Taking Note of What You Find Hilarious

When I talked about my Commonplace Book “system” of idea storage, there is one thing I neglected to mention–I do keep one other notebook, as well!

In fact, I keep it inside my Commonplace Book–in the back pocket.

Would you like to see it?

My very specialized “Stuff I Find Hilarious!” notebook isn’t for story ideas, really; it’s just a place for me to “notice” what makes me laugh when I’m writing, drawing, or (esp.) reading other picture books. I stole the idea from uber-talented (and hilarious) illustrator Ruth Chan during her SCBWI webinar last winter.

I’ve loved having this repository of perfectly Elayne-ish humor ever since–and, as a huge bonus, it’s a great notebook to look through whenever I need a laugh!

Side note: I wasn’t joking about the notebook being kept in a pocket, was I? (This particular one used to be a jegging pocket, so it’s nice and stretchy, which means it holds things pretty tightly, too. I attached it to the inside of the Commonplace Book with fabric glue and it’s held up very well.)

Storing Your Story Ideas: A Commonplace Solution for Writers

How often have you gotten a great story idea while in the middle of something, but by the time you sit down to put the idea into action, POOF!–it’s disappeared–and you are left to instead curse yourself for losing it (whatever it was)?

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as just writing down your ideas! At least, not the way I did it: in a horrifyingly Byzantine combination of paper scraps, email, Google Photos, index cards, and a huge virtual cork board in Scrivener (once I had amassed dozens and dozens of saved thoughts, looking at it onscreen was a nightmare). And don’t even get me started on finding things when I needed them!

So, when I took David Sedaris’s Storytelling and Humor Masterclass a year ago, I came to appreciate his straightforward system. He takes a tiny notepad with him anywhere he goes, and then at the end of the day, he transcribes the “good stuff” into his diary. (Well, diaries…he’s had quite a few over his writing life.) However, even with his far simpler method, I’d need to have a pen and notepad with me at all times–not ideal for someone who sometimes forgets her keys! So instead, I leaned into my natural process: writing temporary thoughts on whatever is handy (or recording them on my phone)–but then, Sedaris-style, I transcribe the best of them…into this.

Commonplace Book example

I made this Commonplace Book out of a huge sketch pad. I had to both glue and packaging-tape the tabs in so they wouldn’t keep falling out, but I’m pretty happy with it now!

What goes in a Commonplace Book? Anything I might want to return to later: doodles, quotes, tidbits, poems, pictures and more. And because of the alphabetical tabs, I can both organize these bits easily but also easily cross-reference things.

This format makes it very easy for me to revisit thoughts: for research, find connections, and remember what originally inspired me. (I print out and paste in digital bits.) Otherwise, I write or draw it, in erasable pen, which makes it easy for me to erase and make room anywhere I need to. (I love these Pilot FriXion erasable pens.)

Now my Commonplace Book feels even more important and intimate than a journal. I guard it with my life!

Just like writing, there’s no set process that works best for everyone. But whatever system you use, make sure it’s working for you–ideally helping you not only do the bare minimum but actually making your writing life easier and more creative. For me, this is the best I’ve found so far.

My Favorite Writing Craft Books – Useful for Any Writer, in Any Genre!

Writing Craft Comic with Gil the Writer Fish — a comic I wrote as I dove into craft writing books. Author humor, I guess. 🙂

The famous (and beloved) writing craft books I spoofed above are:

  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
  • Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
  • The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

I really wanted to include Story Genius by Lisa Cron…but couldn’t find a good pun for it! 🙂 As far as I know, there is still no book called Killer Hooks, but it’s a commonly used phrase within the writer’s community–the distilled form of the writing pitch, which will (hopefully) draw in readers–and editors.

You can see my full list of recommended craft writing books below.
* If you click through to purchase through Bookshop.org, I may earn a small commission. *

What Feelings Arise When You Look at an Empty Page?

I signed up for the 30th Birthday Program through SCBWI Carolinas this year, a 9-month program designed to walk participants through thirty steps together to create work in spring and summer in time for critique and submission by conference time in the fall.

One of the writing prompts/exercises…well, let’s just say…it brought up some stuff for me!

Mind exploration exercise from SCBWI Carolinas Birthday Program 2022:

Let your mind wander for 20 minutes. (Seriously. Schedule this.) Breathe deeply. It’s ok if your Inner Critic arrives. Invite your Critic to wander around, too. Open a blank journal. What feelings arise when you look at an empty page? Write them down. Start with the sentence, “This blank page makes me feel….”

“This blank page makes me feel…I mean, not all that much. I guess it’s not the blank page I’ve ever been afraid of. I’m nothing if not ideas. If there’s anything that haunts me (so dramatic–LOL), page-wise, it’s the thing I’m happy with but is not connecting with others. I mean, writers always say (well, not just writers, creatives in general) that the finished piece is its own reward. But when is something truly finished? For picture book writers, an unillustrated (even if otherwise delicious) picture book manuscript is, by its own name/admission, unfinished. What is a picture book, without pictures? Many things, of course–but none of them are in any way what you’d call “complete” or even “satisfying”-not entirely. Look (haha) even at B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Sure, it’s funny–and clever–but an anti-picture-book is not what most of us are going for. In some ways, writing as-yet-illustrated picture books is like writing a symphony. If you write it, you can enjoy–LOVE–it! But is it finished if you never hear a symphony play it? Yet, here we are, writing these bits of our hearts onto paper, and hoping they, someday are chosen by an editor/conductor for their chance to shine before an audience. I mean, that is the dream. There’s a reason why people pay good money to see a symphony that they would never pay to read or play the sheet music themselves. It’s the collective virtuosity–the sum that’s much bigger than the parts–that is transformative. That brings people to tears–happy or otherwise. That creates an experience. A picture book–without the art–without the reader–I quake. Show me a person scared of this, and I will show my community of kindreds. Yet…we toil. We march on. We write, revise and submit. If we had a choice, we would’ve quit…forever ago. Back when the page was truly blank. So, no, I’m not scared of a blank page. It should be scared of me.”

I’m sharing the result here because I feel like this doesn’t get talked about enough in the picture book community, and if any of you are feeling this, you aren’t alone. In addition to the usual publishing/writer angst, the acute sense of creative incompleteness that pre-published picture book writers may feel–because our stories rely on a second partner we do not yet have before they are truly “share-able”–can be rough. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that weird limbo, even as we strive to overcome it.

Anyhow, highly recommend the exercise. Try it yourself and see what comes of it. You might just be surprised, as I was.

The Gruffalo Goes Orkney Scots aka Translating Picture Book Rhyme

Quick, picture book writers: what’s the one thing you’ve learned to avoid as much as possible from your countless webinars?

Did you say rhyme*?

Unless it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is*. Except for the rhyming books that we all know and love, which are the greatest*. And also it’s hard to translate*. Also, don’t send it to agents because it will scare them off*. Or editors, because they don’t want to have to edit that craziness*. Unless, you know…it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is.*…

Confused, yet? Understandable! It’s…complicated.

So…here’s what I’ve gleaned from my countless webinars/conferences/crying out into the sky, shaking my fists.

ACTUALLY, agents and editors adore rhyme…so long as it is:

  • impeccable
  • inventive
  • perfect for the kind of story the story is meant to be (meaning: not sing-songy without purpose).

But…there’s the rub. They typically don’t get that with their rhyming submissions. And it hurts their hearts.

It’s like bad rhymers are such bad manuscript-reading dates that they make even the most rhyme-positive editors and agents wonder if they should swear off rhyming altogether.

But what about the editing? What about the translation?? Well…editors love to edit! BUT it has to be something worth their time. Again, there lies the rub. They don’t want to essentially re-write a rhyming picture book for you. Suggesting improvements to something already stellar? I mean, that’s LITERALLY (hardy har har!) their superpower.

So that leaves (for a stellar rhyming picture book)–just the translation issue.

Well, it turns out, even though translating rhyme takes a deft mind, it can be done. And it can be done beautifully! And it WILL be done if the market demands it–if you’ve written such a fabulous book.

Case in point: Let’s all welcome, “The Orkney Gruffalo” the official-Julia-Donaldson-and-Axel-Scheffler-picture book as translated into Orcadian Scots by Simon W. Hall.

Okay, okay, I know both English and Orkney Scots is based on the same language. Still, for English speakers, it’s a great way to see how much work a great translator does–especially when they are keeping rhyme and meter going. Take a look!

American English on the left; Orkney Scots on the left.
American English spread.
Orkney Scot version of the same spread.
See how the meter is the same and the meaning…but how different the ending sounds.
It’s so great to see how flexible language is!

Also…the obvious work and love that goes into translating poetry and rhyme…well, let’s just say, this is why translators deserve to have their names on the front cover of the book, too.

Well done, Simon W. Hall!

So, I guess here is one way to gauge if you think your rhyming picture book is ready to submit. Would this–could this possibly?–be financially worth translating into Orkney Scots? If it is–you’ve got yourself a winner of a rhyming picture book. Because that means it’s a universal tale told in a wonderful way.

You can do it! It’s…just going to take a lot of work and one heckuva idea.

But you already knew that. 🙂 Go get it, friend!

(Side note: The Orkney Scots version this was given as a gift to my boys some time ago…and we actually all PREFER it to the original, it has become so beloved! Shhh! Please don’t tell Julia!)

Some Thoughts on “The Monster at the End of this Book”

cover of The Monster at the End of This Book picture book

This one is for the lovers, the dreamers, and mostly…me.

Because if I’m being honest with myself (NOT always easy to do), as much as I loved all the books in my childhood (and I mean loved!)…I’m not sure there was one that gave me such goosebumps…such a thrill when I first read it! (I think I actually remember the first time I read it…even though I would have been a toddler!) as “The Monster at the End of This Book,” by Jon Stone and illustrator Michael Smollin.

It’s not sexy (in a trying to become a profound, literary children’s author way) to admit this because I SHOULD say something written by a Pillar of the Literary Establishment and not (almost exclusively) commercial. Still, if there’s anything I’m learning about writing for children, honesty is THE most crucial part of it. I mean, no one considered this book for a Newbery or a Caldecott, did they? (And why is that, anyhow? But I digress.)

So what did Little Elayne love about this book?

Readers, it’s taken me a while to think about this. The obvious answers: it’s fun, it’s meta, it’s Grover…were only part of it. I know that because I read lots of other fun and meta and even Grover-y books, but they didn’t really stick.

And here’s what I think made this book my forbidden love:

It made me be bad.

As much as any writer likes to think of themselves as a bad*ss who writes/speaks “the truth” to “power,”…I was not one of those kids. Sidenote: I don’t think that’s uncommon for kids, especially little girls. My #1 mode of operation as a kid was: MAKE ADULTS LIKE ME…and if that made other kids find me annoying (and they did), so be it (and it was).

But in order to do the “good thing” of finishing this book…I had to do bad things, things that Grover (that lovable muppet) literally BEGGED me not to do. I had to destroy his creations. I had to ignore his pleas. I (maybe) had to offer him up as a possible sacrifice to the “monster” the book promised.

It was deliciously dark, at least for a rules-follower. BUT, because the #1 rule of bookworm readers is, “Turn the page when it’s time…,” I could do that…and not feel bad! It was thrilling and liberating…forbidden fruit, in the form of a Sesame Street, and therefore parent-approved, story.

Hot take: I don’t automatically love stories where an animal eats another animal at the end as a “surprise.” I’m sorry. I know these are editor favorites, so that’s why I almost don’t want to admit it. I don’t think I’m too sappy or anything. I don’t think, “Oh, that’s mean!” per se. BUT…I think of it as a bit ho-hum. (Probably too many animal documentaries.)

Instead, in “The Monster at the End of This Book,” the final surprise is: you can be bad…and sometimes…it works out.

LOL! Talk about dark truth!

And that’s why to this day…it’s still maybe the most influential book I’ve read

…if I’m being honest. 🙂

Five Great Questions to Ask When Getting–or Giving!–a Lyrical Picture Book Critique

I recently attended a great webinar by the wonderful children’s book author Pat Zietlow Miller, titled “Lovely, Lyrical Language: Writing the Perfect Plotless Picture Book.”

All the thinking about lyrical picture books got me thinking about how hard it can sometimes feel to get (or give!) a great critique of a ‘plotless’ picture book. How to judge something so evocative? So…inherently subjective? (Well, all critiques are subjective…but especially so in these cases.)

So, during the Q&A, I asked Pat something to the effect of, “HELP!!! What are some good critique questions for lyrical picture books?”–only, you know, my original question was far more longwinded and poorly-worded.

Of course, she delivered! Here’s what she suggested–use them for your next lyrical picture book critique to make sure you are crafting the lyrical love!

  • Did you get bored anywhere?
  • Did you find anything too repetitive?
  • Is there enough balance between the universal (the broad strokes) and the specific (the details)?
  • Are there any lines you think could be more creative?
  • Can you read this aloud to me? <–I especially love this one! Couldn’t hurt and I never think to do that!

A huge thank you to Pat for giving me permission to share her super handy questions with you. She’s the best! You should follow her on Twitter, and Instagram, and check out all her wonderful books.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some questions to ask myself as I re-read my latest lyrical picture book manuscript!

5 Ways to Support Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators — For Free!

Of course, we all want our favorite authors and illustrators to write more books! Here are some great, no-cost ways to support your favorite authors and illustrators, whether you are completely broke–or not!

1. Request their title(s) from your local public library! Libraries are super important customers to publishers, and libraries will buy multiple copies of very popular books. If your local library doesn’t carry the book, request it! That can make an even bigger difference–other book lovers might learn about your favorite author and/or illustrator just by seeing your requested book out and about at their branch after you are done reading it!

2. Review their book(s)! There are a lot of places to review books; use whatever platform you use normally and then branch out–you can often just copy and paste your same review to a few different spots. If you have read a book, but haven’t purchased it on Amazon, it’s still okay to review it there; they are perfectly fine with it (it just won’t say “Verified Review” on it…no biggie). Goodreads is another great site to leave positive reviews on, as it alerts other book lovers to the book and what they might enjoy about it. Your library might even allow for book reviews–check your local library’s website for details.

3. Talk about them on social media! If you just finished a book that you loved, post a quick pic of it with why you loved it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter…wherever you live digitally. Not only will you be sharing the love, but you might find out that you have yet another awesome thing in common with your online friends! Don’t forget to tag the author, illustrator and/or publisher! (They will be thrilled!)

4. Follow the author and/or illustrator! Speaking of online stuff, most of your favorite authors or illustrators will have a social media account (or two…or seven). By following them, not only do you add to their all-important follower count, but you will hear directly from them about upcoming titles, see process sneak peeks, and sometimes even win free goodies (like signed copies–or other nifty swag).

5. Nominate the book! There are heaps of awards for books–including many that are audience-chosen (Goodreads being a popular example). But many local book festivals, parenting magazines, state-wide organizations, and more also have great opportunities for you to suggest that your favorite book gets the accolades it deserves! Keep your ears and eyes out and you just might be the one that makes something big happen for your favorite author or illustrator!

Office or Library Decor Inspiration Files: PWA Posters

I’m sure you’ve heard of the famous Public Works Administration part of the New Deal package from back in the 1930s when the U.S. government invested in a swathe of long-term infrastructure and public works projects–including public information and education projects.

WELL…some of those projects related to libraries! Poster artist and lithographer Arlington Gregg did a series of graphic posters to educate/remind patrons how to care for the books they are entrusted with–and they are available for anyone to use now.

If you’ve been wondering what to plaster on your office or library wall, wonder no more! These downloadable images from the archives of the Library of Congress can be printed and used free of charge.

Search the Library of Congress website for free, downloadable Arlington Gregg scanned images.