Monthly Archives: January 2015

Was Sun Tzu a Literary Strategist?

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. (from The Art of War by Sun Tzu, c. 500 BC)

After acknowledging that we don’t really like to think of other authors as competitors, my g+ friend and Literary Strategist Tom Blubaugh asked me to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of my three biggest competitors.

It’s an interesting assignment. “Competitor” almost sounds like “enemy”; that’s certainly how Sun Tzu would have seen it. So, apparently, do some hockey players–and some young hockey players’ parents. But I think of Heather, a sales rep for a large publisher, who asked her company’s permission to allow me to share her table at a trade show. They refused, but I was touched by Heather’s kindness. My one book was clearly not going to crowd out the hundreds of titles she can order, nor would it have detracted from her lovely display, but the point is–she saw me as an ally.

But we’re competitors, too. A customer with only $10.00 to spend on a paperback will buy either mine or one of Heather’s, not both. So Tom’s suggestion is an invitation to think about why someone might choose Scissortown over one of Heather’s books, and to build on that.

I started with the Berenstain Bears. Coralie and I had poured through some BB books when she was illustrating Scissortown; here’s what my research turned up now:

Strengths:

*A beautiful and interesting website that includes activities for children http://www.berenstainbears.com/

*Many, many titles

*Choice of Christian or secular stories

*Choice of formats—p-books, e-books, apps, a recordable book and DVDs

*Choice of levels—stories written at a “regular” level, and those written for emerging readers

*Wide choice of retailers

*Charitable giving

*Related products

*All titles on the first BB page of Amazon have 4-5 stars

*High Best Sellers Rank relative to comparable books

*Over fifty years of success

On a personal note, my nine-year-old granddaughter enjoyed these stories years ago–and she still does.

Weaknesses?

That’s a tough one. I was on page 3 of google before I got to anything negative. Only one of the (fairly sparse) negative comments resonated with me: the older books often portrayed Papa Bear (and by extension other papas) as a buffoon. That had troubled me too, and I believe the newer books are an improvement.

Although the adults in Scissortown clearly need the children’s help, my intention was not to portray them as fools–and hopefully I haven’t.

An additional note: Scissortown does not appeal to people like the woman I met who does not want her children to read fantasy. I suspect that she would not like talking bears, either.

So does that put Tommy and Tina on a level playing field with the bruins?  🙂

Categories: Journey | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Why Do We Write?

A dolphin family adopts an orphaned baby whale. Harrison excels at playing Capture the Flag and blows impressive curtains of bubbles. All is well until he notices that his fins are a different shape, and his skin is bumpy while the others’ skin is smooth. Perhaps he doesn’t belong after all . . . .

In the white space between this paragraph and the last one, you’ve no doubt guessed that Harrison’s mom and dad set him straight. But I doubt that you’ve guessed HOW author/illustrator Sharon Dallaire uses a universal symbol of love to make her point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this simple but powerful illustration.

All the proceeds from the sale of A Heart for Harrison go to support an orphanage in Haiti, which brings me to a question—why do authors of children’s books write the stories we do?

I can think of a few reasons: we love children, we love stories, we want to entertain, we have values and faith to pass on, and we need to make a living.

I love to entertain children, and I want to make a living.  After I read A Heart for Harrison to the kindergartners at Sunday School, I gave them a sneak preview/live book trailer of my own book, Scissortown. They enjoyed, as most children do, my demonstration of Tommy’s mom breaking off pieces of gooey birthday cake (all the knives had been buried). They were intrigued that the nefarious Slicers and Dicers had put the children’s pictures in a blender—and happy to hear that I’m to return another day and read that story.

But most of all, I’m a fan of “lesson stories,” as my granddaughter Tina calls them. I want the good guys to win, and to do so by making good choices.

My overarching reason for writing is to share my faith in Christ and my values.

How about you? If you had to choose one reason above the rest, what would it be?

Categories: Journey | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Four Lessons from a Nine-Year-Old on Writing Picture Books

1. After she’s done some of her “official” homework, Tina produces her “other” work: a book of paper of various colors and a two-page spread of pencil drawings. “I’m going to write stories about dolphins,” she announces. But when you’re in grade three, getting things down on paper can be pretty tedious. With the creative juices coursing through her veins and the two-page spread of main characters beckoning, Tina hands me paper and a pencil.

“You can write your ideas,” she announces, and then tells me hers.

I understand her conundrum. Tina knows it’s polite to listen to others, and there are times when she thinks I have good ideas for stories–but this isn’t one of them. I faithfully transcribe her ideas, adding one or two of my own with permission.

Lesson: When the ideas come, get them down however you can. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote notes to himself on his shirt sleeves, some writers today use voice recognition software, and, if you have one, an indulgent grandma may be the wisest choice.

2. I’m impressed with Tina’s teachers. Not only does Tina have a solid foundation in phonics, she has a highly developed sense of what a story is. Tina has learned that every story needs a problem, and as we study her drawing, her main characters’ problems emerge and intertwine.

Then she tells me we’re going to mix the colors, and shows me Eric Carle’s beautiful book Dream Snow. And when she writes her story, she’s not going to simply place the text at the bottom of the page (how plebeian would that be?). She’s going to sprinkle the text here and there–artfully, like her mentors.

Dream Snow

Lesson: Take your craft seriously, and learn from those who know.

3. “This is boring!” I’m a little hurt. We’ve been reading a story about a small animal rescue, a topic near to Tina’s heart, and she doesn’t want to finish it. Why not? It’s at her level . . . and that’s the problem. It’s an easy reader, with controlled, repeated vocabulary, and simple sentence structure–and it doesn’t SOUND right to Tina. (I’m actually a fan of easy readers, but in this case it wasn’t working for Tina.)

Lesson: Read the story out loud to someone who will give you honest feedback.

4. I’ve watched some videos on bower birds and written what I feel is an engaging story about a little girl, her friend, and a thieving member of this fascinating avian family. But the ending is hard. Maybe I could leave it kind of open? Tina and I read the story, and she’s intrigued all right. She enters in, marveling at the tricks our heroes play on the villain until . . . what? I stopped the story there? Even after I’ve put her to bed, Tina is finishing the story. Her ending is most satisfying. It not only ties up the loose ends, it demonstrates our male hero’s commitment to and compassion for his lady friend.

Lesson: Don’t skimp on the ending, or your granddaughter may be tired for school the next day.

Categories: Journey | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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