A Picture (Book) is Worth A Thousand Words

You gotta wonder if editors didn’t have that in mind with their suggestion that one thousand words or fewer would be the ideal word count for a modern picture book. New goal for word counts between 700 to 1,000 words, according to Liz Scanlon, author of, among other books, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes. Liz (If I may be so informal after just six hours of lapping up your wisdom about the world of picture book creation.) spoke during a special day-long session this last Saturday at the Houston Chapter of SCBWI.

I am not a Picture Book writer, but I have never attended a session where writing was a topic and not come away with Pearls. This was no different. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who organized and participated in the day. I so enjoyed sharing your writing energy!

The following are my notes from the session, which culminated in my paying not one whit of attention during the end of the lecture because I was diverted by a truly pitiful (but oh-so welcome) inspiration for a Picture Book.

Picture books. The purpose

Meant to be read aloud…always adult and child or children…

Provides multilayered and multilevel experience. Textual, visual, adult/child

Offers exposure to new vocab, the concept of story and literacy in general

Provides a platform for connection, intimacy, and love

Picture books. The form

Usually 32 pages long

Less than 1000 words, most less than 700

Perfect marriage of text and art

Often contains tradition narrative arc

Ends on a note of hope.

First the words.



Look up Picture Book Dummy for a notion of what to expect your words to wind up looking like on the page — plan for this. You have X=~25 pages and Y=12-14 scenes. (Which are picture opportunities) Make the most of them.

If you look at the grid on the Dummy, you notice that the first and fourth lines are short, about 4 – 5 pages, vs 8 pages on the middle two lines. Story blocking goes thus: First line: intro characters and problem Second line and third lines are the middle of the book, develop characters, action and story. (try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.) The fourth line is Crisis and Resolution. Voila!

I hate a closed heart. I know that when I have an unsuccessful day at my desk it is because I simply have not loved people and books and pictures enough…Ursula Nordstrom, editor

(Please, please rise from the dead and be my editor! -j-)

Interview with Maurice Sendak on fresh air last week. Listen!!!

Picture books are just a new way of looking at things…a childlike way of looking at things.

Coloring in the lines quiet…crayon escaping the lines energy…pb concept?

A sock is a pocket for your toes… Concept book

If want a successful PB explore a new perspective about…friendship, pockets, gardens, dogs, clouds…

Ask yourself: What is my fresh angle on the subject?

Two frogs down at the pond. Does one want to be a fish? A bird? Tell from pov of the fish under the lily pad…

Traditional narrative arc, aka plot pyramid aka Aristotle’s incline

  • Inciting incident, rising action, falling action, resolution

The Hero’s journey

  • Departure, initiation, return

Seven basic plots

  • The quest, voyage and return, rebirth, tragedy, comedy, overcoming the monster, rags to riches

Rules of threes

  • Try and fail, tray and fail, tray and succeed

12 – 14 illustratable moments

Page turns are the chapter breaks of picture books..dont miss the opportunity to tempt, satisfy, and keep ’em reading.

  • Q.a format
  • Complete verse forms
  • Mid.sentence splits…maruice sendek, where the wild things are
  • Build and thrill…one dark night, Lisa Wheeler…use of meanwhile…

The process

  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat

Special topics.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Characterization
  • Animal characters
  • Setting
  • Language, rhyme and rhythm
  • Revision

Non-fiction picture books are out there, wonderful, and creative. Gendre = creative non-fiction, written in the form of story…everything from here applies…tension and wonder. exceptions for length, can be, but not always, a bit longer…maybe 1200 words max.

Tension and Conflict:

  • illustration of the pyramid inciting incident, climax, resolution
    • The Carrot Seed, Ruth Kraus
    • Tension pulls you through the book, discovery process
  • Even in a picture book, we need:
    • Multiple uh-ohs
    • dream, frustration, resolution
    • who wants what from whom what’s standing in the way? what is the character willing to risk to get what he/she wants. how will the character, under his or her own power, solve the problem?


  • Memorable
  • Authentic
  • Sympathetic
  • Complex
  • Detailed

How do you achieve all that?

  • Character Backstories
  • Meaningful Names
  • Deep Desires
  • Flaws
  • Character tags and catch phrases

animal characters:

  • why is my character a worm or a bird?

Use the essential animalness of your animals — or play against type

  • Puns and animal-appropriate language
  • it’s your universe, but your universe has rules
  • look for the perfect balance between humor and tenderness


no Headless Horsemen – Anchor your story in time and space!

Inside all of us is a wild thing.”

–where the wild things are

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short easy words like ‘how about lunch?'” — Winnie the Pooh

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” — Horton Hears and Who

Rhyming Dictionary: rhymezone.com

“This is not cheating. You know all the words in there, you just forgot it for a little bit” – Liz

The Synonym Finder — great thesaurus. edit Rodale


Watch out for too many adverbs and adjectives

Activate Verbs

Avoid crazy dialogue tags

Show don’t tell


Rhyme, Rhythm and Reading Aloud

The story is the queen, the rhyme is her pawn

the story is the driver, the rhyme is his carriage

the story is the house, the rhyme is the wood

the story is the soup, the rhyme is the pot

(You are the boss of the story, not the rhyme)

  • Do not sacrifice the story for the rhyme!!
    • is there a reason to write it in rhyme?
    • could you use internal rhyme, repetition and rhythm instead?
    • Use natural syntax
    • don’t forget syllabics and meter
    • Read it aloud
    • Ask someone else to read it aloud.


“The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers.” Mem Fox, Author

Revising is…

  • making decisions to improve your writing
  • looking at your work from a different point of view
  • identifying places where your writing could be clearer, more interesting, more informative or more convincing
  • Revising IS NOT copy editing

Potluck of Pointers:

  • Read, read, read ,read ,read
  • Read Aloud, read aloud, read aloud
  • Emphasize truth over fact
  • Use rhyme with caution and reason
  • Use verbs instead of adverbs, nouns instead of adjectives
  • don’t preach — or dumb down
  • submit manuscripts without artwork — unless you’re an author-illustrator

All Strays Apply Here

Cats in a crate
Peaches and Minnie on their way to Austin

I miss the redhead from Chapter Three. She was a dynamo in riding tights, whose dialogue sparkled and forceful nature promised much in the way of future interesting conflict.

Pity she didn’t fit the story line.

She charged onto the page in Chapter Three, well into the action of the book. Bright, sparkling dialogue, an outspoken personality, and enough sass to intrigue. You’d think she was a gift I’d want to keep. Sadly though, once I got further along in the book, I realized that she was a one-scene character, and that having her spend that much time on the page during that one scene left a ghost behind. If I as the writer was still wondering about her, then the reader probably would too. Painfully, the truth is that she didn’t move the plot of this book along. So I whittled her part down to one line and moved the rest of the scene to a secret location.

Well, it was a secret, but now I’m telling you. I have a special file on my computer called Not_Now_Stuff.doc, a wonderful file filled with characters and scenes that didn’t fit the work-in-progress, but with which I was sufficiently intrigued not to simply delete them out of hand.

I think of it as a no-kill shelter for stray ideas. This way nothing is ever lost. If they keep bugging me, I already have something to start with when I pull them out of the file to play.

Who knows? Ms. Redhead might get a story of her own some day. She’ll still be all sparkly, conflicted and sassy, because I’ve got her tucked away safely.

Happy Writing!

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.


Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!


Happy Writing.


Miss Spelling

When I was young, I would ask, “How do you spell, *****?” My Dad’s response, bless his little cotton socks, was always, “The Dictionary is in the  sunroom. Go use it.” Ungrateful wretch that I was, my first thought was always, “But I don’t know how to spell the darn thing. How CAN I look it up?”

I have typing dyslexia. In addition, my eye for spelling, and more importantly: misspelling, is horrid. (Although that sentence is demonstrating my lack of skill with punctuation.) Give me a word that looks like, sounds like, is even close to the word I wanted for that spot, and my eye thinks it’s okay, fine and wonderful. And to top that off, lately, when I begin a word that has more than four letters, it seems as though my fingers only get the first three right, and then substitute some alternate word in place of the one that would fit the bill.

I am stumped. No reasonable explanation explains the steady downhill slide of my spelling ability. How do I get past this affliction?

For now I’m using spell check and reading the piece out loud. Any suggestions will be gratefully received! (At least those not involving chalk and repetitive writing…)


How To

Our critique group had an interesting discussion on how you learn to write. I opened my browser to check my bookmarks and share them with the group, only to find that I hadn’t actually bookmarked the sites that I find most helpful. Time to fix that. As long as I’m out there looking, thought I’d share them here too.

My favorite site by far is the Grammar Girl site. Mignon Ballard has a good sense of humor and a way of explaining things that make the rules clear — and that stick with me. I subscribe to her podcasts and listen to them in the car during short trips. If I have a question about a particular rule, I can scroll to the correct podcast and, voilà, instant clarification.

Another site that comes up often when I do a search for a particular rule is the Purdue OWL site. This is more scholarly, but again, a solidly helpful site.


Hello? Spell check exists on most word processors. Just make sure you read it over to eliminate sound-alike/look-alike words.

Sentence Structure:

Nothing like knowing how to diagram a sentence. I cringed while typing that last. Never, ever thought I’d wish that I’d paid more attention during eighth grade English class.

Infoplease has a good basic page about structuring sentences.

VirtualLit has a series of good articles about writing, including one on sentence structure.


Just found a video series by The Plot Whisperer. I must give these a viewing as the point she makes about reworking the beginning of a novel a hundred times while the end only getting a rough go through strikes horribly close to home with me.

You cannot write a novel without understanding the basic structure which underlies most of Western fiction: The Three Act Play.

Then there are classes. Nothing like taking a class — and doing the homework — to really get the understanding of the lesson firmly implanted in your fingers, heart and mind.

The Houston area is rich in opportunities:

InPrint – affiliated with the University of Houston’s outstanding English department

Houston Writer’s Guild – outstanding workshops!

Rice University Continuing Education

Leisure Learning – particularly Kathy Buck’s Grammar Class!

Women’s Institute of Houston — Chris Rogers is one of the best fiction teachers bar none.

While not styled as how-to, the Jung Center of Houston offers classes that bring insight to your writing.

And of course, you can always subscribe to my blog for more information about both gardening in Houston and writing.

Stay well — and send some wishes for rain in Texas this week. We have several large fires as yet uncontained. Rain would be most welcome!

Better Water Wise than Ground Foolish

I wish I could call myself a wise woman, but the closest I can get is the effort I’m putting into being water wise this summer.

Being in the middle of one of the worst droughts in Texas history has brought out some odd behaviors. People water their front yards during their designated days of the week, and then set timers to water under cover of darkness — or, worse, brazenly water the back yard during the day, mistakenly thinking no one can see them. Others, like my neighbors, water 24/7 to try without trying to hide this, rationalizing that it’s okay to do this because it’s a personal well and thus is not covered by the water restrictions enacted just over the city limits.

I must seem very odd to them. I do not water my grass at all. (Which must be why there is none found in my yard right now, or much of my pasture.) Usually this works out all right, because Nature does her wonderful thing with the rain clouds and the grass (and my neighborhood) is happy. Right now though, with just under five inches of rain at our place since last October, it is becoming quite clear that we are not going to achieve balance between keeping our farm alive and being conservative with our water use.

Currently at our place, talk over the fence with the neighbors generally starts with a “Howdeedoo” and progresses rapidly to, “Did you hear they got rain over in Tomball?” Or, worse, “Did anyone get the forecasted rain?” Underlying these conversations is the quiet desperate feeling about the water table level in the aquifer under our feet and how that relates to the depth of our well pump.

Those neighbors who water 24/7? Not considered smart right now, because we’re all much more concerned with having running water than whether there’s grass in the field.

Conservation measures:

Don’t water landscaping just because it’s pretty.

Use soaker hoses rather than areal spraying. (Less water loss due to evaporation before the water hits the dirt.)

Water during the cooler hours of the day. (Ditto above.)

Use water from dish washing to water beloved landscape plants. (Check what kind of dish soap you’re using and try a mild form that is biodegradable.)

Flush less often. Seriously, low flow toilets only save so much water. If you flush ever other time rather than every time you’ve doubled your water savings.

Turn off the water while you brush your teeth.

Ditto while you shampoo your hair or soap up in the shower.

Don’t install a backyard pool — use the neighborhood one instead. This provides a social outlet as well as a place to exercise and cool off.

Help keep my well flowing — be water-wise. My family and my critters thank you.

Writing that Makes Sense – Part 5 – Taste

Where better than a coffee shop to write about the sense of taste? Well — perhaps a bakery, or French Cafe, or ice-cream shop — but here I am and here I will stay until I complete my word count for the day.

Taste and Smell intertwine to the point where you literally cannot taste without being able to smell. A lovely friend, Barbara Burnett Smith, author of the Purple Sage mystery series, lost her sense of smell and said that things that used to excite her to eat lost much of their flavor. If you lose your appetite when you have a cold, it could be because you’ve lost the ability to smell just how wonderful your mom’s chicken soup is.

So, Taste. What about the very thought of putting luscious berries, velvety chocolate, and grill-seared steak on the tongue makes us salivate? It’s the memory of the taste involved — and the social surroundings in which we experienced those tastes. While many of us adore chocolate, some find the taste bitter or remember well the migraine brought on by the midnight-dark chocolate they thought to enjoy. Each person brings their own memories to your pages, so the mention of something that evokes Taste can elicit very different responses from each reader.

According to the Thinkquest website the sense of Taste is the weakest of the senses. I personally disagree, but perhaps that is because so many of my social gatherings involve food preparation and the enjoyment of sharing our baking and cooking with friends and family. Those memories put the sense of taste up a notch in my mind.

While insects can taste with their feet(!), we humans have to rely on our mouths. Over 100,000 taste buds cover our tongues, sending signals to our brain to let us know what’s on the menu. When I was young, I wouldn’t touch green beans with a ten foot pole, insisting that I was allergic to them. I may not have been allergic, but I may well have been reacting to the strong taste of the vegetable. When we’re born, we have taste buds on the roof of our mouth as well as our tongues, leading us to be “surrounded” by the taste of whatever we’ve taken a bite of. Thus, the fact that I now eat beans with great enjoyment isn’t because of a medical breakthrough, but because I’ve lost some of my taste buds along life’s highway. My Uncle Ed, 96 years young, but with a failing appetite, loves his sweets. The sweet receptors are the last to go, so keep ice cream on the shopping list!

Salt and Sweet receptors reside on the tip of your tongue, leading those to be the first Taste you sense. Bitter is at the back of the tongue — perhaps the source of the term aftertaste? Sour resides at the sides. The middle of the tongue is pretty barren for receptors, so that’s where I’d put any pills before that great gulp of water washes them down the hatch.

Some taste vocab: Creamy, Delicious, Oily, Bland, Disgusting, Sweet, Sour, Spicy, Light, Heavy, Sinful, Horrid, Metallic…and so forth.

Happy writing — and tasting!


There is no better reason to garden than my supper this evening.

Spaghetti squash, just off the vine.
24 small yellow pear tomatoes, halved. (A fraction of what I picked today.)
three cloves of garlic (dug out of hydrator from spring harvest)
bell pepper (Picked this afternoon.)
salt and pepper to taste (Grocery store)


Cook squash in 375 degree oven for an hour.

While the squash is cooking is a good time to clean out your fridge, or sort the garlic to pull out your starts for the garden…or sit down with a glass of wine and finally read the paper…


When you have ten minutes left on the squash:

Saute garlic in oils of your choice. (I use Texas-grown olive oil from the farmer’s market.)

Add bell pepper and chopped tomatoes. (I used the yellow pear tomatoes because I have a bazillion of them — yes, I am bragging!)

Saute until tomatoes begin to collapse.

Top with chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste.


Oh, and for dessert?


Why Garden?

Photo of Wind Chimes
Gaga Kate's Wind Chimes

Gardening appeals to every sense. It invigorates you mentally and physically. Gardens provide soothing vistas to look at, yummy food to eat, and habitat for animals, birds and insects. Why on earth wouldn’t you garden?

Just the sensory stimulations is worth spending time outside — or at the very least, inside with a potted plant. Touch any plant and it provides you with an instant and visceral response. I love to run my fingers over the velvety petals of the Belinda’s Dream rose in my back yard, even though I have to squeeze past the Red Yucca to do it. (Warning, Red Yucca is sharp and pointy when it pokes you in the calf!)

Visual texture is akin to touch. The adorable fuzziness of the Lamb’s Ear invites you to stoop and rub a leaf between your fingers. My neighbor’s cat finds it a comfortable bed on which to curl up for a mid-afternoon nap.

Color abounds in the garden, even when it’s limited to shades of green. Celendon…Chartreuse… Forest… Fern… Emerald… Grass… Pea… Pine…Sea Green… Shamrock… Kelly…Mint…Teal…Grey-Green…Olive. Notice how many shades of green are named for plants? Yep, many of them are — with good reason. Plants, landscaping, vegetables all touch us in more than one way — and thus stick with us.

I love to watch the ripple of tall grass under the wind’s caress. It’s almost as if you can see the old man with his lips pursed as he blows the waves along the ground. Tulips bob their heads, trees whisper, and the birds and insects swoop and dive in the currents. The wind chimes Paul’s grandmother used to ring to call her grandsons to dinner tinkle happily on the edge of the porch. Plants may not have voices to sing with, but there is plenty of sound to inspire.

Nothing smells quite like Night Blooming Cerius, which I may have just misspelled in the worst possible way, but that’s what happens after an evening on the porch next to this plant. It gets you drunker than champagne in nothing flat. Intensely sweet, I’ve had guests actually close the windows in the Casita Sin Gatos because it was keeping them awake at night. Paul and I were clearing out the onion bed this morning and I brushed up against the fennel in the next row. Heaven on earth, so I picked some to have with my lunch. The sharp licorice taste of Fennel brings out the sweet flavor of the tomato in salad.

I did something that may have been brilliant or it may have been the silliest thought I’ve had all year. I planted asparagus in the side garden, along the path from the garage to the back gate. It is taking over, so I feel justified when I bend down, brush aside some of the mature fronds and find a spear just ripe for the picking. Crunchy nutty-tasting snack!

Sorry, have to go now. I’ve inspired myself into a walk in the woods, where I am planning a shade garden.

Happy Gardening!