TEAPOT or PERCOLATOR: What Kind of Writer Are You?

It 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 a 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!

Note: Over the summer, I will be 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 January 2017. I was reminded of it one morning this past week because my husband was percolating coffee while I was steeping tea! I’ve updated the picture with LOVE IS KIND since I love the teapot Miss A made me to celebrate the release of the hardcover and I’m looking forward to the release of the board book in just a few weeks – August 6th!

SPIDER WEBS: Thoughts on Weaving Stories

Lately, I’ve been noticing an abundance of spider webs dazzling in the early morning light as the first rays catch their dewy threads. Their strength and structure amaze me. Each spider web I notice follows the same basic pattern. First the spider established her outermost framework and then worked her way inward in concentric spirals until she reached the heart of the web.

There’s no doubt that there is a universality to spider webs.  But look closely and you will see that even though they share many common characteristics, each web is also a unique creation.  Each web’s shape and size varies depending on where it was woven and on the delicate dance the spinning spider performed as she leapt from anchor point to anchor point. One web I saw was spun snuggly between two slender stems of Queen Anne’s lace, stretched oblong by early fall breezes.  Another was hung high among prickly pine boughs, round and tight, so as not to get prickled, yet big enough to capture a passing fly.

As writers, it sometimes seems that every story has already been spun and that there couldn’t possibly be a new way to tell anything. Yes, it’s true, like spider webs, most stories fit into plot types and there are common structures.  There are also universal themes.  And like spiders, who all use liquid silk to build their webs, our stories too, are created using the same building blocks – words.

But does this mean originality is impossible? Not at all. Like webs, the best stories do have a universal quality about them.  But, if we listen to our inner creative spirit, something unique will unfold within that universal framework.  A spider web’s uniqueness emerges as she weaves in response to the specific setting and conditions surrounding that creation.  She also leaps and dances in a way that only she can.  Another spider spinning her web in the same spot would create a different web altogether.

So take heart as you write and listen to your deepest inner voice, the one that expresses itself in a way only you can. If you do, then I am convinced that, like a spider weaving uniquely concentric circles, you’ll weave the story as only you can.

Happy spinning all!

Note: Over the summer, I will be 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 October 2013. I was reminded of it this past week while visiting my dad in Lexington, VA. Each morning my husband and I took a lovely stroll through a long grass meadow on our way into town and what did we see? Hundreds and hundreds of spider webs catching the first morning rays as they shimmered in the tall grass.

PICTURE BOOKS: What Makes A Perennial Favorite?

Summer time reminds me that I LOVE perennials, those wonderful plants that bloom in my garden, season after season, where they are enjoyed by all, again and again. My favorites include my butterfly bush, the daisies, the echinacea, the black-eyed susans and, most especially, my beloved roses – that remind me of my mother who faithfully tended her to her perennials year after year. 

The joy of seeing my perennials bloom more gloriously than ever has gotten me thinking about how picture books – the good ones – are like perennials too, enjoyed by generations of kids and caregivers. 

So, what makes a picture book a perennial favorite?

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface, but here are FIVE characteristics that I think elevate a picture book to perennial status.  What would you add? 

Characteristic #1: Perennial picture books are fun to read again and again for both kids and caregivers.  Books that have this quality tend to have fresh plot lines, fresh characters and fresh word play. They might incorporate a fun refrain or include fun sound words or rhymes, both of which engage youngest readers.  Many can also be enjoyed on more than one level, thus appealing to littlest ones and their grown up readers.

Characteristic #2: Perennial picture books have charming illustrations that engage the reader and add to the story. Children are incredibly observant and LOVE perusing illustrations for extra story clues. The extra details in perennial favorites are often related to plot or the personality of the protagonist. Sometimes, though, the illustrations engage by offering extra details. These details might be conducive to playing “I spy” as you read, or they could be humorous clues to what will happen next, or offer readers a parallel visual story as they read.  These illustrations can take many forms – but they all result in on thing – creating a magical reading experience that draws readers of all ages to return to their perennial favorites again and again.

Characteristic #3: Perennial picture books tap into universal themes that have and will most likely to continue to stand the test of time.  Perennially favorite themes include friendship, love, discovery, thankfulness, overcoming hardship etc.  However, to stand out, and remain a perennial favorite, the universal theme must be handled in a fresh and fun way. (See characteristic #1.)

Characteristic #4: In contrast to holiday-themed picture books which tend to be read just during their particular season of celebration, perennial favorites can be read and enjoyed anytime of year.  Their settings may be distinct, and usually are, but the plots of perennial favorites typically don’t focus on a particular holiday.  (Christmas picture books may be the exception because, at least in our house, my kids enjoyed several of those all year round.)

Characteristic #5: Perennial favorites often wrap up with a soothing restful ending, conducive to putting little ones to bed.  Many times this takes the form of the characters in the story literally settling down to sleep themselves, but it can also simply be a cozy feel good ending, that’s not set at bedtime, but still has that soothing, “everything’s all right” feel.

Happy reading… and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list! 

TEA TIME: 5 Tips for Writing TEA-licious Stories!

Last week I rediscovered this antique silver contraption while going through a box of old family items. It was terribly tarnished and took twenty minutes of diligent polishing to restore its shiny charm. Can you guess what it is?  

It’s an antique silver swivel tea strainer and this is how it works:

First, select your loose tea and place desired amount into your favorite tea pot.

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Next, pour freshly boiled water over loose tea leaves and steep for three minutes.  

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If desired, cover your teapot with tea cozy to keep everything nice and toasty while the tea is steeping. (I made this one a few years ago and I use it every day.)

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When the tea is ready, it’s time to pour yourself a cup. Simply tip the strainer so that the tea flows freely into the cup, but the leaves don’t.

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When your cup is full, place the strainer upright on the table so that any remaining tea drips daintily into the tiny reservoir below.  Add milk or lemon and enjoy!

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Now, in celebration of loose tea and swivel tea strainers, here are five tea-fixing principles that apply to good storytelling as well.

Let steep before serving. Good stories, like tea, take time to steep. In other words, don’t rush to publication too quickly. Take time to develop your idea. Let the story sink in to your very being so that you can write from the heart.  And once that early draft is complete, take time revise and improve your story, until, like a cup of fine tea, your story flows beautifully.

Go light on the sugar.  To my taste at least, like sugar in tea, the best picture book writing is light on sugary adjectives and adverbs. Instead, I prefer to sweeten my writing with carefully chosen nouns and verbs to create tight clean sentences that draw littlest readers in with their immediacy and keep them sipping until the very last drop.

Add milk, not cream. This might be my personal issue, but I think cream, even just a splash, is too heavy for tea. Likewise, there’s nothing worse than a picture book with a heavy-handed message.  A message that helps a kid stretch and grow is good, but, done well, it will be as light and fresh as a splash of milk. 

Keep that strainer polished.  When I first rediscovered this tea strainer, it was completely tarnished.  It was hard work polishing it, so now that it’s in tip-top form, I plan to keep it that way through regular use and regular polishing. Likewise, if we want our writing to shine like silver, we need to make the commitment to write regularly so that we don’t get rusty.

A pot of tea serves two or three.  Like sharing a pot of tea, I’ve found that the writing journey just wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family and the wonderful network of like-minded children’s writers I’ve connected with over the years, many of whom have become dear friends and trusted critique partners. So, my final tea-inspired writing tip, is to find a writing buddy or two to join you on the journey! 

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Happy writing all!

Note: Over the summer, I will be 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 January 2016.

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!

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! 

“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!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT from my PLATE to YOURS: Eat Your Peas!

IMG_5929As a mom, wife, author and, for the past two years, homeschool teacher to my daughter, I continually feel like I have a lot on my plate.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for the plate set before me. I rejoice that I have the honor of receiving this plate so full of blessing and purpose.  Still, managing everything on the plate sometimes feels like a lot. That’s why I’ve made a practice of beginning each day by lifting that plate up in prayer.

My prayer each morning is that each portion I’ve been given gets its proper amount of attention and that I don’t avoid the peas!  Peas are my least favorite vegetable and on a real plate, especially as a kid, they were the portion that I always pushed aside.  On my symbolic daily plate, the peas are those tasks and to-dos that, for whatever reason, I avoid.  But, boy oh boy,  does it feel good when I actually eat those peas instead of mushing them under the potatoes or squeezing them off to one side.

Indeed, something wonderful happens when I eat those peas. First, I usually discover that they don’t taste as bad as I thought they would.  Second, without the peas, my daily plate is suddenly less cluttered which means I have more room to tend to the other portions – including my writing.  And writing, for me, is portion of the plate that keeps everything else in balance.  Third, removing those peas opens up space on the plate for the unexpected – like the surprise asparagus or spinach I spotted at the farmer’s market… i.e. the spur of the moment invitation to grab a cup of coffee with an old friend or opportunity help a neighbor (or stranger) in need!

So, what about you? What peas have you been pushing around on your plate?  Wouldn’t it feel great if today you just ate them so that your plate could open up for the other good portions you’ve been given this day?  Try it… I think you’ll find it tastes good.

Happy Monday, all!