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Writing Children’s Books – My Thoughts

Little Alien

When I first starting my writing endeavor over nine years ago, it was exciting, and I had a blast creating and learning. I bought and read the book, The Business of Writing for Children by Aaron Shepard, and it sent me on my way. The author suggested joining a writing group, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which I did, and finding critique groups to bounce around ideas and share material with other writers. I did that as well, and it was a great piece of advice. It was the best step I took to improve my writing, meet great people, and have lasting friendships with people who support what I do.

Ways to Improve Writing Skills

I’ve been to many conferences and lectures to hear authors, agents, and writers’ advice on how to improve my writing. I’ve also paid to have agents critique my manuscripts at these events. All of these steps have improved my writing tremendously—or so I believe. I’ve always learned something from any writing event I’ve attended. If you do the research, you can find free and low-cost events as well as big conferences.

So Where Are the Big Bucks?

Good question. I went into writing knowing children’s authors overall don’t make much. I’ve actually spent more money than I’ve ever earned from book sales. I’ve bought more of my own books and given away for promotion than I can count. I don’t write just for the money because I have yet to see any. If anyone has tips on this, I’d like to hear them.

The Joys of Getting Published

I had my first book, Pirates Off the Deep End, published in 2013 by Short on Time Books, a small publisher. I was beyond thrilled to see my work escape the jammed-packed folders of my computer and sit on a shelf with a beautiful, glossy cover. I still am thrilled. Although I don’t have a huge following or really even a small following, many people have enjoyed my books, and it makes me happy. Good reviews make me even happier.

That’s the bottom line for me—writing makes me happy, and I want my writing to make others happy as well. If you’ve read this far, you’re now going to get the best advice I have to offer.

The Old Man, Boy, and Donkey

If you don’t know the Aesop’s fable with the old man, boy, and donkey about trying to please everyone, it’s worth reading. It ends with the old man and boy carrying the donkey over a bridge because someone shamed them into it. The donkey fell off the bridge. Use its moral in your writing, too. Getting a critique is great, but you can often wind up with contrasting opinions: too much detail vs. not enough; too much dialogue vs. not enough; etc.– you get the picture. You can change your manuscript back and forth forever, and not everyone that reads it will be satisfied. At some point, stop changing it when YOU’RE happy with it.

The “It Takes Over 100 Query Letters” Rule

I’ve read time and time again if authors haven’t sent out at least 100 query letters to agents for a single manuscript, they haven’t given it a chance. I would agree with that statement. Persistence is the key to getting published, but it can be frustrating.

For instance, I write children’s books specifically geared for boys but the majority of agents seem to be women. Thus, my dilemma is I have to “sell” manuscripts to women that have humor meant for little boys. Little boys and women don’t have the same taste in “funny.” Let’s do the math:

Subject                           +           Boys’ Reaction         –    Agent’s Reaction  = Accept/Reject

Alien blue fart bubble             Laughs hysterically      Grimaces                    No thank you.

Alien ninja skills                      Laughs hysterically      Moans                         Doesn’t reply

I think I could send 10,000 query letters, and Aliens at Camp will reside in my computer. I’ve read it several times and laughed out loud. It makes ME happy. All I can do is keep trying to find that one agent who shares the same sense of humor and wants a wacky boy’s book. In the meantime, I keep writing because I enjoy it.

Bottom line, I can’t lose sight of the fact that writing is fun for me, and when bad critiques, agent rejections, and non-existent sales get me down, I need to take a step back and rewind. My favorite quote came from a very wise man, Captain Jack Sparrow, and it applies here. “The problem is not the problem; the problem is your attitude about the problem.”

 

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Supernatural, Paranormal, Fantasy or Science Fiction?

There doesn’t seem to be a cut and dry answer when choosing a genre for some books. If a book has a ghost element, is it paranormal, supernatural or fantasy? When does a book with a vampire, werewolf or demon cross over from the supernatural or paranormal category into horror? Some books, such as Twilight, may fall under romance or thriller although most of the characters are supernatural. This is my take on paranormal and supernatural, using my book Pirates Off Kilter as an example. Please feel free to leave comments if your opinions differ.

Supernatural Characters Include Phantoms and Ghosts

In Pirates Off Kilter, pirate captains François l’Olonnais and Red Boots add a ghostly element. To me, ghosts are supernatural characters. L’Olonnais is evil, but not evil enough to make the middle grade book a horror. The Klopt family, who l’Olonnais frequently haunts in the Pirates Off series, may disagree.

Paranormal Characters Are More Solid

Witches, sea witches, vampires, werewolves and ghouls are paranormal in my book. Literally, sea witches are in my book. Volange and her brother Dedris are sea creatures that cause problems for the Klopt family. Enchanting but scary, Volange’s voice is melodic like a siren’s—a creature that is both paranormal and mythical. Dedris is just as powerful and tricky as his sister is. He may appear passive with his fiber-optic looking hair and lavender eyes; however, he turns Hoody Klopt into a statue with a wave of his hand.

Dedris Sea Witch

Science Fiction Is a Whole Other Realm

Science fiction doesn’t have to be in outer space, but Star Wars and Star Trek come to mind first. An alien invasion of Earth and weird science are science fiction, too.

 Any way you look at it, it’s all fantasy—to most people. The bottom line: if a book is good or even marginal yet entertaining, it doesn’t really matter how you categorize it. If you like supernatural, paranormal or fantasy, check out the Pirates Off series available on Amazon.

Plots, Protagonists and Pirates

Protagonists in books are supposed to go through some kind of change from the beginning of their adventure to the end. Usually, they learn or grow through their experience, accomplish a goal, or attain both. In fiction writing, the character’s transformation makes up the plot.

For most of the crew of the Fleurie Jean in Pirates Off the Deep End and subsequent books in the Pirates Off series, their main goal in every book is to complete a task, which is usually delegated by a ghost pirate and is non-negotiable. The crew, Tommy, Connor, Dillon, and their captain, Hoody, always gain a valuable lesson from each quest. The fifth crew member, Cosette, changes in a different way.

Cosette and Her Pirate Boyfriend

Captain Jacques Mignard was a terrible boyfriend for Cosette back in the 1800s, and he didn’t improve after he turned into a ghost. Because he double-crossed Volange, a powerful sea witch, she turned Cosette into a ship’s wooden figurehead, a curse that was in place for over a hundred years. Mignard was unable to reverse the witch’s spell when he became a ghost, and he couldn’t find anyone who could.

Cosette figurehead

Cosette went from the front of a ship in France to a restaurant’s wall in New England when the days of wooden ships had past. She hung there in limbo for a long time until Connor and Tommy sawed her off. To fast forward, they cut a deal with Captain Mignard, which involved taking Cosette, the figurehead, to Volange to have the spell reversed.

Read the Fine Print on Any Contract

Tommy is clever, or so he thought. However, Volange had hundreds of years’ more experience in making deals than the 12 year old. After Mignard’s original deal with the sea witch went sour, Tommy bargained with Volange so she’d bring Cosette back to life. She held to her word, and Cosette was freed of her figurehead state and made a living, breathing—dog. A Brittany spaniel. However, if Tommy didn’t make good on his part of the bargain, Volange vowed she’d reverse Cosette’s living status and turn her into a figurehead for eternity.

Brittany spaniel

Spoiler Alert : Cosette Changes Once Again

Tommy and the rest of the crew go to Scotland to fulfill the bargain with Volange. Tommy’s ever-present mentor, Francois l’ Olonnais even provides “help” by recruiting a Scottish ghost pirate, Captain Red Boots, to guide them. Boots refreshes the boys’ memories that pirates can’t be trusted, and they learn the value of brotherhood, selflessness, and the fine art of negotiation. Cosette learns that she can trust the Klopts with her life, which she gets back with their persistence, and that the world has changed a lot since the 1800s.

Cosette 1 watercolor

Characters have to grow and change to make a story interesting. From figurehead to canine companion to person, Cosette wins the Pirates Off character prize for going through the most changes. Dealing with the Klopts on a daily basis, however, should be a prize in itself. Read about Cosette and the crew’s latest adventure in Pirates Off the Mark.

Why Write a Book Review?

Book reviews have taken on a whole new meaning for me since I’ve become a published author. Before any of my work was published, I didn’t always write a review for books I’d read. Shame on me. What I didn’t realize at the time is how much the review would mean to those authors—the old quote ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ caught up with me.

How Reviews Help an Author

I can’t speak for all authors, especially best-selling ones, but I can for myself and a few close author friends. We love reviews and getting feedback on work that we’ve toiled over for years. Bad reviews aren’t our favorite, but I’ve actually had one of my friends laugh off a bad review. He said it made other people want to read what was so bad about the book. One of my favorite reviews was written by a 10-year-old who had read my young adult/middle grade book The Troubled Souls of Goldie Rich: The Zombie Next Door. She gave my book a good review and wrote how much she loved it. Nailing the material for the age group it’s written for is what I strive to do as an author. Her review confirmed that for me.

Accumulating book reviews is also great advertising for authors. Word of mouth can’t be beat in my opinion. Who doesn’t ask family and friends for advice or opinions? Reviews also can translate into increased sales and unlock better promotions for books from sellers as well.

How Do Book Reviews Help Readers

As a reader, I choose a book by its subject matter, which I gather from the back cover and readers’ reviews. Sometimes, I admit, I’m sucked in by an amazing cover, but the book has to pass the back cover test to actually get purchased. For me and many other readers, we use reviews to determine if we really want to spend our time and money on a book. A glowing review can seal the deal for me, especially if someone knowledgeable on the subject recommends it. I was very excited to get a wonderful review from Cindy Vallar, author, editor, and historian of all things pirate. In her monthly maritime history column entitled Pirates and Privateers, she posted the review of my middle grade book Pirates Off the Deep End.

Lesson Learned

I’ve walked in an author’s shoes and have been seen the light. I actually went back and wrote reviews on Amazon for books I’d read years before. Even if a book isn’t your favorite, there is probably something worth mentioning that is positive about it: good characters, fast-paced, kept my interest. To say a book ‘sucks’ without elaborating doesn’t help an author or anyone trying to learn something from your review. More useful information would be ‘I couldn’t connect with the characters’ or ‘the plot wasn’t believable.’ A simple, three-sentence review can tell a lot. Keep in mind most authors spend several years and countless hours on each book, and granted, we realize not everyone will love our work, but respect and common courtesy is always appreciated no matter what your profession.

I may never reach my goal as ‘a best-selling author’, but as long as good reviews trickle in, I’ve done my job as an author to entertain readers. So keep this blog in mind the next time you read a book, and spend a few minutes typing your opinion of it. It’s not only your chance to make your opinion count, but your time and energy will be appreciated.

Making Your Low Budget Book Trailer Interesting

A book trailer you make on a small budget can be as captivating and entertaining as one that costs thousands to make, but you have to be ready to invest a good deal of time on effort on it. When I made the book trailer for my middle grade book, Pirates Off the Deep End, I had never used video editing software before and was pretty clueless about how to begin. Finding blogs such as this one can be invaluable resources. In fact, one blog I found handy is The BookBaby Blog.

For my second book trailer, The Zombie Next Door, I had a handle on what I was doing and could get a little more creative. I wanted to create a scene from the book that involved a nightmare the main character Goldie Rich had. She wandered in a creepy graveyard at night, of course, and admired the beautiful angel statue, which proceeded to turn into a hideous gargoyle right before her eyes.

Fallen Angel

Angel small   Gravestone small

Although video and .jpgs can be incorporated into your trailer, if you have any ability with photo editing software such as Photoshop, you can produce some ‘book trailer magic’ as well. I am not a Photoshop expert by any means, but after taking a class and playing around with it, I can generally get projects put together the way I envision them. Above left is a 5-inch angel statue I photographed at a fountain store. I turned her into a headstone using Photoshop to use as the first photo in a series that changes the angel into the gargoyle show below.

Haunting Goldie’s Nightmares

Gargoyle small   Angel Gargoyle red eyes small

The gargoyle above was a two-foot high statue at the same fountain store. Since I only photographed the statues and didn’t purchase them, it didn’t cost me anything. Using Photoshop, I converted the angel into the gargoyle with two photos that underwent a combined 18 stages. In each stage, the main subject was slightly skewed, shrunken, and re-colored. For the final pictures, I flipped the gargoyle vertically and colored the eyes red.

I was happy with the results, and my SCBWI critique group that watched the video thought it was a nice touch. I also used the technique to make the voodoo doll in the Zombie video wink. If you’re thinking…zombies, graveyards, voodoo doll…pretty cool, check out my book The Troubled Souls of Goldie Rich: The Zombie Next Door on my Amazon Author’s Page. And good luck with your trailer.

Creating a Low-Budget Book Trailer: Audio and Music

Making my Pirates Off the Deep End book trailer was a multi-step process. If you haven’t followed my blog, I’ll do a quick summary. First, I literally sketched out my scenes with pictures no better than you’d draw for Pictionary. That helped me organize my thoughts to know what video I needed. I also matched the scenes with quotes from my book. Next, I shot 10 to 20 seconds of different video to try to match the ideas I had on paper.

Before I put the video clips together, I searched for music and sounds to enhance the trailer. Of course, when you take video, it has audio. However, the audio may not be clear and may be saturated with background noise. On the bright side, audio isn’t as expensive to purchase as video. I also used free software, Audacity, to pull audio out of video such as in my Zombie Next Door trailer. The ringing doorbell was removed from one video and added to the ‘tortilla chip scene.’ I am not promoting Audacity software, just telling you what I used.

Did I Spend Any Money?

Yes, I did. My Pirates Off the Deep End book trailer cost $32 to make plus my time. The hourglass cost me $12 plus shipping. I also bought $20 of sounds from iStockPhoto. You MUST give credit for any audio or video you purchase in your trailer. If you look at the credits at the end of my trailer, you will see the iStockPhoto purchases. I’m not sure about other companies, but once you download through iStockPhoto, you can use it in multiple trailers as long as you give credit. Their website goes over all the rules and regulations. Once again, I’m not promoting them, just telling you where I purchased my audio.

For my second trailer, The Zombie Next Door, I used the same sounds I’d purchased already and recorded some of my own such as the wolf howling. This goes back to my advice of keeping the camcorder handy. I actually got lucky with the howling wolf. I visited a wolf sanctuary, and an emergency vehicle passed by sirens blaring. That will set the wolves off every time. I used Audacity software to extract the howling from the video so that it could be added to the creepy moon scene.

Whatever Works Part II

Audio makes a huge difference toward the quality of the trailer. I actually purchased the pirate laugh and the candle noise at the end of my video. My camcorder didn’t pick up any candle crackle, so I added the sound for effect. Although the movie editing software cuts out a lot of background noise, music or sounds cover any that is left. In Turbo’s scene, the music covered over the noise of the vacuum cleaner. Turbo doesn’t attack on command, but he does attack the vacuum every single time it’s on. I needed him in attack mode, so I fired up the vacuum. Whatever works.

I have to admit, I learned a lot making the trailers, and I had a great time doing it. I’m still learning. Of course, I like doing creative, artsy stuff. It also helps when family and friends get involved. When I filmed The Zombie Next Door, my neighbor let me film the curtain scene in his house since I don’t have curtains, and my brother-in-law videotaped some creepy graveyards for me since they have a huge selection where he’s from. Just be sure to give whoever helps proper credit in your credits at the end of the trailer. In my next blog, I’ll tell you how I put the video, audio, and .jpgs together with Movie Maker software.

Creating a Low-Budget Book Trailer: Getting the Footage You Need

With my rough sketch of my book trailer in hand, I grabbed my camera, camcorder, and tripod and got down to business. Let me just make it clear that I do not own professional video equipment. My digital camera is a nice point-and-shoot Sony Cyber-shot, and my digital camcorder is a Sony Handy-cam. I borrowed the tripod from my daughter, who is an aspiring photographer. I used Movie Maker software, which I’d never used before making the book trailer. It’s easy to figure out and worked well for my needs. As with any software, you get faster with it and learn tricks as you go. I am not selling any product, just telling you what I used.
My first challenge—my book, Pirates Off the Deep End, is set mainly on a boat in the ocean or in South American ports. I live in a desert. It could have been a potential problem, but I made it work.

Making Do
I could have driven four hours to the ocean, but I didn’t. I would have loved to, but a beach trip costs time and money. I went down to the local lake and videotaped scenes of different boats and the marina. A tripod helped tremendously, especially after a cup of coffee, to get non-shaky video. I zoomed in and out, filmed from different directions, and took some random fish video. You never know. I did have to drive 30 minutes, so I made the most of my time.
The rest of my trailer except for the sunset and full moon is shot inside my home. By showing a boat in the first scene, it gives the illusion (or is meant to) that the rest of the action takes place on a boat.

Video Tips from an Amateur
I kept the video under 20 seconds. Short videos download faster, are easier to crop, and take up less space on your computer. If you’re only using 10 seconds of video per scene, shooting 20 seconds should give you plenty to work with. The tripod is really worthwhile. To acquire one cheaply, borrow one, buy one used online or seek out one at a garage sale. Get one if you plan on making more than one trailer. Try to limit the background noise, if possible.

Keep Your Camcorder Handy
Buying footage can be expensive, so I learned fast to shoot random video and save it. The old proverb about ‘saving for a rainy day’ really works when you live in the desert and only see rain every three months. After a huge summer rain, I ran for my camcorder. Clouds make for a beautiful sunset and great moon shots. I got lucky with the sunset video and creepy full moon. I actually used the moon in my other book trailer, too. Recycling footage and audio saves money.

Whatever Works Part I
The $12 hourglass I purchased does not glow. It only shifts sand back and forth. I needed a glowing hourglass because that’s what in my story. It’s actually a huge part of the story. To get the hourglass to glow green, I set the camcorder on the tripod and turned it on. I held a green translucent paper over a flashlight and pointed it at the hourglass. By the way, the candle and hourglass were sitting on a hamper in my hallway—far from any boat. Yep, whatever works.

If you’re still following along, go shoot some video and make sure to have a clear .jpg of your book cover. Also, you may find some free video you can use at Vidsplay. I used on of their beach videos as my opening scene for my Zombie Next Door book trailer. Don’t forget to write down the information to give them credit if you do use their video. In my next blog, I’ll cover audio.

Creating a Low-Budget Book Trailer: The First Steps

The first thing I did in the process of making the book trailer for Pirates Off the Deep End was to decide what are the key points of my book. Pirates is a middle grade, ages 8 to 12, adventure with some tense moments, but it has a funny side—after all it involves three brothers ages 10, 12 and 13 and the trouble they get into. The main character and narrator is the middle brother, Tommy. Another main character is 400-year-old ghost pirate, Francois l’Olonnais. If the name sounds familiar, he was a real pirate in the 1600s. As the main characters, Tommy and l’Olonnais had to be mentioned in the trailer.

Set the Mood
Since my book has adventure and comedy, I wanted to have at least one ‘tense’ scene appropriate for the book’s age range and a funny scene. Cute dogs and babies always score points with people, but I don’t have any babies in my book. I do have a scene with a dog. Fortunately, I have four dogs of my own to choose from to star in the video. Turbo just happened to fit the bill. Much of the story takes place on a boat, so I need to let the viewer get the feel that the video is shot on a boat. Two huge problems for me—I don’t own a boat, and I live in the desert. Most problems have solutions, and I’ll get to mine later.

Actors or Not?
I have two reasons why I didn’t want any actors other than Turbo. I like my readers to create their own image of my characters in their mind, so I never describe my characters in great detail. I certainly don’t want to put their image in a video…unless a producer wants to make a movie of the book. That would be an exception. Otherwise, it’s my personal preference as a writer to let the reader get creative. Another huge reason to avoid actors in a low-budget book trailer is that the acting probably will be less than stellar if you recruit your child, a friend, or a neighbor. For good acting, you’re going to have to pay, and that will increase the cost of your trailer.

Use Your Words
One more thing before you grab your camera is to pick out some of your favorite lines from your book or lines that tell a lot about the story in a few words. A book trailer has to hold the audience for roughly a minute and 30 seconds, so you can’t have a huge chunk of text for them to read. If you’re switching scenes like I did, they may only have 8 to 10 seconds to take in the action and read the words.

Get Your Ideas down Quick and Dirty
So, if you’ve been following along and you want to try my method, you should pick out a few key scenes, main characters, and lines from your book. I figured that if my book trailer was a minute and 30 seconds, I’d have 10 scenes at the most. I know 13 seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it is for a trailer scene.

After I had a rough idea of what scenes I wanted to recreate, I divided a sheet of paper into 10 sections and sketched the most basic drawings of items I needed in each scene. For Pirates, I sketched a boat (the kind that looks like a banana with a sail) in one section. It’s just a placeholder for an idea, so who cares? I filled in all 10 sections with quick drawings. Next, I wrote down the lines from the book on another piece of paper. I’m a VERY visual person, and yes, I do have Photoshop and other graphic packages, but I didn’t need to spend time making it look perfect. Do you type your grocery list? Quick and dirty. Now match the lines with scenes.

My next blog will discuss filming tips and techniques, editing, and where to get the video and audio you can’t shoot on your own—all within a low budget, of course.

Putting Together a Book Trailer

Promoting a published book can be as time-consuming and challenging as writing the book. It’s also a catch-22 situation since unknown authors could use the money from book sales to do promotion, but without promotion, sales suffer. Internet promotion is free when tweeting or blogging, but many other forms of promotion come with a cost. One form of promotion that is on the rise is book trailers. With videos constantly played on smartphones and tablets, a book trailer has the potential to reach the masses—especially if it’s done well.

If your book is a picture book, you already have material to put into your trailer—the illustrations. Otherwise, you’re starting from scratch. That’s how I started: no material and no clue. I read blogs about making book trailers and used that information to do my own research. My first trailer for Pirates Off the Deep End took longer to put together than my second, The Zombie Next Door. So don’t get discouraged, it does get easier, especially if you plan on shooting your own video, and you aren’t familiar with or have never used video editing software. Take a look at my trailers. If you like what you see, stop back at my blog, and I’ll tell you what I used to put them together. I also plan on making more trailers and will post steps of the process here.