Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse ...

The next topic with the most votes was using language techniques in picture books. But having talked about voice last time I thought it might be nice to mix things up a little. Techniques will be a fairly large and more serious topic, so I thought I'd tackle topic number three this time and go back to techniques next time.

So, surviving the zombie apocalypse. 'Hang on,' I hear you say, 'this crisis is zombie free.' Stop right there. Back the truck up. And listen...

1. Watch out for crowds carrying pitchforks. While it might be that they are just recreating 'American Gothic' for the Getty Challenge, it pays to remember there is only one pitchfork required for that picture. Never throw out your McDonald's Cheeseburger wrappers. These can be folded around wads of that spare toilet paper you are bound to have, and thrown on the front lawn to distract the crowds while you make your getaway. Unfortunately you still can't go too far and will have to come back sooner rather than later ...

2. Dont be concerned about people turning up at your front door with unnaturally pale faces. They are more likely to be amateur bakers who clearly have not adhered to the, 'don't touch your face,' rule, rather than vampires or the covidly ill. It may pay to keep your curtains closed and the lights off though, as in all likelihood they are there to ask if they can borrow some yeast. For starters, you can't 'borrow' yeast. They won't be giving it back. They'll be incorporating it into a baked product you are unlikely to be able to, or want, to share. Protect those precious, smelly grains for your own harking-back-to-home-economics experimentations with dough. Unfortunately they are unlikely to believe that you are not home anyway, despite the lights and curtains. It's not like you can go anywhere. However that unrisen rock you are calling bread can be lobbed through the front window at those prospective yeast stealers.

3. And ... shhhhhhh ... don't tell anyone .... but ... actually ... we're the zombies. I certainly feel brain dead most days. We're constantly hungry, shuffling around, looking a bit unkempt, moaning unintelligibly, bleary-eyed, awake day and night.... Sound familiar? Yup. It's us. And that red stain on my chin? It isn't the blood of my victims, its just a little red wine that managed to escape on the way to my mouth ... honest.

The good news is that we don't tend to cannibalise our own so we don't need any zombie fighting tips. We just need to fight the boredom, the lack of willpower, the existential angst, and the poor clothing and dining choices we are currently making every day. But that's a blog post for another day ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Creating a distinct voice in your picture books ...

If you are writing picture books it is important not to neglect 'voice', the unique personality of your story-telling that provides the meat on the bones of your tale, and forms the connective tissue between the story and the reader. Voice is what delights us, adds depth to the story and elevates it to a 'must read'.

Folk often say there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and a big part of the telling is the voice you choose to use. Voice helps you stand out with publishers and readers. It brings a story to life, animating it beyond just a collection of familiar words. A strong voice will draw readers in - sure, not all will have a taste for every style of voice but if you consider your favourite picture book writers - Lauren Child, Oliver Jeffers, Dr Seuss, Mo Willems, Margaret Mahy, John Burningham - all have a distinctive voice that colours all their stories and has given them a loyal readership.

How is voice achieved? Primarily through reading a lot of picture books and seeing how the best writers achieve it and then practicing a lot with your own stories. It doesn't have to be heavily applied, it just needs to be there.

Technically though it's about:

1) Word choice - what is the 'character' of the words you've selected to tell your story with? Look for the extraordinary, but aim for minor surprise rather than shock. We are going for 'the road less travelled' rather than potentially having your reader get lost. Don't push down (baby talk), pull up (with words that are a little ahead of where your reader is at) - don't forget the pictures will help with meaning. You want little explosions of pleasant surprise, using words that add layers and depth to your themes and meaning. Use words that tie in with the techniques you are employing - the assonance, alliteration, rhythm etc...

Sometimes it is not the words themselves that surprise, but the unexpected way they are used. Repetition can also be very effective, especially when unexpected. Repetition does not have to be immediate either, potentially having more impact a page or two later in the story.

2) Sentence length - this influences the pace and rhythm of your story. Is your story jaunty, dreamy, melancholic, intense? It can be cool to vary the sentence length in a repeating pattern. Different sentence lengths can be used with different characters, or different events within the story. The pagination also has a role to play here - think of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

3) Rhythm - like voice, rhythm is an essential component of all good picture book stories. It should have an effortless flow so the reader, or the reader-out-louder is naturally drawn through the story, subconciously anticipating the next word... I've always found the best test of this is getting someone new to the story to read it out loud to you. 

4) Tone - this is mostly about the flavour of the words supporting the mood of the story. Is your story funny? Or scary? Your word choice and sentence length need to support this. But also is your story conversational or a bit more formal? Is it old fashioned or full of contemporary idiom and contractions? Does it break the fourth wall? (Check out Mo Willems, We Are In a Book, and Oliver Jeffers' Lost and Found). Does it have an accent? (Read Cicada by Shaun Tan for effective use of an accent).

Please note: Voice is not sufficient on its own to carry a book. Nothing can 'stand in' for a great story - you need both!

If you are struggling with the concept of 'voice' a good book to read is Anthony Browne's, Voices in the Park which literally gives voice to four different characters over the course of the story. 

Also if you need examples of some of the things I've mentioned or you have question - let me know in the comments section below!! I hope this is helpful :-)

Monday, April 13, 2020

And my manuscript assessment competition winner is ...

Crikey that was interesting. I am heartened to see all my suggested topics get a request so I'll work my way through them all beginning with the most requested to the least. And no one correctly guessed my favourite Harry Potter movie. The correct answer is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dolores Umbridge is a terrific villain and her detention punishment is breathtakingly clever and nasty. I love Luna Lovegood and Dumbledore's Army and how Harry and Dumbledore are finally vindicated. Anyways ... a number of you did pick my second favourite, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, so I put all your names in a hat and the winner is ......

....  AB who commented here on the blog. Woohoo! Congratulations! AB, if you contact me at, we can make arrangements for the assessment.

And in the next few days I'm going to talk a little on the most requested topic - developing a distinct voice in your picture book writing. So stay tuned!!!

Talk to you soon!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A manuscript assessment competition for picture book writers ...

I've started this post several times and abandoned all the different iterations. None feel right for the current zeitgeist and if you folk are feeling anything like I am, being creative right now is a bit of a struggle. I should be revising something I finished a while back but I can't bring myself to open the document, and although I have been puttering along with a new picture book idea (which feels exciting), it is super slow progress. Usually by now I would have had it done and through several revisions. These are strange times.

It's hard to feel creative when we are all in a kind of limbo. My creative space is full of other people, their noises and interactions. There are worries, and I can't help but wonder how the world in general, and the publishing landscape in particular, might look when lockdown rules are finally relaxed. We can't know until we get there. Limbo.

So, anyways, I thought, like those 'pick a path' books we used to love, I'd ask you, dear reader, what sorts of things you might like me to talk about. Should I discuss...

1) How to develop a distinct picture book voice?
2) The good language techniques you should use (and the bad ones you shouldn't use) in picture books?
3) Survival techniques for the zombie apocalypse a.k.a. keeping your chin up while you still have one
4) or a topic of your choosing ...

And also I am running a competition. I will provide one free picture book manuscript assessment (usually $125) to the person who correctly guesses which is my favourite Harry Potter movie. Two entries only per person. All guesses in the comments here, on facebook or twitter will be accepted. This competition closes at 5pm on Easter Monday. All correct guesses will go into the hat and the winner will be picked by a random family member currently in lockdown with me. If no one guesses correctly, I will ask a new question. If no one enters I will cry myself to sleep after eating all the easter eggs :-)