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!

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Nancy Churnin in Celebration of the Release of MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN

 

Please welcome children’s author Nancy Churnin as we chat about the release of her newest book, MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN.  Illustrated by Danny Popovici and published by Creston Books, MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN is the true story of Dashrath Manjhi who, using only a hammer and chisel and twenty years’ worth of perseverance, carved a path through a mountain to connect his poor village to the more prosperous village nearby. Kirkus Reviews praises Churnin’s prose as having “an elegance appropriate for her inspiring tale” and hails the tale as “heartening”.  Churnin’s inspiring story also has the honor of being selected for the Junior Library Guild Fall 2017 list.
Congratulations, Nancy, on this exceptional new release and thanks so much for joining us today. Let’s get started – with my questions in burnt umber to match the book’s magnificent cover.
What inspired you to write MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN?
I had such a joyful journey with writing my debut book, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, I was inspired to find more stories of hidden heroes and heroines from diverse backgrounds. When I came across an article about Manjhi, he grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. Manjhi is the story of how having a vision and determination can transform any one of us from being ordinary to extraordinary. I felt driven, like Manjhi, to find a way of telling his story in a way that would resonate with kids and inspire them to make a positive difference in their schools and communities. 
And I think you succeeded!  His story his inspiring and such a good example for kids to know and follow. 
Did you always want to be a writer? Tell us a little bit about your writing journey?
 I cannot remember a time that I didn’t love books and long to add to the wondrous world of words. My parents, who came of age during the Great Depression, used the first pennies they had to buy a book — Tomorrow Will Be Better. I grew up in a world of books, with a library of shelves my father built from floor to ceiling. I also remember having my own blank notebook where I was writing ideas and fragments of stories and poems. As I grew up, I was drawn to studying literature and I fell in love with journalism, which allowed me to interview, learn and write stories on a daily basis. This turned out to be a terrific preparation for researching and writing children’s picture books.
In addition to writing picture books, you are also the Theater Critic for The Dallas Morning News. How has your interest in theater shaped your writing?
 
WilliamHoyStory_CVR-1I thank my job for the inspiration for my first book, The William Hoy Story. I wrote a story about a fascinating play, The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, being presented by a high school in Garland, Texas. I received a thank you note from Steve Sandy, a man in Ohio. I emailed back my appreciation but asked why a man in Ohio was interested in a play in a high school in Garland, Texas. Steve told me he is Deaf and a friend of the Hoy family. We got to be email friends. Steve told me it made him sad that Deaf and hearing kids didnt know the story of this Deaf hero. He also told me of his dream that William Hoy would someday be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where he would be the first Deaf player honored there.
Thats when I got the idea that if I wrote a book for kids, the kids would help by writing letters to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Hoys behalf. So far, they kids have sent more than 800 letters. We are encouraging them to keep them coming in advance of the next vote in 2020. We include the address for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the free William Hoy teachers guide. Thank you, Laura, for giving me an opportunity to talk about this and encourage the kids to participate!

 

Wow!  I just love how your interest in theater led you to write Hoy’s story and I think your campaign to have children write letters on Hoy’s behalf to the Baseball Hall of Fame is brilliant!  
MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN is also based on a true story. What was your process for first researching and then writing the book?
 I read every article I could find on Manjhi. I hit gold when I discovered YouTube videos of interviews with him and interviews of people in his community. The videos also showed his village, which is such an important part of the story. I was fortunate, too, to get help from Rachel Ball-Phillips, a lecturer in South Asian studies at Southern Methodist University. She knows the story, the culture and the terrain. She made sure that my story was correct and gave notes to make sure that Danny Popovic’s exquisite watercolor illustrations accurately reflected the architecture, clothes, hairstyles and food in Manjhi’s village.
Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?
 Yes! I am so proud of our curriculum guide, which not only talks about themes and culture, but teaches kids simple words in Hindi and includes a recipe for roti, a flat bread that Manjhi enjoys in the book. Plus, in the back of the book itself, I talk about our Move Your Own Mountain project. We are asking kids to send us photos of something they have done, in the spirit of Manjhi, to make a positive difference in their schools and communities, so that we can celebrate what they’ve done and encourage good deeds to spread. The photos and descriptions of what they’ve done will be posted on the Move Your Own Mountain page on nancychurnin.com. Here’s a link to the curriculum guide.
 I just LOVE how, for each of your books, you offer kids concrete ways to follow through and grow. Are there more picture books in the pipeline? (I hope so!)
 I have three more picture books biographies coming out after Manjhi Moves a Mountain, for a total of five. Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf is the true story of Charlie Sifford, who waged a long, lonely fight for his right to play golf. With the help of friends like Jackie Robinson and Stanley Mosk, Charlie became the first black player in the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, opening the door for so many others. Charlie Takes HIs Shot comes out Jan. 1, 2018. Also coming out in 2018: Irving Berlin, The Immigrant Boy Who Taught America to Sing and The Princess and the First Christmas Tree, the story of the princess who introduced the annual tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle.
Readers are in for a real treat. All these titles sound great. Thank you for sharing your writing gift with the world – and for stopping by today! To learn more about Nancy and her books, visit her blog. She is also on Facebook and Twitter at @nchurnin.  
IMG_4807About the Author:    Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME (Albert Whitman & Company), on the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids list, the 2017 Texas Library Association’s 2X2 and Topaz lists and the 2018 Illinois School Library Media Association’s Monarch Award Master List. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN (Creston Books), a 2017 Junior Library Guild fall selection, came out Sept. 1, 2017. Coming out in 2018: CHARLIE MAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF (Albert Whitman) in January; IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING (Creston Books) in spring and THE PRINCESS AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE (Albert Whitman) in September. A native New Yorker, she’s a graduate of Harvard University, with a master’s from Columbia University School of Journalism, who lives in Dallas with her husband, sons and two cats.

WRITING TREASURE: My Little Antique Iron

IMG_0332Among the treasures I keep on my desk is a little antique iron. It belonged to my grandmother. Known as a “flat” or “sad” iron, which is an old word for “heavy”, my little iron has a very distinct #2 on its back.  After a little research, I learned that iron manufacturers numbered their products by size. The larger the iron, the larger the number. A #2 iron is on the small side. By the time this little iron was heating up on the stove, all the necessary lead-up work – the sewing (if it was a new garment), the washing, and the overall pressing – would have been completed. Only the last dainty details would have remained such as the delicate pressing of the lace on a collar or the little pleats on a shirt front.

Though in real life I despise ironing, I find this little iron inspiring.  To the writer in me, it signifies joy. It’s a reminder that after weeks of laboring and revising, there comes a point where my story is almost finished! The overall story is well-stitched and the time has come to delicately and attentively press through each sentence, making sure that every last comma and verb agreement are correct.

At what stage of the writing process do you find yourself today? Are you in the final, exhilerating round of pressing out every last comma, or are you still stitching away?  Either way, I hope that my little iron encourages you to press on!  Happy ironing, er 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 spring 2015. 

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. 

 

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL with Debut Picture Book Author Linda Whalen

 

This summer I’ve been celebrating the release of brand new kids’ books with special guest posts and author/illustrator interviews.  Today, I’m delighted to have debut picture book author Linda Whalen as my guest.  Illustrated by Jennifer Morris, Linda’s book LITTLE RED ROLLS AWAY (Sleeping Bear Press) piqued my interest because one of my vivid early memories is of watching an old house being moved in the town my grandparents lived in. The Little Red in Linda’s story is a barn who’s a little scared about moving and all of the unknowns.  As a child who moved around a lot, I would definitely have benefitted from a story like this!  Here’s the book trailer which gives a wonderful sense of the book:

Linda is here today, not only to celebrate the release of this book, but also to share her thoughts on what it means to be a writer who is in it for the long haul.  Her words really resonated with me. I hope they encourage you as well. Take it away, Linda!

In it for the Long Haul

By Linda Whalen

The long haul, sounds kind of scary because it implies patience and endurance. Ugh! Patience is not one of my virtues when it comes to getting published.  Writing is a different story. Writers should want, need, love to write. Put the words that float, zoom or just sit in your mind down on paper or on your computer even if you wind up throwing that paper away or hitting delete. Being a writer is forever. Whether you let the words out or not, you will still write them in your mind. 

Yes, it can be a long haul to being published. It was for me. It’s not for some. In either case, a writer should write. Otherwise, a writer’s soul withers and gets cranky. My family can always tell when I’m not writing because they will touch my arm and say, “I think you need to go write.” It’s true. If I let a rejection get to me and just stop writing for a while, I’m not as happy as usual. A writer needs to write.

The long haul is sometimes down a nice, even-paved road slowly getting to your destination but no road ever stays the same. Sometimes you hit a pothole or a detour or a sudden summer storm tries to blow you off the road completely. Don’t stop hauling your dream of being published down the road. Continue to write.

Writers are never really alone if you think about it. Every time you write, somewhere out there another writer is struggling just like you to do justice to the words and ideas springing into their thoughts. We look at the same blank pages. Search for the right way to convey our thoughts. Worry about rejection. Hope that someone will understand and love our story. Hunger to see our name follow a book title.

If you are a writer, you are in it for the long haul even if you physically stop writing because there will always be stories lingering in your mind waiting to be told. So tell them. Tell them because they need to be told. Every writer comes with a unique experience and you never know when the story in your mind may be just what someone needs. Being a writer is more than stories, it’s an opportunity to touch the lives of others. That’s a gift that is worth all of the struggle, rejection, and long nights. So enjoy the long haul, see the beauty of writing along the way and become companions with other writers on the road with you whether they are in your rear mirror or up ahead. You travel the road together in it for the long haul. 

Linda Whalen was raised in Southern California then married and traveled throughout the United States finally settling in Northern Calif. A city girl who found she loves country life with her husband, family and the creatures playing in the fields around her home. Devoting her life to children she has been a 4-H leader, volunteer teacher at her church, and owner/operator of Whalen’s Country Childcare a licensed facility. When she’s not writing Linda loves to sneak away to her art studio. To learn more, or contact Linda, please visit her website: http://www.lindawhalenauthor.com.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES with Linda Joy Singleton in Celebration of the release of A CAT IS BETTER

Linda Joy Singleton, author of over 45 books ranging from picture books to young adult, has a new picture book out with little bee books.  It’s called A CAT IS BETTER and today, in celebration of its recent release,  I am honored to have her as my guest. I know you will be inspired by her reflections on waiting for inspiration. Take it away, Linda!

WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES

by

Linda Joy Singleton

Writers are often asked if they wait for inspiration to write a book. My answer used to be, “No way! I sit in my chair and write almost every day, until the book is finished.”

But writing my picture book, A CAT IS BETTER, has changed my answer.  I can’t just say, “I’m going to sit down today and write a picture book.” The picture book process doesn’t work that way. I still believe it’s important to write regularly for novels; getting that first draft can be a huge, time-consuming challenge. If you don’t add a few pages regularly, the book may never get finished.

Writing picture books has been a different experience for me. The short format is closer to creating poetry or music, and just can’t be forced.  It may sound cliche, but I have to wait to be inspired before I write a picture book.

Usually when an idea does strike, it’s in the middle of the night or when I’m driving. And if I don’t write it down immediately, the idea could vanish like a forgotten dream. Sometimes it feels like the words are a gift to me from the universe, and I’m always grateful (even for the many books I wrote that never sold).

My first picture book, SNOW DOG, SAND DOG, was inspired by a black and white photo. The next, CASH KAT, was triggered by a money game I played with my grandson.

But writing A CAT IS BETTER was a completely different experience. It was the first time that I was able to successfully ask the “universe” for an idea.

I was a speaker at a writing conference, and sitting in on another session. While others were making picture book dummies, a pre-arranged exercise, I had nothing to do. So I told myself that I would write a picture book. “What topic?” I asked myself. “Cats,” came the answer. Because I LOVE cats. And just like that—an opening line jumped into my head. “Congratulations, I’m your new cat. I’m the perfect pet for you. You may take me home now.”

My theory is that my creative brain whirls in the background of my life, but it’s not easy to access the information. But in this amazing moment, my conscious and creative mind connected. I wrote the first draft in one hour. I rewrote it for a few weeks, showed my agent, and after five rewrites for an editor, I had a contract. And A CAT IS BETTER was a June 2017 release from Little Bee Books.

Since that experience, I’ve had more of these conversations with myself. I saw a photo online that made me think, “Someone should write about this.” I kept thinking about the photo, and a title popped into my head. But I couldn’t think of a plot. I mulled this over, frustrated that no ideas happened. But at 4AM one morning, words popped into my head! I got up, typed quickly, writing a rough draft.

I don’t know if this new book will sell, but it was fun to write. Thank heavens for amazing, almost magical moments of inspiration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda Joy Singleton is the author of over 45 MG, YA and picture books. She’s currently working on the 6th mystery in the MG series, CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB. In 2017, she has two new picture books, A CAT IS BETTER and LUCY LOVES GOOSEY. She lives in the country with a menagerie of animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, horses and peacocks. She offers tips to writers and resources for teachers at www.LindaJoySingleton.com.

 

 

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.

OUR NEW TREE: A Symbol of HOPE and BLESSING

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A few years ago we sold our first house so we could move a few blocks away to a slightly larger home to fit our growing family. We loved that first house and I know my son still misses it sometimes, but what I, at least, miss most is the lovely Korean dogwood that graced the front lawn.

May 2004 004To me, that lovely tree symbolized hope and blessings. I gazed on it from the window when I was on bedrest with our first child. And once he was born (extremely prematurely at 24 weeks), that tree provided precious shade as I sat with him outside and later as he toddled about. He eventually even climbed that tree, for its trunk was nice and low and its branches the perfect size for him.

Later, as we wrestled with the understanding that the risks were too high to try for another biological child, that Korean tree became a reminder that blessings come in many ways. I’d always dreamed of adopting, perhaps because I had such fond memories of my sister’s childhood friend who was a Korean adoptee. Having that tree in the front yard seemed like divine confirmation that this was to be our next step as well. Indeed, I’m so grateful and happy to say that in due time that lovely Korean dogwood also provided shade for our beautiful adopted daughter – though she preferred playing fairies beneath the branches to actually climbing the tree.P1010024

Sometimes as I sat under that tree watching my children, I would free write what would later become stories and poems. I even have a post about that if you want to read. It’s all about not being in a rush to bloom as a writer, but to savor the experience along the way.

Long story short, we’ve been in our new house several years now, and every June I’ve missed that tree. Then, during a wild storm a couple of years ago, our neighbor’s pear tree, that had provided such lovely shade for both our front porches, collapsed and so we found ourselves with a bright, sunny, treeless front yard.  We lived for a couple of summers in that treeless condition before decided that we should plant a replacement tree in our front yard.

And what kind of tree do you think my husband and I both agreed we should get – a Korean dogwood!  So, here it is brand-new and darling as can be.  We’re watering it well so that it will grow healthy and strong – a living reminder of hope and blessing for years to come.

SOUR WASH CLOTHS: Wringing Out Our Stories to Perfection!

IMG_4272Nothing made my mother’s nose crinkle more than the smell of a sour washcloth. Her sense of smell was so strong that she claimed she could detect the scent of a sour wash cloth on a man’s face in an elevator. I’m a nose crinkler too, though I confess I’m not quite that discriminating.

Still, she trained me well and I so do my very best to remedy any and all sour wash cloth situations in our family.

The steps are simple and straightforward. First, to prevent a sour situation from the get-go, be sure to thoroughly wring out each wash cloth immediately after using.  Second, never put a damp wash cloth in the hamper. Instead, hang it to air day in a spot with plenty of ventilation.  Third, if you do discover a sour wash cloth, hope is not lost. You can do one of two things:  boil it, or get it wet, wring it out, and immediately zap it on high in the microwave for two minutes. (This works for sour sponges, as well.)

I’m thankful my mother left me so equipped with strategies for handling these nose-crinkling moments. I must also admit, however, that the very idea of sniffing out those sour smells, has gotten me thinking about writing.  After all nothing, and I mean nothing, pulls the reader out of the story more than a sour story moment.  Here, then, are four sour story moments that I am working diligently to wring out of my pieces before stepping into any elevators.  Get your noses ready!

Off Kilter Rhythm and Rhyme:  Nothing crinkles this reader’s nose faster than poorly executed rhyming text.  The hard truth is that telling a story well in rhyme is hard. Not only must the rhyming be perfect, so must the meter.  To shine, the rhymes must be unexpected and not forced and the sentence structure should never be inverted to make the rhyme work.  Also, to be effective, the content of the poem or story must always come first.

Story Stoppers: This is a sour source I’ve been working hard to eliminate a lot lately.  So, what’s a story stopper?  A story stopper is anything that takes the reader out of the moment, that removes them from the world you have created in your story.  It could be inconsistency of voice, or a plot moment so unbelievable that it makes the reader stop mid sentence. Perhaps it’s simply a word or phrase that feels out of character for a particular story’s world.  It could also be a grammatical gaffe or an erroneous assumption or fact that makes the reader question the whole world you’ve created.

Too Much Description: In early elementary school my kids were taught to make their sentences pop by adding vivid adjectives and adverbs. This strategy works well for that age group. However, as adults, with full-grown vocabularies, our sentence popping strategy needs to shift from descriptive to active. Instead of “ big heavy rock”  try “boulder” or “chunk”. Instead of “walk slowly” how about “amble” or “traipse”  or “poke”. With well-chosen nouns and verbs, pieces for youngest readers will pop without being overly wordy.

Heavy-handed Message: In my opinion, a heavy-handed message zaps a story of all fun and naturalness. (I’m embarrassed, in fact, in hindsight, at how heavy-handed the earliest stories I submitted to magazines were.)  All good stories, of course, by their very nature, have some sort of take-away but, when done well, the message is subtle and the story comes first.

Now it’s your turn.  What sour wash cloth story moments would you add to this nose-crinkling list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy Writing Monday, all!

HAPPY BLOG ANNIVERSARY: Cupcake and Sugar Pea

Since this blog just celebrated its fifth year anniversary,  I thought I’d celebrate by re-posting one my favorite entries from year one.  That seven year old is now twelve!  And like her, I still like to keep several horses in my writerly stable. How about you? Enjoy!

After school, instead of walking home, my seven-year-old has taken to riding — horseback riding, that is. She alternates between two imaginary horses — Cupcake and Sugar Pea. Her horses trot and canter. They gallop and run like the wind.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Cupcake runs like the wind. Sugar Pea is a little slower. She prefers to stop and smell the clover. Cupcake, by contrast, loves jumping over imaginary fences, the wind whipping at her mane. Their styles are so different, I never have to ask my daughter which horse she’s chosen. I just say, “Wow, Cupcake’s fast!” or “What does Sugar Pea think of the lilacs?”

I’m a lot like my daughter. I write best when I have at least two projects going at once. For example, right now I’m working on two very different picture books, several poems and a handful of blog posts. And, just as my daughter alternates ponies, based on mood, I alternate projects, based on interest, deadlines, or variety. Not only does this keep my writing fresh, it allows the pieces I’m not working on to rest, so that I can return to them with new eyes.

Keeping several horses in the stable, keeps me energized and happy as a writer. It also reduces writer’s block because I always have something in process. If one piece isn’t working, I simply take out another horse for the day. What about you? Are you a one-horse writer or do you prefer to keep several horses in your stable?