PLUCKING SAPLINGS:  Thoughts on THE LITTLE PRINCE and, of course, WRITING!

IMG_7234 2One of my favorite books as a child was LE PETIT PRINCE which I read in French because we were living in Paris at the time.  My teacher, Mme. Lucas, chose it for our class because it was relatively simple in terms of word choice and sentence length, which was perfect for intermediate level students (and foreigners) like me.  But even as an eleven year old, I understood that there was more to the story than the relatively simple word choice and plot structure.  THE LITTLE PRINCE, I soon discovered, had the magic ability to touch readers on different levels.  It was my first exposure to allegory and symbolism and reading it brought storytelling to life for me in a new way that still resonates with the reader and writer in me.

But, there was one part of the book that for years I just didn’t get. What was up with those pesky baobabs? The Little Prince was so adamant about plucking them the minute they sprouted on his little asteroid B612, that he insisted the narrator draw a picture of what a planet overrun by baobabs might look like as a warning to children who might travel to faraway planets as he had. “If you attend to a baobab too late,” he warned, “you can never get rid of it again!” As a child, the picture of the baobab infested planet was of my favorites because I thought it so preposterous.

To this day, every time I pluck a wayward oak or maple or elm sapling, I think of the Little Prince and those baobabs which is, in and of itself, a testament to the power of story. It wasn’t until last summer however, when an unusually large number of Rose of Sharon saplings invaded a corner of our back yard, that I fully appreciated his insistence on attending promptly to wayward saplings.

IMG_7231At first, I ignored our sprouting Roses of Sharon. After all, they were small and green and seemingly harmless, right?  By end of summer, though, I had second thoughts and decided I should pluck them.  And guess what? The Little Prince was right!  I had waited too long. It was such hard work plucking all those tenacious little saplings that I vowed never again to ignore a wayward sapling.  However, I noticed this summer that I didn’t quite get them all, which attests to his princely wisdom.

I think the Little Prince’s wisdom can be applied to our writing as well.  First,  if we’re not careful, just like that baobab-infested planet, the little planet that is our work-in-progess can quickly become overrun with filler words, tell-y descriptions, forced plot twists etc.  Our job as writers, then, is, first, to be able to recognize those unwanted story bits, and second, to be willing to pluck them, just as the Little Prince insisted, before they take over our story planet.  

IMG_6656But the Little Prince didn’t pluck everything. He allowed some seedlings to grow, like his treasured rose. He tended to that rose with the utmost care because she, unlike the baobab, was the perfect size for his planet.  And he liked her company. Likewise, our writing notebooks and computer files are filled with all sorts of stories-in-progress.  Some have more potential than others. The trick is to have the discernment to see which story seedlings are worth pursuing so they grow into magnificent – publishable – stories.  

With that last thought in mind, I’d like to share one final image. Nine years ago I spotted a wayward sapling growing in the garden by the fence.  It was a nice little sapling and I kind of liked it there, so let it be and it grew… and grew… and grew. It now provides nice shade in that part of the yard. It turns out it’s an elm, the offspring, probably, of the old elm just up the street that had to be chopped down last summer because, after almost 100 years, it was sick.  And now… there’s a new tree – with a new story to tell.  

IMG_7230This week as you sit down to write, what kinds of seedlings do you spot – both within your stories-in-progress and in the larger body of your ideas and projects? Are there some story bits that need to be plucked or stories-in-progress that need to be set aside? Then do that! But surely there are also a few projects or ideas, that like this vibrant young elm, are meant to survive and thrive and enrich the world. Don’t pluck those! Instead tend to them with loving care!  Happy writing, all! 

THE POWER OF SETTING: Thoughts on Making Picture Books Shine

Setting Collage 5:13:18This morning, I am honored to be guest blogging over at picture book author Danna Smith’s blog, Picture Book Playlist. Today’s topic?  The power of SETTING to make a picture book story SHINE. So, I hope you refill that delicious cup of coffee you’re sipping right now and pop on over for a read.  I’ll make it easy for you.  Here’s the link.  Thank you for having me, Danna!

“Scuffin” or “Mone”: 4 TIPS to TEST the TASTINESS of your STORIES

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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!

GUEST POST with DANNA SMITH: My Journey from Reading Little Golden Books to Writing Them

Springtime Babies Cover HRFinally, spring is in the air!  I hear the birds chirping at sunrise. There’s a robin family building a nest in my neighbor’s tree.  The cherry blossoms are about to burst. It’s perfect timing to welcome today’s guest blogger, picture book author Danna Smith, in celebration of the release of her new springtime book, SPRINGTIME BABIES, published by Little Golden Books. Today she’ll be sharing her journey from reading Little Golden Books as a child to now writing them! Thank you so much for stopping by, Danna.  Take it away!

Wonders of NatureMost Americans can remember growing up with Little Golden Books, those little gems that captured our hearts at the store while our parents shopped. Books like The Poky Little Puppy, Scuffy the Tugboat and my favorite, Wonders of Nature, caught our attention with their distinctive gold foil spines, colorful illustrations, and exciting adventures. The first 12 Little Golden Book titles hit the shelves in 1942 during wartime when picture books were expensive, and money was scarce. At 25 cents, Little Golden Books were affordable for everyone. Today, with hundreds of titles available they continue to delight, and are still affordable—at about the price of a greeting card!

Little Golden Books aren’t just for children; adults love them too. Collectors rummage through piles of books at thrift shops and garage sales looking to find that illustrious 25 cent first edition to add to their collection. I have a small but beloved collection of my own.

Springtime Babies Cover HRImagine my delight when my agent called with news that I had an offer from Little Golden Books and then again with offers for three more books! I had to pinch myself! I remember scribbling my name in many Little Golden Books throughout my childhood. Reading was a joy and these little books were like friends. Joining the Little Golden Book family of authors and artists is a dream come true.

While I had initially written Springtime Babies as a picture book, it turned out to be perfect for Little Golden Books. Editor and author, Diane Muldrow, worked with me to cut the text from 32 pages to 24. Next, it was time for the illustrator to work her magic. When I saw the sketches and then the final color images, I was in love! Artist, Takako Fisher, did a fantastic job. I couldn’t be more pleased with her adorable, chunky animal (and human) babies.

springtime babies. pig is in a puddle

Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Takako Fisher

Springtime Babies. Babies with the farmers

Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Takako Fisher

Golden Books works about three years out which means if you sold a manuscript today in 2018, the book would most likely publish in 2020 or 2021. If you want to try your hand at writing a Little Golden Book, my advice is to draft a conceptually strong story perfect for a young audience of 2–5-year-olds. Your manuscript should be highly visual (illustratable) and original or at least have a fresh take on a familiar subject. A hook that can tie into an event or special day such as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day is also a plus. Be sure to study the Little Golden Books line to make certain your idea is fresh. Paginating your manuscript in the way you see it published will not only help you better visualize your story but will help the editors see your vision. If your agent calls you with an offer, pinch yourself then get ready to revise!

BIO:
Danna birds nest 2017

Danna Smith is the author of a dozen books for children. Her next Little Golden Book, Rocket-Bye Baby: A Spaceflight Lullaby releases in January 2019 followed by The Colors of Summer (May 2019) and The Colors of Winter (Oct 2019).  Danna is currently living in Northern California, where she is hard at work on her next book. You can find more about her and her books online here:

Website: www.dannasmithbooks.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authordannasmith/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/dannasmith8

Book Review Blog: https://picturebookplaylist.com/blog/

Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse BLOG TOUR: Stop THREE

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!

DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE BLOG TOUR: Stop ONE

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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!

IN MEMORY OF MY EIGHTH GRADE TEACHER:  Thank you, Shirley Vaux!

IMG_5668Thursday 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.

IMG_5659This 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 theseIMG_5661… and these.IMG_5663

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….IMG_5664

by the end of college, this many…IMG_5665

by the end of my first eight years of teaching this many…IMG_5666

by the time my children were school age, this many…IMG_5667

and to date… this many!IMG_5668

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! IMG_5669 2 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.)

Sincerely,

Laura

A BOOK REVIEW By Miss A: THE WAR I FINALLY WON

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

A review

by

Miss A.

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!

PUMPKINS: Thoughts On Carving Stories

IMG_1284This 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.

PRODUCTIVE PATIENCE: Ten Ideas to Keep a Writer Busy (and Productive) While WAITING for WRITERLY NEWS…

FullSizeRender (1)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!

  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 and Facebook. I’m also considering branching into Pinterest and Instagrams.  (Thoughts, anyone?)
  5. 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.
  6. Get something new ready to sub. While waiting for responses on amanuscript, 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 chapterbooks.  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!