Hi All! Before I get into this week’s blog post, I do have an announcement to make.
Coming up on December 5th, I will be holding a reading and signing at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro at 11 a.m.
I am so excited for this event. Holding readings where I can listen to kids’ reactions, see their smiles, and meet people who have shown an interest in my stories is one of the most rewarding experiences a children’s author can have. However, children’s authors (and all authors, at that) face a number of obstacles every day that make these rewarding experiences all the sweeter. Here are a few typical obstacles children’s authors face, and my tips on how to make the most of those difficulties.
The number of children’s books on the shelves. How do we get our books to stand out among not only all the new children’s books coming out every day, but also among all the old classics (Roald Dahl books, Junie B. Jones, etc.)? Parents will often want to read their children the same books they loved as children, and they’ll pick up other, newer books as other parents recommend them.
So how do you make this obstacle work for you? Promote your books among parenting websites, among the parents in your town, among mommy and daddy bloggers—anyway you can think of to reach parents with your books, this is how you will get your book to stand out. Word of mouth is the best promotion tool there is!
Finding an original story to tell. Children’s books tend to want to promote good, moral values to children. But how many books can be written about being kind, sharing, finding self-assurance, being a good friend…the list goes on and on. The types of characters that interest children tend to be limited as well, with countless stories featuring princesses, and dragons, and animals, and magicians or wizards.
So how do you overcome this challenge? My biggest piece of advice is to focus on your characters. Maybe on the outside your story could seem like just another stereotypical, archetypal story, but if you put in the time to flesh-out your characters, your story will be original. Just like no two people are exactly the same, no two characters, if written well enough to seem like real people, will be the same either.
Balancing writing and a day job. Writing children’s books will not make you a living. Yes, I know there are exceptions (JK Rowling certainly made more than enough money to live on with Harry Potter), but don’t expect to be the exception. Most children’s book authors also need a day job in order to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. And it’s hard to come home from a day job and get back to that book that may or may not stand out and may or may not be original enough of a story to tell, but they have to do it anyway if they ever hope to put a book out to struggle in this world.
Overcoming this challenge is simple—choose writing. Choose to put in the effort. Sit down every day. Give your hands to your day job, but give your soul to your writing. You might not make money, you might not be the next massive success, but you will be able to fulfill your calling to be a children’s author, and hopefully touch a few readers’ lives.
No obstacle in the world should stop you from doing what you feel called to do. And no obstacle in the world will stop me from writing Night Buddies books.
What obstacles have you encountered as an author, or in following whatever passion you have? Have you found a way of coping with those obstacles? Let me know in the comments!
You can call me old school, but I don’t do the e-reading thing. I like to sit down with a book in my hands, flip through the pages, write in the margins, and keep all the screens at bay even if for just a few hours. Reading, to me, is an escape from the world. And lately, it seems like the world is full of nothing but smart phones, laptops, and tablets.
But what about the next generation? The parents raising kids now, not those of us who raised our kids thirty years ago? It seems they won’t be able to avoid keeping tablets in the house, and with cheaper books and easier access, shouldn’t switching from books to screen actually be a benefit to today’s children?
In some ways, yes. Books are more easily available than they have ever been. Children’s e-books are usually made with interactive features now, so kids can feel even more like they become part of the story they’re reading. They can guide the content, write pieces of the stories themselves, draw pictures of the characters, and take their creativity to entirely different levels.
An article on amplify.com said it best: “Kids aren’t just passive receptors anymore, they expect to be able to interact, remix some of the content, and work collaboratively with others to do things with the content.”
Kids are excited to sit down with these e-readers, because it’s no longer a time just to clock silent reading hours—reading has turned into another kind of game time. And while I am glad that books are getting out there and children are reading, I would also argue that this is the exact problem.
The experience of reading changes when it is filled with hyperlinks, game times, and endless upon endless distractions. It distracts from the general enjoyment of reading—losing oneself in a narrative. Why have interactive features when you can instead take the place of someone else’s consciousness, and live a different life than your own for a few hundred pages? An article on mom.me quoted a study which said, “Of those who took part in the UK’s National Literacy Trust survey, only 12 percent of those who did their reading on a screen said they enjoyed reading, while 51 percent of those burning through pages said they liked to read. Print readers, even if they mixed it with screen reading, made up a larger percent of above-average readers compared to those who only read on a screen—15.5 percent vs. 26 percent.”
Long story short, we can turn reading into a sort of game time, but real game time is only going to be a tap of the screen away from their book. Why spend a few hours reading when Angry Birds is just as easily available on the same device?
I think kids and parents benefit from putting away the distractions, locking the screens away for just an hour or so, and sitting down to read books together. You can still encourage your children to create stories and imagine for themselves—that’s how the character Crosley from my book series was created—but without a tablet and all the distractions tablets come with in the way, hopefully the pure pleasure of reading a book will continue to be passed on through the generations.
Do you prefer reading books or on tablets? Let me know in the comments!
After spending the past month at the Bookmarks Book Festival and SIBA 2015 (pictured above), I’ve walked away with a whole lot of inspiration and ideas about what makes a book a success, what people love to read, and what constitutes good writing. So today I wanted to share some of my thoughts on that with you!
When I first set out to write Night Buddies and the Pineapple Cheesecake Scare, I didn’t realize how essential building conflict in the story was. You can’t just have one main conflict in mind and have that carry the entire story—the book also has to be filled with little bits of tension and little conflicts that keep the reader turning every single page. Each chapter you write should contain a major conflict, each page should be your character finding ways to resolve it. Yes, you should have one main conflict (all the pineapple cheesecakes in the pineapple cheesecake factory are disappearing) but conflict needs to always be in the front of your mind when you sit down to write.
So what are some ways to do this? Here are a few tips to help you figure out how to raise the stakes, build the tension, and create the most dynamic story possible.
Create strong values for your characters. When you know what they value and what they hold closest, it is easier to come up with conflict that will interfere with those values. Let’s say a character doesn’t drink because of an alcoholic parent, and then falls in love with a major drinker . . . conflict. Let’s say a red crocodile who loves cheesecakes more than anything now has them start disappearing . . . conflict. It can be silly or serious, but values that are being tested, internally or externally, create conflict.
Bring the family into it. Families are a huge area for conflict in a story. In Night Buddies, John’s parents question him and his sanity when he talks about his adventures—they even argue between themselves because of it. This isn’t a huge plot point in the story, but it still fills the book with extra tension and drives the story forward.
Think internally. Don’t only think of external events to build conflict, like storms or people, but think about your character’s feelings. Do they feel disappointed in themselves or their life, do they hate their siblings, do they suffer from depression? Emotional conflict is just as, if not more, essential to a dynamic story.
Keep bringing back the enemy. Your story should have an antagonist—think the Joker, or in my story’s case, a band of evil iguanas. The more they show up, the more conflict your protagonist is going to have to face. Not only do they have to deal with the trouble the enemy causes, but they also have to deal with the emotional conflict of either sinking to their enemy’s level, or taking the high road and maintaining their moral as the good character.
So there you have it! There are probably a hundred ways to build conflict in your story, so just always remember that when things seem to be going too well for your character, it’s your job to knock him off his high horse!
What are some writing essentials you’ve discovered? Let me know in the comments below!
“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.” –Mike Murdock
When I was a younger man, I was against forming routines. I lived spontaneously, I took each day as it came at me with no expectations, and I thought routine would be the end of my creativity. If inspiration hit in the middle of the night, I would write like a maniac from 1 a.m. to sunrise. If I didn’t have anything to write about for days at a time, then I wouldn’t dwell on it.
But then inspiration was coming to me less and less frequently. I was writing once a week, maybe, then once a month, then not at all. I had no pattern to my creative life, and I was becoming weaker as a writer and as a thinker. I didn’t have ideas for stories, I didn’t have the tools to write them down when they did come, and when I embarked on longer projects, they never got finished.
It was about this time that I heard some career-changing advice: you are only as strong as the rituals you establish for yourself.
As I looked into it, I realized that many, if not most, of the biggest names in the literary world had writing rituals. Sarah Dessen writes from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every single day, whether inspiration strikes or not. E.B. White always wrote in his brightly lit living room, and refused to listen to music during his writing hours. Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, writes for six hours, and then spends the rest of the day exercising and reading to stay sharp and focused for this early mornings. The list goes on and on.
(For a list of 12 writers’ daily routines, look at this blog post by James Clear: http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers)
Forming a ritual allows you to get in the same mindset day after day, and your brain begins to realize that inspiration should hit in these specific settings. It was only when I decided to write consistently every day, at the same time each day, in the same room each day that I was able to write the Night Buddies books to completion. It doesn’t matter if your ritual means snacking on hot cheetos in the nearest coffee shop, if it means waking up before your children and your spouse so they won’t distract you, if it means you only write solidly for one hours every night—having those rituals will help you get words on the page. This is our only, singularly most important goal as writers. We have to get words on the page.
Waiting for inspiration is like waiting for a new puppy to learn to come to you on command. You can hope for it, and maybe accidentally a few times it will happen. But if you don’t train for it to happen consistently every single time when called, then eventually it will never happen at all. Train your brain to be inspired every single day, train your mind to only be able to focus on writing when it is time to write, and you’ll soon see all those stories you’ve been mulling over in your mind become real, tangible, written down stories on the page.
Do you have any writing rituals? Let me know what they are in the comments!
There are two main elements to a story: plot and character. There is debate amongst writers whether one of these aspects is more important than the other, which is why some books are plot-driven while others are character-driven, but the reality is that your book will not succeed if your characters feel inauthentic. This is where one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling comes into play—creating three-dimensional characters.
Luckily, when I started writing the Night Buddies series I had already been creating my main character Crosley for years (by making him the star in my son’s bedtime stories). I had a fully formed character who felt like a real friend in my home, and that led to an entire series being based off of him. But I couldn’t rely on Crosley alone. A book is made up of an entire cast of characters, all who need to feel as real as the others, and I knew I had a lot of work to do in order to make my other characters as three-dimensional as the character I had spent years of my life developing. Along the way, I came up with a few techniques for fleshing out the entire cast. I hope you find them helpful!
1. Always ask why. It is one thing to decide, “I’m going to write about a red crocodile,” and another to think, “What is it that makes this crocodile red? How is he unique?” You want to think of original, entertaining personality bits, but to make that character come alive, you need to know exactly why he is the way he is. Why is your character afraid of the dark? Why does he have a tattoo on his earlobe? Why does he have an insatiable hunger for pineapple cheesecakes? Knowing the why makes him relatable and easy to understand, both of which help bring him to life.
2. Base the character off someone you know. Next to Crosley, there is a boy named John who stars in the Night Buddies books who is based on my son. When you base a character off of someone you know well, you can pinpoint unique ways that person talks, unique parts of their appearance, and unique stories from their life that will come across on the page the way that person comes across to you in real life.
3. Create a character sketch. Character sketches are very important to do, but I don’t believe everyone needs to use the same template for making one. For instance, I’ve seen templates that make you consider their mother’s maiden name or their favorite time of day, but sometimes those details are irrelevant to the story. Here’s what I go by: know their backstory, know the relationships that are important to them, and know where they should be emotionally at the beginning of the story and at the end. Any other details you want to know are up to you—it can be fun to spend hours figuring out every detail of your character’s lives, but don’t get so caught up in it that you forget what’s important to your story!
4. Show, don’t tell. Your character won’t feel real if you spend pages telling the reader their likes and dislikes, how they came to be where they are, whether they have allergies in the summertime. If you make a list of things to tell the reader, the character feels like a list, not a person. Instead, show that they’re shy by how they cross their arms when in a public place. Show that they have allergies by how they sneeze when the wind starts to blow. Show that they hate broccoli by how their mouth tenses up when their mother forces them to eat all that is on their plate. What you show the reader will always be ten times more important, and feel ten times more real, than by what you tell them.
Do you tend to prefer character-driven, or plot-driven novels? Maybe a healthy dose of the two? Let me know in the comments below!
I’ve written one blog post before about making the decision to write a children’s book, (link to that post here) but I didn’t mention that the decision to write a series of children’s books was actually a separate decision. You see, most authors don’t take on writing a series the way J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter—we don’t plot out seven books, fully detailed from beginning to end, and expect that they will all reach publication. In fact, most series of books become a series due to luck, demand, or by accident.
J.K. Rowling; author of the most popular modern book series, Harry Potter.
When I first wrote Night Buddies and the Pineapple Cheesecake Scare, I knew that my story was complete. It is a self-contained book, has a firm beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t require further books to make the story whole. But I also realized that when I was finished writing it, I had more ideas in mind for my characters. My story was done, but their stories could continue through multiple books. I didn’t have a set number in mind, I didn’t have all the stories planned out, and I didn’t want the stories to be interconnected. All I knew, and still know, is that my characters are vibrant enough (in my eyes, at least) to carry out a series of adventures.
And that’s when book number two, Night Buddies and One Far-Out Flying Machine, began to be written.
Maybe you’ve decided to turn your beloved book into a series because you aren’t ready to be done with your characters, or because your readers are begging for the story to continue, or because your publisher thinks they can capitalize on your success by writing a continuation (cheers to you, if that’s the case). My point is, a series can be created out of what you thought was a stand-alone book; it doesn’t always need to start with the intention of writing a series. The only difficulty with creating a series out of a stand-alone book is deciding whether your story is worth continuing.
Deciding to continue your work throughout a series of books comes with the challenge of developing your characters with every new adventure, keeping your same writing tone and voice through each book, and always bringing fresh takes to old ideas. It is difficult to always stay excited about the same characters you’ve been working with for years, but when you are capable of finding that excitement, it’s always worth the struggle. Night Buddies became a series because I knew this was the story I was meant to write, and I hope to continue releasing new Night Buddies books for as long as Crosley and John remain exciting, fresh, and fun characters for me to hang on to. I sometimes feel as though I’m in a long-term relationship with these characters and these stories, and with that comes the hard days or the boring days, but with that also comes immense love, commitment, and happiness.
If you’re deciding whether or not you should begin a series, I’d recommend just writing the first book, getting acquainted with your characters, and treating it like a first date. After you’re finished with that one, decide whether taking on those types of stories and those characters will be worth standing by long-term. And when you find those characters you never want to leave behind, be thankful; they don’t come by often.
What is your favorite book series? Let me know in the comments below!
I was fortunate to be invited to do a live reading of my newest book, Night Buddies Go Sky High, at the store Books to be Red on Ocracoke Island, NC last week, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had since the book released earlier this year. A close-knit, enthusiastic group of both children and parents came out to listen to my reading, and through that experience I had the opportunity to take on an entirely different perspective of my book.
Marketing a book seems to be all about the Internet these days. You have to do blog tours, keep up-to-date on Twitter and Facebook, send out e-mails, and all kinds of things that allow you to interact with readers—but Internet interaction can only take you so far. When you get the chance to hear someone laugh at a particularly funny scene or line, watch their eyes light up as you imitate character’s voices, and have the chance to answer their questions or talk about the characters face-to-face, that is when you really feel as though you’ve passed your book on from being your creation, to being something for other people to love.
As an independently published author, it can be more difficult to set up in-person readings, you’ll have to foot any travel expenses, and you might not get the giant crows showing up the way they do for best-selling authors—but let me tell you, doing a live reading is worth all of those difficulties. I’ve had the opportunity to read in schools, libraries, and independent bookstores like Books to be Red, and no matter how big or small the crowd, I always walk away glad to have gone through with it. Connecting with readers is one of the most rewarding parts of being an author, and no connection is more intimate than one established in a live reading.
If anyone who came to my reading on Ocracoke Island is reading this, thank you so much for taking the time to come listen to me read. If any other independent authors are reading this, look into setting up a live reading as soon as possible; you’ll have a chance to market your book the old-fashioned way, by connecting with individuals person-to-person, not computer-to-computer.
Have you ever attended a live reading? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!
So one day it hits you—that perfect idea, the one you know is your key to becoming a children’s book author. You do a little character developing, you download Scrivener, you’re ready to take that idea and turn it into a children’s book, right?
Wrong. Almost every person believes they have a book inside them, but without taking the time to consider your writing goals, those books never make it to “The End.” Before you sit down at your computer and start typing out that great bestseller you’ve been brewing, I suggest you take some time to sit down and think about these questions.
Why are you writing this book? Do you desire fame, wealth, or critical acclaim? Do you believe in and love your story? Do you simply want to read the book to your child, family, or friends? I’m not going to say that any motivation for finishing a book is better than another (though I’m not holding my breath to become a millionaire author anytime soon), but I do think that without knowing what’s motivating you, you’ll lose steam around page thirty and your book won’t ever be completed.
What time commitment are you giving to this book? Will you write every day? Should you set a daily word count? Are you planning on writing whenever the mood or inspiration strikes? Giving yourself clear and realistic expectations for the amount of time you will dedicate yourself to this project will keep you from being frustrated if it takes you awhile to finish. Knowing ahead of time that you only plan on writing 100 words a day will allow you to realistically be aware that you’ll be working on this book for over a year or years to come.
How much of your story do you know? You don’t need to be the person that writes an in-depth outline before you start writing chapter one, but you should have an idea of what the beginning, middle, and end of your story will be. If you start writing the book with a strong, developed beginning, no clue as to what will happen in the middle, and a vague idea of the ending, you could get lost and give up the whole project.
Would you want to read this book? This is the most important question to ask yourself—and the one a lot of wannabe authors don’t give enough importance to. If you don’t believe your book is important, if you’re not having fun writing or reading it, and if you don’t care about your book as if it was your own child, you won’t have the energy to fight to get it written and eventually published. Don’t bother to start writing something if you don’t start the project with more passion than you’ve ever felt in your life.
Deciding to write a book is deciding to start one of the longest, craziest, emotional, frustrating, and rewarding journeys you’ve ever been on. If you feel confident in answering all of these questions, you’ll be prepared to see your book through to its end.
Are you a first-time writer? What are some of your answers to these questions? Let me know in the comments below!
When many new writers are first gathering ideas to start writing their books, often one of the last things they think about is where the story is going to take place (unless they are writing fantasy, in which case setting is one of the first things to think about). Sometimes authors forget to give setting any attention at all. But here’s something to remember: where your story takes place might not drastically influence the plot of the book, but the story still has to take place somewhere.
When I set out to write the Night Buddies books, I originally focused my attention on forming the characters that would be most important to the story. But when I actually got to the point where I was ready to sit down and start writing, I realized something important—I had no idea where these characters lived. Setting cannot, let me repeat, cannot, be ignored. So if you’re where I was when I began writing and haven’t given much thought to the setting in your story, here are three pivotal things to consider to get your story, and your setting, back on track.
What type of settings are you familiar with? If you’ve never lived in a city, writing about city life accurately may be become difficult. Think about the places you know like the back of your hand, places you can picture with your eyes closed, and incorporate aspects of them into your book’s setting. All those details will help make the story come alive. Of course, you can choose to research a setting you aren’t familiar with, but often the best details about a place aren’t something you can look up online—they come from the experience of living there.
What type of setting will best fit the tone of your book? If you’re writing a lighthearted children’s book, it’s appropriate to incorporate fun, whimsical locations. In Night Buddies, for example, I set a few scenes in a zoo where there could be more talking animals like Crosley—it added another dimension of fun and silliness to the books, which was important because I wanted kids to have a blast reading them. If you’re writing a horror novel, maybe a place that experiences a lot of rain and cold should be used instead of sunny Southern California. Choose settings that will enhance the tone of your story, and it will become that much more well-rounded.
Does your setting add to the story? I chose to set the Night Buddies books in a city, and part of what went into that decision was that the adventures take place at nighttime. A city has a lot of bright lights, so Crosley and John can get around relatively easily, and are able to see what is going on around them. In a small, country town they would probably be spotted by neighbors, and they would be completely in the dark when trying to get around. Little details like this about your setting should add logic, mystery, and excitement to the story you’re writing.
What do you think about setting? Is it one of the first things you think about when plotting a book? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!
So you’ve decided you want to tell a story to your child every night before they go to bed, but you’ve read every book in your house over and over, and the only thing you can think of on your own is, “Once upon a time . . .” But as someone who created a series of books out of my simple bedtime stories, I can tell you that becoming a master storyteller isn’t so complicated. Here are my top tips for telling bedtime stories your child will adore!
Cater to your child’s interests. Think about which books your kid loves to read. Are they about horses, sports, magic, pirates? Draw your subject from there, or even combine some of them! You could tell a story about a magic pirate and his horse companion competing to become World Champions in a horse race. The more creative you get with your child’s interests, the more interesting your story will be to them.
Keep it short. Kids don’t have very long attention spans, and by bedtime they should already be pretty wiped out. Just keep the storyline simple—you have a character, there is a problem, the problem gets bigger, and then the character resolves the problem. You should be able to keep it under ten minutes. If you have more to tell, continue on the next night.
Make your child the star! You’re always telling your child that they can be anything they want to be, right? Well here’s your chance to tell them a story about becoming president, discovering cures for diseases, getting a record deal, or whatever it is their biggest dreams are. Even if you put them in stories that are unrealistic, like how I put my son John in the Night Buddies stories, hearing about themselves as protagonists in the stories you tell will boost their confidence and help them realize that you truly believe in them to do and be anything they want.
Tell the story together. I’ve said before that my son John is the one who came up with our red, talking crocodile friend Crosley, and I think it truly goes to show that the best stories are ones that you and your child come up with together. Ask them to create a character, a storyline, or a setting. Tell the story back and forth to each other a sentence at a time. They will feel proud for having created something fun, and it will bond you two closer together.
What are some bedtime stories you’ve told your child? Any tips for the new storytellers out there? Let me know in the comments below!