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Why I agreed to partner with Alex to critique stories for Kwik users and what to expect from a story critique?

With the introduction of our new  Storyline Review service, find out why Anna Hines partnered with us to critique stories. The text below was written by her.

My life’s work has been about creating stories for kids. As soon as the possibility of putting stories into apps came up, with some PhotoShop and Painter experience, and a tiny bit of html from years of maintaining my webpage, I jumped in to give it a try.

When I first started looking at the story apps that were coming out (late 2010) I found most to be very disappointing. I found a few really nice apps based on already published books such as, What Does My Teddy Bear Do All Day? by Auryn, and some, also based on books, that had very little interaction, often just a sound effect here or there.

I also found apps based on traditional tales, including at least a dozen versions of three little pigs, some quite clever with appealing art, others not so much.  The best one was by Nosy Crow, which expanded the story into a real app experience without losing the storyline. Oceanhouse Media had a good beginning reader thing going with Dr. Seuss, and has gone on with that formula to build a whole line.  Loud Crow, having done a fun Tale of Peter Rabbit app (in which the interactions are super fun, but detract from the story) soon teamed with Sandra Boynton to do her wonderful board books as apps.

When it came to original stories Ruckus Media came out with A Present for Milo, successful enough as an app that it was later published as a book.  I also love Tizio’s Fierce Grey Mouse. But most of what I saw as “book-apps” had “stories” that seemed more of a prop for the interactions than good strong tales.

Publishers have been dragged into e-books, after self-published writers showed them the way, and still seem reluctant to create true app versions of their books. One house with which I had some dealings, was all for game apps with their popular characters, but leery of putting the books into apps.  Along with some other houses they are now putting some books into app-systems, but still not making them available individually.

That leaves it up to self-publishers to create the great stand-alone book apps. I’d love to see more established writers and illustrators get involved, but most don’t have the computer skills even for a program like Kwik, nor do they have the money to pay someone to do it for them. Contrary to the fantasy that published authors are rich, most make the bulk of their income doing school visits and presentations, or still have a “day job.” Frankly, I can’t say to them, “Come on in the water’s fine.”  The chances of making much from the time they put into making an app is still pretty slim. The market isn’t there yet, but I believe one day it will be, and one way to help that happen is to support the effort of putting really good stories into the new app format.

So if people who already have the picture book expertise aren’t going to get involved, that leaves people who are enthusiastic about the possibilities of book apps and eager to build them, possibly some of you who have discovered Kwik.

Creating great book apps takes a lot of skills. With Kwik Alex has given us a wonderful tool, that makes building the app possible for anyone who knows how to use PhotoShop and has the determination to go through all the hurdles to get published. The other essential ingredients are wonderful art and a really strong story.  If you skimp on any of those things your app will not be the best it can be, and maybe with my years of picture book experience, I can help a little with the strong story part.

Writing a really good picture book story isn’t as easy as it looks.  Occasionally a wonderful story almost seems to write itself, but this usually happens to someone who has been practicing the craft for a long time, someone who has written enough stories and is so familiar with what a good story needs, that those elements are built in almost subconsciously.  Most stories though, even the ones from people who know what they are doing, take a lot of crafting and shaping, writing and revising.  And most successful writers have a drawer full of stories that miss the mark, those written when they first started out, thinking this would be easy.

It took me seven years and over one hundred rejection letters from publishers before I sold my first book.  My stories weren’t bad. Most of the time instead of a form rejection I’d get a personal letter saying the editor would be interested in seeing more of my work.  But the fact is they weren’t tight enough, strong enough, fresh or original enough.  Then I took a workshop with Jane Yolen and got involved with a group that learned not only from the teacher, but by critiquing one another’s stories. I sold my first book soon after, and then another, and another…

I continued meeting with this group at an annual retreat.  We were really tough on each other, because we knew that “almost good enough” wasn’t going to get our stories published.  A few years later, my husband, who skillfully wrote newsletter articles, a column for the paper, and more, as part of his job, decided to try writing children’s books. I encouraged him, but was hesitant to point out weaknesses I saw in his writing because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. After all, I had to live with him! But after working with my writer friends, I realized that if he was going to have the best possible chance of having his stores published, I wasn’t doing him any favors by “being nice.” I explained how the group was really tough, that it was sometimes hard to take, but that it was done with the intention of being helpful and asked if he wanted me to do the same for him. He did. The next year he took Jane’s workshop, then joined our group and has published several books.

It takes a bit of a tough skin and an open mind to accept and learn from a critique. I try to be kind, but some things I say may sting.  Some things may make you say, “Of course! Now I see how this part might be confusing, or how I don’t need to use so many words if this is shown in the illustrations, or how it would be better if the problem was a little more difficult for the character to solve.”

Other times you may think my suggestions are just stupid, that I am totally missing the point. That may be the case, but if so, I suggest you give yourself a little time to get over the hurt feelings, then think about my comments. Maybe I don’t get it, but why? What might be leading me to get the wrong idea, to miss what seems obvious to you? Can you think of a way to make a change that would make it clearer, stronger, less confusing?  Even if my comments seem off, might they be pointing out a weakness that you can resolve in another way?

If you are really serious about creating good picture book apps, I highly encourage you to make it a serious study. At the very least go to the library and check out lots of picture books. Which ones do you like and why? Talk to the librarian about which ones she recommends and which are most popular with the kids. Study them.

Take a class. Check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org) and see if they have a chapter near you, or a regional conference you might be able to attend. Join or form a critique group. SCBWI has some guidelines for this, too.  If you are all new writers, perhaps along with critiquing your own stories, you can share and discuss the good (and not so good) books you find at the library.

Check out the art, too. How do the illustrations help tell the story? With apps we get to add motion and sound effects to support the storytelling. Lucky us!  But we have to make it all work together—the best art, the interactions and effects that support and engage without distracting, all built on a good strong story.

As a last thing, I will share this. The most important thing I learned at the first SCBWI Conference I went to is this: When it comes to writing and illustrating for children, the question I need to be asking myself is not, “Is this good enough?” The question to ask is, “Is there anyway I can make this better?”

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