SOUR WASH CLOTHS: Wringing Out Our Stories to Perfection!

IMG_4272Nothing made my mother’s nose crinkle more than the smell of a sour washcloth. Her sense of smell was so strong that she claimed she could detect the scent of a sour wash cloth on a man’s face in an elevator. I’m a nose crinkler too, though I confess I’m not quite that discriminating.

Still, she trained me well and I so do my very best to remedy any and all sour wash cloth situations in our family.

The steps are simple and straightforward. First, to prevent a sour situation from the get-go, be sure to thoroughly wring out each wash cloth immediately after using.  Second, never put a damp wash cloth in the hamper. Instead, hang it to air day in a spot with plenty of ventilation.  Third, if you do discover a sour wash cloth, hope is not lost. You can do one of two things:  boil it, or get it wet, wring it out, and immediately zap it on high in the microwave for two minutes. (This works for sour sponges, as well.)

I’m thankful my mother left me so equipped with strategies for handling these nose-crinkling moments. I must also admit, however, that the very idea of sniffing out those sour smells, has gotten me thinking about writing.  After all nothing, and I mean nothing, pulls the reader out of the story more than a sour story moment.  Here, then, are four sour story moments that I am working diligently to wring out of my pieces before stepping into any elevators.  Get your noses ready!

Off Kilter Rhythm and Rhyme:  Nothing crinkles this reader’s nose faster than poorly executed rhyming text.  The hard truth is that telling a story well in rhyme is hard. Not only must the rhyming be perfect, so must the meter.  To shine, the rhymes must be unexpected and not forced and the sentence structure should never be inverted to make the rhyme work.  Also, to be effective, the content of the poem or story must always come first.

Story Stoppers: This is a sour source I’ve been working hard to eliminate a lot lately.  So, what’s a story stopper?  A story stopper is anything that takes the reader out of the moment, that removes them from the world you have created in your story.  It could be inconsistency of voice, or a plot moment so unbelievable that it makes the reader stop mid sentence. Perhaps it’s simply a word or phrase that feels out of character for a particular story’s world.  It could also be a grammatical gaffe or an erroneous assumption or fact that makes the reader question the whole world you’ve created.

Too Much Description: In early elementary school my kids were taught to make their sentences pop by adding vivid adjectives and adverbs. This strategy works well for that age group. However, as adults, with full-grown vocabularies, our sentence popping strategy needs to shift from descriptive to active. Instead of “ big heavy rock”  try “boulder” or “chunk”. Instead of “walk slowly” how about “amble” or “traipse”  or “poke”. With well-chosen nouns and verbs, pieces for youngest readers will pop without being overly wordy.

Heavy-handed Message: In my opinion, a heavy-handed message zaps a story of all fun and naturalness. (I’m embarrassed, in fact, in hindsight, at how heavy-handed the earliest stories I submitted to magazines were.)  All good stories, of course, by their very nature, have some sort of take-away but, when done well, the message is subtle and the story comes first.

Now it’s your turn.  What sour wash cloth story moments would you add to this nose-crinkling list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy Writing Monday, all!

HAPPY BLOG ANNIVERSARY: Cupcake and Sugar Pea

Since this blog just celebrated its fifth year anniversary,  I thought I’d celebrate by re-posting one my favorite entries from year one.  That seven year old is now twelve!  And like her, I still like to keep several horses in my writerly stable. How about you? Enjoy!

After school, instead of walking home, my seven-year-old has taken to riding — horseback riding, that is. She alternates between two imaginary horses — Cupcake and Sugar Pea. Her horses trot and canter. They gallop and run like the wind.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Cupcake runs like the wind. Sugar Pea is a little slower. She prefers to stop and smell the clover. Cupcake, by contrast, loves jumping over imaginary fences, the wind whipping at her mane. Their styles are so different, I never have to ask my daughter which horse she’s chosen. I just say, “Wow, Cupcake’s fast!” or “What does Sugar Pea think of the lilacs?”

I’m a lot like my daughter. I write best when I have at least two projects going at once. For example, right now I’m working on two very different picture books, several poems and a handful of blog posts. And, just as my daughter alternates ponies, based on mood, I alternate projects, based on interest, deadlines, or variety. Not only does this keep my writing fresh, it allows the pieces I’m not working on to rest, so that I can return to them with new eyes.

Keeping several horses in the stable, keeps me energized and happy as a writer. It also reduces writer’s block because I always have something in process. If one piece isn’t working, I simply take out another horse for the day. What about you? Are you a one-horse writer or do you prefer to keep several horses in your stable?

CROCUSES in FEBRUARY:  Thoughts on Rushing the Writing Process

Look at all these crocuses I spotted in my neighborhood this week. I mean, really, it’s only February, way too soon to be blooming!  Every time I walk past them, I think, what’s the rush?  I mean, they’re dazzling, but still… as a writer I don’t ever want to be tempted to force one of my stories to bloom too soon.

Early on, though, I have to admit I was like a crocus in February, only my stories weren’t dazzling. Far from it. The first few stories and poems I sent to publishers way back when were sent far too prematurely! They were stilted, clumsy and rough.

I should never have forced them to bloom.

It took me a couple of years to really take to heart the truth that good writing takes time – lots of time.  But now that I’m a seasoned writer, I can see that my best pieces are the ones I’ve let sit and then revisited over several nicely spaced intervals.  These intervals can be as short as a week or as long as a year. But, for me, taking time between revisions is a great filter for weeding out unnecessary words, seeing plot flaws and inventing even better twists and turns. The challenge? I’m impatient by nature. But, even though it’s hard, I’ve learned that taking time to let pieces sit between revisions is well worth it.

So back to those February crocuses. They’re pretty, yes, but something about them doesn’t feel quite right. Each time I see them- and they are everywhere this week – I feel the need to remind myself (and maybe you need reminding too) that writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, you don’t have to be like a crocus in February.  In fact, it’s far better, in my opinion, to let your story bloom when, and only when, it is ready.

The ROSE: A Not Too Sappy Analogy (Well, Maybe a Little)

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I first posted this “rosy” post back in 2013 – my first February blogging.  However, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it still feels as fresh and fun as ever.  Enjoy!

It was sleeting and snowing, but I decided to walk anyway. The world was black, white, and gray. Then something pink caught my eye. It was a rose, lying in the slushy street. I picked it up, for it was the perfect cheery burst of color on a dreary day. There must be some analogy to writing here, I reflected. My mind whirred with possibilities.

Nearing home, I crossed an old bridge with a wrought-iron railing. Setting my rose beneath the railing, I searched my purse for my camera to take the perfect shot of my rose set against a gray backdrop. It wasn’t there. Hurrying home, I grabbed it and invited my husband to join me on my picture-taking walk.

As we slushed along, I described my blog idea, that the rose might represent my cheery stories and poems. My husband thought for a moment, then observed, “Laura, the rose is decapitated.”

Then he mused, “And isn’t it odd to find real roses outside this time of year?”

Yes, perhaps, but that just made it more beautiful, right?

We were almost to the bridge when he asked the final blog-zapping question. “Where exactly did you find it?”

I pointed. “Up there, in front of the church.”

“Laura, there was a funeral there this morning.”

With heavy heart, I took my picture.

Once home, I set my rose afloat in a pretty bowl. And though I’ve enjoyed her beauty all week, my cheery analogy feels sappy now.

Now when I look at her all I can think is “heart”. This rose isn’t just some sugar-coated flower. She’s got backstory. First she was cut from the roots and decapitated, then tacked to a hearse, on a one-way trip to the cemetery. By chance she toppled off the hearse and was redeemed. It’s this history that makes her special and gives her dimension. It’s what gives her “heart”.

Likewise, to create heart-felt stories, we must create characters with heart, not just shallow pink rose representations. There are far too many picture books out there with one-dimensional characters. Others tend towards “cute” rather than “clever”, and those stories end up feeling sugar coated and sappy, much like my first rose analogy. But, dig a little deeper, to find the heart of your character’s problem and/or situation and you’ll have a story that resonates deeply with your reader.

Happy writing, all, and may all your stories be rosy (in the not sappy way).

BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters

On our beach vacation, I woke early each morning to go shell hunting. I hoped to find perfectly formed shells, like the ones my grandmother collected. Instead, all I found were broken shells. At first, I was disappointed, then I spied the heart of a broken conch shell and it was love at first sight. Only the innermost swirl remained – smooth and glowing – a survivor of the sea. For the rest of the week, I collected just broken shells – each chipped and worn in its own special way – striking testaments to fantastic journeys of survival in churning seas and crashing tides.

Good characters are a lot like broken shells. If their situation is perfect and/or they have no flaws, they’ve got no reason to grow or change. Then we, as readers, have no great incentive to read their stories. We probably won’t even be able to connect to them because, face it, nobody’s perfect. Broken characters, by contrast, strike a chord deep in readers’ hearts. They give us hope that we too can overcome whatever challenges we face despite, or maybe even because of, our flaws.

This is even true of picture books. Would the classic Curious George books be such kid-hits if that little monkey weren’t so incorrigibly nosy? More recently, would David Shannon’s NO, DAVID, NO! touch the hearts of mothers and sons as deeply, if little David weren’t so perpetually in trouble? And what about Peggy Parish’s forever bumbling Amelia Bedelia, or Bernard Waber’s lovable Lyle, the crocodile, whose sickly green jealousy in LYLE AND THE BIRTHDAY PARTY touches a chord in every kid’s heart. The list of inspiringly imperfect and thus lovable picture book characters goes on and on.

My collection of broken shells now sits in a bowl by my desk, a striking reminder that the best characters we create, the ones that survive in our collective memories, are those that aren’t perfect. Thus, as a writer, I aspire to imperfection in my characters. What about you?

Note: I first posted this oldie but goodie in 2012. It’s still as relevant today as ever and I still have that bowl of shells by my desk as I write.  Happy character building all!

PERCOLATOR or TEAPOT: What Kind of Writer Are You?

img_3760It doesn’t matter if you prefer coffee or tea. That’s really beside the point. I’m guessing, though, that as a writer you are either a percolator, a tea pot or – like me – a bit of both.

Most of the time, I am percolator. That is, I like to reflect on new stories and poems before writing a first draft. When “percolating” I always keep a pen and notebook handy so I can jot down ideas. I make lists, play with possible plot twists, settings, points-of view etc.  For example, with both Goodnight, Ark and Goodnight, Manger, I filled almost two notebooks with ponderings and word play before I actually sat down and wrote the stories.  Once I was ready to write, I wrote the first drafts of each in one sitting.

I guess you could say at that point, I turned into a teapot!  When I’m in teapot mode, poems and stories just flow, sometimes even overflow out of me. This outpouring often occurs at the most inconvenient times -when I’m cooking, or in the middle of the night. But when it does, I just let my mind shift into story/poem mode and I go with it. Writing in earnest becomes my priority – because once that tea is pouring out of me, it’s impossible to stop. I don’t worry about getting words down perfectly. I just write down the story that’s pouring out as fast as I can. (Occasionally, dinner gets a little overcooked, but don’t worry everyone gets fed.)

But teapot stories are not ready to drink yet. Far from it. Instead, after completing each teapot burst, I turn back into a percolator again, with intermittent bursts of teapot. I repeat this percolator/teapot process again and again until every word and moment pushes the story or poem forward in a fun meaningful way.

Finally it’s time for the finishing touches. At this point, I think rather than teapot or percolator, I become like a fine wine taster- sniffing and swishing – to make sure each sentence, phrase, and plot turn has just the right – je ne sais quoi – so that the story is magnifique – or at least as magnifique as I can make it- before I send it off to my agent to review.

So, dear writing friends, which are you – percolator or teapot?   Happy writing all!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts on Carving Stories

IMG_1284There’s a sudden new nip in the air and it finally feels like fall is here.  With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this pumpkin-themed post 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.

QUAIL EGGS: Making IDEAS EXTRAORDINARY!

I’m taking a blog break this week to spend time with my family, but I thought you might enjoy this writerly post from 2012.  We still love quail eggs at our house!  Enjoy!

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!

What’s Your BEESWAX? (Writerly Thoughts Inspired by my Son)

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He’s almost 16 now and hasn’t sewn much since that long-ago locker dangler.  But he’s still just as resolute, determined, and inspiring to me as ever.  (And my sewing is forevermore transformed!)  With this intro, please enjoy this old, but still inspiring, favorite post of mine.

As a sixth grader, my son took 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?

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 this week 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!