Sunday, August 2, 2020

The 3 Levels of Picture Books

Picture books have 3 levels or purposes in regard to the reader and purchaser. Think of it as the structure of a house: there’s a basement, a first floor, and often an upper floor.

Level 1: The basement, or Surface Level, is geared toward the youngest reader (or listener if too young to read). This child is able to understand what’s going on. He is engaged by the story.

Using a wonderful children’s picture book, Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, the child will think it’s funny that monkeys take the peddler’s caps, put them on their heads and won’t take them off.

Level 2: The first floor, or the Underlying Meaning Level, is for the older children who can understand on a deeper level. At this age, they can realize danger, anger, and a cause and effect scenario.

Again, using Caps for Sale, the children should be able to understand that the monkeys are mimicking everything the peddler does, but the peddler doesn’t realize what they’re doing. With this age child, he/she may yell out, “They’re doing what you do!” in an effort to help the peddler.

Level 3: The upper floor, or the Take Away Level, is the value the book holds for the purchaser, usually the parent, grandparent, or teacher. The adult reading the book to the child understands the meaning of the story, what value can be taken away by children.

In the case of Caps for Sale, the young child is engaged and understands the monkeys took the peddler’s caps and wouldn’t give them back. The older child is engaged and understands that the peddler is causing the monkeys to act as they are. The value that might be taken away is that our actions create reactions.

I just want to point out that Caps for Sale was first copyrighted in 1940 and renewed in 1967, so there is a great deal of telling in the story.

Back then, writing for children used a different structure. The stories were not geared toward today’s short attention span and need for action. But, some stories, such as this one, hold up even through change.

Keep in mind though, in today’s children’s market a writer must take into account that a child is bombarded with media and entertainment. Children’s publishers want showing rather than telling. They also want action right from the beginning of the story. In today’s market it’s the writer’s job to grab the reader quickly.

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author, successful children’s ghostwriter, and online platform instructor with WOW! Women on Writing. Check out her middle-grade book, Walking Through Walls, and her new picture book series, The Adventures of Planetman.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Three Tips to Banish Stress

Your editor is screaming for the changes to the article you promised her two days ago; the kids are yanking on your arm because they are bored; and you still haven’t figured out what’s for supper tonight.

Is it any wonder you have a tension headache?

According to a National Health Interview Study, abut 75% of the population feels stress every two weeks. Stress can affect your eating habits, sleeping patterns, blood pressure, skin appearance, and weight. In extreme cases, it leads to death.

So, what can you do about stress? More than you think.

Stress Trigger #1: I can never accomplish everything on time.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you are probably spending too much time thinking instead of doing.

Tip: Create a to-do list. Write down everything you have to do over the next week and view it with a critical eye. Does everything on this list really need to be accomplished next week? Is there something that could wait another week? What tasks have deadlines cannot change?

Prioritize your tasks. Then work on them one at a time. Don’t think about the next thing on your list. Concentrate only on the task at hand.

If you will miss a deadline, don’t pile on additional stress by waiting until the last minute to let the editor know. This will keep you from wasting time worrying over what she’ll say.

Stress Trigger #2: My family believes I dedicate too much time to my writing career.

Finding the perfect balance between your home life and career is never easy, but there are many things you can do to gain the support of your family.

Tip: Have a family meeting. Explain to your family why pursuing a writing career is important to you. Share your dreams with them and what you hope to accomplish.

Ask for their help. You can’t do this on your own. Once you’ve shared your reasons for choosing a writing career, let them know how they can support you.

• Share household chores
• Respect your writing time
• Run errands

This only works, however, if you respect your family time. Create a writing schedule that works best for you and stick to it. At the end of your writing time, shut off the light and close the door. Your family will be more willing to help if they know that once you’re done for the day, they are your top priority.

Stress Trigger #3: I keep putting things off. Then I get stressed trying to finish by the deadline.

Procrastination is an issue for many writers. Reasons for putting things off vary: over commitment, lack of confidence in your abilities, and allowing distractions and interruptions to steal your writing time, to name a few.

Tip: Learn to say “no.” If you over commit, then you will feel stressed and put things off. Frequently turning in projects late can damage your reputation and cost you repeat business. Saying “no” does not make you a rotten person. You are only saying “no” to this one thing. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to help the next time someone asks.

Self-doubt, fear of failure, and fear of success are actual issues for writers because they deal with rejection. Use positive self-talk and focus on your strengths. Write a list of all your strengths and pin it above your desk. When you wander away from a project, read the list and then get back to work.

Two excellent resources that discuss ways to handle self-doubt and fear are You Are More Than Enough: Every Woman’s Guide to Purpose, Passion & Power by Judi Moreo and Page After Page by Heather Sellers.

Don’t let distractions and interruptions steal your writing time. Schedule a time each day to return phone messages and check email. Your writing time is for writing. Don’t use it to wash the dishes or run errands. Let your family know they are more than welcome to interrupt you for a genuine emergency, but they have to respect your writing time.

Reducing stress is not only good for your career, it’s good for your health. Take the time to identify what triggers stress in your life and never shy away from asking for professional help if you need it. You owe it to your family and your career to stay healthy.

Cheryl C. Malandrinos is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of four children’s books including, A Christmas Kindness, released by 4RV Publishing. A blogger and book reviewer, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She also has a son who is married. Visit Cheryl online at and her children’s book blog at

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Stop Self-doubt from Stealing Your Time

Self-doubt plagues many writers. Even bestselling authors like Cody McFadyen suffer from it. In an article he wrote for The Tome Traveller's Weblog, he said, “…the day to day act of sitting down and making the words appear … is a doubt-fueled activity.”

The trouble with self-doubt is that it is like an annoying parrot sitting on your shoulder constantly squawking, “You’re not good enough, bra-c-k.” Worse than that, we believe it—which leads us to procrastinate instead of sitting down to write.

Is there anything you can do to stop it?

You bet there is! Let’s talk about how you can silence that squawking parrot and end the cycle of self-doubt that steals your time.

Set Realistic Goals

So much depends on our ability to set realistic goals. We’ve discussed setting goals using the S.M.A.R.T. method in the past.

Unobtainable goals feed self-doubt. Discouraged by disappointing results, you begin to think you’re not up to the task, when the true problem lies in not setting S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Once you begin using the S.M.A.R.T. method, you’ll find how much easier it is to obtain your goals, which motivates you to keep going.

Accept Horrible First Drafts

Whether you’re writing your next article or beginning the first chapter of a novel, the writing will not be perfect. Let the words flow off your fingertips and don’t waste time analyzing each word. If you get stuck, insert a little note to remind you of what you want to place there and move on.

Stopping to analyze your writing encourages self-doubt. Expecting even your first draft to be perfect will stifle creativity, and you will find yourself making excuses not to sit down and write.

Get Rid of Negative Self-talk

If there is one thing I am guilty of, it is negative self-talk. At this point, I don’t even realize what I’m saying, but when I hear my daughter shout in frustration, “Oh, I’m so stupid!” I know exactly where she gets it’s from.

Speaker, author, and life coach Judi Moreo wrote an article titled, "How to Develop Charisma." She states that in order for you to make a change, you have to stop putting yourself down. She suggests using regular positive affirmations to help build your confidence. Instead of saying, “I’m not good enough,” say “I can do this!”

Don’t think you’re guilty of negative self-talk? Carry around a voice recorder for a day or two and record yourself while you write. Listening to it might be an eye-opening experience.

Overcome Your Weaknesses

Many writers are stronger in some areas than others. I used to feel more comfortable writing non-fiction because I struggled with showing versus telling. That didn’t mean, however, that I could not write fiction. I simply had to work harder at it.

Many colleges and universities offer writing courses. In addition, the Internet has opened up the door for writers to take online courses to hone their craft. Improving those areas you struggle with will make you more confident in your abilities.

Ask Others for Constructive Feedback

We are often our own worst critics. Whether you write with a partner or join a critique group, constructive feedback can go a long way to ending that cycle of self-doubt. Local communities and libraries often have writer’s groups. You can also find online groups.

Self-doubt isn’t all bad. It encourages us to improve our work. There is a fine line, however, between letting self-doubt help you and allowing it to control you.

Using the tips found here, you can end the controlling aspects of self-doubt and be more productive than ever.

Cheryl C. Malandrinos is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of four children’s books including, A Christmas Kindness, released by 4RV Publishing. A blogger and book reviewer, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She also has a son who is married. Visit Cheryl online at and her children’s book blog at

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Writing and Perfection – Is There Such a Thing?

By Karen Cioffi

As with life, some people think everything has to be perfect before they start their writing journey.

It may be they don’t think they’ve mastered the craft of writing to perfection.

Or, maybe the writer has started her story, but can’t seem to achieve the perfection she’s looking for.  She believes what she’s written isn’t worthy of submissions. So, she keeps pecking away at it, hoping one day it will be perfect.

Well, if you fall under either of these scenarios, you’ll be waiting a very long time. In fact, your time of action may never come.

Meriam-Webster defines perfection as “the state or condition of being perfect” and “something that cannot be improved.”

So, perfection is something that you can’t possibly make better.

Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

What on earth can’t be improved upon? What is actually perfect?

Keeping this in mind, here’s what a few famous authors/artists have to say about the illusive perfection:

“Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.”
~ Salvador DalĂ­

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
~ Margaret Atwood

"If you look for perfection, you'll never be content."
~ Leo Tolstoy

"The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing."
~ Eugene Delacroix

"Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection."
~ Kim Collins

"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." ~ Vince Lombardi

“Striving to be the best person we can be and striving to do the very best we can in all our endeavors is the closest to perfection we can ever get.”
~ Karen Cioffi

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.”
~ Michael J. Fox

My favorite is what Michael J. Fox says: “Perfection is God’s business!”


So, if you have these perfection tendencies, try to overcome them. Don’t let an unrealistic viewpoint or expectations stop you from achieving writing success.

But, what if you just don’t trust your own judgement or can’t overcome that perfection tendency?

One of the best ways to get some guidance on whether your story is at the point of submissions is to become a part of a critique group in your genre.

Having other writers go over your story can pick up lots of trouble spots and help you improve your manuscript. And, they’ll have a much more objective view of the story.

After you get all you can from a critique group, you might want to hire a professional editor.

While every author can continue revising a story, there comes a time when you have to let go.

If your critique group and editor believes it’s good to go, take their advice.

This article was originally published at: 


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children's author and a working children’s ghostwriter as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move. You can find out more about writing for children and her services at: Karen Cioffi Writing for Children. Check out the DIY Page!

And, check out my new picture book: The Case of the Plastic Rings – The Adventures of Planetman

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Flash Flashes Back - Using Flashbacks

         I have waded through books that have so many flashbacks the story is lost. I have enjoyed stories that the author used flashbacks so well the story flowed. How does one use flashbacks well, and when should one not use any?

         Let's have a lesson in flashbacks.

         A flashback can bring information needed for a reader to understand a character or plot better, or one can overwhelm the reader with too much information. Too many flashbacks disrupt the story line and confuse the reader.

         Let's look at tips for writing flashbacks:

1. Know if and when your story needs a flashback (and use seldom). A flashback must be an essential part of the story. Never use a flashback in the middle of an action scene.

2. Look at examples of flashbacks in stories. (see sample)

3. A flashback must focus on a single event or experience.

4. Never make a flashback the first or even the second scene. Have it follow a strong scene.

5. “Signal” a flashback’s beginning and end. Let a character’s words or actions lead the reader into the flashback and then back out.
         Example: Craig’s mind wandered back to Vietnam, the battle that destroyed his life.
         Example: Marion smiled as she remembered that meeting.
         Example: With an oath, John strode to the window. He stared, not at the yard below, but back to that fateful day.
         Example: With a shudder, Craig mentally shut the door on the horror and answered the ringing phone.
         Example: Her thoughts returned to the present.
         Example: “Nothing can change what happened, nothing.” He turned from the window to face the woman sitting on the sofa.

         One method to start a flashback is using objects or senses to trigger a memory of a past scene are precisely the devices you should use to trigger flashbacks in writing. Say that you want a character to remember something about his mother… Make him find her old apron at the back of a drawer. Make him see a stranger who reminds him of his mother.

6. Verb usage should lead into and out of a flashback. 

         If you write the story in past tense, you avoid the use of “had” as a helping verb most of the time to avoid passive voice. To begin a flashback, use “had” as a helping verb for the first sentence of or two to transition from the main part of the story to the flashback. Then return to simple past tense until the last sentence or two. For the last sentence or two of the flashback, use “had” as a helping verb again.

         If you write in present tense (which I personally don’t prefer because it limits what the author can convey), you still handle the flashback as described above.

         Below is an example, a sample of a flashback:

         Marion’s head snapped up. “That would devastate Roger.” She frowned. “But, but, can you even do it?”
         “Yes, I can do it. There’s nothing legal standing in the way. I just allowed him to take over more and more until I was just a ... a bystander.”
         “Oh, my dear. When we first met, and you were so sure we should marry, I knew we faced problems, but I never thought they would last this long.” She laid her head back against her husband’s shoulder. “I had no idea that we would face something worse.”
         “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you. So beautiful and still are.”
         Marion smiled as she remembered the meeting that changed her life.

         David had gone to town to pick up a load of barbed wire and posts. The fencing around the north pasture had to be replaced, but David hadn’t wanted to take the long trip to town. The wagon couldn’t take a shortcut across country but had to stay on the road that meandered another ten miles than the route a horse could take.
         “A wasted day,” he muttered as he flicked the reins over the backs of the horses. “The old man could have sent one of the hands. No! He wants me to go.” The young man pounded a gloved fist on the seat beside him. “Had to leave before dawn, drive all day, load the stuff, and not get home until after dark. Wasted day.”
         As he wove the horses and wagon through the crowded streets of Guthrie, he cursed the job, the crowds, the need to be in town. Then he spied the tall, slender woman standing on the wooden walk beside the dirt street. The breeze stirred her blue skirts, teasingly showing the tops of her laced shoes. One hand gathered the wind tossed strands of black hair and tried to force them back into place, but the wind just whipped them away. A wizened woman stood beside the younger one. Piles of bundles occupied space around both women.
         David pulled the wagon to the side of the street, stopping beside the women. “Howdy, ma’am, miss.” He tipped his hat. “May I help you ladies?”
         The younger woman blinked in surprise, her eyes a startling blue in the pale tan of her face. “I, uh, I think perhaps you ... ” She turned to her companion in confusion.
         “Thank you, sir, for offering your help,” the old woman began, “but you’ll be better off if you aren’t seen speaking to us.”
         David frowned. “And why is that? You seem decent ladies.”
         A tall, grizzled man in buckskins joined the two women. “You are right, sir.” A southern drawl tinged his speech. “My mother and daughter are good, moral women, but the people of this town hold it against them that my father was half Cherokee.”
         “So what?” David replied. “Most of us around here have some Indian in us.”
         The man laughed. “You are rather naive, sir. Your parents would be shocked to know you spoke to us.”
         “My parents do not tell me who I can talk with. They don’t control my friends.” David’s eyes narrowed. “I’m my own man and make my own decisions.”
         The older man studied the younger for a few seconds. “I do believe you.” He stuck out his right hand. “I’m Henry Thunderhawk. This is my mother Margaret and my daughter Marion.”
         David grabbed the other man’s hand, feeling the sinewy strength. “Glad to meet you, sir. May I help you load your things?” He motioned toward the bundles on the walk.
         “I just discovered that the wheelwright can’t get to my wagon.” Henry Thunderhawk shrugged. “The wheel rim broke. And oddly there isn’t a wagon to buy, rent, or steal in town.”
         “Well, if you’ll let me get my load on first, I’ll come back and pick you and your things up.” David glanced toward Marion. “It might be a bit tight fit, but if you don’t mind ...”
         “Perhaps I should refuse your offer for your sake,” Henry suggested, “but I don’t want my mother and daughter exposed to any more hatred.” He shook his head, his longish hair flapping against his neck. “At least you won’t have to go but about a mile out of your way.”
         Thereafter, David insisted on making trips to town for supplies. Each trip, he stopped at the Thunderhawk homestead, both going and coming. Each stop, he managed to spend at least a few minutes alone with Marion. One evening, as she walked to the wagon with him, David took her hand, pulling her to a stop.
         “Marion, I, uh, I wonder if you’d mind if I talked to you dad about us?” He studied her face in the darkening light. “Or have I spoke too soon?”
         The white of her smile shone through the twilight. “No, not too soon. I just hope you know what you’re asking.” She lightly brushed the side of his face with cool fingers.
         “I know I want you for my wife. That’s all I need to know.” He ducked his head and brushed his lips across hers.
         “Don’t promise something if you can’t keep it, David. I couldn’t stand that.” Marion had tried to smile again, but quivering lips wouldn’t allow the smile to form. “If you promise never to leave me, and then you did ... I couldn’t stand that.” She had lowered her head. “I would prefer that you never promise.”

         Her thoughts returning to the present, Marion asked, “Remember when you promised you would never leave me? Your parents made it hard for you to keep that promise.”

         A flashback can be a useful tool for a writer to use, if used correctly.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Journey Back to the Archives

We all have a manuscript that gets locked in the drawer and never sees the light of day. That certainly wasn't the plan when you started. You spent days, weeks, and months pouring over your manuscript; writing every chance you got, determined to type "The End" one day.

Then that day came. The story over, the next step in the process involved editing. So, you cut, you polished, you corrected errors, and worked feverishly until your eyes glazed over. 

Excited, you sent your beloved manuscript to a select group of beta readers. Then, you waited and waited, until the hives on your arms had hives because you felt so nervous over what your readers might say. 

Then the feedback emerged. Gasp! How dare they say it isn't ready. The pacing is off? Absurd. The characters seemed one-dimensional? Outrageous. Not enough conflict? Did they even read it? 

Disillusioned, you crammed that manuscript into the back corner of your desk, hid it under a tray of assorted office supplies, and forced yourself to believe it never really existed. 

For many of us--including yours truly--this is the story of our first novel. Often referred to as the practice novel, this is our first real endeavor in writing a full-length manuscript. Sometimes we aren't ready to hear the truth about it. Sometimes, we haven't matured enough in our writing to create a marketable novel. That doesn't mean we should give up. It also doesn't mean all of it is worthless. 

No matter how much time has passed, open the drawer, lift the tray, and pull out that manuscript. Even if you decide it's not worth salvaging as a whole, can you find pieces to develop into a fresh story? Is there a favorite character that you can breathe new life into? 

Take a journey back to the archives of your writing. Things will look differently. Perhaps your next novel hides within those pages in your desk drawer.

Cheryl C. Malandrinos is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of four children’s books including, A Christmas Kindness, released by 4RV Publishing. A blogger and book reviewer, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She also has a son who is married. Visit Cheryl online at and her children’s book blog at

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Working from Home During the Pandemic

Who knew when 2020 blew onto the scene that it would mean so many changes for all of us? I am not sure how it is where you are, but we are heading into week 14 of everyone at home. The girls finished school weeks ago. Looks like this will be a long summer.

Working from home while the kids are there, too, doesn’t have to mean burning the midnight oil just to keep up with your to-do list. Here are a few ways you can remain productive, keep the kids occupied, and still leave room for family time.

Adjust Your Schedule

I am a firm believer that productivity increases if you find a work schedule that is best for you. With the kids home, however, that schedule might not be practical. Consider getting up an hour earlier than usual. While this might not be easy all year long, it is a temporary solution that can help you accomplish your weekly goals.

Take More Frequent Breaks

While it might seem counterproductive to take more breaks during the day, you’ll get more done if you don’t have to listen to, “I’m bored!” every five minutes.

Set a timer. When it goes off, put your work down and spend time with the kids. Read, have a picnic lunch in the backyard, or play a game together. Taking time out of your day to spend with the kids lets them know they are still important to you. And, let's face it, with everyone being home for weeks, a little fun time feels good.

Easy Arts and Crafts

Nowadays, there are so many arts and crafts kits available, and ideas on blogs or Pinterest, that you’re bound to find something your children like.

An excellent way to transition from family time back to work time is to have arts and crafts set out for the kids. When you’re done playing, let them choose what they want to create. Read the instructions together. Then let them know you need to work until the timer rings again. Have other simple activities such as molding clay, paints, or coloring books and crayons available in case they get bored with what they are working on.

If they distract you, remind them they can’t interrupt you until the timer goes off. As long as you consistently get up and spend time with them when promised, the kids will learn to respect your work schedule.

Mommy’s or Daddy’s Little Helpers

Young children love to help. Take advantage of this by allowing them to dust or sweep the floor. Will it be perfect? No. But, it will be good enough. Older children can do the laundry, wash dishes, empty the trash or clean the living areas. Kids don't always mind pitching in if it means they can spend time with you later.

Summer is a fun time for families. It can also be a productive season for you. With a few simple changes, you can work at home even when the kids are there.

Cheryl C. Malandrinos is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of four children’s books including, A Christmas Kindness, released by 4RV Publishing. A blogger and book reviewer, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She also has a son who is married. Visit Cheryl online at and her children’s book blog at

Sunday, June 7, 2020

5 Top Fiction Writing No-Nos

By Karen Cioffi

Fiction writers who are good at what they do, enjoy what they do. They like creating something from nothing . . . well from an idea. They enjoy the craft and the process – heck, they love it!

But, with that said, there are 5 top mistakes these writers need to be aware of and avoid.

1. You make the beginning of your story all roses.

While we’d all love to live in a peaceful, happy land, readers need something to sink their teeth into, especially at the beginning of the story.

The beginning of your story is the hook. It’s where you GRAB the reader and make her have to turn the page and want to know what’s going to happen to the protagonist.

Here are a couple of examples of ‘hooking’ beginnings:

“I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot. But when my teacher said, ‘Class, we have an exciting project to talk about,’ I listened away.”
“The Talented Clementine” by Sara Pennypacker.

“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”
“Because of Winn-Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo

These two examples of children’s writing give you a good idea of what it takes to ‘hook’ the reader.

2. The dialog is weak, fluffy.

Having weak dialog can kill your story. You need your characters to have passion . . . to have life.

You want dialog that is strong and tight. You want the emotion (the conflict, the tension, the passion) to come through the words. And, you want to say it in as few words and as realistically as possible.

You want the reader to feel what the character is feeling at that moment.

If Bob is angry in the story, show it through his dialog:

“WHAT! Who said you could take that?!”
“Hey! What are you doing?!”
“No! You can’t. Now get lost.”
“Get your hands off of me!”

The tight, strong dialog goes for exchanges also:

“Hey! What are you doing?!” Bob yelled.

Gia spun around. “Oh, uh, nothing.” Her eyes darted to the door then back to Bob.

3. The story is predictable.

You’ve got to have some surprises in the story. If you don’t, it will make for a rather dull, predictable story.

For this aspect of your story, think questions.

- Why is the character in that situation?
- How did he get there?
- What must she be feeling, seeing?
- How can she get out of it?
- What might happen next?

Try to come up with four or five options as to what might happen next.

In an article at Writer’s Digest, the author advises to “Close your eyes and watch your scene unfold. Let the characters improvise. What are some outlandish things that could result? If something looks interesting, find a way to justify it.” (1)

Let your imagination run wild.

4. Your characters are one-dimensional.
For readers to become engaged in a story, they have to develop a connection with the protagonist and other characters. In order for this to happen, the characters must be multi-dimensional.

Characters need to be believable and unique. You don’t want them to be predictable or a stereotype.

According to “Breathing Life into Your Characters” by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., “The essential components for creating successful characters with emotional and psychological depth—feelings, passion, desires, psychology, and vision—reside within [the writer].”

So, think about it. What conditions or characteristics does your character have?

- Is he stingy?
- Does she frighten easily?
- Is he a troublemaker of bully?
- Is she a risk take, on the fearless side?
- Does he listen to good advice?
- Does she get along with others?

- Does he have a personality disorder?
- Does he have phobias?
- Is she dysfunctional?
- Is she a troublemaker or bully?
- Is he anxious?
- Does she have an eating disorder?
- Is she fearful?
- Is she a risk taker, fearless?

And, keep in mind that the more stressful an ‘inciting incident’ or event, the more reaction and/or adjustment there will be.

For example: If a child lost a pet, it wouldn’t be as severe as losing a parent.
If a woman separated from her husband, it wouldn’t be as severe as having her husband suddenly die.

So, using your experiences and innate characteristics, along with research, you can create multi-faceted characters.

5. You dump information into the story.

This is more of a mistake that new writers may make. I had a client who created the entire first paragraph of her story with ‘information dump.’

Having the protagonist tell another character his entire backstory, along with other details the author wants to convey to the reader is a no-no. Backstory needs to be layered or weaved into the story, not dumped in one big truck load.

You might also use a prologue to give backstory.

While there are other things to watch for in fiction writing, these are five of the top no-nos.

(1) 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes and Fixes


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children's author and a working children’s ghostwriter as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move. You can find out more about writing for children and her services at: Karen Cioffi Writing for Children. Check out the DIY Page!

And, check out my new picture book: The Case of the Plastic Rings – The Adventures of Planetman

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Case of the Plastic Rings from the Artist's Perception

              Every children's book requires an illustrator to bring the author's words to life. The Case of the Plastic Rings - The Adventures of Planetman has an illustrator with remarkable talent: Thomas Deisboeck .  Tom graciously agreed to let me interview him. My questions are in black, and Tom's answers are in blue.

      How did/does your history and home background affect your illustration work?

            I was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up with comics of the Franco-Belgian tradition, Asterix, Tintin, Spirou etc. These books were not only drawn very well, the story arches masterfully wove a bit of history and plenty of adventures together, and all of it PG. Mind you, the 1970s were a pre-personal computer area, growing up without 24/7 social media on an ever-present web - which clearly dates me – but that meant we read books, and comics, and had time & space to let our fantasy fly. A well-developed imagination is an absolutely crucial asset for an illustrator (and anyone else, really, regardless of age and profession).  

             Tell us something about your educational background that made you a better, or more caring, artist/illustrator.

           I went to both Medical School (in Germany) and then business school (in the US) which depending who you talk to is either a testimony of a quest for a broad education or a thorough lack of focus. Artistically, I am largely self-taught, but I took online classes with Charles Zembillas at the Animation Academy in Burbank and John Byrne at the London Art College. Charles is a friend and a Yoda-type influence. He has the uncanny ability to be super supportive while he readily improves with ‘annoying’ ease every single one of my character designs and cartoons. The internet has moved the power from studios and agencies to the creatives with artist-owned content being published non-stop at low or no costs which was not an option just a few years ago. The byproduct is that there is so much great art at sites like Behance, Deviant and even Pinterest that it's humbling. I recommend whenever you think you got a piece perfectly right and feel the urge to kick back for a few min, take a quick look at Pinterest drawing pins and it brings you down to earth quickly.

             Please share your hobbies, interests, or activities with us, you know the ones for during your leisure time (laugh), if you have any.

            First off, I do a fair amount of work because I have 2 other careers in parallel (medical scientist and entrepreneur/consultant/investor). That being said, I like to spend time with family and a few good friends wherever they are. Traveling with family has always been one of my absolute favorites – from Alaska to Europe to Africa, any place in the Caribbean – life is short, so nothing is a better ‘investment’ than making unforgettable memories together. I enjoy watching “old” movies, reading comics and art books, try to keep up with the best magazine ever – The Economist, enjoy kayaking on a quiet lake and walking our dog. I love to collect art – old Disney drawings or cool comic pencil layouts from (more talented) artist friends that work for Marvel or DC. 

              Illustrators/artists are often asked when they started illustrating or what triggered their interest in art. I’d like to know that, too, but I would especially like to know what keeps you illustrating.

         I loved watching Disney’s pictures, particularly those from the Golden Age of Animation, i.e. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia; Walt’s 9 Old Master Animators are the Gods, unrivaled, no electronics available at the time, just pure skill. I started to draw in High School, then dropped it for 30 years and restarted 10+ years ago when I went on a plane to LA to meet with Charles. It was and is an outlet for my sense of humor and emotional expression. What keeps me drawing? – well, both, the constant thrill to push the boundaries of my skill and try to get better, and the enjoyment of every now and then getting it (almost) right.

              How do you manage to draw/illustrate and have time for relationships?

             Finding quality time to sit down and draw is always a challenge because there are so many demands on anyone’s time these days. Deadlines are not always helpful; while they aid in focusing attention, they cannot force the production of an artistic masterpiece, or anything close. So, managing various time demands really comes down to setting priorities – my family (incl. our dog) comes first, then the various deadlines, in my various jobs. It helps that cartooning is super fun for me, so I tend to book it under relaxation which moves it up the priority list ...

              What inspired you to illustrate your most recent book?

           Planetman is exciting for a number of reasons. One, Karen (Cioffi-Ventrice, the author) did a marvelous job in drafting an engaging story on a worthwhile subject, and it inspires me to contribute in this ‘literary conservation effort,' if you will. Artistically, it was fun to develop the visual looks of the three protagonists and then equally challenging to remain consistent to the character design, also knowing that there are more books in the series. While I have done a fair amount of editorial cartooning, this is my first children’s book and so I wanted to get it right or at least gave it a try … which led to constant publication delays (which 4RV graciously was very patient with). Ultimately, the boys are little superheroes; this requires a bit of a more animated drawing style which I’d like to think I handled reasonably well.

             Would you share something about your most recent book?

         Let’s just say that we all know that climate change is real and that recycling is important but it also can be fun, strengthen friendships and ultimately help men’s best friend to get out of a pickle, eh, ring … you’ll see.

             Do you have a particular process or technique, and if so, what?

            I really try to visualize poses in my head before I sit down and draw; that cuts down on multiple to-be-discarded drafts. I tell myself that’s more efficient but perhaps I’m just lazy, combined with unfounded confidence and no hesitation whatsoever to use my eraser. While I can create directly in digital media, here I draw everything first blue pencil on paper, strictly 2D, then scan it and from there work on it on a Wacom tablet in Photoshop. I love the quality of blue pencil with its ability to allow for nuanced line work – it allows me to literally “carve” a character out of a white piece of paper which to me is the main part of the creative process. This determines everything that comes afterward. In other words, you can be a top expert at digital touch-ups, but you won’t be able to ‘rescue’ a sub-par drawing; that said, you can definitely improve a pretty good drawing with digital mastery, particularly nuanced light effects and a vibrant color palette that can advance the storytelling. I continue to practice with and learn through both media.   

            How do you feel when you complete a book?

          Satisfied – for all of 10 min – then anxious because I know I could and should have done better with some illustrations, and apprehensive because it starts all over with the 2nd book in the series, but now I have less wiggle room as the characters are defined … i.e., more pressure, higher expectations all around. That said, it obviously feels good that people relate to it and already asked me to do another book.

           That sounds like an author feels after finishing a book, especially if a sequel in the works. Anyone who reads The Case of the Plastic Rings will be waiting anxiously for book 2.

           What are your illustration/arts achievements and goals?

          It’s not money, at least not primarily. Rather, I’d like to have my art seen by as many people as possible, even better then if a large portion of them enjoy it. That would necessitate making access affordable or ideally free which admittedly is not a particularly appealing business model to most children’s book publishers. Artistically, I’d like to be satisfied with the quality and consistency of my work – which will remain an elusive goal. It’s always good to push yourself.

           With not being able to foresee how many books will sell and which ones, I don't know of anyone who gets into the book business for the money. Sad but funny in a way.          

          Are you a member of any group or organization that aids you in your profession?

          Not that I can think of … there are professional organizations and societies, so perhaps at some point, I’d be invited to join, we’ll see, you can always dream. I do like to stop by at the Society of Illustrators when I’m in NYC – they have a lovely little restaurant upstairs that’s rarely packed amidst all the buzzing traffic in Midtown Manhattan, and you can marvel at the original Norman Rockwell behind the counter. Speaking of, I recommend visiting the Rockwell Museum at Sturbridge in Western Mass – look at the Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell did and you see what the gold standard is for turning inconsistent top quality. This guy was annoyingly good, marvelous stuff each and every one of his illustrations.  

         I would suggest you join SCBWI if you can.

        Does illustrating help better you as a person? How?

        … drawing calms me down also because I like to listen to either Frank Sinatra or Cool Jazz like Chet Baker in the back when I work on a piece. You can’t force it so you may as well enjoy it when everything comes together on a good day and you get that elusive pose or perspective finally right or experiment with a new brush on digital. And given all the quality competition out there, the quest to be consistently good is ever humbling … a bit like golf.

         What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an illustrator?

        First, make sure you love drawing – then draw, draw, draw & try to get better – and finally and most importantly, don’t be discouraged by rejection. Unless you’re a rock star out of the gate (at which point you probably won’t spend your time reading this interview), this field is super competitive and you’re bound to have to deal with constant critique and setbacks, many of them. It’s then when reason #1, i.e. love for drawing, helps you get through it – in addition to a super supportive family and group of long-term friends.

        What is your favorite genre to read? Your favorite author or authors? Yes, even illustrators need to read.

        I just finished “The Woman in the Window” by AJ Finn (a.k.a. Daniel Mallory) which I bought in a small independent book store up in Vermont and thoroughly enjoyed. I am still working on Fiona Deans Halloran’s biography of Thomas Nast, the German-American grandmaster of political editorial cartooning – fascinating how he established the pen as a much-feared tool for voicing political critique. I am currently reading “Berlin”, a comic book for mature audiences driven by rich characters set in the stormy backdrop of the Weimar Republic by Jason Lutes. At times, it feels like a masterly interwoven ensemble movie, and it is a revelation as to where graphic novels can go.

         Any other comment?

        Well, I enjoyed this – so, thank you, 4RV, for the opportunity. Secondly, if you made it that far in the interview, thanks for reading – and I’d say you deserve a wrap-up and get back to drawing … NOW!

     Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Tom.

      For more information about Tom, visit his website. His book can be purchased on the 4RV website, as well as through bookstores and other online stores.