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True Story Blog

5 Favorites from . . . Jodi McKay!

Author Jodi McKay and friends

Jodi McKay lives in Michigan with her husband, son, and two furry friends. She is the PAL coordinator for SCBWI-MI and is active in several online writing groups. She has two books published by Albert Whitman & Co., WHERE ARE THE WORDS? (2016) and, PENCIL'S PERFECT PICTURE (May, 2019).


So what are Jodi’s 5 Favorites?:


My favorite place to write:

Outside, although I become easily distracted out there.

My favorite mentor text: 

Ooh, I hope it's okay to name a few! For humor- Elwood Bigfoot by Jill Esbaum, for heart- The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, and for narrative non-fiction- The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman.

My favorite writing tip:

Write down what your intention is for your manuscript (to entertain, evoke feelings, offer an opportunity to reflect) as well as what the main question of the story is (Ex. How do you make a friend, what happens when you lose your lovey, etc.) and keep it by your computer. It's helpful to be reminded of both and it will keep your writing focused.

My favorite marketing tip:

For marketing I would suggest being careful with how you spend your money. Book swag is really fun to hand out, but take note of what people want and what they pass by. From a promotional stand-point I would say, connect with people. This may be bookstore owners, social media buddies, teachers, your local librarian, parents. Don't try to sell your book, try to connect over books in general. Build relationships based on your love of reading and you will find these people becoming champions of both you and your books!

My favorite book event of the year:

I really enjoy the yearly SCBWI conferences. They are a great way to hit the refresh button and stir up the creative flow.

To learn more about Jodi, visit her website.

As always, if you have read the author's work, consider writing a quick review using the links above.



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10 Writers Talk Titles

How did you pick the title for your #firstpicturebook? Ten writers answer this question below. Click on the quote to flash back to the original Q&A.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler: There was an old ad for Prince Pasta on TV …Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day…which was catchy. I wrote to the Prince Pasta Company to make sure there was no problem using my title. It was Okayed and the title stuck.

Susan Montanari: In the dream the woman said, “That’s not a dog it’s a chicken.”

Maria Gianferrari: The original title of the book was PENELOPE, UNTALENTED. However, because I received a two-book deal, we needed a title that could carry to the second book, so Penny & Jelly was born!

Emma Bland Smith: JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Karlin Gray: In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography, I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy.... While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Heather Lang: “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.

Ammi-Joan Paquette: Originally the book was called simply TRACKING FAIRIES. However, my editor felt this could invoke a harsher feel: ‘tracking’ in the sense of ‘hunting’ (poor fairies!). My writer friend Natalie Lorenzi suggested the “Tiptoe Guide” portion, which I think did a brilliant job of softening and tying the whole title together. I love the result!

Jodi McKay: I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Wendy BooydeGraaff: This is one of those times when the title came first, and then the story. My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.

Cheryl Keely: The original title was Here to There and Me to You. I liked the thought of bridges making connections and bringing people together. I really liked the line in the book containing those words. It seemed to me to sum up the best connection of all – me to you and you to me. A Book of Bridges was added later to make it clear that the book was about bridges. It helps to let readers to know what a book is about!
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10 Tips on Writing Picture Books

Shana Keller: Find a topic you love or a person you love and go with it.

Ammi-Joan Paquette: Read as many picture books as you can, especially ones which are debuts and newly released. Familiarizing yourself with what’s out there and what’s selling now is a really valuable tool to crafting your own masterpieces!

Linda Vander Hayden: I try to use active verbs and make sure I’m showing (not telling) how my characters are feeling. I’ve also learned to remember to leave room for an illustrator to work his or her magic.

Lori Alexander: Try alternating the POV of your work-in-progress. You may like what the change does for your story.

Jodi McKay: I am a big advocate for a good story arc and I try to make sure that I hit all of the elements of the arc by asking myself this: Who, Wants, But, So, Then, Sign off.

Lori Richmond: Ask yourself why you like certain books. Analyze how the book is paced. How is the conflict introduced? How is it resolved?

Annie Silvestro: My favorite and most necessary exercise is reading a story out loud so I can really hear the areas that are working and the ones that are not.

Wendy BooydeGraaff: Sit on a bench somewhere and watch the people who pass. Ask questions about them. Where are they going? What job do they do? Once you see someone that sparks your imagination, gather in as many details as possible about that person and then write.

Cheryl Keely: I set a timer (usually 15 minutes) and write whatever comes out in that time.

Susan Farrington: Start with a rough outline of your story, lay it out as it would read over 32 pages. Play with the rhythm until the flow feels right.
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This month Jodi McKay's debut picture book will be published and today she found all the right words to tell us about WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Leave a comment below to win a copy!

Q. Was WHERE ARE THE WORDS? the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. WHERE ARE THE WORDS? was definitely not the first story I wrote. There are at least a dozen that came before all of which are tucked away waiting for their turn to be revised.

I actually happened to come across my first manuscript (which I wrote and illustrated) the other day when I was cleaning out the deepest recesses of my basement. Believe me, that’s where it belongs. It was a collection of rhyming poems about different half kid, half animal characters. That’s right, humanimals. Good thing it didn’t work, eh?

Q. What inspired WHERE ARE THE WORDS??
A. I spend a lot of time staring at my computer, willing words to appear on the screen. It was one of these intense staring episodes that I wondered why I couldn’t find the right words for a story and then I thought, Hmmm can I write about that? “Of course!” I answered myself, “But you need to do it in a different way.” So I went through my mental list of possible characters and came across the punctuation marks. It all came together very quickly after that.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love when Exclamation Point is trying to catch Run, Jump, Skip, and Hop. The words are doing exactly that, running, jumping, skipping, and hopping away from Exclamation Point which makes a funny and very active scene. Denise Holmes, the illustrator of this book, did a great job making that spread come to life.

This idea of trying to catch words came a little later in the revisions. I always had Exclamation Point trying to wrangle the words, but it wasn’t as literal as this.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I figured that if I wrote it in first person, then these unconventional characters may feel more relatable and two, I wanted this to be a simple story with a twist. I imagined children reading it and discovering that the characters speak as their roles dictate. That, to me, would be an incredible learning opportunity.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WHERE ARE THE WORDS? 
A. I knew the problem and the characters rather quickly and I knew that I wanted the characters to speak in a way that shows their punctuation roles. After establishing the three main characters, Period, Question Mark, and Exclamation Point, I needed to add in other punctuation marks and figure out how they could or maybe weren’t able to help Period reach his goal of writing a story. I wanted there to be a sense of teamwork woven into the story so I really tried to have each character be important to creating that theme.

Q. Did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I am prefacing this with the statement that this is a highly unusual situation and I was very lucky to have experienced this.

I received one rejection from an agent who favorited it on #pitmad. I then sent it to an author whose critique service I had won in a contest. She offered a few suggestions and then asked if I would be interested in sending it to her editor. Um, heck yeah! I sent it to her editor at Albert Whitman and waited for a couple of months with no word. Assuming this meant no, I started to query it. Two weeks after I sent three queries out, I opened my email and there it was, an offer to publish a story about punctuation marks trying to find words to write a story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHERE ARE THE WORDS?
A. You know that feeling when you are about to go over the top of the first hill of a roller coaster and you want to puke and laugh at the same time? It was kind of like that. I called my husband who immediately thought someone had been in a horrible accident because I was cry-yelling. Then I just kinda sat and let it sink in. Once the initial shock left my body I allowed myself to be excited. I am not a very excitable person so this was a big deal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. None at all, I just got really lucky. Denise is an extremely talented artist who took punctuation marks and gave them life. I had no idea how that was going to happen, but she did it and now the book is so much more that I had imagined it could be. I am very grateful to have been able to work with Denise.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I really liked the mannerisms of the characters. Their facial expressions are fairly simple, but the way their arms move and how they are positioned really gives a sense of personality and adds more heart to the story. I also loved the colors that Denise used.

Q. How long did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It has been almost two years and like most published authors will tell you, the two longest years of my life. I have learned a lot about the publishing process and about myself in that time so I appreciate it all of it.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Find your people first. Not your wife or husband, not your best friend, but people who know what writing is like and who can offer you not only specific support (say that 5 times), but honest and experienced feedback about your manuscripts. The kidlit community is vast and wonderful. There are published and pre-published authors available to share knowledge and writerly love for anyone who seeks it. These are the people you want in your corner as your write your stories. I could not have done this without my critique groups, SCBWI, and all of my online author friends who have so graciously given their wisdom. Find your people.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I am a big advocate for a good story arc and I try to make sure that I hit all of the elements of the arc by asking myself this: Who, Wants, But, So, Then, Sign off. In other words, the main character has a goal, but something stands in his/her way of achieving that goal so he/she tries three different and increasingly harder ways of reaching that goal (failing each time), then the main character learns something or changes in some way that helps him/her finally get to that goal. All is well so the story wraps up usually in a funny, circular, or open ended way. Getting all of the key parts of a story down is an art form that I am still working on, but I like to start there.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working on a picture book idea that hit me while I was supposed to be relaxing at the end of a yoga session. I don’t normally think about mice as I sink into child’s pose, but once they popped in my head they wouldn’t leave me alone. Very chatty, those mice.
I’m also revising several stories that I plan on sending to my agent soon. She is very editorial, which I love so I anticipate revising some more afterwards.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Karlin!

Jodi would love to hear from you! You can find her on:
Her website- www.JodiMcKayBooks.com (Look for the teacher’s’ guide!)
Email- Jodi@JodiMcKayBooks.com
Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/JLMcKayBooks/
Twitter- https://twitter.com/JLMcKay1

A WINNER WAS EMAILED AND THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. To celebrate WHERE ARE THE WORDS? publication, Jodi is giving away a copy of WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.
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