Picture Book Peek Week #2 Coming July 20th!!

Back by popular demand: Picture Book Peek Week
Free critiques of select PB manuscripts – including those wretched rhymers (Yup, 3 of my upcoming PBs are written in verse!)

Peek Week #2 begins July 20th. I’ve changed up the format a bit. Here’s how it will work:

Sign up for a critique by entering your FULL NAME, your PB WORKING TITLE and your E-MAIL ADDRESS in the comment section of this blog post anytime (midnight to midnight Mountain Time) on July 20th. Titles submitted before or after July 20th or without full author name and e-mail address will not be considered.

I’ll throw all titles into a hat and pick 3 for critique. I know this is down a bit from the 7 I read last time, but this more manageable number will allow me to “peek” more often.

Keep in mind:

* Manuscripts must be 1000 words or less.

* I accept only fiction.

* Level of detail in the critique will vary based on my impression of the caliber of the writing.

* Please understand that I’m not an editor and will not be providing line-editing of your work. My critique will be comprised of suggestions for improving your manuscript. So please send me your most polished piece.

* The 3 critique winners may e-mail me their manuscripts as Word attachments. Manuscripts will be kept completely private. When I receive the manuscripts, I’ll let the authors know when they can expect my critique.

* As with any art form, likes and dislikes are entirely subjective. Please understand that my critiques are only one reader’s/writer’s opinion. It’s always wise to seek feedback from a few different readers. If my ideas resonate with you, they’re yours to use. If you disagree, I encourage you to compare my comments with those of other readers. But in the end, it’s your book. Stay true to your vision.

I look forward to reading your work.

Pondering the Predictable Plot Point Part II – MY SISTER’S KEEPER

WARNING 1: Don’t read my post title out loud. You’ll spit all over your screen.


A few years ago, I read Jodi Picoult’s MY SISTER’S KEEPER and enjoyed it. I was especially fascinated by the service dog subplot and drawn into fireman dad’s sensitivity. I can also completely relate to “lion in the house” mom. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but my daughter did last night. And from what I can tell by her comments, they’ve changed the ending. Is it true? I’ll have to see it for myself.

But MY SISTER’S KEEPER is yet another example of a book for which I predicted the ending – an ending, it seems, that should have come as a bit of a surprise, no? My prediction came when it started raining in the last scene – really late in the plot, proving I’m not a book psychic. Nevertheless, I still found it satisfying to have guessed how this clearly impossible character situation would be resolved.

My daughter says the movie ending is completely predictable. And it sounds like they’ve changed the plot and character motivations some. Still, she loved it. And I think I might too.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? What’d you think?

(See also “Pondering the Predictable Plot Point SLUMDOG Spoiler Alert.”)

Deciphering Editor Extraordinaire

A fabulous editor at a top-notch house invited one of my crit buddies to revise and resubmit a picture book manuscript. Yeah!! Tonight we evaluated her revision in light of the editor’s comments. It’s a beautifully, rich story. But here’s the problem. The editor’s early comments seemed to completely contradict her later comments. We discussed. We speculated. We played out 7-8 scenarios, but in the end, we were all fairly stumped by the revision suggestions. So what’s a writer to do? Especially when this baby may only have one more chance to dance for editor extraordinaire. Should my crit buddy dare to e-mail a clarification question? What do you think?

Pondering the Predictable Plot Point – SLUMDOG spoiler alert!

I must be the last person on Earth to have seen SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE. But I’d heard so many wonderful things about it – aside from all the Oscars – I waited for a night when I was well-rested enough to take it all in. Well I’m still waiting to feel well-rested, but I finally said, “To heck with rest, if this movie’s that great, it’ll keep me awake.” And lo, it did.

I loved it as much as was promised. So many favorite scenes. The outhouse dive – how can a kid covered in poop be so darn cute? The fantasy-feeling train travels – how can a kid hanging upside-down in a train window be so darn cute? And of course the many scenes when the pain was so intensely portrayed, I had to turn away or brace my trembling.

But perhaps my favorite scene falls near the end when Jamal calls Latika as a lifeline on his brother’s cell phone. I’m not going to ramble on about the striking symbolism of the scene, but I have to admit one of the main reasons I loved it so much was that I saw it coming.

Traditionally stories suffer bashing reviews for predictable plots. But I think there’s a big difference between a predictable plot and a predictable plot point.

SLUMDOG’s plot was far from predictable – truly one of the most clever and creative I’ve seen. I knew, from those who saw it first, that the story had at least a glimmer of a happy ending. So once Samir’s cell phone became prominent and I guessed its end significance, I wanted it to happen. I had to have it happen. The story had to end that way or I would have been disappointed. Unless of course an equally poignant and satisfying reason for the phone was substituted.

A plot problem, for me, would have been if the phone ultimately carried minor or no significance. For example, if instead Jamal had simply called his brother after the show and reached Samir. The “life line” point provided a strong plot link and brought so many pieces full circle to a perfect ending.

A few months ago, we rented THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE, another thought-provoking movie. There too, shortly before the end, I predicted the ending and was satisfied in doing so.

Obvious, you say. Well I’ve read a few books and seen a few movies in which I predict what I think is an ideal ending or plot point and it doesn’t turn out that way. I’m left dissatisfied. I’m left wondering what the author did – what hints he/she dropped – to lead me down the wrong path. I’m not talking about the red herrings of a great mystery. I’m talking about surprises that leave me stumped. I’m talking about an unfulfilled story promise.

Sometimes surprises work. Sometimes they work very well. And yet, sometimes surprises leave me frustrated. Especially when I have a perfect ending – and not always a happy, perfect ending – mapped out in my mind and the story ends rather imperfectly.

So now it’s your turn.

How does an author create satisfying surprises? Or how does he/she create predictable plot points that fulfill the story promise without boring the reader? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

PB Peek #1 – General Observations

I just finished my last critique for PB Peek Week #1. What fun to read and analyze 7 totally unique manuscripts. Hurray for all the participating children’s writers!! What a stellar group.

After reviewing my letters to the authors, I’ve found some recurring comments that I thought might be helpful to note and share. Here goes:

  • Kids can smell a lesson a mile a way. Don’t let the adult/teacher/parent in you write the story. Having said that, stories that hold some kind of growth or lesson for the MC can be balanced with skepticism, innocence and humor.
  • If the rhyme is limiting the potential of your story, get rid of the rhyme.
  • Match your story premise and MC age to your audience age. And while your text can stretch your reader/listener vocabulary-wise, watch out for abstract ideas that might not appeal to a kid’s sensibilities.
  • Watch for breaks in your story logic especially when combining fantastical with everyday elements of your story.
  • Illustration potential is elemental to PB texts. However, the text must stand alone, giving an editor the opportunity to create his/her own initial unique vision for your book. You don’t have to surrender your own vision, but it pays to keep an open mind in the joint effort to create the best possible picture book.

Watch for my next Picture Book Peek Week coming later this summer.

If I Stay – Not So Dark

I just now finished IF I STAY by Gayle Forman. In case you don’t know, it’s gotten rave reviews and is one of the books featured in the WSJ article “Young Adult Fiction Takes a Dark Turn.” IF I STAY doesn’t have the shock value of WINTERGIRLS or perhaps the unraveling mystery of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. Nor does it race along with the sick thrill of a dystopian competition as in THE HUNGER GAMES. But while I liked all these books very much, I liked IF I STAY best of all. Why? Because while extreme sadness weaves throughout Mia’s story, I didn’t find it dark. Instead I found Mia honest, real and relatable. Consider this passage

“It’s not that my life has been perfect. I’ve had disappointments and I’ve been lonely and frustrated and angry and all the crappy stuff everyone feels. But in terms of heartbreak, I’ve been spared. I’ve never toughened up enough to handle what I’d have to handle if I were to stay.”

As I’ve been critiquing manuscripts this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about story promise. Beginning with my predictions from the title, Forman fulfilled my expectations for the story. She made good on her word. And I like that.

As Mia weighs her decision, Forman elegantly blends Mia’s memories of the past with the current hospital and visitor activity surrounding her, allowing IF I STAY to rise from the label of dark, angst-filled YA and more fully emerge as a story of hope.