceived.