In honor of April being National Poetry Month, I thought who better to be our featured author than the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor winner for picture book text in 2013? That’s right! Today we welcome Laura Purdie Salas, award-winning author of A LEAF CAN BE and (get this) more than 100 other books for children!
If you look at the photo of Laura, you’ll probably think she looks sweet and kind. And she is — unless somebody treads on one of her peeps! Last year at the SCBWI-LA conference, I was lucky enough to have Laura take me under her wing as it was my first time on faculty. Whenever anybody gave me smack talk (yes it did happen) or was monopolizing my time, there was Laura to my rescue! I told her I want to pack her into my suitcase for all of my speaking engagements!
Laura is a phenomenal writer, a huge supporter of fellow writers, a mentor, and an amazing friend. What more could you ask for? A post about poetry you ask? Well, she did that too! Please welcome Laura!
10 Thoughts About Poetry
Hi, 12×12-ers! It’s great to visit this super energetic community! I miss everyone’s enthusiasm:>) I’m honored to be the April Guest Author, and, since my true love is poetry, I’m sharing some thoughts/tips on the writing, marketing, and sharing or poetry. I hope you like it.
The Difficult Truth
1. It’s hard to sell a poetry collection to an editor. This is not good news. But poetry books tend not to make much money (see #2), and even editors who love poetry often aren’t free to acquire it. I have at least four poetry collections that my agent has submitted around that I think are stronger than any of my published collections. No sale.
2. Even once you sell to an editor, it’s hard to sell to the public. My first trade poetry book (meaning a book I wrote and sold to a publisher, rather than writing on assignment from a publisher) sold, at last count, fewer than 2,000 copies. It just went out of print. It was a Finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and got another couple of nice honors, but they didn’t translate into nearly enough sales to keep the book in print.
So, what can you do? Make your work the best it can be!
Immerse Yourself in Poetry
3. Join the Poetry Friday gang. The best way to improve your poems is to read a ton of them. And there’s no better company to do that in than with the Poetry Friday blogosphere celebration every week. It’s easy. You go to Mary Lee Hahn’s blog, A YEAR OF READING, and look at the Poetry Friday schedule in the right sidebar. Click on the link for this week’s host. Then go visit their Poetry Friday Roundup, in which they will post links to all of the participating bloggers. You’ll see lots of single poem posts (people post their own poems as well as poems by others) and reviews of poetry books and interviews with poets. Lots of the poetry is for kids; some is for adults. If you go through the posts each week, reading the ones that seem appealing, you will start to get a picture of children’s poetry. Read. Enjoy. Learn. Comment. Even if you don’t have a blog, you can start to build relationships as the weeks go on. I have made some wonderful poetry friends through this community, and I have also been invited to participate in several anthologies by folks I met online this way. And to speak at conventions and such. Plus, we’re generally just a really nice, cool group of people! You will have lots of fun while absorbing a lot about what works and what doesn’t work, and what you like and don’t like.
4. Write for the fun of it. Knowing and accepting that the majority of my poetry will never be shared in book form is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because…well, that’s pretty obvious, right? But it’s a blessing because it means I write it because I love it. I can’t help writing poetry–it’s the most fun writing I get to do. And if you want to write poetry for kids, I hope the same is true for you! I’m generally very goal-oriented, so I don’t, for instance, sit and write nonfiction pieces that I know will very likely never be published or even seen by other people. But there’s a freedom that comes with knowing I’m doing something totally inefficient and ineffective as a career strategy. It brings a sense of wild freedom that is wonderful. So write lots of poetry to stretch yourself. Most of it will stink. And that’s good! It means you’re reaching past your abilities. Keep doing that, over and over, and eventually your abilities will improve. And you’ll discover what kinds of poems you’re really good at!
5. Read a TON of poetry! In addition to the Poetry Friday posts, you want to be reading all the poetry books being published in your specific poetry genre (picture books, novels in verse, upper elementary collections, etc.). And you need to read what is being published NOW, not what was hot when you were a kid. Sylvia Vardell, anthologist, teacher educator, children’s poetry fanatic, and blogger, publishes a sneak peek of upcoming poetry books at the start of each year. Here are links for the past couple of years to get you started on your reading.
6. Share your work online. A lot of people are hesitant to share their work online, but it’s the best way to make connections—of the heart, not of the business kind (though that is a benefit as well). For me, I have found that an attitude of abundance helps me. There will always be another poem. That’s my mantra. I don’t share poems that I write specifically with publication in mind, but I do share occasional poems that I think MIGHT be publishable. I also share a super rough first draft every Thursday on my 15 Words or Less Poems post, where I post a photo and share a very short poem draft inspired by it. Then other people join in and share their first drafts based on the same photo. It’s amazing to see the variety! (There are other poetry prompts out there, too, of course.) And for National Poetry Month, I’m posting a riddle-ku (a riddle haiku) every day. It can be very lonely to be writing lots of poems and not getting published. Even though publishing is my overall goal, I enjoy sharing my work and connecting with other poets on a regular basis. I’d encourage you to think about how you can share your work online. Don’t blog? Maybe you’re on Facebook or Twitter, both awesome for sharing poems. Or if you don’t do any of those, you might just share your poems on other peoples’ blogs in response to poetry prompts they post. Hoarding your poems, in my experience, just doesn’t lead anywhere. Yes, every once in a while, I’ve seen a call for poems and wished I hadn’t shared a certain poem online (because many journals and book markets do consider a poem published if it has appeared online). But those twinges of regret have been far and few between and have been greatly outweighed by being an active member of an encouraging, rowdy poetry crowd.
Improve Your Craft
7. Learn meter and rhyme. This is the number one weakness I see in poems and rhyming picture books that I critique. There are some good websites and books on this topic, and you should use them. Poor meter is THE number one problem I see in beginners’ poetry. But the ability to use meter well CAN be learned. It’s just that it’s hard and time-consuming. But it’s worth it. One book I recommend is poet Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. A few more resources are:
• Lane Fredrickson’s Rhyme Weaver website
• Interactive scanning tool at For Better or Verse, from the University of Virginia
• “Have You Got Rhythm?” by Jan Fields at the ICL site
• “Rhymer’s Workshop” (a chat transcript) with Shelly Becker at the ICL site
• Examples of good rhyming books on my Pinterest Boards: Rhyming Nonfiction Picture Books and Fun Rhyming Picture Books
8. For rhyming picture books, make sure you have a story. With a plot. Stories in verse can be lots of fun, but lots of writers forget that story is a crucial element. Often, writers get so caught up in the fun of the rhyme and the wordplay that they leave small elements like conflict and obstacles and resolution out. A great way to test your rhyming story is to write it out in prose. Does it have a beginning and an end? A conflict? Events that cause other events? An ending that feels satisfying? If it’s missing any of those elements, you don’t have enough there for a story, rhyming or not. I’ve been there. It hurts. But it’s better to figure that out now than to have an editor point it out to you:>) (Concept rhyming books and nonfiction rhyming books have other important elements instead of or in addition to a plot.)
9. Create a collection with a super special hook in either topic or form. Or both. I can’t count the number of times an editor has said, “I love this collection of state poems. But there’s already a book of state poetry.” And there is. One. Published 10-15 years ago. I have heard this response on other topics too. Because poetry doesn’t sell well, editors hate it when there’s already a competing book. Most libraries with dwindling budgets will not buy another bug (for example) poetry collection if they already have one. So that means you have to be extra imaginative! Think outside the box. Your topic or poetic form (or both) should be something not already done a lot. Take a peek at Marilyn Singer’s Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow and Bob Raczka’s Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word for examples of unique forms. For unique topics, look at Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian), Cowboys (David Harrison), Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole (Bob Raczka again), and This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness (Joyce Sidman). For most writers and most large mainstream publishers, an animal poetry collection is much too general. But Joyce has a poetry book coming out all about how animals survive very cold temps. So, one thing you can do is take the topic you’re interested in and narrow it down, give it a twist, approach it from a different direction. Do something that hasn’t been seen before. That is your best chance of actually hooking an editor.
10. Read my Poetic Pursuits:>) From 2007 to 2009, I wrote a series of monthly (sorta) columns for my website on all different parts of writing poetry for kids, from getting ideas to scanning meter to writing in different forms. They’re all on my site and are just as relevant today as when I wrote them. The only difference is that my examples are 6-7 years old. If you’re interested in writing poems for kids, though, I think/hope you’ll find a lot of good info there to inspire you!
Bonus! Two exercises for you to try:
As an 8th-grade English teacher, one class project we did was work in small groups to create ballads by taking the lyrics to a t.v. theme song (like Gilligan’s Island) and telling a myth or a history story by doing a song parody. Same meter, same rhyme scheme as the original theme song, but a totally different topic. I still do this kind of thing today to stretch myself beyond my comfortable poetry forms and meters. So I challenge you to do the same thing! You can see a blog post I wrote about this where I shared my own imitation of a Rebecca Kai Dotlich poem here.
And if you’re interested in giving rhyming nonfiction a try, I’ll lead you through a quick exercise here.
I know this was lots of information, but I figured some of you might be brand new to poetry and thinking about giving it a try. Others of you might be further along in working in poetry and be looking for a few more advanced tips. So…I tried to give a variety. I hope you found something useful here, and I hope you’ll give poetry a try! Happy National Poetry Month!
Laura is giving away a prize to one lucky 12 x 12 participant. Take your pick between these two items:
Choice 1: A selection of five of Laura’s poetry and/or rhyming nonfiction books, personalized.
Choice 2: A one-hour on-the-spot poetry critique session with Mentors for Rent via Skype.
Laura Purdie Salas is the author of more than 120 books for kids and teens, including the brand new WATER CAN BE… (starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly—holy cow! , A LEAF CAN BE… (Bank Street Best Books, IRA Teachers’ Choice, Riverby Award for Nature Books for Young Readers, and more), and BOOKSPEAK! POEMS ABOUT BOOKS (Minnesota Book Award, NCTE Notable, Bank Street Best Book, Eureka! Gold Medal, and more). Poetry is her very favorite thing to write! See more about Laura and her work at www.laurasalas.com. Laura and her Mentors for Rent partner Lisa Bullard do hourly coaching and critiquing for kids’ writers.
Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Giveaway, Poetry, Publishing, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, A Leaf Can Be, Author, Books, Julie Hedlund, Laura Purdie Salas, Poetry, Water Can Be, Writing