Today I’m delighted to be interviewed by Melissa Stoller over at her blog. Her format is the “3 Question Interview” and for one of the questions I talk about glasses – special glasses (pictured above). Curious? Then, grab a cup of tea and head on over. That’s what I’m doing. I’ll make it easy for you. Here’s the link. Thanks, Melissa for having me!
Just look at the darling diva that illustrator Rebecca Gerlings has so charmingly created for the book jacket to my newest book, then head on over to the Darlene Beck Jacobson’s blog for stop one of the official DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE blog tour! My topic today? How to Write Picture Books – DIVA STYLE! Happy Reading!
Thursday night out of the blue, while on Facebook, I was “waved” at by my ninth grade English teacher. I’d never been “waved” at before, but it seemed fun, so I “waved” back and then she sent me a “thumbs up”. This teacher and I reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago when she commented on a mutual friend’s post and I decided I wanted to reach out to thank her for the profound influence she had in fostering my love of writing. Indeed, Mrs. Rebholz was the first teacher to encourage me not to settle for the first thought that crossed my mind during discussion or when writing, but to “keep percolating” as she called it. I’ve written a couple of posts about the influence her challenge to “keep percolating” has had on my writing. You can find those here and here. But I digress.
After our friendly “wave”, I decided, on impulse, to ask her if she was in contact with another special teacher from my Valley View Junior High days. Earlier last year, I had attempted to get in contact with this teacher, but without success. Now, here suddenly, was a new opportunity. Full of hope, I sent her this inquiry via Facebook message:
“Are you ever in touch with Shirley Vaux? She taught creative writing and I had her in eighth grade. I kept a creative journal for her in that class which I still have. I would love to reconnect with her if she remembers me. Is she on Facebook?”
Her answer stunned me. “Her funeral was today. She would have loved to know your success. Keep percolating.”
Saddened that I had waited too long to say thank you, and a little in disbelief over the sorrowful news, I quickly googled “Shirley Vaux obituary MN” and, sure enough, there it was in the Star Tribune. As I read the obituary, I marveled at what a remarkable woman Shirley Vaux was. Not only did she teach English for years and years, but she was also (long after I graduated) the principal of my high school. And I could tell by the obituary, that she was a beloved wife, companion, sister, mother, grandmother, and even great-grandmother.
Overcome with emotion, I decided, again on impulse, to leave a comment using the newspaper’s comment function. This is what I wrote:
“I was just tonight asking Carolyn Rebholz, who I reconnected with via Facebook, if she was in touch with Mrs. Vaux, as I wanted to reach out and thank her for the wonderful creative foundation she helped set in place for my future writing endeavors. Alas, I was just a few days too late. She was a gifted teacher and beautiful soul. I still have (and treasure) the creative journal she had us keep in her eighth grade creative writing class. Blessings to her family.”
But now, as I’ve been percolating over the whole situation, I realize I want to remember her more fully. And the way I want to honor her memory today – is by saying THANK YOU for being one of the best teachers a young, tentative writer could have!
I had the privilege of having Mrs. Shirley Vaux for a one semester creative writing class in the spring of my eighth grade year. Over the course of the semester, Mrs. Vaux opened the channels of imagination and wordplay for her students. We wrote poems, character sketches, short stories and even picture books. But the assignment that forever shaped who I have become as a writer was her introduction of a writer’s journal. Each day for eight weeks, we were to keep a daily writer’s journal because good writers, as she explained, needed space to write freely and explore.
This is the journal I chose to use. Over the course of the next eight weeks, I diligently wrote in it every day. And those moments of writing were the best moments of each day. I couldn’t wait to write! I wrote about my memories of living France. I captured snippets of conversations on the school bus. I experimented with free verse. And each week, Mrs. Vaux, diligently and lovingly read each entry and responded! With comments like these… and these.
And after the eight weeks ended, I kept writing. I’m not kidding. By the end of high school, I had filled this many journals….
by the end of college, this many…
by the end of my first eight years of teaching this many…
by the time my children were school age, this many…
and to date… this many!
And when I stopped teaching to raise my family, I started submitting stories and poems to magazines. Lots and lots of magazines.. a whole thick binder of clippings worth! And then I delved into picture books with first one… then two…then three… with one more due out at the end of next year… with hopefully more after that!
Dear Mrs. Vaux, I am so sorry that I missed the chance to thank you for the special role you played in getting this ball rolling. But now, I hope, that perhaps by posting this, your loved ones can know, as indeed they must already know, what a special person you were!
THANK YOU, Mrs. Vaux and rest in beautiful peace.
(Please share, if you are so moved, in the hopes that Shirley Vaux’s loved ones will know that – near and far – she is remembered fondly and with great respect.)
Miss A. did such a lovely job on this book jacket and review that I’ve decided once again to celebrate this reluctant reader’s blossoming joy of the written word by sharing her latest book review. Our children’s librarian recommended the prequel to this book, “The War that Saved my Life”, and Miss A. loved it so much that we were both ecstatic to learn that a sequel was in the works. “The War I Finally Won” released this past October, but the copy we read was an advanced copy. Miss A. loves the thought that she was one of the first kids to read it and hopes that many, many more take her advice and enjoy this wonderful story. Anyway, here’s her review. Happy Reading!
THE WAR I FINALLY WON
The War I Finally Won, written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is a sequel to The War That Saved My Life. In this story, Ada and Jamie are living with Susan in a cave-feeling house in Kent, England. Susan takes Ada to get surgery to heal her crippled foot. Ada’s surgery goes well, but then Lord Thorton, Maggie’s dad, brings a German girl named Ruth, for Susan to tutor. Ruth stays with Ada, Jamie and Susan in the cave house. Ada doesn’t trust Ruth because she’s German, but Ruth tells Ada that she’s from Germany but despises Hitler because she’s Jewish.
To complicate the situation, Lady Thorton also moves in with them because the soldiers need the Thorton’s house for a place for the soldiers to stay and rest. What’s even worse is that Maggies brother, Jonathan is fighting in the war and everyone is worried that he’s going to die. There’s a lot of drama in this book, and it actually helps Ada to overcome her struggles with loss, acceptance and love.
I love this book because I can relate to Ada on many levels. For example, when Ada didn’t trust Ruth, I thought she was a spy and didn’t trust her at first either. But later, as they grew to be close as sisters, I learned that trust is important to friendship. For most of this book, Ada dislikes Lady Thorton, but soon realizes that she and Lady Thorton have several things in common like lonely childhoods and feelings of loss. She realizes they are both just doing their best to survive in a tough world. I can relate to feeling that sometimes life is tough, too. Finally, when Susan got sick and Ada felt worried and sad, I was worried about Susan too, since her friend Becky had died from pneumonia. This is the scene when Ada finally says “I love you” to Susan. This shows that Ada has accepted Susan’s love and accepts her into her life.
I give this book five out of five stars! I thought it was sad, funny and engaging all at the same time. It was sad because there was death and loss because of the war. It was funny because everything is still so new to Ada and she often misunderstands things in funny ways. For example, she thought dragons were real. It was engaging because the story felt so real that I didn’t want to stop reading it. Again, like the first, I recommend this book with all my heart!
This 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.
One thing I’ve learned as a picture book author is that the publishing process is SLOW! This SLOWNESS includes not only the writing stage – it took two years to get my first book GOODNIGHT ARK polished for publication and there was an even longer process for me in writing my newest upcoming book DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE – but also the submitting and publishing stages. When “on sub”, there’s the nail biting while you wait for editors to respond to stories you have submitted for consideration. That can take months! Or years (as I have discovered)! And then, once a piece is accepted, it typically takes another two years for a picture book to finally release – mainly because illustrating the book alone takes almost a year.
So, what is an eager writer to do while she (or he) waits? Here’s a list to inspire you… please add to it in the comments – and inspire me!
- Brainstorm new story ideas. Tara Lazar’s annual January STORYSTORM challenge is a great way to jumpstart this.
- Keep writing. This includes journaling, working on stories-in-progress and, of course, new pieces. Any combination is fine. Just keep moving forward, writing-wise.
- Read, read, read. For me, this means regularly checking out new and classic picture books from the library and analyzing what makes them work – or not.)
- Work on building your social media platform. This can include maintaining your blog and engaging regularly on Twitter and Facebook. I’m also considering branching into Pinterest and Instagrams. (Thoughts, anyone?)
- Start planning for your book launch. Planning for a book launch takes lots of coordinating – with other bloggers if you are planning a book tour, with bookstores, libraries and schools if you are planning events, of course, with your publisher (who will also have great ideas)! I start planning at least six months in advance.
- Get something new ready to sub. While waiting for responses on amanuscript, there’s no reason not to submit something else elsewhere.
- Research new markets possibilities.
- Take a day here and there to just do nothing. (That’s an important part of the process too!)
- Experiment with a new genre. If you write picture books, try poetry or early chapterbooks. You may discover a new writing love!
- Develop lesson plans/ extension activities for your upcoming releases. Parents and teachers are always looking for ways to extend the reading experience, so have fun building a nice stock of puzzle, coloring pages, discussion questions and lesson ideas for your stories. Each one will make a great blog post and/or you can gather them in a packet to have available on your website or on the publisher’s website.
YOUR TURN! Please inspire us with other ideas for keeping busy (and productive!) while waiting for writerly news. Happy Waiting, all!
I 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.
By 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?
Writing 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!
Think you are too busy to write? Here are a few strategies I’ve found helpful to keep me writing regularly. What tips would you add to the list? Happy Writing!
TIP #1: Stay up an extra hour a couple of nights a week to snag some nice chunks of writing time.
TIP #2: Wake up 30 minutes earlier than you usually do every day, or even just a few days a week, so you can grab those precious start of the day writing moments when, for me at least, that inner editor is still asleep. (This is my favorite.)
TIP #3: Be intentional so you can make the most of unexpected snippets of time (and have a notebook handy!)
TIP #4: Write for five minutes on the top of the hour – all day long. (For those other 55 minutes, your mind will be whirring with ideas, as you go about your day, then you can let them pour out in hourly spurts. Set the timer and don’t hesitate – write!
TIP #5: This next suggestion works especially well if you have kids at home. Designate 30 minutes (more or less depending on the ages of your kids) as “Creativity Time”. Offer options: drawing, painting, writing songs, choreographing dances, etc.! Then, set aside the chores of the day and celebrate 30 minutes of creativity. Let them embark on their creativity, while you embark on yours – writing!
TIP #6: Recognize that the writing process is multi-faceted and that just thinking about what you want to write is actually part of the process. I would just add that, for me, it’s good to jot down what I’ve been thinking about at some point during the day, so that I don’t forget any important breakthroughs or thoughts I might have regarding a story or story idea.
TIP #7: Shorten your lunch break by 15 minutes to grab a little extra writing time.
TIP #8: Write while you are walking the dog by using “dictation mode” feature on your cell phone. Then email yourself your “walking text in progress”.
TIP #9: Make a to-do list for the day, then incorporate writing time as your reward at various stages of the day for every few tasks that you successfully check off.
TIP #10: Commit to a once-a-month writing retreat – where you head to the library (or special spot of your choice) for a full morning or -even better – day of writing.
Among 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.
Recently, prompted by a very whiffy truck ahead of us, my daughter and I passed a most enjoyable half-hour brainstorming all the smells we love and hate. Some we agreed upon. Others we did not. Still, we both agreed that smells add richness to life.
The lists we compiled serve as fragrant and stinky reminders that kids LOVE the idea of SMELLINESS and that, as a picture book author, I need to remember my readers noses. Take a whiff (rather than a peek) at our lists below. What would you add?
Our List of FAVORITE SMELLS… coffee percolating, puppy ears, strawberries, asphalt after a summer rain, salty sea air, damp earth, pizza in the oven, a clean baby, skunk (faint), lilacs in bloom, a crackling fire, candle smoke, newly mown grass, bubble gum, spring, balsam needles, hamburgers on the grill, freshly laundered sheets, pumpkin pie, impending snow, herbs snipped from the garden, freshly sharpened pencils, old books, freshly polished wood, crayons, bacon sizzling, rubber boots, spent matches, peppermints, perfume, vanilla, honeysuckle, clover, brownies baking, mountain air, waxed hallways, leather, curry, onions sautéing, cedar chests, roses, hay, apple pie in the oven, soup simmering, new sneakers.
Our List of STINKY SMELLS… hot tar, mucky marshes, skunk (strong), cigar smoke, bus fumes, sour wash clothes, new mulch, dirty diapers, rotten eggs, doggy doo, butt snorts (as we call them in our family), clammy feet, stinky socks, wet wool, moldy cheese, manure, chicken coops, summer garbage cans, nail polish, sweaty armpits, old melon rind, gym lockers, dank cellars
A hint of odor, skillfully incorporated, can be a powerful addition a story. Indeed, I repeatedly hear from parents everywhere that their kids favorite spread of all in GOODNIGHT, ARK is the one in which two creatures, who shall remain nameless, make a BIG stink!
What whiffy addition will you add to your WIP this week?
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 2016.