JOURNALING and OTHER STRATEGIES: Thoughts on Unleashing our Creativity

If you have followed my blog anytime at all, you have probably noticed that I love writing analogy posts where I draw comparisons between writing and life.  These are, in fact, my favorite kinds of posts.  

A couple of years ago I was even asked in an online interview by the delightful Margaret Langan over at Read.Learn.Repeat about these types of posts. The specific question was: In what way are these writing exercises useful in your pursuit of writing picture books?  

My answer was as follows: 

For me, a big part of picture book writing is making creative connections—taking a snippet of inspiration and then playing with it, combining one idea with a seemingly totally disconnected different idea, pairing characters with unusual settings, switching things around etc. 

But to do that, I need to warm up and I do that by beginning each day with my journal. I use that journal to record free-flowing thoughts, observations, joys and struggles and… analogies.

This time spent journaling is crucial for getting my creative juices going and those creative analogies just seem to flow out of me—much the way my rhymes do.  And once written, it seems a shame not to share them, especially since over the years I’ve gotten such positive feedback from writers and friends who find them encouraging and inspirational.

(For the full interview plus links to all her wonderful interviews with authors and illustrators, press here.)

I still stand by this answer and I still begin each day by journaling and those journal entries still serve to unleash creative sparks that invariably lead to analogies as well as new poems and stories. 

However, I would now also add that this creative unleashing – at least for me – can be released in other ways too – such as immersing myself in any sort of special project, such as knitting, sewing, drawing or cooking.  If intentional, even something as seemingly uncreative as going on a walk or cleaning the house or weeding can also be creative because I have found that the calm, repetitive nature of those three things in particular is conducive to contemplating ideas and playing with words – both important parts of the creative process.

And why am I making a point to share this with you this week? Easy!  I want to encourage you (and me!) to step into the days ahead eager and open to unleashing our storytelling creativity in intentional ways that can range from free writing in a journal –– to pondering plot while plodding along the sidewalk –– to whatever other specific activity you find yourself immersed in this week.  

Happy unleashing, all!

WRITING GLASSES: Four Tips to Transform Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Stories and Poems

One of the best things about being a writer is that I get to spend my days seeing the world through writing glasses.  Oh, they may look like ordinary glasses, but they most certainly are not.  It’s through these glasses that over the years I’ve transformed seemingly ordinary moments/observations into engaging poems, stories and picture books. 

So now, in celebration of stories and poems that sparkle, here are four tips for using your writer’s glasses to turn your observations into stunning stories.

TIP #1: Wear your glasses each and every day.  Gathering ideas takes intentionality and discipline.  It means stepping into the day with a spirit of wonder and being observant and open to the little moments of inspiration that come your way. This, for me, is one of the fundamental joys of being a writer. 

TIP #2: Write down sparks and observations as soon as possible.  I’ve learned over the years, that if I don’t write down an idea right away, that it sometimes evaporates. That’s why I always carry pen and index cards in my purse. I also use the notes feature on my phone to quickly jot down ideas.  For more thoughts on this check out my post Fairy Wash: Thoughts on Capturing Ideas.

TIP #3: Some sparks won’t come into focus for a while – and that’s okay!  I’ve learned over time, that my best sparks or ideas are the ones I let sit for a while, before using them to write a story or poem.  Sometimes it takes awhile to see how that spark might work itself into a story. But that is just part of the process. For more on taking this long-range view, check out my post Write Like a Turtle.

TIP #4: Remember that the goal isn’t replication- but transformation! As a beginning writer, I mistakenly believed that if I was writing a fictional piece inspired by something that actually happened, I had to write it exactly the way it happened. As a result my early stories were cumbersome and flat and ordinary.  As soon as I let go of that inner need to be fully grounded in reality, my stories began to “dazzle”.  No longer weighed down by the desire to replicate the situations that inspired them, I let my inner creative spirit take over. The result? I wrote stories that were fit for publication!. For more on this, check out my post The River: Thoughts on Writing as Reflection versus Replication.

Happy writing, all!

SETTING THE GEARS IN MOTION: Writerly Thoughts inspired by my Antique Clock

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 15 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove -or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

Now, with the holiday season upon us, it might be hard to find long stretches of time to pursue writerly passions, but not impossible!  With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy. 

1. If writing daily through the holidays is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If  trying a new genre is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that, either now or in the new year, you will be ready to write that first draft.

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and have a wonderful week!

PAPA WISDOM: Taking “The Long Cut” in Life and Writing

Not only has my dad always been a loving, caring father (and more recently a wonderful champion of my writing endeavors), he’s also been a life long creator of wonderful phrases that make life a little bit funnier. Memorable dad phrases include “I’m going to get my hairs cut”, instead of haircut, “Don’t worry, Daddy-do-it”, and, my favorite, “Okay, kids, we’re taking the long cut”, the opposite of short cut, which translated means, “I took a wrong turn, so now we’re going to explore”. 

On road trips as a child (and we took many), I remember my mother would often sigh and roll her eyes (in a loving way) when Dad announced that we were taking yet another “long cut” because he was a real stickler for doing it himself (i.e. “Daddy-do-it”) and refused to stop and ask for directions, unless the long cut got really, really long, or if it became apparent that we were just going in circles and even then he might not ask for directions.

But though she might roll her eyes, I think secretly she, and certainly my sister and I, came to really love and appreciate Dad’s “long cuts”. After all, without them, we might never have discovered that little out of the way village with the wonderful bed and breakfast run by a little Scottish woman who took us under her wing the time we got lost, I mean “took the long, long cut” through some Scottish countryside. 

And without one of my dad’s “long cuts” we would never have had the amazing fascination of having a picnic in a field in Spain, next to a big, big rock, only to discover the skeleton of a cow on the far side of the rock!  (Actually, my dad discovered that and wouldn’t let us look, which I for a long time I resented, but which actually I now realize he was doing to save us from losing our appetites).

And without my dad’s “long cuts” we most likely would never have found the perfect lunch spot in a meadow overlooking the Chateau de Chantilly, or have sat on a lonesome bench on a twisty mountain road with a view like this!

Looking back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of discovering unexpected and wonderful spots while were were taking “the long cut” between destinations.  I see now that those “long cuts” instilled in me an important life principle, for they taught me, in a wonderfully meandering fashion, that life is richer when I’m not rushing from one pre-determined destination to the next.  In fact, in my opinion, the best part of living is being willing to take the long cut and enjoy the wonderful things you discover along the way.  Thank you, Dad, for instilling that in me!

Now for the writing tie-in:  Like many new writers,  when I first started out, I expected immediate results – i.e reaching my destination without any twists or turns. And I’m embarrassed to say that in those first couple of years, as I was exploring the craft, I submitted stories and poems to publishers far too prematurely.  Now, when I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I slowed down and really started to savor the writing process through years of writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique  (in other words, taking the writerly version of “the long cut”) that I began to develop into the writer I am today (who is still ever-working on improving and expanding her craft). 

So, here is my bit of writerly wisdom for the day:  Writing is not a race to get published. It’s a beautiful “long cut” journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, take heart and be patient. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. Sign up for a writing class. Read a book about writing.  Spend time at the library reading all the picture books you can get your hands on. And, through it all, keep writing, writing, writing! The results may not fit your pre-conceived conceived timeline, but if you keep at it, I think you will find that the “long cut” journey – though not short, to be sure, – is rewarding.

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!

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!

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.

Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse BLOG TOUR: Stops FOUR and FIVE!

IMG_6273The official Diva Delores Blog Tour continued yesterday and again today with stops at Vivian Kirkfield’s PICTURE BOOKS HELP KIDS SOAR blog.  Yesterday, DIVA DELORES was featured as Vivian’s Perfect Picture Book Friday pick  and today I’m featured today on her Will Write for Cookies series weighing in with my thoughts about cookies, of course, as well as some hopefully tasty insights into why I write for kids, who my favorite favorite authors were as a kid and more. Oh, yes, and there’s a giveaway as well!

Please pop over. There are cookies!

*Delightfully decorated cookie (shown above) created by Miss A!

AWKWARD! Capturing Ideas at Inconvenient Times

IMG_4133I don’t know about you, but over the years, I’ve discovered that inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient times – like when I’m in the shower or in the middle of the night or when I’m out walking the dog.

I’ve developed a few strategies to capture those awkwardly timed bits of inspiration. For starters, I keep a pen and notebook by my bedside for those middle of the night moments. We also have an antique slate chalkboard in our kitchen where I often capture bits of inspiration. (My children know never to erase funny looking word snippets without first checking with me.)  And I always have a pen in my purse. I try to have little notebook as well, but if I don’t I’ve become quite skilled at writing on napkins, old ticket stubs, receipts etc. I’ve also been known, if out and about without the necessary idea capturing tools,  to talk aloud to myself, repeating that perfectly phrased new rhyming snippet, until I get home or find emergency access to pen and paper.

These strategies, however, are far from perfect.

There was the night, for example, when I came up with the perfect third verse for a poem I was working on.  Not wanting to wake my husband, I quickly grabbed my bedside note book and pen and wrote the verse down in the dark.  The next morning I was dismayed to discover the page was completely blank. I’d written with the cap on!

And my children have made it perfectly clear through eye rolls, etc. that they find it embarrassing when we’re walking together and I start to repeat verses out loud while on walks so that I don’t forget them.  Mortified, I think would be the right word their reaction.

That’s why I’m delighted to have hit upon a new idea capturing device – the “notes” feature on my iPhone. Since I’m a terrible at texting – all thumbs as they say-  I use the handy dictation mode to record sparks of inspiration or that perfect phrase for my current work-in-progress.  This system works well, though I have be careful to speak slowly and clearly or the words get jumbled.

What about you?  How do you handle it when creativity strikes when you are busy with something else? I’d love to hear your stories of funny, awkward inspiration moments and/or what you find to be the most effective way to capture ideas.

Happy idea gathering, all!