Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Login
    Login Login form
Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in creativity
Video shared by on in Dashka's Blog
Advanced Picture Book Writing Class, Coming in March!

The next session of my Advanced Picture Book Class, better known as  PB2, starts in March and I am accepting a limited number of students. Perhaps you’ve been working on your picture book manuscript for a long time, and you’re wondering whether it’s ready to send it out.  Or maybe you’ve written a picture book before and you’re getting ready to try a new project.  In either case, you’ve got the basics down and you’re looking for some expert help and a community of readers to work with as you polish your material. Developed especially for graduates of my beginning picture book writing class with mediabistro, this class is open to aspiring picture book writers who are ready for a more advanced workshop structure.

This intensive 8-week online class will help you shape and hone your picture book manuscript through targeted readings, live online discussion, and expert critique. Submit full manuscripts or fragments of ideas -- we'll take whatever you have and work to make it stronger.

In this class, you will learn how to:

  • Construct and fine-tune your plot
  • Develop characters that will appeal to your readers
  • Enliven your book's language so it's fun to read aloud
  • Use page turns, pictures and pacing to your advantage
  • Identify and eliminate common picture book weaknesses
  • Refine a rough draft into a polished manuscript
  • Develop your career as a picture book writer

Testimonials:

"The perfect next step after PB1, this class offers the same thoughtful edits, close readings and guidance but with more freedom, allowing you to explore a single manuscript, multiple works, or just bits and pieces. It takes the pressure off while you focus on your work, but still provides handy deadlines to keep you moving. I can't say enough for Dashka's unique blend of honest critique, mentorship and overall support. A wonderful way to hone your craft and fall more in love with writing as a process." -- Kristen Giang

"Dashka is the most thoughtful and insightful teacher. She handled each member of the group with total sensitivity, gently guiding us, motivating us, encouraging us and helping us to unravel our characters and plot and find our individual voices as writers. This was a wonderful class. I really feel I have learned an enormous amount which I can apply to my storytelling, and I feel a new sense of confidence and hope as a writer. Thank you, Dashka!" -- Emily Bailey

"Dashka is a born teacher--encouraging, compassionate, incisive, and knowledgeable. If you're a newbie, she'll make you feel like a pro. If you're a pro, she'll surprise you with her insights and perspective." -- Mary Bolster

"Dashka Slater's kindness, generosity and creative talent totally exceeded my expectations for an online writing class. I was blown away by her attention to each student, her depth of knowledge and insight into our work. Her own creativity is a joy to witness and her dedication to her craft, an inspiration. I am blessed to have had the pleasure." -- Maureen Phillips

Nuts and Bolts:

  • Class begins on March 17, 2015 and runs for 8 Tuesdays (no class on April 7), ending on May 12.
  • Video Chats (via Google Hangout) are at 8 pm Eastern Time and run 1.5 hours.
  • Cost: $499 

 

To register, please contact me directly.

 

 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 5: An Interview with Tim Myers

Tim Myers is a terrific writer, teacher and storyteller. I was a huge fan of his best-selling book Basho and the Fox for many years before I met him in person. When I did, I discovered we had much in common, including the fact that we both write in multiple genres, and I became as much a fan of the person as I am of the writer (when you read this interview, you'll understand why). In addition to being an award-winning short story writer, songwriter and poet, Tim is the author of eleven picture books, including If You Give a T-Rex a Bone, Looking for Luna, Basho and the River Stones, The Out-Foxed Fox, and Dark-Sparkle Tea, and he has another four picture books in the works. He has recently published a new book of poetry, a new picture book, and a non-fiction e-book, Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, which won the inaugural Ben Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He graciously agreed to visit the blog this month to talk about his many paths to publication.

 

Dashka: Tell me a little about your latest picture book.

Tim With River Stones new version

Tim: My latest children's book is Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, from Sterling. My children and I played endlessly with dinosaur figures. But my sons also especially loved vehicles--I sometimes wonder if the young mind makes any meaningful distinction between dinosaurs and large trucks or construction equipment. So I wanted to combine the two, and got the rather shrewd idea of a giant car wash that caters to city dinosaurs. (If dinos still existed, I might be a billionaire).
And how awesome is this? I just found a "Three Boys and a Dog" blog post where the wonderful mom-blogger not only read the book to her kids but baked chocolaty dirt onto their dino-figures so they could play Dino Wash Deluxe in the yard!

Dino Wash cover

Dashka: I love how creative mom-bloggers are. And now you've entered the parenting blog world yourself, while also publishing a book of poetry.


Tim: I recently published Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood which made #5 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases in Fatherhood" list, was featured on the Parents Magazine site, quoted on Disney's BabyZone site, won the Ben Franklin Digital Award, and has gotten excellent reviews. One of the chapters is appearing in "Motherlode," The New York Times parenting blog. I also recently published Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body which got a great review from the nationally-known poet Grace Cavalieri.

 

Dashka: You made different publication choices with each book – Glad to Be Dad is an e-book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe came from Sterling Children's, which is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, and Dear Beast Loveliness comes from BlazeVOX which calls itself "an independent publisher of weird little books." Why did you go the route you went for each?


Tim: I wish I was in the position to pick and choose which publishers I work with. I don't mean that I ignore such choices, but I've found that my work is too varied to be submitted to only certain publishers. So I do a good amount of research and submit work to all kinds of different houses. (And get rejected all the time). My primary goal is to make good books and connect with readers. And a writer really can't predict whether a book will be a commercial success or not, or whether a particular publisher can make that happen. Again, I'm not crazy--I'm delighted if a big, high-status publisher will take on a book of mine! But my heart pretty much burns 24 hours a day for art, so I follow any route that will ease that wonderful, joyous burning.

Glad Dad cover image high res

Dashka: And you haven't been afraid to plunge into the digital deep end. Has publishing changed a lot in the course of your career?

 

Tim: Anyone can see what an absolute tsunami the digital revolution has been for human culture. And of course huge particular changes have come to the book industry too. Years ago, before I'd even published anything, I'd get long, thoughtful letters back from publishers at major houses about the manuscript they were passing on. That doesn't happen now (though my experience with editors at major houses has made me tremendously impressed with them). And the push to self-promote has also changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. People say it all the time: new opportunities, new challenges. Part of my response to that has been--I'll put this in Wall Street terms, so it'll sound intelligent instead of desperate--to diversify.


Dashka: It's great to diversify -- and you're a pretty diversely-talented guy anyway. Even so, it can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Do you find it challenging to write and publish in multiple genres?


Tim: I find it beyond exhilarating to write in different genres, and since I'm also a storyteller and a song-writer, this kind of variety is mother's milk to me. In fact, I know I could never specialize; I'm a generalist in a specialist's world. And there are real disadvantages, career disadvantages, to being a generalist. But as I always say--What's life for? To satisfy my soul with art--that's what I'm after. Holy cats--if I wanted money and fame, there are a lot smarter ways to go about it!


Dashka: I sometimes hear people say that writing in multiple genres dilutes your "brand" as an author – an accusation I'm sensitive to, since I also write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children's books. What do you think about the idea that we need to brand ourselves as writers?


Tim: I understand the point about branding, but I think the idea is often over-applied, and if not fully understood it can actually be dangerous if you're committed to art. I have a piece coming out in the SCBWI Bulletin that goes into detail on my thoughts about branding.


Dashka: Oh, I'm looking forward to reading that! Hopefully you'll reassure me. Now tell me what it's been like to publish and promote a digital book? What did you know or think you knew about digital publishing beforehand? Did the experience change your feelings about e-books?


Tim: I really didn't know much at all, though of course I kept my head up and paid attention. But I got very lucky when Christopher Robbins, the publisher at a new and digitally-savvy niche publisher called Familius, took my Glad to Be Dad. Christopher is a veteran, and he taught me so much, and encouraged me as I learned on my own. I'm very grateful to him. I'd known for a long time that I had to get more involved in marketing and promotion, and he gave me the opportunity to do that in a big way. It was a watershed moment for me. Of course this also has its costs; time spent on promo is time not spent writing. But my hope is that some careful, constantly-tweaked combination of the two can help writers both write their best and connect with others as much as possible.


Dashka: Many people say that it's a great time to be a writer, because there are so many publishing options. But it can be overwhelming, too. Any advice for writers who are trying to figure out how best to publish their books? Anything you wish someone had told you along the way?


Tim: Overwhelming--yes! It's like when you go to the store to buy mustard, look at the 900 varieties on the shelves, and realize you'll need a graduate seminar in order to make a choice. The thing is, though--well, I find a couple of principles very helpful here. First--it looks worse than it is. I don't mean to minimize it; the world of creative production is in something like an uproar right now--look at the music industry. I find myself thinking a lot these days about the Oklahoma Land Rush. My point, though, is that it looks more intimidating from a distance. Have faith in your ability to learn and adjust, then get in there and do it. And besides--some of the fundamental realities will never change; the basic relationships between writers, gate-keepers, editors, and readers tend to stay the same. To make my point even more specific: Don't freak out. Don't get me wrong; I've done my share of worrying about all the change. But that anxiety was mostly just wasted energy.


Second--and this is closely related--it's like when you're playing basketball. Say you steal a pass and break for the basket, and you've got a couple of people to go around before you can lay it in. The thing is, you've got to give it all you've got--but you've also got to stay relaxed. This is a paradox, but a true one. Staying relaxed means you can keep your head and react as conditions change. And that's really important in the shifting world we find ourselves in today. But the main thing is--it's ALWAYS a great time to be a writer, whatever's going on in the world! It gets harder, it gets easier, you get a door slammed here, you get a break there. But you get to write!


Dashka: Thanks for that reminder. Sometimes we all get so caught up in the push to publish and promote that we forget why it is we do what we do in the first place! And thanks for stopping by Start at the Beginning!

Need a Picture Book Critique Group? September is Matchmaking Month!

Periodically I hear from former students who are wondering how to find critique partners. Often, they've tried SCBWI but found there's a long waiting list. Or they were in a critique group that formed out of one of my classes but it faded over time or never got off the ground. And so they're all alone.

"I remember you well talking about the need as a writer for connection with other writers," a former student wrote me recently. "I just don't have it, and have been discouraged enough to consider giving up altogether."

If you've taken one of my classes, you've heard me say it: a critique group is the single most important thing you can do for your career as a writer. In addition to the feedback you'll get on your work, a critique group gives you a community, helps you stay motivated, and provides you with deadlines and expectations.I myself am in three different critique groups, each of which is focused on a different genre. These groups both kick my butt and soothe my soul and I would be a much poorer -- not to mention lonelier -- writer without them. Critique groups don't need to be big -- even a single critique partner can do the trick. 

But how do you find them?

I've pondered the way to match people up for some time and in the end decided to borrow an idea from Maggie Stiefvater, who matchmakes critique groups for YA writers once a year. The method is simple. If you are interested in forming a critique partnership, post your Want Ad in the comment section below. Here's the information you should include:

  • A one sentence description of who you are and what you're working on.
  • A geographic location (because your online critique group could be an in-person critique group).
  • Three picture books that you love or that have influenced you as a writer.
  • A way for an interested critique partner to get in touch with you.

If you see someone who seems like a good match, contact them. If the interest is mutual, then you should each send the other a picture book manuscript to be critiqued. That is your trial run. If you're happy with how it went, you've got a partner. If anything about the exchange didn't work for you, then the trial period is over and you can simply thank your partner and walk away.

Oh, and make sure to check out my information about How To Form An Online Critique Group.

The Many Paths to Publication Part 4: An Interview with Marsha Diane Arnold

Like many in the picture book world, I’ve been watching the children’s book app market with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I’m a book person at heart – I love the smell and feel of paper and the sensation of curling up with a book in my hands and a kid on my lap. When people talk about apps supplanting traditional books, I can feel my Luddite dander rising. Yet I can also see the creative possibilities embodied in this interactive medium. I’m thus delighted to have had a chance to discuss app publishing with my friend and critique partner Marsha Diane Arnold, who has just published her first one, Prancing Dancing Lily with a publisher called FatRedCouch.

Marsha published her first picture book, Heart of a Tiger, in 1995; it was a Junior Library Guild Selection and an IRA Distinguished Book. Her books have been racking up awards ever since, including a Smithsonian Notable Book for The Pumpkin Runner and a Family Choice Award for Hugs on the Wind. Her picture book Roar of a Snore has been selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library three times and her early reader Quick, Quack, Quick has sold over half a million copies. 

 small marsha

Dashka: Lots of children's book writers have expressed interest in doing apps, but you're one of the first I know who has actually done it. Tell me about how that came about.

Marsha: I was lucky. Nicole Lundeen, the CEO of FatRedCouch lives in the neighboring county. She happens to get all car-related issues handled at my husband’s Firestone store; my husband often displays my books there. Nicole saw them, read them, and fell in love with them. When Prancing Dancing Lily went out-of-print, the time was right to let Lily dance into the digital world.

Dashka: Tell me about Prancing Dancing Lily the book and Prancing Dancing Lily the App.

MarshaPrancing Dancing Lily was originally published as a picture book by Dial Books for Young Readers and illustrated by the brilliant John Manders. The text and illustrations are the same for picture book and storybook app, but the interactivity, voices, and sounds make digital Lily “ a whole new story.”

Prancing Dancing Lily tells the tale of a cow who doesn’t fit in with the herd. Lily would rather kick up her heels than walk sedately from pasture to barn.  So she travels the world in search of her perfect dance.  It’s a dancing adventure where readers can learn some geography, make new friends, and do the conga at the end. 

What made the picture book perfect for a digital app were all the possibilities for movement, dancing, and music. What’s different in the app are fun sound and movement surprises, the read to me option, four puzzles, and lots more. When readers touch the screen, they watch Lily twirl, whirl, slurp her drink, and beat the conga drum. They hear her moo and tap her hooves. It’s been fun to see Lily come to life this way. You can get a preview here.

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.36.23 PM

 

Dashka: How did you learn about the app world? I know you're as much an old-school book person as I am -- was it a steep learning curve? Did you have to play with a lot of children's book apps to get the feel of it?

Marsha: I try to keep up with changes in the publishing world, so even though I didn’t know a lot about apps or how to make one, I was aware of them and I felt they were becoming an important element in publishing. Many people are exploring apps as a different art form and discovering the different ways to use them to tell stories and allow children to interact more with story characters. I wanted to be part of that exploration.

It’s not a steep learning curve to understand a kids’ app. I downloaded some and watched and played. 

Dashka: What did you discover about the differences between a book and an app?

Marsha: A picture book can take 2 to 3 years or more from manuscript purchase to book publication. A digital app takes much less time, but it still took longer than I thought it would.

FatRedCouch is the expert when it comes to knowing how to make a book or app interactive. I am not a tech wizard. I did enjoy going into the FatRedCouch offices and working with the team, giving input as to what I’d like to see as an interaction. There’s so much you can do with touch screens. Discovering all the surprises that a touch of the finger can bring is not only fun, it helps children learn and to look for the details.

Dashka: How do you feel about apps now that you've made one? Do you want to do another?

Marsha: I absolutely want to create another digital app. I have a number of manuscripts that haven’t been picked up by a traditional publisher, but I can see they would work very well as a digital app. And yes, also, to writing new material for an app. There are a few ideas swirling in my head right now.

Dashka: Once your app is out on the market, how do you get it noticed among all the apps that are out there for children?

Marsha: That's the question to beat all questions, Dashka. Everyone in the app business, the publishing business and really, any business, is struggling with discoverability. How do we get readers’ attention when there are thousands of apps to choose from?

First, I think it’s good to have a team.  FatRedCouch is doing a lot of promoting. Frank Colin does the marketing and so much more. He has “held my hand” as I learned Mailchimp to send out my first newsletter, taped interviews for me, and introduced me to dairy farmers across the nation. He’s helped Lily get wonderful reviews from diverse groups: dairy farmers, moms who love apps, educators. Right now we’re celebrating that Prancing Dancing Lily was named CoronaLabs March app of the month.

Personally, I’ve blogged about Lily, tweeted about her, shared about her on Facebook, posted pictures related to her on Pinterest, and told all my friends and family. It’s easy to do because when you meet Lily, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Some of the best help spreading the word has come from educators. Tina Riley at Walton Elementary/Middle School arranged for the viewing of Lily’s app with fourth graders, then guided small groups to present their ideas. They wrote a short review, a long review, and learned a lot along the way. They gave Lily five stars, of course.

RCS-Elem-School-March-2013-Newsletter-2

Dashka: What was the process of getting the rights to be able to do this?

Marsha: I always ask for rights to be reverted when one of my books goes out of print.

Dashka: Is this the future of children's publishing? Do we all need to learn how to write apps?

Marsha: Storybook apps and games are a big part of the future of children’s publishing. Apps allow kids to interact directly with the characters in a story and can engage the imagination, in a slightly different way than a traditional book does.

Some have suggested that it’s helpful for anyone in business to have an app. I think that’s true because it shows you’re open to new ideas and new technologies.  However, there are far too few kids’ apps that are well-crafted and have an engaging story and wonderful artwork. So if you want to write an app, make it a good one, and find a publisher like FatRedCouch to bring your characters to “life.”

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.38.38 PM

Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?

Marsha: As with all creative endeavors you must do your homework and work at your craft and art. But there’s lots of help out there for you. Last October FatRedCouch hosted a workshop in San Francisco, “How to Create and Market a Children’s Book App,” presented by Karen Robertson. Watch for opportunities like this in your area. Karen has several eBooks on writing apps and finding the right developer on her site.

Remember to check out some apps as you think about this path. There are lots of sites with suggestions. Two to try are here and here. Prancing Dancing Lily is a great app to start with. All links to download Lily are here.

And if you’re writing a story, know that kids’ favorites are character-driven. Prancing Dancing Lily definitely fits in this category. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my e-course, Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books, which works for digital apps as well as picture books.

Don’t be afraid to dance into the digital realm, right alongside Lily. Have fun!

Dashka: Great advice, and I know your e-course has lots more wisdom to offer. Thanks so much for stopping by!

 

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

It's December, the month when my list of "Things to Do" begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of "Things to Make" and "Things to Buy" and "Things to Mail" and "Things to Cook" and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is "Things to Write." And it's right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.

It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour...

"Why do only unimportant things?" Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.

"Think of all the trouble it saves," the Trivium replies. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to keep you from what you really should be doing...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you'll never have to think again --and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too."

Norton Juster, the book's brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores -- the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo's pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

Yesterday, as I was riding my bicycle in the hills near my house, I came upon a garage sale where a man was selling two cartons of old picture books. By old, I don’t mean the discarded, chewed upon Scholastic paperbacks you find at most garage sales, but worn and lovely books from the forties , fifties, and sixties -- the era of Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, Ed Emberley, and Louis Slobodkin. All were early or first editions, all were dog-eared and worn, and all were marked as discards from the library of a local public school.

“Where did you get these?” I asked, sitting down in the driveway to look through the carton. 

The man whose books they were explained that he had worked at the school, and when the library sorted and discarded books, he took home the ones whose illustrations struck him as particularly marvelous, unable to stand the idea of them being thrown out.

He wasn’t a book collector, or a children’s book aficionado, but simply someone who recognized the wonderful quality of these books, with their simple, graphic styles, their limited palettes, and their exuberant genius.

I bought seven of them – all books I didn’t have. They’re too beaten up to be worth much as collector’s items, but they are worth everything in the world as books! Sitting down to read them, I was struck by the quality that made this era of book publishing so wonderful – and that continues to characterize the best of children’s books today.

It is the quality of pure creativity. These authors and illustrators aren’t catering to a market. They’re not trying to sell anything, or be cute, or develop a franchise. They don’t talk down to children in either words or illustration. They knew that children would respond to the best work, to work that was interesting, true, and finely-wrought.

Look at this page from Helen Borten’s book Do You See What I See? which is about the quality of observation that makes art. Everything about this book is gorgeous, the art, the prose, the direct frankness of the conversation with the reader, a conversation that expects that the child reader is also, in some way, an artist.

You see the same thing in Noise in the Night by Anne Alexander, with illustrations by Abner Graboff. A child is afraid of night noises but discovers she can conquer her fears by collecting the noises and then drawing them. Art conquers all.

I can’t resist showing you the pompous wonder of James Daugherty’s guard in Gillespie and the Guards.

Reading these books, I was reminded of a comment Maurice Sendak makes in an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth:

Tollbooth is the product of a time and place that fills me with fierce nostalgia…There were no temptations except to astonish. There were no seductions because there was not much money, and “kiddie books” were firmly nailed to the bottom of the “literary-career totem pole.” Simply, it was easy to stay clean and fresh, and wildly ourselves – a pod of happy baby whales, flipping our lusty flukes and diving deep for gold.

Some writers and illustrators still approach their work that way, but the book industry is far less innocent – and far less interested in cultivating and supporting pure genius. Still, genius finds a way. Next entry, I’ll show you what I mean.

Sign Up For My Newsletter
Find me on Facebook
Follow Me