Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Picture Book Biographies

My favorite kind of illustrated books are picture book biographies. The ones I adore most are of unsung heroes like Walter Anderson. "He may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of."

Picture book biographies have a rhythm when read out loud. They summarize a person's entire life in usually under 1500 words. One of the key challenges in writing them is finding a focus, determining what to put in, and what to leave out.

Usually these books have an author's note and other material in the back for teachers and librarians. Writing them can take up to a year due to the amount of research required and the arduous task of making every word sing.

There are lots of wonderful picture book biographies out there. My personal library includes: Audubon Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier, I Could do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, Patience Wright America's First Sculptor and Revolutionary Spy, Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers, and many more. Have you read a good picture book biography lately?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Writing That First Page

For me writing the first page is the hardest part of writing a novel. I'll compare it to meeting someone for the first time. The conversation is a little stilted. You're in that awkward getting to know you phase. A few chapters in and the awkwardness has faded. You're old friends now who can't wait to catch up and plan your next adventure.

But as writers we must conquer the first page. Sometimes an agent or editor doesn't read any further. In the October issue of Writer's Digest, literary agent, Kristin Nelson uses four first page examples and only one of the four passes muster. She writes, "Trust me when I say that after an agent has read hundreds of thousands of sample pages--as my colleagues and I have at Nelson Literary Agency--we know."

Ms. Nelson stopped reading for the following reasons:

1. Too much dialogue.
2. Overuse of description.
3. Lack of tension.

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of the magazine. You can absolutely see her points.

I was thrilled to discover another article in the October issue called, "Your First 50 Pages The 4 Goals Your Beginning Must Meet." I am in the process of applying these rules, not only to my first 50 pages, but to the very first page. The opening should:

1. Introduce the story-worthy problem.
2. Hook the reader.
3. Establish the story rules.
4. Forecast the ending.

This is a harder exercise than it looks, but I am much happier with my first page from applying the concepts from this article.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to receive a critique from Richard Peck. He gave me this bit of advice regarding first pages: Always rewrite the first page after you've written the last one. That really ties in well with #4 Forecast the ending.

What are your thoughts regarding the infernal first page? I'd love even more pointers on how to make them sing!