PUMPKINS: Thoughts On Carving Stories

IMG_1284This year my newly minted teen has decided that she doesn’t want to go trick-or-treating. Instead, she wants to dress up and hand out candy right here on our front porch.  And, between customers, she plans to carve her very first Jack-o-lantern (as a teen).  It sounds like a wonderful way to spend Halloween to me and it reminds me of one of my favorite fall posts from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.

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LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

IMG_5327I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

 

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

IMG_5330By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

IMG_3152Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

FINDING YOUR INNER POET: Five Tips

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I grew up in a family of readers. Indeed, some of my earliest memories include sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. I loved the rhythmic rhyming sound of Milne’s poems and memorized several, quite by accident, because I asked my mother to read them to me so often. I’ve carried the rhyming beat of those poems with me ever since.

As soon as could hold a pencil and spell (sort of), I started writing poetry on my own. How do I know this? I know because my parents sent me a box full of papers and notebooks from my childhood including limericks, riddles, and silly rhyming snippets – all proof that I’ve loved playing with language for a very long time.

IMG_2766As an adult, I have continued to foster that love by educating myself on the intricacies of meter and rhyme, by reading the best children’s poetry out there, and by honing my own skills by writing, writing, writing!

Poetry, especially rhyming poetry, is harder than it might first appear because it’s not just about good rhyme.  It’s also about rhythm and keeping a consistent rhythm throughout a piece.

Do you have an inner poet somewhere deep inside, too?  Here are tips to help  you find him/her:

1. Write from the heart.  Have an idea for a poem? At this early point, don’t worry about perfecting the rhyme or meter. Simply enjoy the process of writing and see where your pen and imagination take you. Dabble with rhyme and meter, if you feel so inclined, but it’s better to have fresh ideas than tight, strained stanzas. Once you have written from the heart, then you can go back and creatively work on meter and rhyme.

2. Read, read, read! It will help your inner poet grow if you read poetry. There are many great children’s poets out there. You might enjoy exploring poet Renee LaTulippe’s Big List of Children’s Poets. Her website, No Water River, also includes children’s poets reading their works. This is a great way to hear poems read and to appreciate how seemingly efffortless the final version should sound. I also make a habit of checking out poetry anthologies and collections from the children’s poetry section of my library.  I do the same with rhyming picture books. As I read them, I analyse what makes them work and take notes for future reference.

3. Pick a poem to model. This is a great exercise for broadening your poetic skills.  I love doing this when I have writer’s block or am between projects. First, I pick a poem that I like.  Maybe I’ll pick a limerick one week and something with couplets the next. Once I’ve picked my poem, I dissect it – examining each line, as well as the whole – to see how the poet put it together. I also make guesses as to why the author chose certain wording, or a certain theme.  Then I pick a topic and/or theme that is completely different and write my own poem using the form I’ve just studied.  I’ve learned A LOT this way!  Plus, it’s just plain fun and your inner poet will love it.

IMG_27634. Invest in several poet-friendly resources. Of course in this day and age, we poets have lots of free poetry- aiding resources at our finger tips. These include on-line rhyming dictionaries such as the one found at RhymeZone. This nifty resource includes not only rhyming options but can also serve as a thesaurus. Most computer dictionaries also have a thesaurus function. However, in my experience, nothing is quite as good as two old-fashioned resources that will forever be my bffs when it comes to writing poetry.  The first is Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. I have still have the 1982 edition I got when I was in junior high!  The second, I bought for my inner poet on my birthday in 2008.  It’s called The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, Revised. Edited by Clement Wood and revised by Ronald Bogus, it includes not just an exhaustive rhyming dictionary, but The Poet’s Craft Book  as well.

5. Finally, remember to HAVE FUN! There is joy in playing with words and it’s a real treat to carve out time to write. So, my last tip is to enjoy the process. I do! Happy writing, all!

Note: With just a few weeks of summer left, I have decided to take a little holiday from blogging so I can focus on family. I will be back on August 28 with brand new posts. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a few favorite oldies, like this one from summer 2016. 

 

PONDERING SNAILS with EMALINE: Four Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

FullSizeRender (1)A special part of my recent trip to England was spending time with a friend who recently moved to London with her husband and three adorable daughters. My day with Charise began with a reading of “Goodnight Ark” to her girls’ classes at their lovely school in Hampstead, a village of London.  That was a wonderful treat in and of itself and I especially enjoyed answering the children’s questions after each reading, asked in charming British accents.

 

 

The readings ended at 10:30 and I think Charise’s youngest, who is just three, was a little sad not to get to spend the rest of the day at school with her sisters. It all turned out okay, though, because in the end, since Emaline was with us, it was she who got to show me the snails.

This is how it happened. First, Emaline and her mom gave us a walking tour of Hampstead. As we walked Charise pointed several spots that will be featured in the upcoming film Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, which I now can’t wait to see.  After our walk, it was still too early for lunch so we stopped in at their home for a few minutes.

Once home, Emaline took great pleasure in showing us her garden – and that’s where I met the snails. This particular morning there were only two. “Do you think this one’s the other one’s mum?” Emaline asked as we watched them move slowly across a patio stone. “Perhaps,” I answered. “Or maybe they’re friends. Maybe they play together. What do you think?”

Then, in quiet whispers, Emaline and I watched them for the loveliest long time. And, as we crouched there, I thought how good it felt to pause from the busyness of the day to ponder snails – how they might be related, where they might be going and what they might be doing etc.

This adorable interaction got me thinking about life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying days are those in which, like Emaline, I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder snails (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world anew.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from crouching down and seeing the world – snails and all – from the perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of three-year-olds, snails and slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes.
  2. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  3. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  Settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.
  4. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and ponder the snails this week.

ARBOR DAY: A Poem by James, age 7 and Art by Miss A.

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Earlier this week my adorable seven year old neighbor, James, reminded me that Arbor Day was just around the corner and that to celebrate, he planned to write a poem. It think he told me this because he knows I like to write too.  I told him I’d love to read the poem once he’d written it and Thursday after school I finally got the chance. “I’m going to read it over the loudspeaker at school tomorrow” he explained.

And that gave me an idea! With his mom’s permission, I asked James if he’d like to share it on my blog as well. He thought that sounded neat! And, to illustrate, Miss A. offered to let us use her newest art work – a stained- glass illustration of a cherry tree in bloom.  Now, without further ado, please enjoy this delightful collaboration between two young artists in celebration of trees!

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And now a bonus… an illustration by James as well!

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I think both the artist and the poet did a great job!  Happy Arbor Day to all!

AWKWARD! Capturing Ideas at Inconvenient Times

IMG_4133I don’t know about you, but over the years, I’ve discovered that inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient times – like when I’m in the shower or in the middle of the night or when I’m out walking the dog.

I’ve developed a few strategies to capture those awkwardly timed bits of inspiration. For starters, I keep a pen and notebook by my bedside for those middle of the night moments. We also have an antique slate chalkboard in our kitchen where I often capture bits of inspiration. (My children know never to erase funny looking word snippets without first checking with me.)  And I always have a pen in my purse. I try to have little notebook as well, but if I don’t I’ve become quite skilled at writing on napkins, old ticket stubs, receipts etc. I’ve also been known, if out and about without the necessary idea capturing tools,  to talk aloud to myself, repeating that perfectly phrased new rhyming snippet, until I get home or find emergency access to pen and paper.

These strategies, however, are far from perfect.

There was the night, for example, when I came up with the perfect third verse for a poem I was working on.  Not wanting to wake my husband, I quickly grabbed my bedside note book and pen and wrote the verse down in the dark.  The next morning I was dismayed to discover the page was completely blank. I’d written with the cap on!

And my children have made it perfectly clear through eye rolls, etc. that they find it embarrassing when we’re walking together and I start to repeat verses out loud while on walks so that I don’t forget them.  Mortified, I think would be the right word their reaction.

That’s why I’m delighted to have hit upon a new idea capturing device – the “notes” feature on my iPhone. Since I’m a terrible at texting – all thumbs as they say-  I use the handy dictation mode to record sparks of inspiration or that perfect phrase for my current work-in-progress.  This system works well, though I have be careful to speak slowly and clearly or the words get jumbled.

What about you?  How do you handle it when creativity strikes when you are busy with something else? I’d love to hear your stories of funny, awkward inspiration moments and/or what you find to be the most effective way to capture ideas.

Happy idea gathering, all!

 

 

PERCOLATOR or TEAPOT: What Kind of Writer Are You?

img_3760It doesn’t matter if you prefer coffee or tea. That’s really beside the point. I’m guessing, though, that as a writer you are either a percolator, a tea pot or – like me – a bit of both.

Most of the time, I am percolator. That is, I like to reflect on new stories and poems before writing a first draft. When “percolating” I always keep a pen and notebook handy so I can jot down ideas. I make lists, play with possible plot twists, settings, points-of view etc.  For example, with both Goodnight, Ark and Goodnight, Manger, I filled almost two notebooks with ponderings and word play before I actually sat down and wrote the stories.  Once I was ready to write, I wrote the first drafts of each in one sitting.

I guess you could say at that point, I turned into a teapot!  When I’m in teapot mode, poems and stories just flow, sometimes even overflow out of me. This outpouring often occurs at the most inconvenient times -when I’m cooking, or in the middle of the night. But when it does, I just let my mind shift into story/poem mode and I go with it. Writing in earnest becomes my priority – because once that tea is pouring out of me, it’s impossible to stop. I don’t worry about getting words down perfectly. I just write down the story that’s pouring out as fast as I can. (Occasionally, dinner gets a little overcooked, but don’t worry everyone gets fed.)

But teapot stories are not ready to drink yet. Far from it. Instead, after completing each teapot burst, I turn back into a percolator again, with intermittent bursts of teapot. I repeat this percolator/teapot process again and again until every word and moment pushes the story or poem forward in a fun meaningful way.

Finally it’s time for the finishing touches. At this point, I think rather than teapot or percolator, I become like a fine wine taster- sniffing and swishing – to make sure each sentence, phrase, and plot turn has just the right – je ne sais quoi – so that the story is magnifique – or at least as magnifique as I can make it- before I send it off to my agent to review.

So, dear writing friends, which are you – percolator or teapot?   Happy writing all!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts on Carving Stories

IMG_1284There’s a sudden new nip in the air and it finally feels like fall is here.  With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this pumpkin-themed post from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.

QUAIL EGGS: Making IDEAS EXTRAORDINARY!

I’m taking a blog break this week to spend time with my family, but I thought you might enjoy this writerly post from 2012.  We still love quail eggs at our house!  Enjoy!

A Korean-American friend invited me to shop at a Korean supermarket. The store was brimming with the most beautiful produce and authentic Asian foods I have ever seen. I filled my cart with Korean BBQ sauce, dumplings, seaweed, barley tea, bok choy, Japanese eggplant, oyster mushrooms and more. But the best find of all was the carton of tiny speckled quail eggs I discovered by the tofu.

“How do you eat these?” I asked my friend. “Hard-boiled,” she answered. “Then pop them in your mouth.”

The excitement at our house over these miniature eggs was astounding. My kids couldn’t wait to try them and insisted that I boil them immediately. Then, even though it was almost dinner time, we peeled them and, lo and behold, the inside of the shell was aqua colored. When we popped them in our mouths, they tasted exactly like chicken eggs. The magic was in their tiny size and their magical shell.

“Can we share them?” my daughter asked. Then, nestling them in her hands, she shared the magic of the quail eggs with the neighbor kids. They were a big hit!

Ideas are kind of like eggs. Sometimes it seems they’re a dime a dozen. The trick is finding one that stands out from the rest. After all, no one wants to read yet another story about an ordinary egg. YOUR egg needs to be extraordinary. Add speckles and a magical lining. Scramble it. Fry it. Poach it. Do whatever it takes to make it stand out from the rest.

Quail eggs are destined to become a frequent snack in our house. Not only are they rich in protein and pretty, but they’re a tasty reminder that I don’t want to settle for plain old chicken egg ideas. Instead, I want to savor the exhilarating process of transforming ordinary ideas into extraordinary eggs. Happy writing!

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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Since today is National Skunk Day, I simply can’t resist re-sharing these writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity. So, please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook last year, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

P.S. You might also enjoy this skunk quiz!