Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writing Children’s Picture Books

So you want to write a children’s picture book. Here are some things that might help you.

Think in pages. A typical picture book runs 24 story pages, although some publishers want or will accept 28 pages. Pages in a book are added in groups of four only, so don’t try to write a 26-page book. That will make life hard for a publisher and they don’t like writers who make life hard.

Shoot for 400-1000 words, the low end being for the youngest readers. Six to eight hundred is a happy medium for older picture book readers. “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of the best-known children’s books that also became a movie, had only 336 words. “Green Eggs and Ham” contains 641 words but it has a fantastic twist. Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel, had a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a complete, interesting story using only 50 unique words. He won that bet, and the book became one of the 5 most popular children’s picture books ever written.

If it sounds easy to write a 600-word story, think again.

With only 600 words in the story, each one must count. In an 80,000-word novel, you can get by some poorly chosen words. If, say, only 5% of your words are weak, the story contains 4000 bad words. Using that same metric, your 600-word book contains 30, and that breaks down to one or two per page. With each page containing on average 12-13 words, one weak or useless word stands out like a sore thumb.

Kids who read picture books take things literally and they want those stories to move along. Using passive verbs is the best way to kill that story movement. Passive verbs don’t show action. Here’s a list of passive verbs to avoid when possible: be, being, been, am, is, are, was, were, been, has, have, had, do, did, does, can, could, shall, should, will, would, might, must, may. Write and rewrite every sentence you create to avoid using them. It’s particularly weak writing to use the verb phrase ‘had + verb.’ Instead of writing “She had started to read the book” say “She read the book every chance she got.” Other words to avoid adverbs like seem(-s, -ed), really, just, very. In general, try to find active verbs that don’t require adverbs to describe them. All this is true of writing in any genre.

Whether you illustrate it yourself or not, and you won’t if you plan on submitting it to a traditional publisher because they’ll provide one who meets their preferred style, every single page needs to be uniquely illustratable. The story must create pictures that can be added and each illustration must be sufficiently different from all the others or the reader gets bored. The illustrator may not create the pictures you imagine. Mine usually don’t, but the readers likely won’t either, so the illustrator uses her own experience in creating the images like you did in stringing the words together.

As you contemplate writing a picture book, think action story, one that makes sense to the age you are writing for. The young reader must be able to identify with the main character and her problem must be one the reader can identify with, even if your main character is an animal or an inanimate object, although you better know what you’re doing to try and anthropomorphize, say, a bed. Kids love the rhythm and sound of a rhyming picture book story. But if you aren’t good at poetry, your book will sound and feel forced to the reader and, more importantly, to the editor. As a beginning picture book writer, write it out in narrative form, not poetry. You still want to think of stanzas, as in the words on each page, and rhythm, but don’t force rhymes.

My now 9-year-old daughter is my first reader, since my first picture book 5 years ago. If you can find a captive picture book reader, let them read it or read it to them. They’ll let you know if it’s any good.

These represent just a few of the basics of picture book writing. More to come in this space in the future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Want To Write Books for Children? Then Listen to What They want

I write books for children. I have four published books and 5 under contract. I publish my books through 4RV Publishing. It’s a small press and can’t put out as many books per year as I write, and the publishing house has MANY other good writers.

Why Am I Me?, my first book, helps children with a poor self-image discover what their place in the universe is. It teaches them that ALL things have a purpose and an importance in the universe so, they must, too.

Kimmy Finds Her Key follows a young girl as she and her bestie search for her key to happiness. It’s bigger than she ever realized.

If You Swallow That Seed follows the adventures of a pre-teen boy whose mother says all those platitudes that ALL mothers share with their kids. When she says “If you swallow that seed, a watermelon will grow out of your ear” he never realized that it would really happen. All her ‘momisms’ start to come true, and he must find a way to break the odd spell.

In Joy and Mary Save Christmas, Santa needs help. While he now uses a quantum transporter to deliver presents (although he does spot hit a few houses here and there with the sleigh and reindeer to keep up appearances), he has a big problem. All the presents are stolen by the imps on Christmas Eve. Santa has to replace them and he doesn’t have a lot of time. Joy’s photographic memory saves the day.

I am often asked where I get my ideas for my children’s books. They are a little off the beaten path. My response is always the same: Listen to children.

I have a 9-year-old daughter who was much younger when I started writing children’s books. She is my primary critic, the first one I read my new stories to. If she doesn’t like it or doesn’t think it makes sense, it is back to work for me, or the trash can for the story.

My daughter inspired one of my books directly when, as a 4-year-old, she asked, “Daddy, what if my bones were made of pretzels and my skin was jelly?” It occurred to me that a lot of kids might wonder about such things, so I wrote ‘What If My Bones Were Made of Pretzels (one under contract but not yet out).

My ideas often come from observing children. When I go to a bookstore or a library, no matter what I might be personally looking for, I always stop first in the children’s section. What are other children’s writers writing? What is selling (or being checked out)? If I go to a doctor’s office, I first grab the “Highlights” magazines or any children’s books there. I’m curious what children are reading. Sometimes I do wonder if people see me as some kind of freak, always lurking around the children’s area of book stores and libraries.

My point is simple: what do children want to read? What questions do they ask? What do they find funny? Believe me, it’s rarely the same things you and I might find funny. Their brains are just wired differently than ours.

Watch commercials during TV shows aimed at kids. What are they buying? Better still, observe them in Walmart and other stores that sell a lot of toys. Watch what they stop at, pick up, buy.

If you want to write for kids, you need to understand what they like, what they are interested in, and why.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Astronomical Predictions for the New year

Since the start of a new year often brings prophecies of the upcoming trip around the sun, here are some space-related predictions. These won’t necessarily come true in 2014, but I am confident all will occur eventually, most, I believe, in the lifetimes of the readers of this article.

Mars once had abundant liquid water on its surface. We have lots of intriguing, if inconclusive, evidence of liquid water still appearing seasonally in places on Mars where one might reasonably expect it to be. Photos of the same region, taken over time, show dark streaks running down the sides of cliffs and crater walls. It looks for all the world like liquid water running down slope. These have been explained as CO2, which is heavy and rolls down hills. Frozen subsurface dry ice sublimates to gaseous CO2 and carries darker material from just below the surface with it, creating the stains.

  Streaks seen in Newton Crater could be due to liquid water (Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

I predict that NASA or another space agency from Europe, India, China or wherever, will sometime soon send a probe to one of these locations and verify that is liquid, albeit very salty, water.

Mars isn’t the only non-terrestrial location with liquid water. Jupiter’s moon Europa has a surface layer of ice, perhaps 10 miles thick. Below that is a liquid ocean, 60 to 100 miles thick, if the spotty gravity/density data we have from Europa is correct. And just to bolster that nearly universally-accepted assumption, in mid-December of 2013, the Hubble Telescope captured what are almost certainly erupting geysers on Europa. Europa’s subsurface ocean is kept liquid by tidal stresses on the moon from Jupiter and Ganymede, the next Jovian moon beyond Europa, and the largest moon in our solar system. They constantly squeeze and pull on Europa’s crust, which generates tectonic activity that heats the ocean, keeping it liquid.

This is an artist's concept of a plume of water vapor thought to be ejected off the frigid, icy surface of the Jovian moon Europa, located about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from the sun.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Not long after the Casini probe arrived at Saturn, it discovered mineral-laden water ice geysers blasting off the tiny moon Enceledus. It’s not clear if tidal stress comes into play here, as on Europa; it may be that subsurface the liquid water on Enceledus is transitory, and the geysers may stop any time.

Enceladus Ice Geysers. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

What makes all three cases for liquid water interesting and prediction-worthy, is this: On Earth, almost without exception, where there’s water, there’s life. Even in cracks in rock a few miles below the surface of Earth, microbes can live in tiny water pockets.

I predict that we will find non-terrestrial life elsewhere on our solar system, probably in one of these three places.

Actually, I should write that as “non-terrestrial.” The quotations marks are there because Martian, Europan or even Eceledun life may well be related to Earth life. Planets and moons in our solar system are somewhat promiscuous; they are constantly swapping spit, as asteroids slam into these bodies and knock hunks of them into space. Any hitchhiking microbes may actually survive this unintended space flight, to populate any other world with supportive conditions, meaning liquid water, it might later land on. Whichever of these four bodies – Earth, Mars, Europa, or Enceledus – first developed life very likely spread it like a cosmic cold to the other three. And if that is true, that all life in our solar system is related, any microbes from another location in our solar system could cause deadly epidemics on Earth.

Several state of the art telescopes are now under construction, seeking funding or in the design stages. Some, like the James Webb Space telescope, Hubble’s successor, will be in space. Some, like Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, Giant Magellan Telescope, Thirty Meter Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope, will be ground based, but dwarf in size and resolving power anything that exists today.


 Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, Credit Hubblesci.com

The Thirty Meter Telescope from above, Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation.

Some, like the eLISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will search for gravity waves instead of light waves. Gravity waves represent the only direct source of information from the Big Bang itself. All forms of electromagnetic radiation were blocked during the first roughly 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

LISA Gravity Wave Te3lescope, Credit ESA.

Several neutrino telescopes now routinely survey space, and more sophisticated ones being designed promise to provide greater sensitivity and spatial resolution. Neutrinos represent the only direct evidence from the core of stars, where all the exciting stuff occurs.

I predict that over the next several decades, one or all of these telescopes will discover something that will turn astronomy and physics on their collective ears.

If I knew what that discovery was to be, I’d be writing my Noble Prize acceptance speech.

Several tens of thousands of objects baseball-sized and larger orbit Earth, the missions, but also the detritus of the dozens of space launches we humans do every year. The largest object currently in orbit, the international Space Station, dwarfs a football field in size.

Every one of them will eventually fall back to Earth.

Only one person, a woman in Tulsa, OK, is known to have been hit by returning space debris. She was jogging one morning when she felt a hard tap on her shoulder. She looked and found…something. It turned out to be a hunk of insulation from the second stage of a Russian rocket that launched a satellite a couple of weeks earlier. She was unnerved, but otherwise unhurt.

Stuff in orbit falls back to Earth all the time. Much of it burns up from friction with our atmosphere due to reentering at 17,000 miles per hour. But large, metallic hunks of satellites routinely survive this reentry and crash down. Two-thirds of our planet is water, so most of the stuff lands in the ocean. A significant fraction of the remaining land surface consists of rain forests, deserts and other uninhabited areas. So far, we humans have been lucky from this rain of space debris. That won’t always be the case.

I predict that some time in the near future, and major hunk of space debris will hit a populated area, causing destruction and injuring or killing humans on the ground.

My crystal ball reveals other space-related predictions, but the most significant of those involve timescales far beyond our individual lifetimes. And most are a lot scarier than any I listed above.

Friday, May 24, 2013

We are Makeing Life Miserable for Ourselves.

Anyone who says genetically modified foods are harmless is not paying attention to biology.

Just like their fingerprints, no two people have the exact set of genetic materials. Most of the variations and innocuous, like eye or skin color, hair texture, all these small differences that give each of us our unique looks and personality.

Some of these genetic differences create no apparent difference whatsoever between two people. But these differences CAN show up later when the environmental conditions change. One specific set of apparently irrelevant genes in a person may allow that person’s white blood cells to react more quickly when an unknown chemical somehow enters our food supply. Whereas those individuals who lack that gene get sick, those few individuals who possess that odd, rare gene live better.

We humans don’t change very rapidly. Malaria became a serious disease for the human race long ago. It took a while, but over thousands of years, some evolved immunity to it.
It took as much as 20 generations, hundreds of years, for humans to evolve light skin and blond hair. Those changes were driven by an ongoing need to absorb more UV radiation from the sun to make sufficient Vitamin D as we moved into higher latitude with reduced sunlight.

Eventually, only people with that useful genetic trait may exist in the world, or a large region of it, the others having been very slowly eliminated from or reduced in the gene pool. This is not meant to be cruel or racist; it’s why our world is populated with the tremendous variety of people we have today. Those of our ancestors whose bodies could better cope with, say, the Yersinia pestis bacteria or the H1N1 flu virus survived the Bubonic Plague in the mid-14th century and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.



                      Yersinia pestis bacteria                                                                H1N1 flu virus

People who had within their genetic makeup an extra resistance to either that bacterium or that virus survived. Those that didn’t, died, and ended their genetic line. Such genetic mutations occur slowly and randomly in humans, and are then passed to the offspring of those who possess it. We can’t do much to either speed it up or stop it from happening.

Bacteria generate random mutations in theior genetic makeup much more rapidly then we humans do. And bacteria, and for that matter viruses, have an extra “genetic” trick we humans lack: they can swap genes. And I don’t mean to mix their genes in their offspring, as we do every time we make a baby. A living bacterium can amble up to a complete stranger bacterium and exchange genes. Each one tends to offer up what seems to be most effective in the environment they currently live in.

So if, by mutation or ay other means, a single bacterium develops resistance to, say, an overused antibiotic drug, chemical, or a genetic change on a species they prey on, they can quickly pass that on to all their neighbors, who pass it on to their neighbors, and so on. In a relatively short period of time, virtually all the bacteria which haven’t already died from exposure to the antibiotic or chemical are immune to it. We have created superbugs.

All living things evolve over time in the sense that their exact genetic makeup changes. It seems that the more complex the creature, the slower this process is.

So what is the point of all of this? Simple. If we rapidly change our environment, because of widespread and heavy use of drugs, chemicals or even genetically altering our food sources, we will trigger a massive “biological war” with the bacteria, insects and weeds that already attack us or our crops, just as occurred naturally when bacteria exchanged genes and became resistant to penicillin. We are forcing pests to become superbugs, super weeds, etc. Genetically modifying our crops will, in the long run, make life miserable for us humans, just as antibiotics eventually created bacteria and viruses we can’t defeat.

Are you listening, Monsanto?