Thursday, October 25, 2012

Novelist Justin Robinson Admits He Loves Outlines

Plotter or pantser? It's the eternal writer's question. Justin Robinson, who is celebrating the launch of his very funny suspense novel, Mr Blank, shares his thoughts on how he learned to stop pantsing and love the outline.

*   *   *

The Importance of Outlines

Back in August, I volunteered over at Marshall High for career day.  Long time readers will remember this as the site of the Afterschool Special Two Loves for Jenny,” which somehow forgot to include a single character named Jenny.  I was over there because the college counselor inexplicably thought I could have some wisdom to offer high school kids beyond toothpaste making beer taste funny.  I found myself sitting in the lunch area with a little sign that said “Justin Robinson -- Writer” as about sixty teenagers wandered from table to table to chat with the various professionals (and me) scattered throughout.

I bumbled, stammered, and joked my way through the two hours, otherwise known as how I deal with every social situation.  The kids asked a variety of questions, but the one thing I kept returning to was the importance of The Outline.  I used to turn my nose up at the thought, not because it was a bad idea, but because it smacked of work, something that writing couldn’t be.  Accepting that not only is writing work, but is occasionally hard work, is one of the more important steps to doing this sort of thing as a living.  And come on, it’s not like construction workers throw up buildings off the top of their heads.  Someone makes an actual drawing beforehand sometimes.  Books are a lot like buildings, except that barely anyone pees in books.

I’m a compulsive outliner now.  My first novel, Subspace, was the only one I did without an outline, and I got away with it because it already existed as a novella.  When I sat down to write Mr. Blank, I wanted to avoid the issues of stalling out and rambling on that plagued me in the past.  This would require outlining.  I started out knowing I would need exactly 23 chapters (required if you’re writing anything about conspiracies), and went from there.  Each chapter was structured around a conflict between the narrator and some representative of the Information Underground.  Since chapter 12 would be the middle, it would serve the fulcrum of the book, where our hero would develop the hypothesis that carries him through the rest of the story.

There’s a tendency to want to follow an outline slavishly, and it stems from the same place as a reluctance to rewrite.  It’s the weird sense that the words came from on high and are binding contracts.  They’re not.  The outline is a tool, not a master.  Sometimes, either what I’ve outlined isn’t possible to write or sounded better in the outlining phase than it looks on the page.  When that happens, I look at both the outline and the book.  I try to figure out my reason for outlining it that way.  Was it a solid reason, or was it just because I lacked perspective on the book as a whole?  While writing, did I make some breakthrough on character or plot?  Am I missing out on a good moment, or did I outline something no sane person could ever communicate?

Outlines are important for the same reason you don’t wear white to a pie-eating contest.  Be prepared, and you won’t feel quite so silly while fishing raspberries out of your sinuses.

*    *    *
You can learn more about Justin Robinson on his website.

You can purchase Mr Blank from the publisher, or on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Note: I moderate comments, so yours might not show up immediately.]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emilie P. Bush on Finding a Great Illustrator for Your Picture Book

Celebrating the release of her adorable rhyming picture book, Steamduck Learns to Fly (yes, it's steampunk for kids!), Emilie P. Bush stops by to share her thoughts on teaming up with the right artist. She was lucky enough to find William Kevin Petty to collaborate with.

*   *   *

Getting your hands on a GOOD illustrator. 

If you would have asked me as little as two years ago if I ever thought I would have written not one but TWO bestselling children's books, I would have laughed. LAUGHED! at the notion of me writing a children's book AT ALL. But there they are - two hit stories: Her Majesty's Explorer: a Steampunk bedtime story and Steamduck Learns to FLY. And I am truly delighted with how they turned out, and I know that it has VERY little to do with ME - the author. It has more to do with the pictures. Dr. Seuss's words are just silly without the equally goofy pictures, the detail Margot Apple puts into the Sheep books keeps Nancy E. Shaw's tale visually interesting, and Shel Silverstein's poetry is clearly enhanced by the dramatic illustrations. 

By far, the question I am most often asked about the creation of our books is, "How did you find an illustrator?" In the most peculiar way ever is the short answer to how William Kevin Petty and I came to be a team, but more on that later. The matter at hand is how can a children's book writer find someone to add images to as tory. In this modern day, breaking into the kid-lit scene - especially juvenile fiction - is nearly impossible. Syndicated radio consumer advocate Clark Howard got a call recently from a writer who wanted to know how to get his children's book published. Clark's advice: find an illustrator and do it ALL yourself. I assure you, self-pub is not the easy way. This is by FAR the hardest way. BUT - it may be the ONLY way for many who have  a story they want to tell. WRITE! and then work on making the best book you can. If you are a real writer - you MUST scale every obstacle. Often finding an illustrator is the challenge

Here is my advice. 
  1. Recognize of how little importance the author is to the children's book. The words are few in a children's book, so they must be chosen carefully. A good illustrator will ENHANCE the words written, to the point of telling more of the story through images. Choose an illustrator with IDEAS. I do more writing for the children's books is in the form of press releases, promotion and blog posts (like this one!). Fear not, pen monkeys, there is more to writing than telling stories. Lean to love promotion and marketing copy.
  2. Look at what the standard is for a good children's books. Look through valid award winners - specifically The American Library Association's Caldicott Award for illustrations and awards specific to genre books - like the Golden Duck Award for Children's Science Fiction. These are the best, newest and most innovative books and illustrations. For our first book, Her Majesty's Explorer, we looked at many books to help us make decisions on format, size, layout and color scheme. To tell a Family Secret - Neil Gaiman's Instructions was highly influential. My illustrator and I shared several books back and forth in the creation of our book. Pictures are worth thousands of words.
  3. Artists can be flaky. Budget for this time wise, but choose an illustrator that has finished ANYTHING - not necessarily other books, but do they have product they have produced and sold (posters, postcards, gallery shows, etc.). *One of the reasons I decided to work with Kevin is that he had the discipline of a soldier and the talent of an illustrator. BOTH were important to me.
  4. You get what you pay for. And artists need to be paid. Very few can eat "good exposure" or pay rent with a pat on the back. Usually, an illustrator is paid out in advance of the book being published. Artists for hire is what they are. They draw or paint, then they go on their merry way. Where to find these folks? recommendations from other writers, or websites like - but these are PROS - who get paid like PROS. This will not be cheap. But it is worth looking at. 
  5. Deadlines are more important than ideas. So says Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. And it is true. With my novels - especially the first - I was under no obligation to finish by any certain date. Not so with the children's book team. Set deadlines and then meet them - tweet them - Facebook them - cheer lead everyone through. OR... you will never finish. Shepherd your work to the end. Push. Push. Push.
  6. Good artists may not be good layout designers. Our third member of the Bush-Petty Duo is Theresa Curtis - our layout designer. She ups our game. She is an exceptional colorist and does great layout. Of MOST use to Kevin and I, is that she was a step removed from our artistic process. She sees the forest when illustrator and writers only could see the gnarled maple in front of us. She is worth EVERY penny. Beyond that, Kevin could focus on drawing - and that was so important as our drop dead deadlines grew ever closer. 
  7. Leave the door open for fate. Looking for an artist? Invite the Universe to send one your way. Put it out there with friends and tweets that you are looking for a good illustrator. Let is be known you have a plan, a deadline, a budget. Show you are serious and ready, and let fate happen. 
Which brings me to how I found William Kevin Petty - or more specifically - how he found me. While deployed to Kuwait, Kevin read my first novel and sent a bit of fan art - a drawing of the airship. He asked for some feedback - which I gave, and which is usually the point where I don't hear from an artist again. But the next morning a new ship appeared in my inbox, to which I said to myself, Okay, soldier, you now have my attention. We corresponded over Facebook chat, he sent some of his printed postcards, one of which was the basis of the idea that became Her Majesty's Explorer, and we formed a partnership and a company. All done by Facebook chat without ever having met in person or talked on the phone (well- there was one hour at the Atlanta airport - but we'd already story boarded half the book at that point, I think.) 
Our approach is not standard for the writer - illustrator partnership, but I think it works for us. We handle ALL aspects of our business (bookings and appearances, publishing, ordering books and managing the finances) together. And we live more than 500 miles apart! Not the easiest, but we get it done. Because we must. We see eye to eye on one thing: we have stories to tell, and we won't let ANYTHING stop us. 

*   *   *

You can learn more about Emilie P. Bush on Twitter @coalcitysteam or on the Coal City Steam website.

And you can view the book trailer for Steam Duck Learns to Fly. Purchase the book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Love to see your comments, but please don't be alarmed if they don't show up right away. I have to moderate because of spam troubles. -AJ]

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Laura Sassi: Rhyming Stories as Shiny Shoes

I love having guests whose skills are different from mine. Laura Sassi writes rhyming stories, something I have little experience with, so I had a lot to learn from her guest post. Do you have a story you think would work well in rhyme? It might, and it might not. Read this, and give it some more thought.

(And congrats to Laura on her new book deal!)

*    *    *

If the Shoe DOESN’T Fit: Thoughts on Rhyming...or Not
Laura Sassi

            My daughter loves shoes, especially sparkly shoes. “Like Cinderella!” she cheered as a toddler. But unlike Cinderella and her lovely glass slipper, my daughter learned early on that the shoe doesn’t always fit. Too big and it’s hard to walk in without wobbling. Too small and squeezing your foot in just plain hurts.
            I love rhyme as much as my daughter loves sparkly shoes. It’s my passion and my preferred writing style. I’ve sold several rhyming stories and poems to kids’ magazines including Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse Jr., Highlights for Children, Spider, and Ladybug. And I’m thrilled to announce that Zonderkidz will publish my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK, a rollicking rhymer about bedtime on Noah’s ark.
            But though I love sparkly rhyming tales, rhyming doesn’t always fit the story. Sometimes rhyming makes the story dreadful and forced, perhaps even un-readable. How is a writer to know whether to rhyme or not? In keeping with Cinderella and her shiny shoes, here are three questions I ask to see if the rhyming “shoe” fits.

Question #1: Can I rhyme well?
Good rhyme is hard to carry off because it must also be paired with perfect meter. To carry that off you need to have a good ear for the rhythm of words. In addition, the rhyming words you choose must be unexpected and fresh. For me, the perfect rhyming story is one that flows so well that the rhyme seems organic to the piece. Accomplishing this takes lots of revision, fine-tuning and patience.

 Question #2: Does rhyming fit the mood of my story?
When I first indulged my passion for rhyme, I wanted to make EVERY story rhyme and did so with disastrous results. My favorite failed example is a rhyming story I drafted about a boy who takes Splash, the class fish, home to watch over vacation. The fish, unfortunately, dies,and the boy must decide whether to replace it with a look-alike or confess the truth. Here’s my dreadful rhyming version of the moment he discovers the fish is dead.
            “One morning at the end of break, 
            Jerome said, “Time to sup!”  
            But Splash, alas, moved not one bit. 
            “Look, Mom! He’s belly up!”
Even now, I cringe when I read that. Not only is it distressingly forced, but the mood and the rhyme don’t jive. I now reserve rhyme for light-hearted and humorous pieces. As for Splash, I wisely re-wrote the entire story in prose. The non-rhyming version of my fishy tale appeared in the April 2011 issue of Clubhouse Jr.

Rhyming Question #3:  How old are my readers?
I once wrote a humorous three verse poem with fresh rhymes and impeccable meter.  A perfect sell for the kid’s magazine market, or so I thought.  Turns out, it’s fatal flaw was that it included a couple lines about algebraic expressions. Not something your typical rhyme fan is familiar with. Why? Because, as I’ve learned both as a former teacher and now as a mom and writer, the biggest fans of rhyming are the very young. Toddlers and preschoolers love playing with sounds and pointing out, repeating, and making their own rhymes. So, while I still love writing rhyming poems for the age 8 - 12 crowd, I’ve discovered that the pieces of mine that shine the most are the short and pithy rhyming pieces for youngest readers.

*   *   *

To learn more about Laura Sassi and her passion for rhyme, visit her at or on Twitter @laurasassitales 

[If you leave a comment (and please do!), don't be alarmed when it doesn't show up right away. Evil spammers have forced me to moderate and approve each comment before I post it. -AEJ]