TOPIC: Welcome tonight's guest, picture book author and host of #PiBoIdMo, @TaraLazar!
Tara's debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, will be released by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2013. Visit Tara at her blog: http://taralazar.wordpress.com, where she hosts Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) and posts topics of interest to children's book creators.
Here are the highlights of last night's chat in Q&A form--questions/comments from chat participants are in boldface, Tara's responses are in italics:
So, does everyone know the exciting news about Tara's upcoming book?
We announced the illustrator, @JamesBurksArt. He just completed initial character sketches. THE MONSTORE has several main characters, which is a little unusual for a picture book. There's a brother and sister, three main monsters, and The Monstore manager. The first stage of illustrating is having editor approve character sketches.
How exciting! have you seen the sketches?
I haven't seen sketches yet. I hope to share them on my blog. It will be interesting to see their evolution.
Was it hard to develop so many characters with minimal words?
It's just the way the story rolled out of me, so I didn't think it was hard. They made sense organically.
Did THE MONSTORE start as a #PiBoIdMo idea?
Yes, THE MONSTORE began as just a title during #PiBoIdMo 2008, which I did just on my own.
How did you come up with the idea for your book?
It was just a catchy title at first. Then I met an agent friend at a conf and asked for feedback on my ideas ...so then I had to come up with a premise. I thought, "A store that sells monsters" but needed more oomph ...so then I thought "A boy wants to return the monster he bought because it doesn't spook his little sister."
Lol--love that premise!
So after I had the idea of the boy returning his monster, the line "no returns, no exchanges" came!
Did the agent help you focus which direction you wanted to take the story?
I got my agent after I wrote this story. It's what hooked her. After I signed with her, we changed just one line. And I think that may be a little unusual, too. I was ready to do major revisions, but she loved it as is.
Wow! So you got feedback on it after you wrote the entire manuscript then? I'd think before might influence too much.
Now that I'm working with an agent, I usually pitch her an idea before I write to see if she likes it. And by "likes it" I mean if she thinks it will sell!
So you and your agent worked on it together before pitching to publisher--any changes after sale?
Oh, wow! MONSTORE had a lot of changes after the sale. But they were all changes that made the story better.
Did you hesitate about any of the changes or did you see the benefit of them immediately?
I definitely hesitated! I didn't understand the WHYs behind the changes at first. Once I did, it made changing it easier.
I tend to write too much and edit like crazy when drafting. What's your writing style? Do you edit back or build up?
I try to go straight thru without editing too much. I want to get the story down first. Then I play with language. I don't do rhyming picture books, but I play a lot with sounds, alliteration, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia, etc. It's gotta sound good to read aloud.
What is 'onomatopoeia'?
BAM! BASH! SWISH! WHIFF! Words that sound like sounds.
Are you finding your style changing as you absorb editor's comments on first book?
Interestingly, I am writing simpler. My stories tend to be a bit complex for picture books, so I'm simplifying.
Mind if I ask--how many words in final version?
My newest manuscript is just 407 words. MONSTORE is about 630 words. The two manuscripts I have out now are about 550.
That makes me feel better, My whole dummy I am working on is under 150 words. The pictures fill in so much.
Great. 150 is definitely selling. One of my agent's books got bought a few months ago and it was around that length. I know several others in the 150-250 range.
Over 700 w = too much for PB?
700 words is a bit on the long side. Cut as much as possible. Don't include "stage directions" in the text. Richard Peck once said you can always cut 30 more words each time you look at a page. (Although he was speaking of novels.)
So if it's under 700 it could be used for PB; over 700 and you've got a chapter book?
Length isn't the only genre divider...age of main character is also important. Picture book characters are typically six & under.
So how many other books are in the works?
I have two others out on submission and I just sent my agent a new one yesterday for initial feedback.
You're on fire! Any advice for us on a good story?
I've got this little rhyme: "Think of the hook before you write the book." I do that to make sure I have a winning concept. I used to just sit and write whatever. And writing "whatever" doesn't necessarily get you published.
Do you feel your stories end up character-driven, or does strong hook favor plot?
I think my style tries to balance both. Although I know that character-driven is hot right now. Potential series.
Not to mention licensing possibilities if a character's series takes off.
Yes, the whole Fancy Nancy phenom! Or even Trixie and Knuffle Bunny. Publishers want the next great character.
Can you give an example of a pitch you gave your agent?
It's usually a title and one line about the plot. I love word play so my titles tell a lot about the potential story.
Could you explain "the hook before the book" just a bit more? How to test for good hook?
A good hook is when the story can be boiled down to one line that makes others want to know more.
Do you visualize potential illustrations in your head? Do you tend to use illustration notes?
I'm a visual thinker, but I don't tend to visualize what my chars look like, although I imagine scenes in my head. I do use art notes, but only when it's not obvious what's going on by what I've written.
Do you have a critique group that you work with on your stories?
Yes, I have a local critique group and I have online crit partners. My agent will also critique.
I need a PB crit group as well. Most local groups are MG or YA. Experienced people would be a big help!
You can find folks online. All you have to do is ask! The dynamic of an in-person group is different. With the in-person crits, it's more of a roundtable discussion, back and forth, ideas are exchanged...I am lucky that @ScubaCor lives about 5 miles away. We have two others in our group. One is pubbed in non-fiction.
Do you like both [types of critique groups] equally?
Each have their pros and cons. I think I like my agent critiques best, though! LOL!
When you're writing your story, do you just write the minimal text or do you have illustartion info? That is to say, I expect a whole lot of the story will be carried out through the illustrations.
I include art notes only when it isn't clear what's happening by the text. Yes, 50% of the tale should be told in images. Leave out "stage directions" in the text. No need to say "she clasped her hands in front of her" when it can be drawn.
I think author/illustrators have more specific images come as we write vs. as an author.
Yes, author/illustrators have the benefit of working with both pieces. Peter Brown's CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS is a good example because his text was very spare. "They napped together" is the bear & boy asleep on a tree limb. That was a spread, just "they napped together." Three words, 2 pages, 1 illustration. I have a post on my blog that talks about spare language. Let me find it... Saying a lot with a little: http://taralazar.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/saying-a-lot-with-a-little/
Folks may also like to see this PB layout article on my blog: http://taralazar.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/
Wow! That hour FLEW by! Thanks so much for inviting me, @BonnieAdamson and @WendyMartinArt. I had so much fun!
Great info on your blog, Tara!
Knock on my door anytime!
Thank you, Tara!
Full transcript below: