July 9, 2009

The 2009 National Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque, NM: Part III

René Colato Laínez is the award-winning author of WAITING FOR PAPÁ, PLAYING LOTERÍA, and I AM RENÉ, THE BOY. He is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, and a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, where his students know him as "the teacher full of stories." René’s mission as an author is best described in his own words: “My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children's literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hope for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States.”

René conducted an excellent workshop on writing picture books at the NLWC, and has generously provided a portion of it to VOCES below. I am sure that aspiring (and published!) picture book authors will find this information extremely helpful. For more information on René’s work, visit http://renecolatolainez.com. René also contributes to the following blogs: http://labloga.blogspot.com, http://www.losbloguitos.com.

René and me after his panel at the 2009 NLWC

By Award-Winning Author, René Colato Laínez

I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran author of many picture books, including PLAYING LOTERÍA/ EL JUEGO DE LA LOTERÍA and the forthcoming books RENÉ HAS TWO LAST NAMES/ RENÉ TIENE DOS APELLIDOS, THE TOOTH FAIRY MEETS EL RATÓN PÉREZ, and MY SHOES AND I.

When I started to submit my manuscripts to different publishers in March 2001, I received many rejection letters from editors. I wondered what was wrong with my stories. I thought I was writing wonderful stories but was not having any luck getting them published. So I decided to take some children’s writing classes and joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I was eager to learn the craft. I rolled up my sleeves and submerged myself into the children’s writing world. A year and a half later, I signed my first contract for my manuscript WAITING FOR PAPÁ/ ESPERANDO A PAPÁ. Yeah! My dream of becoming an author was becoming a reality!

But what does a picture book manuscript need to have in order to be considered by an editor? What do you need to do to get your chance at the publishing world?

Below, I’ve compiled some tips that I’ve learned on my way to becoming a published author. Take note and get inspired!

• A question that I have been asked many times is: “Do I need to hire an illustrator for my manuscript?” The answer is no, you don’t need to illustrate your own manuscript to become a children’s author. Editors will look at your manuscript on its own, and if they like it, find an illustrator for your work once they’ve acquired it.

• In a picture book manuscript, every word counts. This is why you need to select them very carefully. 1000 words would be the maximum for a picture book manuscript. 500 words would be ideal!

• When writing a manuscript, think in terms of scenes. A 32 picture book has 14 to 16 scenes. Break up your story into that many scenes to make sure that it will work.
• Each scene needs to be less than 70 words if you are aiming for a 1000 word count. But try to write your scenes in 50 words or less.

• Write using action words and use your five senses. Long descriptions of places, decorations, and room environment are not necessary. All of those details will be taken care of by the illustrations. Every time I start a new scene, I do this writing exercise:

- I see ___________
- I hear __________
- I smell _________
- I taste __________
- I touch _________
- My heart says_________

If I fill most of the blanks, I know that I have a good scene that can be illustrated.

• Your story needs to move and evolve from scene to scene. If, after writing three scenes your story in not going anywhere, you can merge those three scenes into a single one.

• Try to follow this format when writing. It works for me:

-Scene 1 Introduce your character and the problem.
-Scene 2 Give more details about the problem.
-Scene 3 Your character reacts: What will he or she do about it?
-Scene 4-10 Action, action and more action. Your character is the story’s hero.
-Scene 11-12 Think about the story’s climax.
-Scene 13-15 Solve the problem.
-Scene 16 Happy ending!

• After writing the manuscript, share it with your peers for critique. It is wonderful to be part of a critique group. The website for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is a great resource to help you find a group near your area (among other things).

• At the end of the critique, take what you consider valuable and can turn your manuscript into a better story. And listen; your group can have great ideas that at first may sound silly but may later bring you to say: “Yeah! They were right!”

• Once you have a fantastic manuscript, submit it. Rejection letters may come your way, but believe in your story and don’t give up. One day, you will hear someone give you the wonderful news you long to hear: “We want to publish your story!”

Saludos and good luck,
René Colato Laínez

July 6, 2009

The 2009 National Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque, NM: Part II

For my second installment in my series of posts following up the conference, I would like to print some of Dr. Felipe Ortego y Gasca’s enlightening comments during his opening keynote address. For those of you who may not know, Dr. Ortego y Gasca has long been considered the founder of Chicano Literary Studies. His seminal work, entitled Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (Univ. of NM, 1971), was the first study published in the field. He is also credited for being the first to write on the subject of Chicano literature for a major publisher with his We Are Chicanos: Anthology of Mexican American Literature (Washington Square Press, 1973). It was truly an honor for me to get an opportunity to see him speak at this conference, and I would like to pass some of that honor on to you.

Ortego y Gasca addressing the participants of the 2009 National Latino Writers Conference.

During his talk, Ortega y Gasca offered these encouraging words to the Latino authors in attendance: “We are still in our gestation period, 1973 is not that long ago”—referring to the date of publication of We Are Chicanos— and adding: “We have to recover the U.S. Latino saga; my family’s history in the U.S. dates back to 1731, before 1776”—obviously pointing to his own Mexican roots, and maybe alluding to that old Southwestern saying: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

He went on to make a distinction between Latin American writers living in the U.S.—who are very much connected to the literary tradition of their homelands—, and Latino Writers— whom, he pointed out, should be identified as U.S.-based Latino authors, such as Sandra Cisneros. I wanted to print this remark in particular because he went on to state that “this distinction is seldom made (by publishers, readers, and the general public), exhibiting a basic misunderstanding and ignorance of the work of U.S. Latino writers, which dates back to the roots of this country—and has a long future ahead.”

Ortega y Gasca also mentioned the demographics with which my readers are already very well acquainted, putting them into perspective, and within the literary context. He said: “By 2040, 1 in 3 Americans will be Latino, and this demographic is changing from the inside, not through immigration.” (Referring to the fact that 1 out of 2 babies now born in the U.S. is of Latino heritage.) “Every county in the US now has Latinos in it.” (A fact that I, for one, was not aware of, and which I found fascinating, since it has endless implications.) Finally, referring to what he dubbed the “tsunamic demographic change” that we are about to face, Ortego y Gasca offered these very simple, wise words to present and future Latino writers: “We should not waste it.”

I hope you are enjoying these posts on the NLWC. Check back at the end of this week, when I will be posting the first of a series of writing tips by some of the published authors who attended the conference.

For more information on the National Latino Writers Conference, and the rest of the programs at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, click here.