FINDING YOUR JOYFUL SPOT: Thoughts on Parlor Pliés and Writing

My daughter, aged 17, is away at a ballet intensive for two weeks. I’m not hearing much from her except a few texts that says things like “I love it here!” and “I’m sore from all the dancing, but it’s really good!” and “The girls are nice and we are warming up to each other.” That’s all I need to hear.

Miss A has been a dancer all her life and she inspires me. And maybe because I am missing the sound of her dancing in her room (right above my little morning spot here in the living room), I decided to search “ballet” on my blog and turned up this nugget. It was just what I needed to read this morning as I jump (or perhaps dance) into a morning of writing.

Here it is… straight from the summer of 2015! Enjoy!

Right now my daughter, aged 10, is dancing around the living room to the rich music of Coppelia, a beautiful 19th century ballet. Using a dish towel as a prop, she’s flitting and twirling and swooping to the music in perfect motion. I would love to snap a photo, but she has asked me to remain in the kitchen (where I am cleaning up from supper) and I want to respect her privacy.  But, oh my, each time I peek in I am amazed. She is 100% into the moment – listening to the mood of the music and improvising as she goes.  And, wow, how her movements flow. The result is beautiful!

As a writer, I am taking note. This young budding artist is not letting the inner voices of self doubt and fear of criticism interfere one bit. Perhaps she hasn’t even recognized their pesky little voices yet.

I was never a dancer, but I have distant recollections of that beautiful innocent time when I just let my creativity flow both through writing and drawing without holding back. That phase ended for me in mid-elementary school when I suddenly became self conscious about my writing, especially at school. Thankfully, I continued to write stories and poems for my own pleasure.  Still, it took years for me to return to that safe place where I felt secure enough to really open up and let that creativity flow again.

To reach our full creative potentials, we must follow my sweet daughter’s example and reconnect with that creative sweet spot from our childhood when we felt free to create without inhibition. Will you join me this week in finding the joyful spot? Happy dancing, er writing, all!

SUMMER CHALLENGE:  Taming TIME Spent on Social Media (EIGHT Ideas to Get You Started)

As a children’s book author, I devote significant time each week to growing my social media platform which for me includes Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I would also loop in my blog because the content here must also be created weekly.  This platform building is something my publishers expect me to do. Thankfully, I enjoy it, but I’ve also discovered that it can easily become overly time-consuming, distracting me from the most important (and joy-filling) task of all — writing poems and stories for children!

So this summer, I’ve decided to tame the beast with the goal of limiting time on social media to 30 minutes daily and blogging to three hours weekly. I will keep track with a daily record and post my weekly time statistics on my socials. Interested in joining me? Here are EIGHT ideas to get us started.

Idea #1: Set the timer. I plan to use my phone’s timer, setting the time for the exact amount of time I’m allotting for a particular social media/blog effort.  When the timer goes off, I will stop!

Idea #2: Make a schedule for when you will be accomplish your platform efforts.  I’m hoping this will help me break a bad habit of hopping onto my socials whenever the fancy strikes – especially after I’ve posted something for the day and want to see if anyone has commented/liked/shared etc.  My plan is to pop on to my platforms three times a day for 10 minutes each. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once at the end of the day.

Idea #3: Decide ahead of time what your goal is for popping on. My goals will include posting something new, responding to any interactions on my feeds, and taking time to interact on others’ feeds. I will also spend occasional 10 minute sessions, growing my sphere by liking, following, and friending others across a range of interests – i.e. authors/illustrators, educators, bloggers, librarians, churches, parenting etc.

Idea #4: Create a stockpile of quick, easy, fun social media posts. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s more efficient to create a bunch of similar type posts in one creative burst and then have them on-hand for the future than to create them one at a time.  For example, in the past, I’ve made lists of one-sentence questions I might ask my followers weekly to encourage interactivity.  I’m also in the process of gathering interesting quotes. Then, when it comes time to pop on, all I have to do is cut and paste.

Idea #5: Make each post do triple or even quadruple duty! By this I mean, crafting posts off-line and then sharing them across your socials. You can even stretch the impact of a blog post, such as this, that has a list, by subsequently running a social media series with a colorful graphic for each numbered idea.  That would mean potentially getting 7 or 8 posts using material from the time and effort spent into creating a single blog post.  (Stay tuned to see if I do that!)

Idea #6: Step away from your devices.  When I find myself struggling to resist the temptation to take “just a quick little peek” to see if anyone has responded to a post, I have started a simple strategy of stepping away.  For me this means going old-school and doing much of my writing this summer in an old-fashioned notebook.  For the times I am at my lap-top, I’ve been turning off the internet connection so I’m not tempted by notifications.  (I could also turn off the notifications.)

Idea #7: Decide what your priorities are and stick with them.  Social media can be a fun and effective way to interact with potential audiences but spending time on-line in this way is not my first priority.  My first priorities are starting the day with quiet time for prayer and reflection, taking care of my family, staying fit so I have energy to do all that I am called to do, and growing my author career through daily intentional writing, setting up author events etc.  Social media is an important part of the picture, but it needs to be kept in check and the time I spend on it should reflect that. 

Idea #8: Everything is better with a buddy.  Replacing habits that you dislike with better ones takes patience and hard work. That’s why having a buddy to join you on the journey can be a great support and source of mutual encouragement. I’ll be posting my successes and setbacks weekly on my socials and I have a small team to keep me accountable. Let me know if you decide to do the same.

Happy Week!

PRODUCTIVE PATIENCE: Ten Tips to Keep Busy (and PRODUCTIVE) While Waiting for Writerly News

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 –  school kids are always amazed by how much revision each of my books required – 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!

  1. Brainstorm new story ideas. Tara Lazar’s annual January STORYSTORM challenge is a great way to jumpstart this.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. Work on building your social media platform.  This can include maintaining your blog and engaging regularly on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. 
  5. Start planning for your book launch.  Planning for a book launch takes lots of coordinating – with bloggers and podcasters 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.
  6. Get something new ready to sub. While waiting for responses on a manuscript, there’s no reason not to submit something else elsewhere.
  7. Research new markets possibilities. 
  8. Take a day here and there to just do nothing. (That’s an important part of the process too!)
  9. Experiment with a new genre. If you write picture books, try poetry or early chapter books.  You may discover a new writing love!
  10. 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!

Inspired by WONDER WOMAN: FOUR Tips to Activate your PICTURE BOOK Writing Super Powers

My husband gave me a card with Wonder Woman on the front and that’s all it took to remind me of this favorite post from 2017 which offers super hero wisdom for picture book writers. Enjoy!

A few years ago I was asked in an interview if, even as a child, I always wanted to be a children’s author.  And after a bit of thought, I answered no. When I was a child what I really wanted to be was Wonder Woman! I had her twirl perfected and everything. Activating her super powers, I would spend hours with friends, or sometimes alone, creating fantastic make-believe scenarios. These were the plot lines that brought wonderful play worlds to life.

As picture book writers we, too, have super powers we can activate to create engaging stories. So now, in celebration of my first career dream as a super hero, here are FOUR SUPER POWERS we can all use to bring our picture book manuscripts to life:

The POWER of the KID-FRIENDLY PROBLEM:  Losing a favorite toy, wanting a cookie, being afraid of a storm, not wanting to take a bath. These are just a few examples of kid-friendly problems in the books we read.  A kid-friendly problems connects the reader to your story.

The POWER of PICTURES that ADD: The hallmark of picture books, of course, is that they are illustrated. But there’s more. Good picture book writers let the pictures tell part of the story. Sometimes the pictures even include important details that are not in the text. See Mo Willem’s KNUFFLEBUNNY for a great example of this, or GOODNIGHT, ARK or LOVE IS KIND (or any of my books.) As you write and revise your stories, put stars next to parts of the story that could be told (or enhanced) by the illustrations. Then consider omitting the words from the text, instead substituting a simple illustration note, but only if absolutely necessary.

The POWER of the PAGE TURN: With only a few sentences per spread, picture books include almost constant page turns. These built-in pauses provide authors a great opportunity to build suspense. Consider pausing at an exciting moment mid-sentence as you write.  What happens next?  To find out kids will have to TURN THE PAGE! (Note: creating a book dummy during revisions is a great way to figure out how you can take advantage of page turns.)

The POWER of HUMOR:  Kids love to laugh, or at least chuckle, and so do parents. So anytime you can infuse humor into your story, via text or illustration, go for it!

What SUPER POWER would you add? Let us fellow writers know in the comments. And if wanted to be a super hero when you were little, let us know that too! Happy Writing, all!

MONDAY REFLECTIONS: Giving Thanks for a Special Trip PLUS Thoughts on QUAIL EGGS!

View overlooking Kendal at Lexington taken on one of my walks.

I spent a wonderful Tuesday-Friday this past week visiting my dad in Virginia. He’s a wonderful supporter of my books and just a great all-around dad. The visit included walks into downtown Lexington and around the premises of his retirement community. He and his wonderful Dianne and I enjoyed eating meals together and watching a favorite series from when I was a kid, the original “All Creatures Great and Small”.

I had also planned ahead for two preschool visits and a book signing at Lexington’s new indie book store, Downtown Books. Dad, with phone camera at the ready, accompanied me to the Lexington events and Dianne drove with me to Charlottesville for the preschool visit there.

I drove home Saturday, heart full of gratitude that I was able to spend such a special few days down there. However, since I’m still catching my breath from it all, instead of a new post today, I thought I’d share a few pictures from the trip, followed by a favorite writerly post from 2012 about… eggs! We still love quail eggs at our house, BTW. Enjoy!

First some pictures:

Shenandoah Preschool Visit with BUNNY FINDS EASTER and LITTLE EWE
Booksigning at Downtown Books in Lexington, VAs -a GEM of an indie book store!
Our visit at First Baptist Preschool, Charlottesville.

And now for the retro post: QUAIL EGGS: Thoughts on Making Ideas EXTRAORDINARY

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!

MEASURE BY MEASURE:  Thoughts on Singing and Writing

When I was in high school, I performed in my school’s concert choir. Not coming from a particularly musical family, it was my first entrée into the world of vocal music and choral music. I loved it. I sang second soprano and even took voice lessons. I never had a solo, but I learned a lot, not only about reading music, but about bringing it to emotional life with our voices. I partially credit my sense of versification, especially meter, to those years in Mr. Peterson’s choir room.

I also learned something else during those choir years that has had a positive, lasting impact on my writing. This is it: In preparing a piece for performance, you don’t have to learn it in order.  Rather, as I recall, each piece was taught and practiced according to Mr. Peterson’s skilled and strategic plan. Often this meant we started by tackling a particularly difficult passage or a repeated chorus. Every day, bit by bit, we’d explore the piece, but only towards the end would he have us put it all together in sequential order. And to this musical newbie, hearing all those measures learned out of order finally come together was an exciting moment and a signal that we were almost ready to perform. 

Writing a story can be a lot like preparing a choral piece. For both, it’s good to have an overall strategy or storyline in mind, but neither needs to be developed in strict sequence from beginning to end. Rather, just as Mr. Peterson did, it’s okay for writers to jump ahead to the end or the middle or to whatever part of the story your muse is ready to tackle. Indeed, this strategy makes good writerly sense because some parts of the story will require more wrestling with than others, and the progress you make in working through each section or “measure” will invariably help shape the other parts of your story until they all fit together with perfect crescendo and decrescendo like a high school choral piece being sublimely performed.

Looking back over my years as a writer, I can’t imagine creating a piece without applying what I learned in concert choir. Thank you, Mr. Peterson! Maybe his approach will inspire you, as well, in your creative endeavors this week. Happy writing! 

What’s Your Writerly BEESWAX?

With three weeks until my next book releases, I’ve been busy lining up blog stops, reaching out to schools, preparing for a virtual launch party (stay tuned for details on that very soon) and more. Still, each day, I’m determined to find time to write creatively. And how do I begin each writing session? I begin it beeswax. Curious what beeswax has to do with writing? Find out in this oldie-but goodie post from 2013. That sixth grader is now in college, but I’m ever grateful for the day he introduced me to beeswax. Enjoy!

As a sixth grader, my son is taking a mini-course in home economics. For the sewing component, he hand-stitched a simple felt pocket with a button loop to hang in his locker. He completed most of the “locker dangler” at school, but needed to finish the final step – sewing on the button- at home. After rummaging through my button box for a “funky” button, he was ready to get started.

I’m no seamstress, but I’ve sewn on buttons before. I’ve also hand-stitched doll quilts and sewn on my fair share of Boy Scout patches. So, in a knowing “I’ve done this before” tone of voice, I suggested that he double up his thread so it wouldn’t slip off the needle, but not make it too long, lest it get all twisty and knotted. This sometimes happens to me, and it’s a nuisance, requiring that I back up or start that section over.

My son, however, was resolute. “I’m supposed to do this by myself,” he explained. “And I know what to do.” Then, with remarkable skill, he threaded the needle, doubled up his strand and tied a tidy knot.  Finally, peering into my sewing kit he asked, “Where’s the beeswax?”

“The what?” I asked.

He looked at me incredulously. “You know, the beeswax.”  I didn’t know, but now I do, and I think my days of knotted thread might finally be over!  For, as every REAL seamstress knows, a coating of beeswax quickly applied to the thread, not only strengthens and bonds the double strand, it also makes it slippery so the stitches glide knot-free through the fabric.

Sometimes, like thread, my writing feels tight and knotty. The words don’t flow at all.  What I could really use is a little beeswax for my pen, or maybe even for my mind, to loosen me up and get those words gliding.

Thankfully, I think I’m a better writer than a seamstress. Here’s my writerly beeswax: I begin each writing session with 5 minutes (or more if I’m having fun) of just playing with words.  Somedays I’ll free write something that’s on my mind. Other days I’ll open with quick hand written list of, say, all the words that rhyme with shoe, or all the different ways a penny could get lost. Often that’s all I need to get me going.

How about you? What’s your BEESWAX?

HAPPY NEW (WRITING) YEAR: Setting the Gears in Motion for 2022

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 20 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove, or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy, and especially as we start the new year. 

1. If writing daily in the new year is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If trying a new genre or genres in 2022 is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that in 2022, you will be ready to write that first draft. 

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and I wish you all a wonderful start to the new year!

SNAIL MAIL BLESSINGS: Spreading Kindness the Old-Fashioned Way (Thank You Notes Edition)  

It has been almost two months since I invited you to join me in what I’m calling the Snail Mail Blessings Challenge. I created the challenge because, in this age of instant texts and emails, I’ve been missing the special connection of a different kind of correspondence – the old-fashioned hand-written note.  

Jump in anytime. Miss a week? No problem. It’s not about perfection or pressure. It’s about blessing others through the simple act of putting pen to paper, putting that paper in an envelope, addressing it by hand, affixing a stamp and sending it off. 

SPOILER ALERT: I’ve been a letter writer all my life. At first, it was because my mother and grandmother were in cahoots and made me. And how did they do this? Christmas and birthday gifts. I was informed at a very young that Christmas and birthday gifts were special (which they were) but that I wouldn’t receive them unless I remembered to write a thank you note to each person who gave me one. Writing thank you notes, they said, was like sending a gift back to the giver – but in written form!  What a concept! 

So, from a very young age, I wrote thank you notes. At first, I didn’t like writing them. They took so much time and I wanted to play. 

But my mother was smart and for birthdays she made sure we invited just a small number of party-goers, so that writing those notes as manageable. 

And my grandmother made letter writing fun because she would answer my thank you notes with lovely notes of her own and, just like that, we were writing letters back and forth. I still have many of them. Here’s an example of one I wrote when I was 10.  (Don’t you just love my frankness in describing my new neighbors?)

TODAY’S CHALLENGE:  I love my mother’s and grandmother’s idea hand-penned thank you note is like sending a gift back to the giver, but in written form.

This has certainly been true for me. I love getting thank you notes!  Some of my favorites have been from students I have visited in schools (and I love that their teachers are cultivating this art with the next generations).  Here’s are a couple of examples from a virtual visit with my friend Tina Cho’s class in South Korea back in 2016:

I also love this thank-you note I received soon after LITTLE EWE released. My father sent a copy of the book to his Great-Aunt Beanie, who he hadn’t seen in decades. It was his special way of reconnecting with her and the note she sent in return was certainly a gift to us.  Here it is:

Will you join me in writing a thank you letter to someone this week?  And maybe you could make this your goal for the next few weeks as well.  Blessings, all, snail mail and otherwise!

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

I’ve been spending hours in my basement lately re-organizing and on one of the shelves I re-discovered this box of little toy cars. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this car-themed post from 2017. Enjoy!

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!