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.

When the Sun is Eclipsed by the Moon (#50PreciousWords entry)

If you’ve been a member of the children’s writing community, especially the picture book writing community, for any length of time, I’m sure you know about lovely Vivian Kirkfield, a writer who does double-duty as a cheerleader for so many starting out. She is running a writer’s contest right now that she calls “50 Precious Words” (#50PreciousWords).

Here’s what Vivian had to say about why she started the contest:
I thought, wouldn’t that be a great challenge…to write a story for kids with only 50 words or less? With a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

It’s not too late to enter! See the process and all the details and rules on her blog. It runs through midnight on Sunday, March 6, 2022.

Here’s my entry. It’s my first go at this one, and I thought it would be fun to write a non-fiction story with STEM components. I thought of the 2017 Solar Eclipse, which was not my first eclipse but was the first one I’d viewed as a real “occasion.” Our whole family went to the local park with our special glasses, and I remember so well the strange details of that beautiful progression–how the animals reacted, especially. Those memories, tied with some research, formed the basis for this very short text that takes us through a full solar eclipse. I hope you enjoy it.

When the Sun is Eclipsed by the Moon
By Elayne Crain (49 words, STEM, non-fiction)

When the sun fades away
halfway through the day…

The moon approaches.
The birds roost.

The world hushes.
The dark deepens.

The moon haloes.
The people marvel.

The crickets chirp.
The frogs serenade.

The moon passes.
The light builds.

…when the sun’s on display,
it is once again day!

James Marshall, one of my favorites

One of my very favorite illustrations from the wonderful George and Martha books by James Marshall – How could anyone not love these two?? Impossible.

You probably know him for his illustration work on the “Miss Nelson is Missing!” picture book series and on the far more polarizing (though equally popular) “The Stupids” series. However, as much as I love his illustration work, I love James Marshall most for one thing…that “one” thing being 35 stories about two hippos named George and Martha. (Of course, I’m not the only one.)

One of my favorite books of all time.
I never grow tired of it.

George and Martha were not named after the Washingtons, but rather the couple from the Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? James (let’s call him Jim, as his friend did) purportedly first sketched Martha while laying in a hammock outside his mother’s house, while she was watching the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movie of the same name.

As he lived only a few miles from the UCONN Storrs campus, between 1976-1990 Jim gave yearly lectures to students in Francelia Butler’s Children’s Literature course there. The talks were recorded on audiocassette (remember those?), which have since been digitized so you can listen to Jim’s off-the-cuff lectures online. Though there is a lot of repetition, I found it fun to listen in on them as he reads from his books, discusses his process and answers audience questions.

It’s clear that George and Martha are not just my favorites; he talks about them deeply, frequently and always with great affection. If you stick with the entire lecture series (which I realize takes a certain amount of time and neediness), you will hear fascinating stories and details. Even the many repeated stories I found rewarding; I noted over the years how he honed his stories, adding and omitting (in some cases very interesting) details, sometimes in telling ways.

According to his sharing during these sessions, he was something of a prodigy-style viola player in his younger years and planned on being a musician; however, during what he referred to as a “plane accident in Puerto Rico in 1960,” he suffered nerve damage in his hand and his musical career ended. Instead, he took on a job as a high school teacher, which he referred to as “the hardest thing in the world,” teaching French (which he knew) and Spanish (which, by his own admission, he definitely did not). His drawing was a hobby he picked up again as a stress reliever during that time.

Jim’s mother and he had a loving but complicated relationship; she apparently never accepted that he was gay. Though the family claimed in his obituary that he died of a brain tumor in 1992, his sister and Maurice Sendak later said that Jim died of AIDS-related complications, another wonderfully creative life cut tragically short by that epidemic.

Rather than dwelling on the sadness of that, though, let’s celebrate what he did in his 50 mere years on Earth: 92 published books (at least) that he either illustrated or authored (often both) within a span of only 21 years in the business. Isn’t that amazing? And, even more impressively, I think most picture book lovers could spot his work from 100 paces–that’s how distinctive a style he had. It’s remarkable, and so was he.

7 easy steps to improve your author or writer name Google search results

I can’t promise that will be easy for you to make the top page of Google results (depending on how common your name is), but I can promise you will see big improvements if you put even a little work into improving your author or writer’s name search results–because nearly no one ever does. And that includes your competition.

The first step is to Google your first and last name. If a lot of people have your exact name, add the word ‘writer’ after when you search, like an editor or agent would do when trying to find you, to clarify things.

Print the results or take a screenshot to refer to later as you make improvements. (I wish I had done this–it would be great to show how much I improved with so little work!) Don’t freak out if you barely have anything that shows up on the first page or two or if your top results are okay but not your favorites.

Questions to ask of your results

Is there anything potentially confusing or damaging that comes up? In my case, there was a fake Twitter account that was pretending to me at my old employer and was tweeting scam content. It wasn’t really succeeding, but it wasn’t great to have it there (on the first page of search results!), so I’m glad I took the initiative to remove it. That involved contacting my old employer and having them ask Twitter to remove it for copyright violation reasons. Twitter took down the scam account quickly (within a week), but it took a few weeks after that for Google to stop showing the deleted account in my results, even though the link no longer worked. I just had to wait it out. Hopefully, you will just have typical results, but better to get moving on those longer-term battles first before the fun stuff.

What should be on there that isn’t, or that is too far down? This is where you want to think hard because you can change this: adding content to Google, or improving content for Google, is far easier than removing results. So, weirdly, what is not on there is more helpful to consider than what is…like…

Are all the social media accounts you want an editor or agent to see showing up? If not, it could be because your name is not your user handle; if so, consider changing that. It’s ideal to have your social media accounts be your actual name plus a writerly word — especially instead of something random (i.e., ElayneCrainWrites beats pancakelover8909 if you have to get creative — you’ll be easier to identify on both that platform and also by Google).  You can usually change your account handle without starting a new account. Side note: if you are going to bring your middle initial into this, make sure you refer to yourself everywhere that way. For example, don’t call yourself Elayne N. Crain on Twitter and Instagram, but then submit a query from Elayne Crain. Submit the query from Elayne N. Crain, too, then. It’s essential to be consistent if you want Google to start piling things up and recognizing you for whatever the editor or agent will search for. 

You won’t be able to remove legit content from someone who shares your name, but you can outrank them–and probably pretty quickly! The biggest thing is to make sure anything that is yours that does show up is current and echoing the same information (especially your name!). For me, I had to update my bio in many places because some said I lived in Nashville, some Melbourne, some Seattle, etc. Some mentioned I was a writer; others didn’t. That could be confusing to anyone who only knows that I currently live in Seattle and write picture books, let alone Google. Some of the social media places that Google loves are Linkedin, Twitter, and Pinterest. If you have an account there, definitely make sure it talks about you as a writer, in addition to whatever else is on there. Same with the other social media biggies (Instagram, YouTube, etc.)

Consider creating social media accounts for those you don’t have–especially Twitter and LinkedIn. Even if you create a Twitter account and pin a Tweet that says, for example, “I am only on Twitter sporadically; see me on Instagram (or whatever) at @ElayneCrain,” that will help you in Google search results–plus, you’ll have reserved your name if you want to use that account later. And if you don’t have a LinkedIn account or have one for your day job, you can still either create a quick one that explains you are a writer or add it as a hobby or interest to your existing profile. 

Once you have updated all you can, you have to wait for Google to notice what you’ve changed, which can feel frustrating. Set yourself a reminder to re-Google yourself in one week, two weeks, and a month. You will see improvements, as well as weird rearranging of things you may not have expected. It can be like whack-a-mole — you get something great added, but now something else you like is lower on the page. That’s okay and normal. The main thing is to get as many items as you can updated and working together so that if an editor or agent goes to look for you, they find you without much effort–and so they see you at your online best.

#FallWritingFrenzy entry

Agent/author Kaitlyn Sanchez and author Lydia Lukidis cohost an annual writing contest, Fall Writing Frenzy, where #kidlit writers of all genres pair 200-words-or-fewer stories, poems or whatever strikes with preselected images. As they say, “You can write about the picture in a literal or metaphorical way, or focus on a memory or emotion it elicits.”

Here’s the image that I was inspired by this year, which brought back memories of the dinosaur days when costumes were more likely to be homemade–for better…or worse

Halloween trick or treaters
Halloween trick or treaters – Credit: Bing

Halloween costume fail (80 words)
by Elayne Crain

Most homemade costumes are wonderful;
too bad this is not one of those.
Instead, I’m wearing a white trash bag
over Mom’s old pantyhose.

Cardboard hangs from my front and my back,
with a third piece I’ve painted brown.
It’s late so I grab my pumpkin pail
and head to de-candy my town.

But no one can guess just what I am—
each doorbell’s becoming a chore.
It turns out that perhaps I needed
to work on this costume S’more.

Interested in submitting your own? The contest runs through October 3. Click on the badge to be taken to the page for more info.

girl wearing poorly conceived s'more costume
S’more girl illustration
by Elayne Crain