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?

THE TEL OF THE JRAGIN AND THE GOL: Five PICTURE BOOK Writing Tips from a Four-Year Old!

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“The Tale of the Dragon and the Girl” by W, age four

Look what I found today while rummaging through the third drawer in my desk. It’s the first book my son ever wrote – as a four year-old.  He’s written other things since, but this was the first. (Yeah, I know. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

I remember the day well.  My son announced one morning that, like me, he wanted to be a writer and that he was going to write a book. Next thing I knew, he had planted himself at the dining room table with paper and pencil. Then he wrote and wrote. He didn’t stop until he was finished. Once he did, he didn’t let me peek. Instead he ran to our craft drawer and grabbed construction paper for the book cover.  With my help, we stapled the book together. Then, and only then, did he let me read it.  I needed his help the first time through, but his imagined spelling makes total sense to me now and I love how he didn’t let his lack of spelling knowledge keep him from expressing himself.

Here’s the story.  I’ve translated it in the captions, but just for fun, see if you can figure it out for yourself first.  Then, take a moment to think about my writerly takeaways from this authentic 4-year-old writing sample.  Enjoy!

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“You might not think that nothing might happen to Annie, but something happened to her.”

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“It happened by a dragon.”

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“We don’t know why the dragon took her.”

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“The dragon took her because it was hungry.”

I find this writing sample especially fascinating because it reveals one four-year-old’s perspective on what makes a winning picture book. Now, inspired this find, here are five characteristics of effective picture books – as seen through the writings of a four-year-old.

TIP #1: Have an attention grabbing title. I just love W.’s title.  I mean who wouldn’t want to read a tale of a dragon and a girl?  For me, at least, it immediately evokes fairy tales and magic. So, here’s my takeaway. What’s the first glimpse you get of a book sitting on the shelf at the library?  The spine of course. And on that spine you’ll find the title. So, using my son’s catchy title as an example, I think it’s worth considering that if want your book to stand out, a catchy title is a must.

TIP #2: Employ suspenseful page turns.  Even at age four, W. understood the power of a page turn.  He even included page numbers within his text. And if you carefully examine story, you’ll see that each page ends with a little tease – almost a cliff hanger.  This, I believe, is a reflection of something he enjoyed most as young partaker of picture books – the power of a suspenseful page turn. As you analyse your own work-in-progress, be inspired by W. and take a moment to consider how well-placed page turns can enhance your story.

TIP# 3: Keep your text sparse but active. You have to admit W.’s text is pretty lean.  There’s no fluff to be found. Every word he uses pushes his four-year-old story forward.  In fact, his story is almost blunt in its intensity. Likewise, as we write our stories, we need to to shed every word that doesn’t push the story forward – relying on meaty verbs and vivid nouns to bring our tales to life.

TIP #4 Create conversation sparking content. You can almost sense that one of W.’s favorite parts of reading picture books as a preschooler was the conversation that each page sparked.  We never just read a story through. Instead, we asked each other questions, pondered the pictures, and wondered what might happen next.  W.’s text almost reads as an answer to those questions.  As such, his wording is a great reminder to the picture book writer in me that I, too, want to make sure my stories open themselves to lots of interactive reading.

TIP #5 Don’t forget the conflict! Even as a four-year-old, W.’s writing reveals that he had a strong sense of one of the fundamentals to a good story.  Conflict!  A good story needs to have a problem that the character faces, learns from, and hopefully overcomes.  Poor Annie was eaten, but we as the readers, figured out why.  It’s because the dragon was hungry and hopefully, from now on, you’ll steer clear of hungry dragons.  But seriously,  W.’s story is a good reminder that, like dragons, children do indeed hunger for good stories with plenty of action, conflict, and excitement.

Happy writing, 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!

 

 

CREATING AND CONNECTING: One Picture Book Author’s Journey

laurasassi5In January the editor of my alumni magazined asked if I might be interested in writing a piece for their new essay series on the Princeton Alumni Weekly website called “Voices”.  My name came to his attention because of my blog (just in case you’ve ever been torn about the benefit vs. effort of keeping a blog), and he asked if I might be interested in writing something about my experiences as an author of children’s books.

I said yes.  And today that piece is live! Titled “Creating and Connecting: One Picture Book Author’s Journey”, the essay is about how my passion for story has opened my heart and broadened my sense of community.  I’d be honored if popped on over for a read. Happy reading all!

 

CROCUSES in FEBRUARY:  Thoughts on Rushing the Writing Process

Look at all these crocuses I spotted in my neighborhood this week. I mean, really, it’s only February, way too soon to be blooming!  Every time I walk past them, I think, what’s the rush?  I mean, they’re dazzling, but still… as a writer I don’t ever want to be tempted to force one of my stories to bloom too soon.

Early on, though, I have to admit I was like a crocus in February, only my stories weren’t dazzling. Far from it. The first few stories and poems I sent to publishers way back when were sent far too prematurely! They were stilted, clumsy and rough.

I should never have forced them to bloom.

It took me a couple of years to really take to heart the truth that good writing takes time – lots of time.  But now that I’m a seasoned writer, I can see that my best pieces are the ones I’ve let sit and then revisited over several nicely spaced intervals.  These intervals can be as short as a week or as long as a year. But, for me, taking time between revisions is a great filter for weeding out unnecessary words, seeing plot flaws and inventing even better twists and turns. The challenge? I’m impatient by nature. But, even though it’s hard, I’ve learned that taking time to let pieces sit between revisions is well worth it.

So back to those February crocuses. They’re pretty, yes, but something about them doesn’t feel quite right. Each time I see them- and they are everywhere this week – I feel the need to remind myself (and maybe you need reminding too) that writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, you don’t have to be like a crocus in February.  In fact, it’s far better, in my opinion, to let your story bloom when, and only when, it is ready.

The ROSE: A Not Too Sappy Analogy (Well, Maybe a Little)

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I first posted this “rosy” post back in 2013 – my first February blogging.  However, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it still feels as fresh and fun as ever.  Enjoy!

It was sleeting and snowing, but I decided to walk anyway. The world was black, white, and gray. Then something pink caught my eye. It was a rose, lying in the slushy street. I picked it up, for it was the perfect cheery burst of color on a dreary day. There must be some analogy to writing here, I reflected. My mind whirred with possibilities.

Nearing home, I crossed an old bridge with a wrought-iron railing. Setting my rose beneath the railing, I searched my purse for my camera to take the perfect shot of my rose set against a gray backdrop. It wasn’t there. Hurrying home, I grabbed it and invited my husband to join me on my picture-taking walk.

As we slushed along, I described my blog idea, that the rose might represent my cheery stories and poems. My husband thought for a moment, then observed, “Laura, the rose is decapitated.”

Then he mused, “And isn’t it odd to find real roses outside this time of year?”

Yes, perhaps, but that just made it more beautiful, right?

We were almost to the bridge when he asked the final blog-zapping question. “Where exactly did you find it?”

I pointed. “Up there, in front of the church.”

“Laura, there was a funeral there this morning.”

With heavy heart, I took my picture.

Once home, I set my rose afloat in a pretty bowl. And though I’ve enjoyed her beauty all week, my cheery analogy feels sappy now.

Now when I look at her all I can think is “heart”. This rose isn’t just some sugar-coated flower. She’s got backstory. First she was cut from the roots and decapitated, then tacked to a hearse, on a one-way trip to the cemetery. By chance she toppled off the hearse and was redeemed. It’s this history that makes her special and gives her dimension. It’s what gives her “heart”.

Likewise, to create heart-felt stories, we must create characters with heart, not just shallow pink rose representations. There are far too many picture books out there with one-dimensional characters. Others tend towards “cute” rather than “clever”, and those stories end up feeling sugar coated and sappy, much like my first rose analogy. But, dig a little deeper, to find the heart of your character’s problem and/or situation and you’ll have a story that resonates deeply with your reader.

Happy writing, all, and may all your stories be rosy (in the not sappy way).

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters

On our beach vacation, I woke early each morning to go shell hunting. I hoped to find perfectly formed shells, like the ones my grandmother collected. Instead, all I found were broken shells. At first, I was disappointed, then I spied the heart of a broken conch shell and it was love at first sight. Only the innermost swirl remained – smooth and glowing – a survivor of the sea. For the rest of the week, I collected just broken shells – each chipped and worn in its own special way – striking testaments to fantastic journeys of survival in churning seas and crashing tides.

Good characters are a lot like broken shells. If their situation is perfect and/or they have no flaws, they’ve got no reason to grow or change. Then we, as readers, have no great incentive to read their stories. We probably won’t even be able to connect to them because, face it, nobody’s perfect. Broken characters, by contrast, strike a chord deep in readers’ hearts. They give us hope that we too can overcome whatever challenges we face despite, or maybe even because of, our flaws.

This is even true of picture books. Would the classic Curious George books be such kid-hits if that little monkey weren’t so incorrigibly nosy? More recently, would David Shannon’s NO, DAVID, NO! touch the hearts of mothers and sons as deeply, if little David weren’t so perpetually in trouble? And what about Peggy Parish’s forever bumbling Amelia Bedelia, or Bernard Waber’s lovable Lyle, the crocodile, whose sickly green jealousy in LYLE AND THE BIRTHDAY PARTY touches a chord in every kid’s heart. The list of inspiringly imperfect and thus lovable picture book characters goes on and on.

My collection of broken shells now sits in a bowl by my desk, a striking reminder that the best characters we create, the ones that survive in our collective memories, are those that aren’t perfect. Thus, as a writer, I aspire to imperfection in my characters. What about you?

Note: I first posted this oldie but goodie in 2012. It’s still as relevant today as ever and I still have that bowl of shells by my desk as I write.  Happy character building all!

STONE STORIES: What We Write and Why

Do you have favorite stories? Ones that have profoundly changed the way you look at the world?  My childhood favorites include Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME and Kate Seredy’s THE CHESTRY OAK. But the story that’s had the biggest influence on how I view the world as a writer comes from the Old Testament. It’s found in the book of Joshua, chapters three and four. Here’s the gist of the story.

After wandering for forty years in the desert where God repeatedly provided for His people in amazing ways, yet repeatedly, they forgot His blessings, it was finally time to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As God had done before when He parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could safely flee Egypt, He again parted the raging waters of the Jordan River so all of Israel could safely cross into the Promised Land. This time, in hopes they’d never forget His great provision, God instructed Joshua to have twelve men hoist twelve boulders from the center of the still-parted river and place them in a pile on the shore of Promised Land.  “In the future,” Joshua explained, “when your children ask why these rocks are sitting here, tell them the amazing story of how God helped us cross the Jordan River.”

The stories and poems that we write are like those stones. When read, they have the potential to leave a deep imprint in a child’s memory, serving not only as a reminder of experiences past, but offering glimpses into ways that are good, offering hope for the future, and joy in the present moment. It is my deepest wish is that the words I write, whether religious or secular, point kids towards goodness, hope, joy, and God.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about why you write?  If stories are rocks, what kinds of rocks are you writing?

(Note: This post first appeared on my blog in November 2102, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our mission as writers and thought it worth revisiting.)