Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Merry Busy-ness!

The end of the year is nigh! Have you achieved your goal to finish your MS by the end of this year? You’re nearly ready to submit? Fantastic! New Year approacheth! Go thou verily, hop thou merrily… right into the gargantuan end-o-year slush pile!

September to December is Wordy Bird’s busiest time of the year for editing, but December is my consistently my busiest month by a long shot. In fact, in December my bird feeder runneth over. It’s the month I get:

·         the most work (super!)
·         the highest number of requests for quotes than any other (lovely!)
·         the most umbrage (“What? You can’t you fit me in before the end of January? But I want to submit by New Year!")
·         and the most requests that hover somewhere between ignorant, flabbergasting, and just plain rude. (“Since your extensive developmental edit and lengthy critique showed me I need to actually rewrite some of my MS, will you edit the next draft for nothing since I can’t use any of your editing?”)

Ummm, I beg your pardon? Did you really just ask me to work for free? Will you style my feathers/diagnose my illness/cook my restaurant meal/ [insert occupation here] for free? If so, we have a deal; WB supports a fair barter system.

So what does this mean? It means that Wordy Bird would like to remind writers that it's the holiday season for editors and agents, too. You may feel an overwhelming need to submit your MS by New Year. But they won't feel an overwhelming need to receive it. They’re too busy drinking eggnog, hugging their loved ones, and recuperating- just like you. 

So relax. Stop racing toward the finish line. The finish line is utterly overwhelmed right now, and I'd hate to think your work is getting lost in all that. Drink some more eggnog! If that doesn't work, spike it, and have another. Then go revise. In fact, spend all of January revising. And spend half of February revising your query letter. And the other half:

·         hugging your beloved
·         reading to your children
·         playing with your pet
·         communing with nature
·         doing charitable works
·         getting some much needed exercise
·         and/or [insert hobby here].

Then, and only then, work up to submitting. Perhaps by then the slush pile—overflowing with offerings from all those eager end-of-year-goal submitters—may have diminished just a little.

Drink up! Chill out! And, very Happy Holidays. 

Musical Interlude: Fantasia on Greensleeves, Vaughan Williams

Thursday, December 16, 2010

So You Want to Make Children's Books

So, I'm on a little hiatus from the blog at the moment... it's a busy time of year... more about that soon. In the meantime, enjoy this:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

So You Want To Write a Novel...

By writer, David Kazzie.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rhythm and Soul

During my run this evening, listening to the rhythm of my sneakers pounding the pavement, and passing a pair of swans sitting still on a perfectly still lake surrounded by autumn foliage, I started to think about rhythm in writing.

Years of editing and writing and reading picture books have instilled in me a keen sensitivity to the rhythm and cadence in the language I read, write, and edit. I think rhythm is important not only in texts for the very young, but in any matter which uses the written word to convey ideas, thoughts, feelings, tone, drama etc. The rhythms and cadence of individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can have a profound psychological effect on the reader—and yet they do it almost by stealth, with subtlety.

I frequently relate to my writing students the story of a client I once worked with. She had written a picture book text about the plight of an endangered species of eagle. Her language style of choice was (as happens so often in first drafts of picture books from new writers) rhyming verse with a jaunty and galloping meter. This stylistic choice had, as you can probably imagine, the unfortunate effect of taking what was a serious and soulful subject and making it almost comical—which was absolutely opposite to the writer’s intention. And as so often seems to happen when rhyming verse gets out of hand, the narrative went completely off-track…the story quickly became something that didn’t work at all or even quite make sense.

When I pointed out to her that perhaps a galloping meter did not fit the flapping of eagles’ wings, the swooping and soaring, or the serious tone of the subject matter, she rewrote the text in a more lyrical prose style. It was quite extraordinary: it was as if she had been set free and so, too, the eagles in her story. She quickly came back to me with a piece that exactly evoked the soaring of eagles, their swooping, the beat of their wings and so forth in its rhythm and cadence. The entire tone of the piece had changed—and it not only worked now, but had become something of incredible beauty that absolutely achieved what it set out to do. Through attention to rhythm, it had acquired the soul it was seeking.

This is a fairly overt example of the effects of rhythm. Those who study picture books and spend any significant time trying to write one will soon understand the importance of rhythm, become hyper aware of it, start to intuitively incorporate it, play with it, and use it to great effect. Rhythm and cadence are so important in texts for the very young, which are primarily designed to be read aloud.

But, more subtle are the effects of rhythm and cadence in the written word for older readers (including adults). It’s easy to get caught up in plot, character development, and narrative arc in longer works—and these are, of course, essential. But I encourage the writers with whom I work to really think about the sound of language in each sentence they write, and it’s something I pay great attention to in my own work. Each sentence, I believe, should have an appropriate rhythm and a cadence and tone that suit the context and soul of what is being conveyed.  

Short, sharp sentences, for example, tend to increase tension, speed up the pace, and add drama. In many cases longer, more fluid sentences, create a calmer and more reflective tone. Of course, there are exceptions to these examples (just as there are almost unlimited ways to use rhythm and cadence). But my point is that rhythm and cadence can have very powerful effects, and writers would do well to pay more attention to them and then milk them for all they’re worth.

The key? Read your work aloud. Your manuscript may not be designed to be read that way, but try it anyway. Listen to how the language sounds. Tweak it until the rhythm and cadence complement and complete what you’re trying to convey. Then have someone read it back to you.

One day, when you’re doing your first live reading of your newly published book, you’ll thank me. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Wordy Bird is wearing purple today in memory of recent suicides due to gay abuse. 

Stop the bullying. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bird of the Week

I met this lovely lady and fellow Aussie today at the 
Fantastic Umbrella Factory, Southern Rhode Island

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bad Seeds: Common Word Misuse

I have discussed the distinction between the verbs
lay and lie in an earlier post. But I thought it might be helpful to talk about some other common word misuse—the kind I see on a daily basis.

Toward, towards: In American English, toward, not towards is used. In British English, Australian English, and so forth, the s is preferred. It’s the same with other directional words such as forward, backward, upward, downward, and afterward.

Among, amongst. Among is correct, while The Chicago Manual of Style suggests we should avoid amongst. The same goes for amid and amidst. Avoid the latter.

Compliment and complement: A compliment is a remark designed to flatter or praise. A complement completes or perfects something else.

“You’re most beautiful when you’re flying,” said Hawk. It was a lovely compliment.

Hawk’s fine listening skill was a great complement to Wordy Bird’s need to tweet. 

The same goes for the verbs compliment and complement.

Affect and effect: Affect is a verb, and effect is a noun.*

Hawk’s departure for fall migration affected Wordy Bird profoundly. It had the peculiar effect of bringing the two birds closer. 

*There are exceptions to the use of affect and effect as verb and noun respectively, but they are rare and beyond the scope of most common use.

Farther and furtherFarther is used for physical distance, further for figurative distance.

            “I’m lost and will fly no farther,” squealed Hawk, “until I examine my map further.”

Disburse and disperse: Disperse means to distribute, and while disburse also means to distribute it pertains to money. 

Of course there are many other examples of word misuse, some of which I'll cover in later posts. Can you think of any?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Yet Another Musical Interlude: The Lark Ascending

Here is Nicola Benedetti with Vaughan William's The Lark Ascending. 

I find this an exquisite piece of music to write to. Sensual and uplifting in all the right places.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Isn't Courier an Ugly Font?

Pain is like wasabi for the creative sinuses.
Opens them up and gets them gushing.
Good stuff, ultimately.

Don't you agree?  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Temper! your! use of exclamation marks!!!! 
And.... cast out your.... four dot ellipses....
Flash your em-dashes — and show your colons:
It's.... National! Punctuation! Day; Hooray!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Punctuation Matters: How to Denote a Character's Thoughts

This week, I was involved in an interesting discussion on our regional SCBWI listserv. One member asked a whether a character’s thoughts should be denoted by quotation marks, no quotation marks, or italics.

This is a commonly asked question, and this was part of my short answer:

When I edit, I let the context and target audience dictate quotation marks or no quotation marks. If it's a dialogue heavy text, I use no quotation marks for thoughts. If it's a work for younger kids, then I suggest quotation marks for thoughts. If it's MG or YA, I'd generally go with no quote marks. 

The Chicago Manual of Style*, the industry standard for fiction editing, states:

Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

For example:

“My dear friend must fly south for winter,” thought Wordy Bird, “or else he will surely die.”
We must say goodbye, thought Wordy Bird, but perhaps we will meet again.

Both usages are clear and easily comprehended, are they not?

You’ll note that the Chicago Manual of Style is silent on the use of italics to denote thoughts. But, many people do use italics when they are writing to denote thoughts, and I’m sure we all know published books in which italics are used in this manner. 

From Michael Sussman’s fabulous picture book Otto Grows Down (Illus. Scott Magoon, Sterling 2009):

             I love this rattle, Otto thought. Why does Anna get to have it?

But then in this book, as in so many picture books, typography is used in exciting ways throughout (which my daughter loves as she gets to read the ‘big words’).  

But—and this is the main reason for this post—I think there’s really more to discuss here.

Often, there may be a more seamless way to convey what a character is thinking, without resorting to what may at times be a rather clunky use of internal dialogue and dialogue tags which may tend to toward verbosity such as pondered, considered, speculated, conjectured, and so forth. (Dialogue tags are, of course, a subject for another blog post!)

Let's look at some randomly chosen examples from my bookshelf. From Judy Moody #1 by Megan McDonald, Candlewick Press 2000:

“ROAR!” said Judy.
She would have to get used to a new desk and a new classroom. Her new desk would not have an armadillo sticker with her name on it, like her old one last year. Her new classroom would not have a porcupine named Roger.

From Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Simon & Schuster 1999

Jessie didn’t think it was fair that she still had to wear Hannah’s old clothes. Jesse was an inch taller. It wasn’t her fault Hannah was fatter. But people in Clifton didn’t care about a girl’s ankle showing a little. She’d heard Ma and the other women say it was a scandalous thing back east, but on the frontier people had other things to worry about.

In each of these examples, it is clear these are the protagonist’s thoughts. When writing in first person and limited third person there’s really no necessity to present thoughts as dialogue.

But, there are times that using unspoken discourse will certainly add weight to the thought and to the moment. Here’s an (italicized!) example from The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Delacorte Press, 2009) which comes at a pivotal moment.

Thomas looked back at his captors, feeling awkward but desperate to ask questions. Captors, he thought. Then, Why did that word pop into my head?

When conveying a character’s thoughts, do consider saving actual interior discourse for those pivotal moments. And whatever you choose—quotation marks, no quotation marks, italics—be consistent throughout the text. If your manuscript is acquired, the publisher will adjust according to what best suits the book and their house style.

* Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Point 13.41, The University of Chicago Press 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why the world needs fine editors and a good, hard proofread.

Read the story here.
Need I say more?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bad Seeds: Begin to (verb)

Consider the following:

It was dawn. Wordy-Bird began to fly to the window. She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like anything is wrong, right? But there is an issue here, which I see in just about every manuscript I edit and sometimes in published books. It’s an issue of clunky writing, which can also become a big deal in manuscripts with blown-out word counts.

The offending phrase? Began to fly. Or its variations: began flying, started flying, started to fly.

Wordy Bird doesn’t just begin to fly to the window, she continues and finishes flying to the window, too, because in the next sentence she is there, looking out at the rising sun. So began to fly is not only unnecessarily wordy and unwieldy, it’s also lacks complete logic. Why not just write:

Wordy-Bird flew to the window.

Not only does that strengthen the sentence and complete the logic, but right there you’ve cut 28% of the words in that sentence. If this is a phrase that's consistently used in a manuscript—and when writers use began to (verb) it’s often very liberally—that can add up to a surprising number of excess and clunky words.

But consider the second sentence:

She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

In this context, started to sing works well. We don’t know what happens after she begins to sing, so it is suitable and actually adds weight to her act of singing to greet the dawn.  

As you become more aware of it, you’ll find that begin to (verb) and its variations rarely add more than excess words and an undesirable smattering of clunk. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Educational Intermission: Clever Birdies

Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows
A. A. S. Weir, J. Chappell, A. Kacelnik
Science 297, 981 (2002)

I wonder what he'd be capable of if he had opposable thumbs. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bad Seeds: Lay and Lie

One of the Wordy Bird’s biggest pet peeves is misuse of the words lay and lie, and it's also probably the most common grammar mistake I see. 

Nestmate pointed at Baxtor. “Lay down,” he said. Baxtor laid down. Nestmate laid down beside the dog. Chickling laid on top of them.

What’s wrong with this?

“It’s lie down!” puffed Wordy Bird. “Not lay down. Unless you are actually laying the dog down, which you’re not.”

Lay is a transitive verb, so Baxtor cannot lay down—

Ok, let’s back up a bit. What’s a transitive verb? A transitive verb takes an object. For example: put. You wouldn’t say:

The dog put.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? A transitive verb must take an object for the sentence to make sense.

The dog put the bone down.

The opposite of a transitive verb is an intransitive verb, for example: run.

The dog runs.

An intransitive verb doesn’t take an object.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t take an object. Some of the confusion between the two verbs comes from similarities when they are inflected:

Lie, lay, lain

Baxtor lies down.
Baxtor lay down.
Baxtor has lain down.

But the transitive verb lay is inflected like this: lay, laid, laid

Baxtor lays the bone down.
Baxtor laid the bone down.
Baxtor has laid the bone down.

So when Nestmate wants the dog to be on the floor, he should say:

“Lie down, Baxtor. Good boy.”

Then he can lie beside the dog and Chickling will lay herself over both of them and everyone will be happy. Especially Wordy Bird.