SPECIAL TREAT: Inspiring Young Writers… in Australia!

SO SPECIAL! A lovely 3rd grade teacher from Australia reached out to me because her students are writing their own stories and she thought it would be special if they could meet an author and ask questions about writing. We tried to make it “live” but couldn’t get a good connection, so instead I sent them a short video introducing myself and welcoming them to ask me questions via email. On Friday, Ireceived their questions and they are WONDERFUL and I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them. I’m also including a short excerpt from my video chat with them. What a marvelous use of technology and the former teacher in me LOVED sharing my joy of writing with the next adorable generation “down under”!

First, the video clip:

Now a picture from their end along with the sweet thank you notes they penned on the class white board:

Finally, three of their amazing questions, along with my responses. (There were 26 in all.)

How does it feel being an author? (Lauren)

It takes a lot of discipline and you have to have thick skin because it takes a lot of rejections before a story is accepted by a publisher. All that hard work feels good, though. Plus, it’s a chance to see the world through writer’s eyes and that brings me joy.  I love being an author.

 Are any of the characters in your books describe you or a family member? (Ava)

I would say that the characters or, more typically, the events in my stories often describe things that have happened in our family. For example, the scene in LOVE IS KIND where the tooth fairy has forgotten to come was inspired by a very traumatic situation in our house when the tooth fairy forgot to come as well. Don’t worry, though, because in both the story and in real life, it all worked out in the end.

Were you shy about the idea of other people reading your stories and books? (Taleeya)

I was a bit at first – especially when the first reviews of the books came out! Now, though, I treasure the idea of children and their parents enjoying my books at story time. They were a joy to write I hope they bring joy to others who read them.

(And the other 23 questions were just as thoughtful. Well done, girls!)

HAPPY READING AND WRITING, ALL!

PREPARING YOUR MANUSCRIPT FOR SUBMISSION: The SLOW Vacuum Way

I have a confession to make. I hate running the vacuum. It’s loud. It’s clumsy. I invariably bump into baseboards or furniture. And the sound that the wheels make as they roll across my old wooden floors reminds me of fingernails on a chalkboard! Honestly, I’d much rather sweep. However, when it comes to carpeting, nothing sucks up dust and dirt quite like a vacuum.

For years I ran the vacuum as quickly as possible over my various carpets. It did an okay job, but recently (and this is probably a not-very-good reflection of my housekeeping skills) I discovered something remarkable. I was trying to vacuum up some pesky dirt and ground in grass bits from my back door rug – which is waffled. When I ran the vacuum over the rug quickly, dirt and grass bits still remained. But, when I slowed down – WOW! – all those pesky bits came right up! The secret was not rushing the process.

Just like my rushed approach to vacuuming, as a beginning writer, I was sometimes in such a hurry to get my newest manuscript “out there” that I rushed that all important final round of, vacuuming, er I mean proofreading and overall checking of the piece, to make sure it was truly dust, er I mean error, free and the best I could make it.

You know that current manuscript that you’ve been working on – the one that you might be in a rush to send off? Don’t do it. That piece, that you’ve poured so much into, has one chance to make a good impression when it lands on that editor or agent’s desk – one chance. And can you guess what will sink that chance of making a dazzling first impression faster than an iceberg on a stormy sea? Spelling errors. Grammatical errors. Spacing issues. Not following the publisher’s guidelines exactly. Accidental omissions or additions.

So, what’s my advice? Take the SLOW approach to giving that piece it’s final check, perhaps at multiple sittings, so that like my carpet, your story will impress the editor with its clean, snappy presentation and thoughtfully edited content.

Happy vacuuming, all!

Rejection, Ladybugs, and Setting New Goals

2018 has been a mixed writing year for me.  I have had the joy of two new picture books releasing and all the celebration that entails including author visits – my favorite!  At the same, however, in the new picture book department,  I’ve received nothing but rejections. 

Discouraging, yes? Well, sort of, but I’ve never been one to wallow in self-pity, so as a form of “chin up” therapy for myself and because I LOVE writing short, snappy pieces, in early November, I set myself a new goal. 

Now, in addition to working on new picture book manuscripts and revising others that are still in progress, each week I have decided to write one new poem or story suitable for magazine publication – to be sent when ready. Not only does this new goal keep my creative juices flowing in fun and diverse ways, it also helps hone my picture book rhyming skills. In other words, good writing leads to good writing and that’s a good thing!

And today, guess what I received in the mail? My first acceptance in what seems like a long little while! It’s for a rhyming rebus, starring one of my favorite beetles – the ladybug. It has been accepted by Clubhouse Magazines to appear in their July 2019 issue of Clubhouse Jr! What fun it will be to see that in print!

And, now, a special thanks to Miss A. for letting me celebrate by sharing her hand-made ladybug sun catcher which hangs cheerily in my kitchen window, a sweet reminder that if rejection is starting to get you down – spread those invisible wings – and set yourself some “chin up” goals!

SAVING THE SHAVINGS: Four Writerly Reasons to Hold on to the Tossed Bits

Framed Shavings

My artistic daughter thought these pencil shavings were so beautiful she wanted me to save them.  We took this picture instead. For months I forgot about them, until I rediscovered them while browsing through old photos.

I find these lovely shavings inspiring.  As writers, our job is to whittle away at our stories, sharpening them until they shine.  But sometimes, in our haste to perfect the story or poem at hand, we foolishly toss the shavings. Those shavings, however, often contain precious marrow which, if tossed too quickly, we will later regret. So, before you hit delete or permanently toss old story bits, here are four thoughts to consider.

Oops! It Wasn’t a Shaving After All!  I can’t tell you how many times in the processing of revising, I have deleted a phrase or thought that I later regretted. Thank goodness, I learned early not to permanently delete anything when whittling a piece. Instead I “cut” the phrase or sentence that I think isn’t working and “paste” it in a repository at the end of the document. That way ALL my thoughts are captured and preserved, so if I realize later that something wasn’t a shaving after all, it’s still safe and sound in my shavings collection.

One Story’s Shaving Is Another Story’s Spark.  When working on a new piece, I like to brainstorm and write in my journal. Sometimes this takes up pages and pages. Over the years, I’ve been tempted to toss these old chicken scratchings, but I’m so glad I haven’t. Do you know how many new ideas those old notes have sparked? Shavings and shavings worth! (Bigger than the lovely heap pictured above.) My advice, then, is to find a nice box or shelf to store your old journals and unused writing bits so that one day when you feel uninspired, you can search those old shavings for the marrow of a new story or poem!

Is That a Shaving or is that a Sequel?  If a book does well, your publisher might be interested in a sequel. I keep this hopeful thought in mind when revising.  I tend to be an overwriter – infusing way more plot twists and content than a 32-page picture book can handle.  Over time, I’ve learned to put asterisks or boxes around plot twists or snippets of text that don’t fit the current story but which might be the spark for a sequel.

Save those shavings for posterity (or at least for school visits)! When speaking with students about writing picture books, they LOVE it when I can show them concrete evidence that published pieces go through many, many rounds of whittling before they are ready for print.  Here’s where those awkward early rhymes or plot twists that I wisely shaved off my story come in handy. Students love them! They also enjoy glimpses into early brainstorming notes or lists. Indeed, a thoughtful assortment of  select shavings that illustrate various truths about the writing and revising process will bring school presentations to life!

Happy sharpening all and remember to save the shavings!

(Note: I re-discovered this post from March 2016 while browsing through my blog archives. I found it inspiring so decided to post again.  I hope it inspires you, too, as you set about writing this week.)

SPOTTED FAWN: Thoughts on BRAND NEW Stories

IMG_7589Look what I spotted on my early morning walk. It’s a brand new fawn curled up in the dappled shade of a neighbor’s front lawn – so tiny and fresh, with soft baby chestnut colored hide and bright white spots! She’s the third such fawn I’ve discovered over the last few years, hidden – in plain sight – on the lawns of our suburban New Jersey community.

The first time I saw a fawn curled up like this with no mama in sight, I thought it might be abandoned or lost.  I’ve since learned that it’s standard practice in the deer world for a mama to leave her brand new (or nearly new) baby snuggled up like this in a quiet open space. She does this because when newly born, fawns are still wobbly and too little to keep pace with the older deer. Mama also needs to forage on her own for food so she has what she needs to properly nurse and care for her baby.

And – if you haven’t figure it out yet – yes, this sweet fawn so tender and new has gotten me thinking about writing. Seeing her this morning reminds me how, as a beginning writer, I was often tempted to submit my stories to publishers way too prematurely when what they really needed was to be left alone to rest and grow in a quiet place while I went about my business of reflection, revision and nursing those stories with plenty of quiet restful breaks in between feedings, until they were truly fit and ready to send.

I think ALL writers, seasoned and new, can benefit from this reminder every once in a while  – and what cuter way to be reminded than with the image of a sweet young fawn snuggled up in a quiet front lawn.

Happy writing… and remember not to rush the process.

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!