Often times my little picture book fans, who have grown up just a little bit and are ready for chapter books, ask me if I have any “older” books they can read. The answer thus far has been no, but that’s going to change this summer! I have a fledgling idea for an early chapter book series and each day this summer I will be working towards making that idea a reality. As prep for the project, I’m reading up on some tips from the experts.
And, just in case you’re interested in joining me on the chapter book writing journey, here are some helpful links to get you started.
My daughter loves creating new recipes and one of her favorite strategies in the kitchen is to take a tried-and-true favorite, and then add an unexpected twist. Most of the time her creations are delicious, but tonight, as I’m reminiscing about her joyful kitchen spirit, I’m reminded of the time she proudly offered me her fresh out of the oven creation – “the scuffin”, as she called it, a creative combination of two favorite teatime treats – the muffin and the scone. Sounds delish, right?
We thought so too, so before actually tasting them, we posted on Facebook this delectable-looking picture along with this tantalizing description:
“Crispy on the outside like a scone and fluffy on the inside like a muffin…with chocolate chips too. Yum!”
Immediately, “likes” and congratulatory comments filled my Facebook timeline. But, to our horror, when we took our first nibbles we discovered they were… awful! Thus, in the interest of full-disclosure, I added this to the post:
“…to be perfectly honest, once we tried them we both agreed that they were a little heavy and they stuck to the paper. I think, in all honesty, that they should be called “mones” instead of “scuffins” because that better connotes the feeling you have have after eating one.”
Writing can be a lot like baking. Often, the results of experimentation are successful, but sometimes instead of picture book “scuffins” we produce “mones”. So what’s the secret to distinguishing between story drafts that are light and delicious, as opposed to “mone” inducing? Miss A. and I are so glad you asked. Here are our suggestions:
TIP #1: Give your “scuffin”, er story, time to cool before tasting. This will allow you to remove yourself a little from the the process, so that you can discern – without so much emotion – whether your creation is light and delicious… or not.
TIP #2: Keep track of drafts so you know what’s working or not in each round of recipe, er story, creation, so you can add and modify intelligently. After assessing her recipe notes, Miss A. thought, perhaps, that she added too much oil to her batter, and in revising for the next batch, she used less. The new “scuffins”, IMHO, were better, as a result. Likewise, if you keep track of changes/additions/deletions made to each draft of your story, you can more easily assess and make effective improvements.
TIP #3: Let a few trusted critiquers sample and give feedback on your latest “scuffin” in progress. As Miss A. discovered, the feedback from a slightly more seasoned baker (me!), was just what she needed to take her “scuffin” from “mone” to “magnifique”!
TIP #4: DO NOT send to local bakeries, i. e. publishers, too soon! Not that Miss A has even considered marketing her kitchen creations, it’s still good advice. Far too many new writers, submit their work to publishers far too quickly when patience, I have learned, is the better way… by FAR!
Well, that’s it from the Sassi kitchen today! Happy story baking!
Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. This oldie but goodie was first published in April 2018 (but it was baked in 2016).
On a recent walk, I noticed a squirrel scurrying up and down a tree carrying bits of thatch and leaves, to line her nursery, I guessed. A couple weeks later this baby squirrel showed up on my porch. Could he be one her babies, I wondered?
I don’t about you, but during this pandemic, going on walks has become a soul-nurturing necessity, so every day I strive to intentionally slow down and savor the little things. With all that’s going on the world right now, it would be easy to miss these little glimpses of joy and wonder and that would be a colossal shame.
This deliberate slowing down has gotten me thinking about my life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying writing days are those in which I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder chirping birds or baby squirrels (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world with the child-like wonder we all once possessed.
Heaven knows, the publishing world moves slowly enough, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from pausing to see the world from the unrushed and wondrous perspective of a child!
Now, in celebration of child-like wonder and the pleasures of slowing down, I offer you:
FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)
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. (During this time of social distancing, this can be done virtually!)
CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still – or go on a quiet walk as I do. 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.
DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS. As soon as libraries and bookstores re-open, 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. (And for now, go investigate the books you have on hand, or tune in to the many virtual read-alouds that are temporarily available – thanks to the generosity of many publishers – during this unprecedented time.)
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 revel in the wonder of small joys – both new and old – and transform them into amazing new writing pieces.
If you have followed my blog anytime at all, you have probably noticed that I love writing analogy posts where I draw comparisons between writing and life. These are, in fact, my favorite kinds of posts.
A couple of years ago I was even asked in an online interview by the delightful Margaret Langan over at Read.Learn.Repeat about these types of posts. The specific question was: In what way are these writing exercises useful in your pursuit of writing picture books?
My answer was as follows:
For me, a big part of picture book writing is making creative connections—taking a snippet of inspiration and then playing with it, combining one idea with a seemingly totally disconnected different idea, pairing characters with unusual settings, switching things around etc.
But to do that, I need to warm up and I do that by beginning each day with my journal. I use that journal to record free-flowing thoughts, observations, joys and struggles and… analogies.
This time spent journaling is crucial for getting my creative juices going and those creative analogies just seem to flow out of me—much the way my rhymes do. And once written, it seems a shame not to share them, especially since over the years I’ve gotten such positive feedback from writers and friends who find them encouraging and inspirational.
(For the full interview plus links to all her wonderful interviews with authors and illustrators, press here.)
I still stand by this answer and I still begin each day by journaling and those journal entries still serve to unleash creative sparks that invariably lead to analogies as well as new poems and stories.
However, I would now also add that this creative unleashing – at least for me – can be released in other ways too – such as immersing myself in any sort of special project, such as knitting, sewing, drawing or cooking. If intentional, even something as seemingly uncreative as going on a walk or cleaning the house or weeding can also be creative because I have found that the calm, repetitive nature of those three things in particular is conducive to contemplating ideas and playing with words – both important parts of the creative process.
And why am I making a point to share this with you this week? Easy! I want to encourage you (and me!) to step into the days ahead eager and open to unleashing our storytelling creativity in intentional ways that can range from free writing in a journal –– to pondering plot while plodding along the sidewalk –– to whatever other specific activity you find yourself immersed in this week.
One of the best things about being a writer is that I get to spend my days seeing the world through writing glasses. Oh, they may look like ordinary glasses, but they most certainly are not. It’s through these glasses that over the years I’ve transformed seemingly ordinary moments/observations into engaging poems, stories and picture books.
So now, in celebration of stories and poems that sparkle, here are four tips for using your writer’s glasses to turn your observations into stunning stories.
TIP #1: Wear your glasses each and every day. Gathering ideas takes intentionality and discipline. It means stepping into the day with a spirit of wonder and being observant and open to the little moments of inspiration that come your way. This, for me, is one of the fundamental joys of being a writer.
TIP #2: Write down sparks and observations as soon as possible. I’ve learned over the years, that if I don’t write down an idea right away, that it sometimes evaporates. That’s why I always carry pen and index cards in my purse. I also use the notes feature on my phone to quickly jot down ideas. For more thoughts on this check out my post Fairy Wash: Thoughts on Capturing Ideas.
TIP #3: Some sparks won’t come into focus for a while – and that’s okay! I’ve learned over time, that my best sparks or ideas are the ones I let sit for a while, before using them to write a story or poem. Sometimes it takes awhile to see how that spark might work itself into a story. But that is just part of the process. For more on taking this long-range view, check out my post Write Like a Turtle.
TIP #4: Remember that the goal isn’t replication- but transformation! As a beginning writer, I mistakenly believed that if I was writing a fictional piece inspired by something that actually happened, I had to write it exactly the way it happened. As a result my early stories were cumbersome and flat and ordinary. As soon as I let go of that inner need to be fully grounded in reality, my stories began to “dazzle”. No longer weighed down by the desire to replicate the situations that inspired them, I let my inner creative spirit take over. The result? I wrote stories that were fit for publication!. For more on this, check out my post The River: Thoughts on Writing as Reflection versus Replication.
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 15 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.
Now, with the holiday season upon us, it might be hard to find long stretches of time to pursue writerly passions, but not impossible! 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.
1. If writing daily through the holidays 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 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, either now or in the new year, 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!
I have always loved pumpkins. There’s something about their shape, color and flavor that makes me happy.
Here’s the proof:
1. When I was little I requested pumpkin pie instead of cake to serve at my seventh birthday party. (My mother honored the request but wisely also baked a cake because it turns out not all children like pumpkin pie at birthday parties.)
2. I’ve always enjoyed carving jack-o-lanterns, then toasting and eating the seeds.
3. I dressed my children up as jack-o-lanterns when they were babies.
4. I once did a picture book photo shoot in a pumpkin patch!
5. I currently have a pumpkin-themed picture book manuscript that’s out on submission with a handful of publishers.
5. This blog has not just one, but TWO pumpkin-themed posts!
That last bit of evidence (the two blog posts one) also proves that pumpkins don’t just make me happy, they also getting me thinking about writing and how we can make ours better. So, now, without further delay, I’d like to inspire your writing this week with my two pumpkin-themed blog posts. Pick the one that grabs you first, or read both. Either way, have a WONDERFUL pumpkin-inspired writing week!
My first pumpkin post focuses on pumpkin bread, (Yum!) with a writerly takeaway about the importance of conflict in baking good stories. It was inspired by forgetting to stir in a key ingredient. Can you guess what it was? Find out here: Pumpkin Bread: Thoughts on Baking Good Stories.
P.S. Final thought: My daughter celebrates her birthday this week can you guess what she’s requested for her birthday breakfast? Pumpkin bread! The apple (I mean pumpkin) doesn’t fall far from the tree (I mean patch) does it? Just saying. =)
Not only has my dad always been a loving, caring father (and more recently a wonderful champion of my writing endeavors), he’s also been a life long creator of wonderful phrases that make life a little bit funnier. Memorable dad phrases include “I’m going to get my hairs cut”, instead of haircut, “Don’t worry, Daddy-do-it”, and, my favorite, “Okay, kids, we’re taking the long cut”, the opposite of short cut, which translated means, “I took a wrong turn, so now we’re going to explore”.
On road trips as a child (and we took many), I remember my mother would often sigh and roll her eyes (in a loving way) when Dad announced that we were taking yet another “long cut” because he was a real stickler for doing it himself (i.e. “Daddy-do-it”) and refused to stop and ask for directions, unless the long cut got really, really long, or if it became apparent that we were just going in circles and even then he might not ask for directions.
But though she might roll her eyes, I think secretly she, and certainly my sister and I, came to really love and appreciate Dad’s “long cuts”. After all, without them, we might never have discovered that little out of the way village with the wonderful bed and breakfast run by a little Scottish woman who took us under her wing the time we got lost, I mean “took the long, long cut” through some Scottish countryside.
And without one of my dad’s “long cuts” we would never have had the amazing fascination of having a picnic in a field in Spain, next to a big, big rock, only to discover the skeleton of a cow on the far side of the rock! (Actually, my dad discovered that and wouldn’t let us look, which I for a long time I resented, but which actually I now realize he was doing to save us from losing our appetites).
And without my dad’s “long cuts” we most likely would never have found the perfect lunch spot in a meadow overlooking the Chateau de Chantilly, or have sat on a lonesome bench on a twisty mountain road with a view like this!
Looking back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of discovering unexpected and wonderful spots while were were taking “the long cut” between destinations. I see now that those “long cuts” instilled in me an important life principle, for they taught me, in a wonderfully meandering fashion, that life is richer when I’m not rushing from one pre-determined destination to the next. In fact, in my opinion, the best part of living is being willing to take the long cut and enjoy the wonderful things you discover along the way. Thank you, Dad, for instilling that in me!
Now for the writing tie-in: Like many new writers, when I first started out, I expected immediate results – i.e reaching my destination without any twists or turns. And I’m embarrassed to say that in those first couple of years, as I was exploring the craft, I submitted stories and poems to publishers far too prematurely. Now, when I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are. Indeed, it wasn’t until I slowed down and really started to savor the writing process through years of writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique (in other words, taking the writerly version of “the long cut”) that I began to develop into the writer I am today (who is still ever-working on improving and expanding her craft).
So, here is my bit of writerly wisdom for the day: Writing is not a race to get published. It’s a beautiful “long cut” journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, take heart and be patient. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. Sign up for a writing class. Read a book about writing. Spend time at the library reading all the picture books you can get your hands on. And, through it all, keep writing, writing, writing! The results may not fit your pre-conceived conceived timeline, but if you keep at it, I think you will find that the “long cut” journey – though not short, to be sure, – is rewarding.
My husband likes weeding with gloves on which definitely has its advantages. It keeps dirt from getting stuck under his fingernails and protects his skin against nettles, thorns, and other prickly bits of nature. It’s also an effective safeguard against the wayward poison ivy which occasionally creeps into our flower garden from the wild weed patch next door.
I, however, prefer weeding barehanded. Scandalous, I know. To me, gloves are a hindrance. When I have them on, I can’t properly feel the roots of those pesky weeds. And when I have gloves on, one of two terrible things happens: 1) I end up extracting only the top portion of some weedy nuisance, thus encouraging future weedy growth, or 2) my hands are so clumsy that I inadvertently pull up more than just weeds! Either way, my garden suffers.
But, weeds beware, without gloves I’m going to get you! And yes it’s dirty My nails get cruddy and the swirls and curves of my finger prints really stand out in muddy relief, but it also feels good. Barehanded, I feel a connection to the rich soil beneath my garden. And it’s easy to identify the roots of each weed and to extract them completely. If my garden could speak, I think it would thank me, because when I weed barehanded the garden looks better. Much better.
My writing, too, needs weeding and it’s done best without gloves on. Barehanded revising is messy, but if you are willing to dig in to your garden of words – mud, worms and all – and if you are willing to get to the root of the weedy bits, even if it means getting cruddy in the process, your story will flourish. Indeed, if your story could speak, I am quite convinced, that like my garden, it would thank you.
Don’t be afraid to take off those writerly gloves of inhibition and really dig in to the messy process of revising! And may your gardens, er stories, flourish!
Note: Over the summer, I have been sharing some of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. This oldie but goodie was first published in May 2015. I was reminded of it this weekend as I found myself weeding both in my garden and on my laptop. The laptop story project is, I think, finally weed-free. Not so much the garden.