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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to Cook a Turkey- From the Mouths of Three Year Olds

For Thanksgiving, my son's teacher asked each kid, "How do you cook a turkey?" Here are their responses:

Lauren - Go to the store, go to the aisle. Turn in and then you're there. Find a turkey. Bring it at your house. Mix it up with water. Cook it in the microwave for 200. Serve it with strawberries.

Logan - Go to the toy store. Put chicken nuggets and macaroni on the turkey. When the turkey pops out put it in the oven. Cook it for 15 minutes, then 16 minutes again. Then take it out of the oven. Put it back in the oven for 100 minutes. Take it out of the oven, put a fork in it and eat it.

Joseph - Buy a turkey at the kitchen store. Buy chicken nuggets, sandwich. Put meat on the turkey. Put it on the stove and burn it. Cut and eat with meat.

Rebecca - Buy a turkey at the farm. Put it in the oven for 10 minutes. Add rainbow sprinkles to make it be pretty. Serve it with orange.

Jake - Get a turkey from children. Cook it in a toaster for a long time. Turn it. Then it is done. Put it on a plate and eat it with a fork.

Rikhi - It's the farm. Add butter, bread and cheese. Cook it with a cooker. Cut it, make it, and put milk. Put it with salad.

Josh - Buy a turkey at the store. Grab it and put it in the shopping cart. You take watermelon and buy all kinds of things, peanuts.

Emily - Put spices on the turkey: cinnamon, pepper, brown spices. Put it in the oven for 50 minutes. You take it out and cut it into little pieces. Put it in the oven for five minutes. From cutting the turkey, put the crumbs into the garbage can, then put the cutting thing back where the knives are.

Sarah - Buy the turkey at the store. Make a sandwich out of it and put everything on it.

Lexi - I never made one! I would put soil on it, then I would put it in the oven. Cook it so long. Bring it to school and eat it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's Better than Buying Books for the Holidays?

On the one hand, I am tempted to say NOTHING. Nothing beats buying books. Especially picture books (in my case). But... I am actually buying something that might possibly be just a schmoot better. Ready? Picture book art! And boy am I excited!

My husband and I decided we want to start collecting art from picture books. And we knew exactly where we wanted our first piece to come from-- the brilliant book, That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton.

Emily Brown has so much fun going on wild adventures with her rabbit, Stanley, that the Queen becomes envious and decides she wants that Bunnywunny no matter what the cost. She sends in her Chief Footman to offer Emily a bribe, which Emily of course declines. Escalate- repeat. Escalate-repeat. Escalate-repeat. At which point, the Queen sends her Special Commandos in to kidnap him. Emily confronts the Queen and demands that she give Stanley back, but she does explain how the Queen can end up with beloved "Stanley" of her own.

This story is so tightly structured that I would use it if I ever taught a picture book writing class. But more than that, it is incredibly charming for both kids and adults. The art is a spectacular combination of collage, pen and ink, and watercolor. We all love it at our house! (Though it would definitely be funnier if I could read it with a British accent)

Friday, November 21, 2008

What's in a Name?

I read a very nice blog about character names the other day on Market My Words and that got me thinking... I find it hard to name my characters. I had no trouble at all naming my children, but characters are tougher. (and titles, forget about altogether!) In my first and only published picture book, Hop Plop, I went with Mouse and Elephant. I wasn't copping out. The story takes place at a playground and is very dependent on the differences in the two character's sizes. Giving them names would have only served as a distraction.

But when I do need a name, I can never seem to find one that feels like a perfect fit. In a new manuscript that is still untitled (See? I wasn't kidding!), my co-author and I chose "Scooter" for the little scurrying critter who gets bullied, "Mack" for the bigger bustling badger who bullies him, and "Tank" for the even bigger brute who bulldozes Mack. I was so proud at my cleverness for selecting three vehicle names until I discovered that not a single reader caught the metaphor.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quote of the Day

When late morning rolls around and you are feeling a bit out of sorts, don't worry; you're probably just a little eleven o'clockish.-- Winnie the Pooh

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One Way to Make a Picture Book Stand Out

Just because there are only 988,968 words in the English language doesn't mean an author needs to feel constrained when writing a picture book. Authors are not restricted to words that are currently in the dictionary. In fact, as my hero, Dr. Seuss, has demonstrated, words that aren't in the dictionary are often far more appealing. What could possibly be more fun to say than four fluffy feathers on a Fiffer-feffer-feff? Dr. Seuss tickles the tongue and the imagination with his snergelly hoses and cruffulous croaks.

In The Recess Queen, by Alexis O'Neill, Mean Jean is the schoolyard bully.

If kids ever crossed her,
she'd push 'em and smoosh 'em
lollapaloosh 'em,
hammer 'em, slammer 'em
kitz and kajammer 'em.

Pretty rollicky, huh? I love how lollapaloosh bounces around in my mouth. My daughter and I are starting a petition to have it added to the dictionary.

In Lynn Plourde's Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud, animals are blocking the road and members of a family are taking turns trying to shoo them.

And she shooed.
And she jeered.
And she baa-ed.
And she sheered.

But the sheep didn't shuffle.
Not a tiny little schmuffle.

What better way to stretch my kids' minds than to ask them to make up their own?

The squirrels didn't scoot.
Not a tiny little schmoot?

Words are like toys -- to be played with and turned inside-out. A sprinkling of Sneetches and a smattering of Schloppity-Schlopps can really spice up a tale.

So, if you want a story that really stands out in a slush pile or in this crowded picture book market, put aside your thesaurus and invent away.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Looking at Real Life for Picture Book Ideas

My very clever and talented friend, Tara Lazar, has decided that in lieu of NaNoWriMo, she is going to come up with one new picture book idea for each day in November. One idea a day! I have a hard time coming up with one idea per year!

Why is it so hard for me? My writer friends say, "Look at your life. Ideas are everywhere." So, let's look at my life for second. It is certainly not uneventful.

Just last night, I tried to take my three-year-old, Josh, to Chucky Cheese and I had a car accident. I must be the only person in the world who can get rear-ended and be at fault. Yes, despite the fact that the police officer tried to convince me that the gentleman behind me must be at least partially to blame, I was adamant that I was solely responsible. I was merging onto a highway and it was dark and rainy. Unable to see well in my side view mirror, I had a moment of panic and hit the brakes. Any ideas here? My Mommy- a Hazard to Herself and Others?

And this past Tuesday, our skylight fell in. It didn't happen completely out of the blue. We had roofers working and a nail got too close to the glass. There was a deafening crash and the skylight shattered into thousands of pieces. Thank goodness Joshy was eating his breakfast on the couch in the living room instead of at the kitchen table. Used up another of his nine lives. (I think he has 4 remaining) Any ideas here? I'd be Safer at the Third Little Pig's House?

Hmmm, so it isn't as if there is no drama. I just have trouble converting a real-life incident into an appropriate kids plot. All in all, I have about a dozen PB manuscripts and I don't think any have come from personal experiences.

If you've turned a real life event into a PB, I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Very Brief Tribute to Dr. Seuss

So, why Thing 1 and Thing 2? Well, for one thing, I have my own two little wild Things running around my house wreaking havoc. But the main reason is that Dr. Seuss has been my biggest influence (along with A.A. Milne). I remember reading The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and then sitting down and writing my own sequel when I was about seven. God, I wish my mom had saved that! (I am dying to see if it was any good!) I also wrote my own Curious George caper. So easy to start a writing career with an already established character and a formulaic plot. Admittedly, I have a much harder time now.

Who were your major influences? Please share.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Quote of the Day

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try! -- Dr. Seuss

Confessions of a Picture Book Writer

I confess... writing for an adult audience scares the heck out of me. It pretty much leaves me paralyzed. But I am participating in the 21 Day Comment Challenge and I am suffering from blog envy. So, I either have to face my fears or continue to live vicariously through my blogger friends.

I have decided to give blogging a try. Now that the election is over and I no longer have to check the polls every ten minutes, I have a surplus of time on my hands and what better activity for a self-proclaimed writer than writing? So, I am going to take a page from the Obama playbook and assert, "Yes, I can!"