Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Beat It Out: Ninja Red Riding Hood

Today, guest blogger Heather Preusser illustrates how a well-written picture book can be more involved than it's word count would suggest.

While working towards my MFA in grad school, I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Even though I was a fiction writer, I found this insider’s guide to screenwriting eye-opening, especially chapter four on “beating it out.” In this chapter, Snyder defines the 15 different beats of successful movies.
Could this apply to picture book manuscripts? I wondered.
To test it, I pulled one of my new favorites off my bookshelf: Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat. Using each of the beats on the official “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” (a.k.a. the BS2), I deconstructed this fabulous fractured fairy tale:

Beat 1. Opening Image: In the end pages, Little Red walks across a bridge holding a pie. She is shown in profile with her hood covering her head, establishing a foreboding and predatory mood. Our eye follows Red as she moves from left to right, encouraging us to enter the story. The warm colors (soft yellows, peaches, and reds) invite us in as well.

Beat 2. Theme Stated: On the first page, we meet wolf, the protagonist whose will sustains the story’s action. The theme (who is in control – wolf or his prey?) is stated in the text and supported by the illustrations: a rabbit, a turtle, and a preying mantis all triumph over wolf.

Beat 3. Set-Up: We’ve seen wolf repeatedly fail at finding a good meal, so much so he’s now wasting away. We’ve also learned about wolf’s primary character tics: he’s frail (he has a black eye and a prominent scar on page one) yet perseverant.

Beat 4. Catalyst: Deciding huffing and puffing is no longer enough, wolf sneaks into the local dojo to attend classes.

Beat 5. Debate: Will wolf learn the necessary skills to scare up a good meal? After practicing, he can happily march into Act Two feeling equipped.

Beat 6. Break into Two: Wolf leaves the old world where he was victim behind and steps deliberately into an antithetical world, one where he is in charge. This is echoed in the illustrations, which show him as larger-than-life, emerging from the book’s gutter and dominating the spread while a miniature Red looks naively at the reader.

Beat 7. B Story: When wolf takes a shortcut to Grandma’s and discovers her gone, he dresses in her robe, places a flower behind his ear, and unfurls her fan. In bright red lipstick and fake eyelashes, he is the antithesis of wolf, a “new” character we haven’t yet met. This emphasizes the theme of identity.

Beat 8. Fun and Games: Still dressed as Granny, wolf tries to convince Red it’s him – er, her – by explaining his giant eyes, long ears, massive muscles and sharp teeth. This section is lighter in tone.

Beat 9. Midpoint: When wolf jumps “out of bed / to gobble up Red,” we discover she has gone to Ninja school too. Flinging off her hood, she strikes a defensive pose, which takes wolf so much by surprise he’s literally thrown off the page (we only see one paw, the snippet of his tail, and his muzzle in the foreground). Red and wolf grapple and appear evenly matched. This is an “up” beat, or false victory, for wolf.

Beat 10. Bad Guys Close In: And then Gran, who’s come from tai chi, enters the text, shouting, “Don’t you dare harm a hair on her head!” There is no way wolf can beat Red AND Gran; his fall is inevitable.

Beat 11. All Is Lost: The opposite of the midpoint, this is a “down” beat for wolf. Red dodges his next attack, and, after being thrown over her hip, he ends flat on his back. As he struggles to his feet and clutches his arm, there’s a “whiff of death” moment. The broken bits and pieces of Gran’s house also hint at death and destruction.

Beat 12. Dark Night of the Soul: Before wolf skedaddles, Red makes him promise to give up “Red” meat. Wolf consents. He is beaten and he knows it.

Beat 13. Break into Three: As the real Gran offers half her pie, her true identity shines through: she is kind and generous even in the face of a wannabe killer. This gesture allows wolf to discover the best solution: yoga!

Beat 14. Finale: Wolf applies the lessons he’s learned and attends the Downward Dog Center. He is no longer weak mentally or physically. His perseverance pays off and, at last, he truly finds peace.

Beat 15. Final Image: Wolf walks across a bridge, presumably on his way to yoga. Our eye follows him as he moves across the page from left to right, encouraging us to return to the beginning of the story and start again. Cool greens and blues juxtapose with the warm colors in the opening spread, symbolizing how the tension within the story has cooled as well.

Now it’s your turn: take your favorite picture book manuscript – or one of your own manuscripts – and “beat it out”!

Heather Preusser teaches high school English in Colorado. When she’s not teaching, reading or writing, she enjoys telemark skiing, rock climbing and learning ridiculously long German words. She is represented by Janine Le from the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherPreusser.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Successful Platform Building Doesn't Have to Be About You

Building a writing platform can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Today, guest bloggers Elaine Kiely Kearns and Sylvia Liu talk about how they built a successful platform organically by focusing on helping others.

How can authors and illustrators blog successfully as part of their social media efforts? A year ago, we created, a one-stop information shop for writers and illustrators. Since then, we have been named one of The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2015 and The Top 50 Writing Blogs for 2015. We also have a very active community around the site. In this interview, we talk about how we got here.

Sylvia: How did you come up with the idea for Kidlit411?

Elaine:  KidLit411 came about from a need to pool resources from the internet. There are so many great sites out there and the kid lit community was sharing many great links, but there waasn’t one place to find them all. I started making a list of the sites that I would return to again and again to share with my online critique group, the Penguin Posse. Then I thought that perhaps other kid lit people would enjoy the information, too. One of my Penguin Posse critique partners, Sylvia Liu, and I partnered up and KidLit411 was born!

Sylvia: What are the elements of the site that you think helped us connect with the kidlit community and make it successful?

Elaine: I don’t think that we “set out” to build a platform, but we found a need and then attempted to fill it. It was an organic process that evolved over time.

One thing that made our site stand out was the combination of not focusing on authors but also illustrators. Sylvia, as an author-illustrator, wanted to have a site that was welcoming to both. We have art from Caldecott winners to up and coming artists featured on the site. Even though I am not an illustrator, I love the way it looks! It’s aesthetically pleasing to every kind of artist.

We also have weekly interviews with authors and illustrators, geared towards providing advice and inspiration. Many of the interviews include giveaways where we encourage people to share our site, which helped grow our presence. The interviews also promote our fellow creatives, both those who are established and those who are up and coming, a win-win for all.
Our Weekly 411 email provides all the new links we add each week. People really responded to all of these “extras.” Now we have a KidLit411 Facebook group with over 1,500 members and a KidLit411 Manuscript swap group where you can go and swap manuscripts for a set of “fresh eyes” with other like-minded people. It’s been very successful!

Sylvia: Tell us more about the Facebook group.

Elaine: Having a Facebook group associated with our site has been key in building our community. With many blogs, the comment sections are the place where community is formed. But we have found that a Facebook group provides a more flexible format to have conversations. People ask questions or share links, and friendships are formed. I think some people are part of our Facebook group that don’t even realize we have a website! But they eventually figure it out.

Elaine: How important was it to have information for illustrators included in the site?

Sylvia: Because both of us write picture book manuscripts, we naturally felt that both authors and illustrators are an integral part of the kid lit community. The benefit of adding illustrators to the mix was that we could make the website look nice. I had the idea to present the main pages in a Pinterest-style layout. This lets us showcase illustrators we like on a rotating basis and keeps the site from being static.  (Illustrators: please submit your low-res images to kidlit411 (at) kidlit411 (dot) com to be featured on our front page).

Elaine: Do you feel that it is important for authors/illustrators to create a social media platform, such as a blog or Kidlit411, or do you think that it isn't necessary as a step to publication?

Sylvia: The most important thing for authors and illustrators to do is to focus on their craft and create the best stories and illustrations they can. Creating a platform will help authors and illustrators market their books once they get published, but I don’t think people should create a platform just because they feel they need one.

It’s also hard to just decide to create a successful blog or platform. You have to enjoy doing it, and it has to be an organic process. Elaine and I have figured out that the key is to provide information that other people need or want.  In other words, it’s not about you but what you can do for others.

ELAINE KIELY KEARNS is the founder of KidLit411 and a picture book and middle grade writer. Armed with a master’s degree in Education and working from her home office, she spends her time perusing the internet for golden nuggets of information about children’s writing and creating her own stories. Her

SYLVIA LIU is a former environmental attorney turned writer-illustrator. She won the 2013 Lee and Low New Voices award and her debut picture book, A MORNING WITH GONG GONG, is scheduled for publication. She is inspired by aliens, cephalopods, bunnies, and pigs who want to fly.  Her portfolio: and blog:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Robots Are Humans Too: Bringing Nonhuman Characters To Life

Agents, editors, and readers crave characters that seem true to life… and that goes whether the characters are actually human or not. This week, guest blogger Suzanne van Rooyen tackles humanizing the inhuman. While Suzanne’s post focuses on robots, her insights can help with creating great characters based on animals, aliens, creatures, or even inanimate objects. Happy writing! - Ella

Thanks to a university minor in philosophy, which introduced me to ontological and existential schools of thought, I have become fascinated by the concept of artificial intelligence, particularly in the idea of creating synthetic humans. This fascination hinges on the answers to the following questions: What is it that makes us uniquely human? Can we replicate that?  What happens if or when we do? At what point does a machine become human?

I've always been drawn to robots, particularly androids (robots that resemble humans), in science fiction. In fact, some of my favorite characters from sci-fi blockbusters like Interstellar and sci-fi series like Almost Human and even Extant, have been the robots! But why and how do these machines become likable characters, often eclipsing their human counterparts?

This was one of the biggest challenges I faced when writing I Heart Robot. I needed to bring androids to life in a way that made them seem human while never letting the reader forget they were machines. My process was similar to creating a human character: what are their biggest strengths? What are their biggest weaknesses? What do they want? What do they fear? What makes them vulnerable? The answers to these questions might not even be things the android is inherently aware of – depending on the capabilities of their AI – but as an author, I could show these traits to the reader anyway by putting my androids in situations that garnered sympathy for that character. Getting the reader to feel for a character – even if the android can't feel for themselves – is extremely important!

Another technique to employ is humor. This is used very well in Interstellar to bring TARS and CASE, the onboard robots, to life, and we see it too in Dorian from Almost Human. Humor requires a certain amount of self-awareness, which immediately ups the degree of 'human-ness', but can also be used to humanize the character even when they themselves might not be aware of why they're being funny. Consider Star Trek's Data and his aphorisms, or his adorable yet ill-informed attempts at being human, trying to sneeze for example. These humorous moments engendered sympathy in the viewer for the character and made the audience feel for Data even when he couldn't feel for himself.

Another stand out moment, and one that greatly influenced I Heart Robot, is a scene from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles where the terminator Cameron is imitating a ballerina on TV. Her attempt at dance is witnessed by one of the human characters and it's how that human character reacts to seeing a robot doing ballet that makes the moment so powerful. This was a device I employed in I Heart Robot. My android is a musician and his awareness of human artistry, human creativity, and our ability to self-express when he cannot, ironically shows his humanity.

Bringing non-human characters, in this case – robots, to life boils down to giving them just enough humanity to make them relatable. Giving them a goal, a question they need to answer, a problem they need to solve, or a person/object they want to engage with will provide the necessary personification to make the reader care about the character, and once the reader cares, you've got a living character even if they don't have a heart beat.

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Sweden and is busy making friends with the ghosts of her Viking ancestors. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. When she grows up, she wants to be an elf. Until then, she spends her time (when not writing) wall climbing, buying far too many books, and entertaining her shiba inu, Lego. Her books include The Other Me (Harmony Ink) and I Heart Robot (Month9Books).