Monday, September 29, 2014

But I Don't Want My Story to Rhyme! ~ by Patricia Toht

I write poems. I write picture books, too. But it's not often that I bring them together to produce a picture book completely in rhyme.

Why not? Here's a little poem of explanation.

Picture book writers are told: "Publishers don't like rhyme." But judging by the number of rhyming picture books in the market, that statement cannot be factual. I think the truth behind the statement may be summarized by one editor's admission. "It's not that I don't like rhyme," she said. "It's just that I don't know how to fix rhyme." With sentiment stacked against rhymers, I usually begin my picture book stories in prose.

But once in awhile, a story comes along that wants to rhyme. That demands to rhyme. Stomps its foot (in pounding iambic pentameter) until I finally give in.
Photo by Julian King
Creative Commons license

Now, I know the basic rules of writing a picture book in rhyme:
1) Perfect the meter.
2) Avoid near or contrived rhymes.
3) Don't twist syntax to make a rhyme fit.
4) Make sure the story comes first.

But there's more to it than that. Since my latest manuscript is a rhyme-demander, I've been doing my homework to figure out what makes a masterful rhyming picture book. Here's my process.

Step 1 -- Gather Books

Step 2 -- Read and Sort
The manuscript I'm working on is story-driven, so I weed out the books that are more concept-based. The concept books are wonderful, but I need to see how story and rhyme come together. Some of the authors that end up in my "story" pile are Julia Donaldson, Karma Wilson, Lisa Wheeler, Jill Esbaum and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen.

Step 3 -- Study
I re-read the remaining books, both silently and aloud. I ask my kids to read them to me. I type out several of them. I revel in brilliant rhythm and rhyme, but I also study other things:
Word count
Page count
Stanza structure
Rhyme scheme
Page turns

Step 4 -- Discover!
Here's what I've discovered so far:
• Many texts are longer than I thought they'd be -- over 700 words, 36 or even 40 pages long.
• The most common stanza structure is the quatrain.
• The most common rhyme scheme is ABCB.
• Clever page turns help move story forward. One effective method is to end a page with the penultimate word of a stanza. The reader wants to complete the rhyme and hurries to turn the page.
• I like when authors shake things up a bit. Some use a refrain that has a shorter or longer structure. Some vary stanza length (e.g. one written in couplets throws in a tercet every so often). Some use action words, noises or dialogue to interrupt the flow. 
 "But isn't that spoiling the rhythm?" you might ask. Well, too steady of a rhythm can lull a reader to sleep. That's great for a bedtime book, but not so great for lively stories.
• In the best books, every line works to move the story forward. (No gratuitous lines in order to complete a rhyme!)

I know the information I'm learning will guide me in writing a rhyming picture book. Do you have a story that demands rhyme, too? Go for it! But make it behave the way you want it to.

Friday, September 26, 2014

How a Writing Marathon Can Impact Your Writing: Part 3 by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

This week I've shared information about hosting a writing marathon for students. But I can't ignore one important thing: how the writing marathon impacted the writers involved.

When people tell me they don't have time to write, I'm amazed. You DO have time. If you have 15 minutes or 30 minutes to spare, you can get something done. You might think you can't get much done in 30 minutes, but 30 minutes adds up over time.

How can a short-term challenge impact your writing?

Challenges provide accountability.
Students expected me to be there to open up the library door for them every morning at 7:30. I was there, with my computer up and ready to write. There is a great energy in knowing that you are not alone and that as you sit and hear other keys tap-tapping, it's motivational.

If you are a teacher, consider writing with your students on a schedule. Don't deviate from the schedule.

If you are a writer, consider meeting up with other writers to write—not talk, but write. If you can't get together in person, set up a date and text each other or Tweet each other when the starting and ending times. Check in together.

Have a plan.
I had to know going into the marathon what I was going to work on. I had an educational related writing project I wanted to work on, so I worked on it every day for the month of February. At the end of the month, I had a proposal, an outline, and several sample chapters.

If you are a teacher, consider working on a project that you haven't had time to do. It can be writing down memories. Just work on something. I shared my project with my students. I didn't read it to them, but I wanted them to know WHAT I was working on.

If you are a writer, consider the project that has been tapping on the back of your brain for awhile. Work on that project 30 minutes a day.

Keep track of your progress.
I made my students keep track, so I kept track too. As writers, we can get bogged down in the mindset that we aren’t making progress. That evil editor whispers in our ears that we can't do it. But if you write down what you did, then you CAN see your progress. I used the same tracking sheet that my students did.

If you are a writer, consider keeping a DONE list. What did you accomplish, no matter how small?
If you are a teacher, I hope this series has given you some food for thought.  I hope that you will consider stretching your students and yourself—to write what you never thought you could.

If you are a writer, I hope that these few students inspire you. If they can write a half hour everyday before school starts, so can you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing Marathon Resources Part #2 by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Creating a marathon can be done with little to no cost at all. Today I will focus on the resources that I used to create a successful writing marathon. If you want to know more about the marathon, read this post.

Goal Setting
I met with the writing marathon students at the end of January. We created goals for the marathon, including daily, weekly, and monthly goals. We created a time and word count goal as well. It sounds complicated, but it wasn't. I created a little sheet where they could record their goals and keep track of what they accomplished each day.

We used Chrome books and students typed their writing into Google Docs. There are multiple reasons for this.
  1.     At the time, students were expected to type their writing for their statewide writing test. They needed experience typing their writing. Thankfully, this coming year, there is not writing test at the elementary level.
  2.     Using Google docs provided an easy way for them to keep track of their word count.
  3.     All of our students have access to Google Docs through our school.

If students didn't have Internet access at home, I gave them paper to keep in their writing marathon folder.

Each student received a folder with their goal sheet, paper, and prompts.

Writing Prompts
I created writing prompts for everyday. Students did NOT have to use them. In fact, many didn't. I only provided them so students would have something to write about, if they got stuck.

If you participate in a running marathon, you get a medal. But you don't just do it for the medal. It's too stinking hard and requires way too much work to just get a medal. Runners run marathons because they have some other intrinsic motivation, but the medal is nice reminder of the accomplishment.

Students who participated all received recognition. They received certificates, journals, and pens. Target and Michael's all had nice journals.

The top finishers in word count and time all received books about writing.

Do you have a great resource or suggestion? Leave it in the comments.

This series was originally posted on Marcie Atkins' website. It is the second in a 3-part series. Come back on Friday for more.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Writing Marathon Part 1 by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

What is a Writing Marathon?

A running marathon is just a smidge over 26 miles. I got the idea of doing a writing marathon at school with my students while listening to a podcast about NaNoWriMo. I don't usually participate in NaNoWriMo, but I do participate in PiBoIdMo, where I devote the whole month to brainstorming picture book ideas. Several years in a row, I also participated in the PictureBook Marathon during the month of February. The goal was to do write 26 picture book drafts (no matter how bad they were) in 28 days, with two days of rest.

Pushing yourself through a challenge can really make you realize that you can do more than you ever thought possible.

So I put all of these ideas together and tweaked it to make it applicable to fourth and fifth grade students. I wanted them to get a sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing yourself in an area that sometimes can be challenging.

One of the things we noticed as teachers is that students lacked fluency and stamina in writing. For instance, it's hard to get them to persevere for longer than 10-15 minutes in writing.

I knew that from my own writing, in the beginning, when you start to make writing a habit, some days it's hard to get more than a paragraph out. But as you write each and every day, it gets easier and easier to get more words out. It builds your writing muscle.

Creating a Writing Marathon for Students

Who Participates?
I created the writing marathon for fourth and fifth grade students, but you could do this with younger kids or adult writers. In fact, if you are a writer, I challenge you to try this out for yourself.

If you are a teacher who wants to do this at your school, you need to do this WITH your students. It will help you see just how hard it is to push through every day for 26 days. You will become more empathetic when kids are struggling to write, and at the end, you will also accomplish something for yourself.

When is the Marathon?
I set it up in February because it's a short month, and nowhere near the beginning-of-school-craziness, the holiday madness, or the end-of-the-year testing nightmare. February is quiet. And it's a great way to get through one the worst days of winter.

I set ours up before school. School begins at 8:00am, but doors open for students at 7:30am. If students wanted to participate at school with a group, then I met them in the library every morning and wrote with them.

Students could also do it at home, but with so many after school activities, sports, and homework, this sometimes made students get bogged down with other things.

There is something special about writing while still a bit sleepy.

How to Create an Atmosphere

My principal purchased granola bars for our writing marathon. Students came in, grabbed a granola bar, if they wanted one, and a computer. I had soft classical music playing. I highly recommend soft music. It minimizes and sometimes eliminates socializing, and it provides a soothing atmosphere.

Sometimes, as writers we need cues to start. Much like knowing when to come out for your part in the play, you need to know "this is when I write." The music is on, I have something to eat, let's get busy.

How do you create an atmosphere conducive to writing for yourself or your students? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday's post will feature writing marathon resources.

Friday's post will feature impact on writers.

Friday, September 19, 2014


So you spent months, even years, slaving away at a manuscript. You picked the right hook. Your first line is enticing. Your beginning set the stage. You jumped straight into the scene because you heard that's what agents want. You built your character with strengths as well as flaws. (You even contemplated whacking them off at the end. )Your plot is strong. Conflict is established - man versus man, society, nature, or self. The arc strikes an emotional response from the reader. Finally, a satisfying ending.

You revised over and over. Now what?

If you are not in a critique group, it is time to find one. Why? It's simple. It is an important component to your writing success. Critique Partners (CP) can help you find the faults in your draft and polish your work so it is ready for query status.

How do you choose the right critique partners?  

Do not find the "caterers." Those are the ones who cater to your feeling. The ones who tell you what you want to hear versus what you need to know. The one who is afraid you will break down and cry your poor heart out so it is easier to stroke your ego. Family members are out unless they made millions selling novels or have won major writing awards. Your family love you. They will not want to hurt your feelings. You want honest feedback. You want to know what it is you are doing wrong. You want the opportunity to correct it and make your manuscript marketable and saleable.

I have been in a few groups. At this time, I have some great critique buddies. I have the kind of buddies that tell me how to make the manuscript better. I also have some readers that I can send my manuscript to and get immediate feedback. But this all started because I build relationship. Critiquing is about building relationships.

If you are in a group where the members are always bickering, do yourself a favor and leave. Negative energy drains your creative spark. Establish rules from the beginning. Treat others the way you want to be treated. And be respectful of all time. Writing is not easy. And we all can benefit from love and support.

How do you find the group?

* Check various social media sites. WOW Nonfic on Facebook have critique groups for picture book writers. So check within other groups to see what they have available.

*Writing Conferences. After the WOW Retreat 2014, I came home with new friends and a boatload of critique buddies. The connection I made with these ladies was unbelievable. Now I always have someone to read and give feedback if needed.

*Writers Associations have local chapters in your area. Give them a call. Find out when and where they meet. And if they do not have one, you start it.

In summation, think about your critique groups. Are they beneficial to your writing? Do the members of your group write in your genre. Think about it. If you write picture books and your critique group are young adult authors, this group may not be right for you. Picture book writing and young adult writing are not the same. In picture books, every word counts. In young adult, you have more words with which to play. So now and find the right group. Let us know if your group is right for you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Staying AFLOAT with Picture Book Author Laura Sassi: 4 Writerly Things I Learned From Noah & his Ark (And a GIVEAWAY!)

I want to welcome one of my writing buddies, Laura Sassi, to the Grog blog.  I'm so proud of Laura, because she's on a blog tour for her debut picture book, Goodnight, Ark, published by Zonderkidz. I've had the opportunity to read it, and some special person will win a copy here. (U.S. residents only)

Take it away, Laura...

Thank you for hosting me on my first ever blog tour! I’m so excited that GOODNIGHT, ARK is finally afloat, but the journey to this point was not easy. I spent two years getting my story ready to float. Was all that time worth it? You bet. 

Now, in celebration of the release of GOODNIGHT, ARK, here are four things Noah and his ark have taught me about getting boats, er stories, to float. 

Don’t expect your boat to float overnight. When I first got the idea for GOODNIGHT, ARK my mind whirred with possibilities. Which animals would be scared of what?  How would they get to Noah’s bed? And how would Noah ever comfort them and return them to their bunks?  I knew early on that I wanted to write the story in rhyme but finding the perfect meter and line length did not come easily. So I played around with plot and form again, and again, and again. Each time I finished a draft, I’d put it away and work on other things for several weeks so I could see it with fresh eyes. I repeated this cycle for two years and each time the story improved so much that it ended up with two offers! That experience has taught me not to worry about how long a story is taking me to write. Instead, I relax and let creativity work at its own pace until my stories are buoyant and ready to set sail.

Every ARK needs an ARC. Even with all that revising, my agent thought the initial version of GOODNIGHT ARK I sent her was too quiet. In that early version, the storm escalated and animals kept piling in, but there was no sense of rising action or urgency in resolving the night-time pile up. Except for the fact that the animals changed, the scenes were essentially static. In other words what the ark needed was an arc! The story still needed to be soothing for littlest readers, so I knew any tension/ rising action I infused had to be playful and fun. It took many hours of writing and re-writing, but I hope readers will agree that the final version with its ark tipping, bed crashing buildup and stinky, yet ultimately soothing, resolution is anything but static. I now analyse all my stories for effective rising action, climax, and resolution early on in the writing process. One way I do this is by making a 32-page dummy. That way it’s easy to see if your scenes are static as they build across 14 - 15 spreads or if there’s a sense of rising action etc. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you have little ones at home who like illustrating your dummies!

Don’t overload the decks. Noah’s ark was sturdy and well-planned with three decks, but though Noah may have been tempted to bring aboard extra animals, thank goodness, he showed restraint and took only two of each. Overcrowding would have put a strain on provisions. Worse yet, the ark might have capsized! Likewise, as a writer, I’m sometimes tempted to overcrowd my story with cute phrases and details that only weigh down the plot. During early stages of a project, I don’t worry about overwriting. My goal at that point is simply to build my story. Before I let it out of the port, however, I make sure to streamline the plot so every word and event pushes the story forward.

Everything’s better with a buddy. Noah didn’t try to build the ark all alone. His family cheered him on and pitched in with the building, providing much needed moral support amid the taunts and jeers of the onlookers. Likewise, I’ve found that the long, hard journey to publication just wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family, my lovely agent, and the wonderful network of like-minded children’s writers I’ve connected with over the years, many of whom have become dear friends and trusted critique partners. So, my last bit of ark-themed advice for staying afloat and giving your stories a floating chance, is to find a writing buddy or two to join you on the journey!

BIO:Laura’s poems, stories, articles and crafts have appeared in many publications including Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ladybug, Spider, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr., FamilyFun, and Pack-O-Fun. GOODNIGHT, ARK, published by Zonderkidz, a HarperCollins Company, and illustrated by Jane Chapman is her first picture book. She is represented by Lara Perkins of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Laura writes from her century-old home in New Jersey where she lives with her awesome husband, two adorable kids, and a black cockapoo named Sophie. You can also find her on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. 

Leave a comment for Laura here and sign on the Rafflecopter to be entered into a drawing to win her new picture book, Goodnight, Ark. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. resident and have a physical address, not a P.O. Box. Thanks! Drawing will be held Sunday 9/21 after 8 pm CST.
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