The Picture Book Light Bulb Moment

I am always seeking new ways to grow my writing skills, and this year has been no different. One of the challenges/goals that I’ve set for myself is to write picture books for the younger set. I think I may have blogged about this last summer after I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference as I was so in awe on the amazing work being done in this genre.

The fact is I had no idea how truly difficult it is to write a picture book. (I am going to go out on a limb here and say I am not alone in this.) Here’s what I knew I HAD to do:

Keep your story under 550 words. Okay, easy enough.

Have a story that will resonate with both the child and the reader, meaning the adult who will be hopefully reading your story a million times in one day.

Sounds easy enough right? WRONG! I had no idea of the reality of balancing these elements and more.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I started a picture book challenge group in January and have taken numerous online (and sometimes free) workshops:

A picture book is not merely a 550-word story. Okay, this was the BIGGIE for me. I had written a sweet, quiet story that takes place primarily in one location with two characters, and the feedback I got on the story was overwhelmingly positive save for one thing: IT WAS NOT A PICTURE BOOK. Huh? I truly didn’t understand the criticism at first. Add more movement to the story? AH NO, then it wouldn’t be the same story. There wasn’t supposed to be movement.

And that my friends is why it IS NOT a picture book story.

Picture books must have enough scenes and page turns to fill 32-pages of illustrations. No one wants to see the same picture over all those pages. In pictures books, the images and the words are intertwined. They must fit with each other and share the narrative equally. If you don’t have enough movement in your story, the illustrator will have nothing to create and your story will fail.

You have NO IDEA how long it took me to finally wrap my head around this difference. I mean I understood that there were pictures and that they go hand in hand, but I didn’t truly grasp what that means in terms of how the words must flow.

What made the difference, you ask?

I read lots of recently-published picture books since I’ve started my year of picture book writing. I’ve read them and reread and analyzed them.

I participated in online workshops and learned from published authors.

I kept writing and reviewing my own work.

It turns out what I had written is a lovely, quiet, sweet story best suited for children’s magazines. I’m going to revise the story now with an eye toward the magazine market. Some of the other manuscripts I’ve written since the start of the year do met the criteria for a picture book and will be revised with an eye toward submission in that genre.

I’m going to keep learning and growing. Will I be disappointed if after all this I don’t have the skills to write for the junior set? Nope. I have gained so much from just the work I’m putting into it, I feel it has made me a stronger writer in other areas.

Fellow writers, is there something you’ve learned in your writing journey? Maybe a misconception that you had when you started out that you now know isn’t true? Leave your comments below, so we can all learn from your experiences.

Why Chapter One Had to Go!

If you are interested in writing, you no doubt have heard the old saying “writing is rewriting.” Nothing gets published without editing, revising, editing some more, revising some more and then starting the process all over again.

Sometimes those changes are minor, such as when you realize that you forgot punctuation or that a sentence doesn’t have the impact you hoped it would have.

In the case of the fourth book in my Achdus Club series, The Wedding Dance, this process actually led me to delete the entire original first chapter of the book. In my original draft, Tova Green, one of the main characters in the series, is shown at a physical therapy appointment with therapist Jill after being in a car accident in book three.

Here’s a snippet from that original opener:

“How’s my favorite fourth-grader doing today?” Jill asked Tova as she came over with a HEAT wrap that she put around Tova’s arm.

Tova shrugged and said, “Okay.”

“Just okay?” Jill asked. “Is your arm giving you trouble? Do you want to show me where it’s hurting?”

“It’s not my arm,” Tova said with a sigh as Jill checked the bandage around Tova’s injury.

“Well what then? It must be something,” said Jill. “You’re like my ray of sunshine client. I don’t have many of those, and if you’re down about something it must be super serious. So come on, girl, spill. Maybe I can help.”

Tova glanced over at her mother and saw she was concentrating on her book. She didn’t seem at all interested in what Tova was saying so Tova decided to share her thoughts. Well, not the ones about not wanting to come to physical therapy anymore, that she’d keep to herself. There was no reason not to tell Jill what else was on her mind.

“See, I have this new teacher,” Tova began, talking as fast as she could, “well substitute teacher, at least I think she is, or maybe she’s not.” Tova shook her head. “I’m not sure. Anyways, she’s not like my other teacher, my old teacher, who isn’t old at all, that’s just how long she’s been my teacher.”

I liked that the scene wasn’t something you’d ordinarily expect to find in the series, but there were several problems with this scene as a whole:

The character of Jill, Tova’s physical therapist, is introduced at the beginning of the book making readers think she will be important and return later. Turns out she did not get another scene. This was it.

2. More medical stuff … I wasn’t sure that the reader would enjoy seeing Tova in therapy.

3. Much of the scene is simply Tova talking to Jill and rehashing things for new readers.

4. There’s no real “Achdus Club” feel to the opener.

In an effort to address all these concerns, I tried crafting a few other scenes. Here’s part of the opening that eventually made it into the book:

Hili Rosen pulled open the door to the bakery as wide as she could as she waited for her best friend Tova Green to catch up. Tova wasn’t so much walking as she was hobbling, given that she was using crutches to get around. It was an improvement, though, over the wheelchair, and a sign that her friend was getting back to health, slowly, after having been hit by a car a few weeks earlier.

“Honestly, this is ridiculous,” said Tova with a huff as she entered the bakery. “Whoever came up with these things was just plain mean. I mean, my arms hurt, my hands hurt, and my leg is just plain annoying me.”

“That’s the Tova Green I know and love,” Hili joked as she closed the door behind them.

They made their way up to the counter, where rows of frosting-covered cupcakes, sprinkle cookies, and a wide array of fancy cakes beckoned. Tova’s mother had given them enough money to pick up a loaf of bread and some cookies. There were two women ahead of them in the store, so they waited as patiently as they could.

“I dare you to try these things, Hili,” Tova said. “I mean, they’re like…like…”

Crutches?” Hili said. “At least you’re getting better. That’s something. Before you know it, you’ll be back to normal.”

“You sound like my physical therapist,” said Tova. “Every time I have a session with her, she says, ‘It’s one more step to you getting back to normal.’ Really, I think I’m done wishing things would change. I just want them all to go back to the way they were.”

“You mean to normal?”

Ha! By the way, that includes Morah Steiner coming back and being our teacher again.”

Then there was this exchange to end of the scene:

I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hili said, as she noticed that the two women in front of them kept looking back at them and whispering.

They’re talking about me,” Tova said, her voice just above a whisper.

Hili couldn’t disagree. It was rude and she wished she knew what to say to the grown-ups. If only they knew how upset Tova got by all the attention. So she was on crutches? Big deal. Yes, she’d been in an accident. Yes, it hurt. Yes, she occasionally still had some pain. That didn’t mean that Tova wanted to be the topic of conversation.

The first woman on line took her bag from the cashier and turned to leave. She stopped in front of Tova. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said. “I heard about your horrible accident. We were all praying for you and, well, it’s good to see you out and about.”

Tova shrank back as the woman pat her on the shoulder. Hili thought her friend looked like she was going to be sick.

As the woman walked out of the store, Hili whispered to Tova, “Are you all right?”

Tova shook her head. “Let’s just go, okay?”

By putting Hili into this scene, I have already brought the Achdus Club into the start of the book. Also, readers know the friendship between Hili and Tova, which adds a bit of familiarity and investment into this scene. This scene also shows a vulnerability in Tova that we don’t ordinarily see. Usually, when something is bothering Tova she’ll come up with a wisecrack or talk super fast, which is what happened in the original book opener. Here, we see Tova’s pain and feel it, deeply.

The original first chapter would have worked, but by changing the scene, the characters featured and showing a side to Tova that we don’t regularly see, I think makes this a much more powerful opener.

READERS: What do you think? Have you ever had to scrap an entire scene or chapter? Was the end result was worth it?

Top 5 Reasons I Haven’t Been Blogging

Hi, I hope to be back to a regular blog publishing schedule soon. In the meantime, here then are my top 5 excuses, um, reasons, for why I haven’t been posting recently.

Snickers, my 92-pound golden retriever, has been known to grab papers with his teeth and shred them. More likely, though, is that he simply gets tired of watching me work and wants my attention. When this happens, he will come over and whine like crazy until I stop what I’m doing and take him for a walk or he’ll put his paw or head on my keyboard making typing impossible. Either way the result is same: No work for Faygie.

Snickers is wondering why I haven’t handed over the treats yet.

2. I got locked out of the admin side of my website. Okay, this one is totally true. To those who are worried, NO, I wasn’t hacked. It’s a bit of a long story, but my colleague/neighbor was able to figure it all out and fix it. I’m back in control. Oh, the power!

3. It’s the summer … well, first it was spring and I wanted a break. Now it’s summer and I want a break and then it’ll be fall and I’ll want a break. (Um, I sound pretty lazy … )

4. I had some “ME” time. This spring/early summer was actually a very busy one both personally and professionally. Among the highlights, I participated in the inaugural Orthodox Union’s Women’s Leadership Summit. This program brought together women from across the United States as well as women from Israel, South Africa and Canada, to talk about our challenges as women leaders. We discussed issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community, got gain vital leadership skills and networked like crazy. It was fantastic. I also attended the American Jewish Press Association’s annual convention in St. Louis. Here, I reunited with old colleagues, met new ones, networked, and listened to some great speakers and panels.

5. DEADLINES. Writing books is incredibly, incredibly hard. I spent much of the spring writing the sequel to Layla’s Vistaville Summer. The book is with my editor now and I know it needs at least one solid rewrite. I may write a more comprehensive about the challenges of this book, but for now I’ll simply say that Layla has a great personality and sometimes trying to contain her adventure to a diary entry is a bit hard. In addition to the book, I’ve also continued to be busy with my article writing at and og at my blog post.

Finding Story Inspiration

For the month of January I’m taking part in a picture book exercise called “Story Storm.” The brainchild of children’s author Tara Lazar (7 Ate 9), the exercise asks aspiring, published and wannabe picture book authors to come up with 1 potential story idea or character sketch each day for the month of January.

The idea, as I understand it, is that by the time the month is done, you have a wealth of potential ideas that you can then work on throughout the year. Each day on her website, Lazar posts another guest post from a children’s author to guide writers on this journey.

My first few attempts at brainstorming weren’t particularly good, which is fine, this is an exercise after all. One idea in particular was an exercise in everything not to do if you want to write a picture book, which I discovered as a I read one of the Lazar’s guest posts.

As the month is going on and I’m reading and learning, I have come up with a few ideas that will merit further writing work later this year. One of which I am really, really excited about!

Even more important that just coming up with a list of 30 ideas (you get a day off at some point during the month), is that I’m learning how to come up with ideas. I’m listening to something or reading about something and I am learning to spin it for a potential book idea.

For instance, a news story on the radio the other day was about a moose who was walking around a hospital in Anchorage. Wow! Does that have a children’s book potential all over it or what?

Another idea came from a conversation with a friend who was looking for a particular book – she was thinking chapter book, but I could already envision a children’s nonfiction picture book.

So here’s today’s challenge regardless of what you write: read, listen, watch with an eye toward uncovering a hidden kernel of a potential story. Jot your idea down on your computer, in a notebook, on a square in your day planner, then try and come up with another idea tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that. By doing so, you’ll ensure that when you are having a hard time filling the story water well, you’ll have some potential ideas to explore. Have fun!

Talkback: If you have some great ways to brainstorm story ideas, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below.

The End

What I learned from writing a story that needed major plot changes.

No, this is not the end of the blog. I am committed to continuing with this medium, committed to talking about writing and editing, committed to reaching out to readers, writers and those who are simply interested in the writing process.

So why “The End,” because I have FINALLY (and, yes, I am shouting) finished with The Achdus Club book four, “The Wedding Dance.” Now, technically I’m not finished, finished, as I know my editor will have plenty of things for me to work on once she’s edited it. I am, however, finished with my draft of the story and it’s been a longtime coming.

If you follow me on other social media outlets, you may know that I initially had set a goal for myself of finishing this story by August 1.

Well, here we are at December 21 and I just wrote “The End.”

What happened in those few months?

Honestly, I froze! I knew I had made a mistake in the draft and I couldn’t find a way out. As a journalist I always, always fact-check everything. My livelihood depends on my getting the facts right. And when it comes to my novels, I certainly do my due diligence, but sometimes I think well it’s fiction and it’ll make for a better story, so ….

Except in this case it wasn’t just a slight or minor adjustment it was a major plot point that didn’t work. How could I fix a story when I had a fundamental plot point wrong?

Sure I sat at my computer in those intervening months and weeks. I sat and I wrote. I tried to ignore the little voice in my head that begged me to go and finish the book. I tried to do other things … nothing worked.

Nothing worked other than me sitting down, and then one page at a time, one scene at a time going over the story and reworking the plot to reflect reality. It was not easy, it did not go as fast as the initial draft did, but here’s what I’ve found:

  1. My story is actually stronger than it initially was, and I think the characters show a bit more depth and understanding than they did originally. (I hope that’s how readers see it as well.)
  2. When I typed those last two words, “The End”, I felt an incredible rush of joy and accomplishment. I actually sat back in my chair and simply stared at the screen and those two words and smiled.
  3. I found that I can accomplish something that seemed insurmountable at times.
  4. I had lots and lots of typos that I had missed in previous edits because I was so close to the material and so focused on major issues that I missed the micro ones.

How did I do it?

  1. I focused on rewriting things line by line and sentence by sentence rather than the big picture. I found by fixing things as they came up, instead of trying to solve the whole problem at once I was much more effective in my work.
  2. I enjoyed a change of scenery. My local library has several rooms that are private workrooms that patrons can use. You need to reserve the room and you can only use it for one hour if other people are waiting. Usually these are used by tutors and students, business owners for small meetings, etc. These rooms are generally in heavy use during the day. However, in the mornings they are usually empty. If no one was waiting, my local librarians were nice enough to allow me to  stay as long as I needed. Most mornings that meant I had the room for about two hours of completely uninterrupted writing time. Having this set, dedicated time to work over the last few weeks was a huge push forward in my work.

I am grateful that my publisher hadn’t given me a hard deadline; the Aug. 1 deadline was my own self-imposed deadline. As a writer who absolutely loves deadlines, I realize this book wouldn’t be as strong and the last paragraph not nearly as impactful if I hadn’t had the time to really go back and make it all work out.

A Chanukah Mystery

Happy Chanukah everyone! As a Chanukah gift to myself (and hopefully to you as well) I’m starting a new Q&A section on the blog. Every so often, I’m going to invite other writers with new books out to share a bit about their own journey.

I’m launching this new segment with Ellen Roteman. A debut author, Ellen’s first book, “The Case of the Disappearing Chanukah Candles,” was released recently from Menucha Publishers. Turns out we have a few things in common other than just our publishers; we both won Rockower Awards from the American Jewish Press Association for our work in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent newspaper!

Congrats on your first book, Ellen! What was it like to hold the book in your hands for the first time?

It was almost as exciting as holding a new grandchild in my arms! (After all, I dreamed as long about both becoming a reality.) Writing for children is something I’d always longed to do, but I got sidetracked over the years by a hectic life and demanding career. That career, however, in writing/marketing for Jewish agencies, was not only very rewarding, but also helped me define who I wanted to write for. So, as we say, “all things in their right time.”

How did you come up with The Case of the Disappearing Chanukah Candles? Can you tell us a little about the book?

The book is about five siblings who join forces to solve the mystery of how Chanukah candles are disappearing from the menorahs of a sweet elderly lady who lives alone in their neighborhood. I wanted to create a story and characters that would be not just fun and interesting, but “real.” Each sibling has his/her own quirks (loosely based on my immediate family growing up), which adds a lot of humor — and the others are challenged to accept, even celebrate, those qualities. One sibling tells bad jokes. Another is always taking notes, whether the so-called facts are important or not.  And the family dynamics are realistic and familiar: one child is compassionate, attentive to everyone’s feelings. And the oldest boy, the leader, is tempted to take credit for solving the mystery, but instead he helps the others arrive at what he’s already figured out and makes them think their contributions are invaluable. The action takes place around Chanukah, but it’s not just a Chanukah story. There are universal lessons around Jewish values of kindness, compassion and judging favorably, as well as mutual respect and working together to reach a common goal.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got two big projects going right now. I participate in a Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators critique group, and several of my fellow writers work on novels for young adults. As we’ve critiqued one another’s work, I’ve pondered how writing for an older audience would be an interesting challenge: developing more nuanced characters and a more complex and sophisticated plot. At the same time, there is the additional challenge of keeping the novel appropriate for Torah observant youth. I’m partway through this story, for Orthodox teen girls, with the manuscript in the later stages of editing. In addition, I’ve just started another mystery for my detective siblings. Writing again about these characters I love is like coming home. I feel as if they’ve been “waiting for me” to come back and see what they’re up to now, and tell another of their stories.