Inspire Me, Please!

 By Kate Carroll

In this extraordinary year, have you struggled to find motivation and inspiration? The abrupt changes in the world, and its effects on the publishing industry drove me to a standstill for a while. And I don’t think I was alone.

Here are some ideas that may help you get back to doing what you love most – writing for kids.   

Thankfully, the kidlit industry rose up providing online content, which I took advantage of, but ultimately, I knew that I had to do my own heavy lifting. The old proverbial adage of “leading a horse to water…” rang true. This horse had to put its own head into the trough and drink.

And so, I began.

One morning, I grabbed a cafĂ© mocha and pulled out my old conference notebooks and dug in. OK, full disclosure. This activity didn’t start out that way. I was on an organizing binge in my office which led me to rereading all the great wisdom shared by so many valuable experts. For hours, I sifted through a cache of craft material that had been sitting idle. It felt like I had found some old friends. If you haven’t pulled out your conference notes in a while, I highly recommend it. Mine ignited a spark!  

Another idea grew out of boredom. Flipping channels one day, I landed on an old sitcom. Deputy Barney Fife is so goofy and hilarious. What makes him funny?  How do the characters play off each other? What about the dialogue? Not only did I belly laugh again, but I also thought about humorous picture books and soon studied several. Here are some I love:

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller & Anne Wilsdorf
This Book Just ate my Dog by Richard Byrne
We Don’t eat our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
Underwear! By Jenn Harney
Barnaby Never Forgets by Pierre Collet-Derby

One great exercise taken from my notes is Story Builder. It’s easy, fun and a good way to jump start your imagination. In a notebook or on a piece of paper, make three columns and head each one with basic story elements - Character, Problem, Setting. Now dream up ideas for each category. The zanier the better. Eventually you can choose an element from each section and mix the ingredients together for a unique story starter. And while you’re doing “life”, if a character, problem or setting comes to mind, be sure to add it to your own Story Builder.

If you aren’t ready to sit down at your computer or pick up a pen and paper, how about a nature walk? Better yet, a scavenger nature hunt.  Corny? A-corny, maybe. Give yourself a list of things to find as you explore. It’s such a simple activity, but it reminds us that we are meant to wonder, to discover. Unless you are craving some real peace and quiet, take along a small human whose curiosity will likely pique yours.                                   

Why not try on a new genre? While this may seem incongruous for someone who is searching for inspiration, sometimes the stretch is just what we need to get going again.  Creating free verse poetry or journaling may rekindle your creative juices. Maybe offer up an editorial for your local newspaper. Write a Parents’ Corner in your church bulletin or preschool parents email thread. The point is to stay in the game any way you can.

As I said at the beginning, the kid lit community offers endless opportunities to connect and grow one’s craft during this secluded time.  Follow a new blog.  See what your local SCBWI has to offer. Join an online critique group. Search online for websites devoted to your genre. I discovered author Carol Kim’s website, https://makealivinginkidlit.com. Many of her blog posts are about the “business” of children’s writing.  Check out this link on the relevance of Twitter and children’s publishing. Although many of us use Twitter and the like, they can contribute to the slump if you don’t navigate them well.   https://makealivinginkidlit.com/how-childrens-authors-should-use-twitter/

As a final thought, even in these uncertain times, the good news is that we can restart our creative engines. And above all, remember that small, curious humans are the reason we write our stories!     
 

Interview with author/illustrator Susan Kralovansky

By Lisa Amstutz

This week, we are excited to welcome author/illustrator Susan Kralovansky to the Six Pens blog. 

 

Susie, please tell us a little about yourself!

I am a former librarian who began writing picture books for my students. They had a terrible time understanding the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus. The first book was What Would You Do with a Thesaurus? By the time I had written them a book about encyclopedias, I decided to submit my idea to a publisher. That submission ended up being a six-book series for ABDO Publishing.

I write both fiction and non-fiction picture books. In February 2021, I have two books being released. My first, WE REALLY, REALLY WANT A DOG, is a story about animal adoption. And THE BOOK THAT JAKE BORROWED, which was first released in 2108, will now be released in a bilingual edition: EL LIBRO QUE JAKE TOMO PRESTADO.

I love talking to kids at school visits and hanging out in libraries and bookstores. When I’m at home, you can find me discussing a new book idea with my two writing partners. 


What are some of your recent/upcoming books and what inspired you to write them?

My most recent book was inspired by a fire ant bite. I’m originally from Indiana, where ants are harmless. They march along in single file, and if disturbed, they simply get back in line. Then I moved to Texas. While planting flowers, I accidentally jabbed my trowel into a fire ant hill. No problem, right? Wrong! Tiny red ants swarmed up my arms and legs and began to sting. Ouch! I quickly discovered that fire ants are fierce! Those fiery ants gave me the idea for HOW FIRE ANTS GOT THEIR FIRE: A TEXAS TALE.

 

 

Do you always illustrate your own books? How did you get started doing that?

When writing my second picture book, TWELVE COWBOYS ROPIN’, I knew I wanted it to be both a counting book and a book about Texas symbols. Rather than trying to describe how I thought that might work, I sent the editor a couple of pieces of collage art to demonstrate the concept.

When my editor offered a contract, she asked if I would like to illustrate the book. In my head, I screamed, “WOULD I?!?!? YOU BET!!!!!” But, ever the professional, my answer to her was, “I would love to!”  Luckily, I have been able to illustrate my next four books with Pelican Publishing.

 

What type of media do you use in your work?

Normally, most of my illustrations are fiber art collage. But, due to Covid-19, and the fabric stores being closed, WE REALLY, REALLY WANT A DOG has a lot of watercolor.

 

What tips do you have for aspiring author/illustrators?

My best advice is to believe in your project and persevere. I knew librarians needed THE BOOK THAT JAKE BORROWED, and I was right. That book just sold out for the fourth time!

 

What kind of books do you like to read?

I love to read every type of picture book. Tuesdays are library day. Every Tuesday I have to force myself to give back the books I’ve checked out and then bring home a whole new stack to enjoy.

 

What work do you wish you had written/illustrated? Why? 

Just about everything I check out on Tuesdays!


 

Short and Sweet:

Pantser or Plotter?  Pantser

Guilty Food Pleasure?  Lily’s Salted Almond Chocolate Bar

Favorite Hobby?  Reading

Dog or Cat person?  Don’t tell the cat, but the dog is my baby.

Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)?   My father

Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening?  Evening – after everyone is in bed.

 

Susan lives just north of Austin in Georgetown, Texas. Visit her online at www.susankralovansky.com.






Meet the Author: Mike Armstrong

   


          



by Gloria G. Adams

     Mike Armstrong has a simple goal for writing books for kids: “I want to do what so many children’s book authors did for my daughter - write books that children and parents will enjoy reading together. Books that will make them both laugh, help spark their interest in reading, and encourage them to seek out the next book. And the next one. And the next. “

     Before becoming a writer, Mike worked as a marketing professional, which involved traveling to other countries. The poverty and hopelessness he witnessed in some of them changed his career path; he became the director of several non-profit organizations that helped people improve their lives.

     When his daughter was born and Mike became a stay-at-home dad, he discovered the world of children’s books, which led him to a new career as a children’s author.

 

What inspired you to write Best Day Ever?

 I was a stay-at-home dad with my daughter for 10 years, and in the early years I took it pretty seriously. I felt like every moment was a crucial teaching moment, and so I had a tendency to over-schedule. But it was exhausting, and honestly, it wasn’t very fun for either of us. Then one day I was watching her play in the backyard with a stick, and she was having the best time ever. That’s when I realized that letting her spend time with her imagination was far more important – and more fun - than anything else I had planned. And that moment was the seed for Best Day Ever.

Tell us about how you found an editor who bought the manuscript and what the process was like from contract to publication.  

I think my path to publication was different than most. I had scheduled a critique with an editor at an SCBWI conference for another manuscript that I had been working on for two years. Then, at the last minute, I switched out the manuscript with something new I had just finished drafting (the reason why is a whole other story). After reading it, his exact words were, “I can fix this.” Not the most glowing of critiques, but he was interested in seeing more. He sent me home with some notes that I followed to the last detail, and he acquired the revised manuscript shortly after. But then he left the publisher. I was so worried it would get dropped that I flew to New York and meet with my new editor to make sure she was on board. She was. Then she left. Then I met with the next one. Then two more left. I’m now on my fifth editor, and each time I was convinced that my book was going to end up on the chopping block. And each time I would tamp down my excitement. So, I’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the past two and a half years. And then, of course, the pandemic hits, my release gets delayed, and even more anxiety. But now it’s out, and it was totally worth it. I think.


What was involved in getting an agent?  

Basically, I parlayed my offer into representation. Once I knew that a publisher was interested in my manuscript, I put together a short list of agents that I thought would be good. Then, when the publisher eventually offered to acquire it, I sent out emails to my short list telling them that I had a pending offer and wanted representation. Fortunately, it worked.

 

Were you able to collaborate at all with your illustrator, Eglantine Ceulemans?

I was fortunate in that my publisher presented me with three different illustrators, and we ended up agreeing on the one I preferred. And I couldn’t be happier with Eglantine’s illustrations. My publisher also asked for my feedback on the illustrations several times during the process, but I never actually communicated with Eglantine. Honestly, I didn’t have very many comments. Illustrating is not my strong suit, so I figure it’s best to defer to the experts. 

 

I took your workshop on marketing and it was incredibly organized and thorough. How did your marketing plans work out in spring of 2020 when your book came out in the midst of a pandemic?  Which strategies do you think have worked best so far?

Thanks, I’m glad someone got something out of my session. And yes, COVID basically ended up trashing the marketing plan that I spent two years developing. I made tons of contacts at bookstores, libraries and schools, had over 30 readings and signings scheduled for the spring/summer, and was on my way to scheduling a bunch of school visits in the fall. All of it went out the window. I also had a few things in my personal life go sideways at the same time, so my marketing efforts weren’t nearly as robust as I had hoped. That said, I’m taking a hard look at virtual book marketing, and am beginning to seriously question the benefits of working within the confines of a traditional publisher.  


From where do you get your story ideas?

I steal all my ideas from fellow author and “writing nemesis”, CJ Penko. I’ve never met anyone with so many ideas. She’s a machine, and she’s going to publish a ton of books. Otherwise, the ideas really come from everywhere. I think that the more you write, the more you see potential story ideas floating past throughout the day. That said, lately I've been trying to meditate on themes I’m passionate about. I have a few things that I really want to write, so I’m trying not to get distracted by new ideas. Because new ideas are always more fun to think about than old ones. New ideas can be the mortal enemy of final drafts. 

 

Tell us about your writing process.

My process is a mess, honestly. I try very hard to be methodical and follow a process of 1) identifying a theme, 2) creating a character, 3) developing a plot, and then outlining the whole thing. But it never works out that way. So basically, I’m saying I have nothing of value to offer here. That said, I think that different processes work for different people. And at the end of the day, the important thing is that you write.

 

Can you tell us what other books are in the works?

I’ve got a couple more books with Anna and Will that I’d like to get published. After that, I want to write a story about one of my favorite Buddhist parables. From there, who knows? Maybe I can steal something new from CJ.

 

What is the best part for you about being a children’s author?

Without a doubt, it’s that it inspires my daughter, and that she sees a viable path toward something that I never thought was possible for me. She’s nine, and she wants to be a writer/illustrator. For Easter, she gave to two fully-formed, hand-written graphic novels – roughly 10-12 pages each – as a gift. She spent months working on them. Before that, I used to think I had stuff that was important to me. Now I have stuff that’s important to me.

 

What is one piece of advice that you would give to writers?

Your ego is your enemy. Don’t let it stop you from sharing your work with anyone who will listen, or from hearing the feedback you get from those people.

And, sorry, I really want to know, is William YOU?

William is definitely a part of me. He’s the part of me that takes things too seriously, who doesn’t need anyone’s help, and forgets to enjoy life. And although I love William, I’m working hard to be less William and a little more Anna.

Here’s the weird thing, though. I never spoke to Eglantine about the character’s appearances, nor did she ever see a picture of me. And yet, William kind of looks like me. More than one person has mentioned it. Go figure.


  Short and Sweet:

 Plotter or Pantser?  A plotter who longs to be a pantser.

       Guilty Food Pleasure? Wheat Thins. Also, anything that isn’t nailed down when I’m trying to                  write after 9PM.

       Favorite Hobby? Writing

       Dog or Cat person? Dog

      Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)? Oscar Wilde

       Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Evening

 

                      Check out Mike’s website, https://www.michaeljarmstrongbooks.com/

        And don't miss this special interview with his daughter: https://youtu.be/DbQgaddAfWk


SIX Self-Editing Tips

By Lisa Amstutz

Finishing a story you’ve worked hard on is something to celebrate! Now it’s ready for submission—right? Not so fast! You’ve missed an important step: the self-edit. Once a few days have passed and you can look at your manuscript clearly, take time to revise before sending it out. You’ll want to do this again and again as you continue to get feedback from critique partners and others.

Below are six steps I always take when editing my own work, along with that of my critique clients and mentees. Hopefully they will help you too!

1.     ASSESS YOUR ARC. Before you worry about tweaking words here and there, look at your story as a whole. Is the story arc compelling? Does it evoke some emotion in the reader? Has your main character made several unsuccessful attempts to solve their problem before succeeding? Does the main character solve their own problem? Is the main character relatable to your intended audience?

 2.    PEP UP YOUR PACING. Once you’ve nailed down the story arc, look at the pacing of the story. Have you rushed through some parts, or spent too much time on others? For a picture book, break down the story into spreads (facing pages). Make sure you don’t have too much or too little text on each spread.

 3.    STUDY YOUR SCENES. Are your scenes complete and visual? Do they have a character, setting, and action or turning point of some kind? If it’s a picture book, can you envision different illustrations for each one? This is important for visual interest.

 4.    POLISH YOUR PROSE. Polish your language and make it really sing. Replace passive verbs (e.g., was walking) with active ones (e.g., walked, strolled, sauntered, etc.). Look for adverbs and adjectives and replace them with stronger nouns and verbs whenever possible. Find and simplify “double tags”—places where you’ve used both a dialogue tag and an action. Only one or the other is needed. Look at ways to make your reader want to turn the page in a picture book, or start the next chapter in a longer book.

 5.    READ IT ALOUD. Reading the text aloud is extremely important for picture books, which are intended to be read aloud, and for rhyme. It can also be helpful for longer books. Listen to yourself: are there any places you stumble? Sentences you could make more lyrical or exciting? It may be helpful to have someone else read your text aloud as well.

  6.  PROOFREAD! Before you send your manuscript out, be sure to proofread it and check the formatting. You want to present yourself as a professional, not as someone who will create extra work for their editor or agent. While an error or two will probably not affect an editor or agent’s decision, a manuscript riddled with spelling and grammatical errors will reflect poorly on you. If you use Word, review your spelling and grammar settings. Not only can the program flag potential spelling errors, but you can also set it to catch things like passive voice and extra spaces between sentences (one space is now standard). If grammar and spelling aren’t your strong suits, or if you are not writing in your first language, ask a friend to review the manuscript too.

Self-editing can only take you so far—at some point, you’ll want to get feedback from critique partners or a professional editor—but it will give you a solid start, and learning these skills will help you at each step along the way.

Happy editing!

 Lisa Amstutz is a freelance editor and the author of 150+ books for kids. For information on her editorial services and mentorships, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.