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!

 

 

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!

GUEST POST: On Revising and Never Giving Up with Tami Charles

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Today I am delighted to have children’s author Tami Charles as my guest.  Tami and I first met at a NJSCBWI gathering at a local tea shop.  She was in the midst of revising her first novel,  LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge 2018).  This summer, again, we organized our own little writers’ retreat and  spent a lovely day on my porch (and inside, too ,because it was dreadfully hot) revising our current works-in-progess.  Disciplined, smart and funny- she knows her stuff.  Take it away, Tami!

So, you wrote a picture book. You received feedback from your critique partners. Your agent has given it her stamp of approval. She submits it to editors and you sit back and wait for the offers pour in. New York Times Bestseller list here you come!

But then, the unthinkable happens…

(Cue horror film music.) 

Radio.

Silence.

Several months pass, your hair turns grayer, and the rejections start rolling in—nice ones, albeit. The feedback from the editors is pretty much the same, and you just know what you have to do…revise.

Revisions can sometimes be painful, especially when you’ve already revised your manuscript many times over. But there’s no time for wallowing. It’s time to put a new spin on your story and here’s how to get ‘er done:

Step 1: Take your old manuscript, ball it up, and throw it in the trash. Follow this cathartic moment with a beverage of your choice.  (Iced, skinny caramel latte, anyone?)

Step 2: Go back to the trash and take out your manuscript, silly goose! (Then wash your hands, please!)

Step 3: Strap on your big kid boots and get ready to freshen up your manuscript. Clearly, it was good enough to be subbed out in the first place. It just needs more work. So here are a few tricks to get the ball rolling:

  • Gobble up those mentor texts. Read as many books as possible that fit the theme of your story. Sure, you probably read comp titles when you first wrote your story, but that was a long time ago.  There are new books on the shelves waiting to be explored. Read them. Study them.
  • Rewrite your story in a different verb tense. Is your original manuscript written in past tense? Try writing it in the present. Or take a risk and write it in future tense. Don’t be afraid to experiment with verb tense until your story feels shiny and new.
  • Change the point of view. Did you write your story in third person POV? Consider switching to first person. This will give your reader insight into how all the characters are feeling—not just one.  You could also try second person POV, which if done right, can be an enjoyable reading experience. There are several books that do this well. Some of my favorites are: “Warning: Do Not Open This Book” by Adam Lehrhaupt and “How to Raise a Dinosaur” by Natasha Wing.
  • Rethink your setting. I speak from experience on this one. A few years ago, I shopped around a picture book that had only one setting. Agent feedback was basically the same. Can the characters go somewhere else besides the kitchen, so that the story doesn’t feel stagnant? Challenge accepted. After many revisions (and several lattes), I created additional settings to help move the story along. And guess what? I got an offer! Hooray! Try this tip and thank me later.

Step 4: Submit and MOVE ON! Once you’ve done the necessary revisions, go out on another round of submissions. It may take a while, but trust me, your “yes” is waiting. Use the down time to work on your next manuscript.

Here’s the hard truth: The kidlit universe is a tough industry to crack. Whatever you do, do not give up. You are full of stories and the world needs to hear them. I wish you productivity, creativity, and lots of luck as you revise.

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BIO: Recovering teacher. Amateur gardener. Debut author. Tami Charles writes picture books, middle grade, young adult, nonfiction, and enjoys the occasional work-for-hire project. Her middle grade novel, LIKE VANESSA, debuts with Charlesbridge in spring, 2018. She also recently sold two picture books, but can’t spill the beans just yet! For 14 years, Tami served as a public school educator but now writes full time. She is represented by Lara Perkins, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, son, and a family of deer who take pleasure in annihilating her garden.

Connect with Tami on Facebook,  Twitter and at her website: http://www.tamiwrites.com

 

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?

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Write Like a TURTLE!

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Want to survive, even thrive, as a writer?  Then take the TURTLE approach.  Enjoy!

Develop a thick shell. The business of writing is not all butterflies and daisies. It’s hard work with a steep learning curve and lots and lots of guaranteed opportunity for rejection. But if, like a turtle, you can develop a few callouses, or preferably a nice thick shell, you can let those rejections, doubting comments etc. bounce right off.

Be at peace with the slow pace of it all. The publishing world is notoriously slow.  Accept that, then use the time to bask in the sun, soaking up new story ideas and savoring the process.

Take time each day to retreat into your shell.  As writers it’s important to set aside quiet time to write each day. But if long “retreats into your shell” are hard to muster, take heart – good writing can’t be done in total isolation. It’s also important to mosey along in the outside world for that’s where you will find your inspiration!

Bury your eggs for awhile before letting them go. I’ve learned over time, that my best stories and poems are the ones I let sit for a while, so I can re-examine and improve them before sending them out for consideration to editors. My ideas, at least, improve with age.

Don’t expect every egg to be viable.  Not every idea is a winner and that’s okay. The important thing is to keep producing eggs, er stories, for in every batch there will surely be a few good eggs, or maybe more than a few.

Happy writing, all!

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

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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!

DO YOU FLOSS YOUR STORIES?

IMG_0811The flossing police have arrived at our house. Why?  Well, just look at those teeth! My kids have never enjoyed flossing. It’s pesky, boring, and causes bits of icky stuff to fly out of your mouth, splatting the bathroom mirror and counter. (Actually, my son likes the gross factor of that last aspect.) But even that has lost its allure because they both currently have braces.  Flossing with braces is time-consuming. You have to hand thread the floss below and above the wire and around each and every bracket. But flossing is more important now than ever because tooth decay and discoloration are counterproductive to the nice clean, streamlined look we’re hoping for.

It’s kind of that way with writing too. Getting our stories to sparkle takes careful, dedicated flossing. So, how are you doing in that department? Do you need to call in the flossing police, or will these friendly flossing suggestions suffice?

Recognize the icky bits.  My early drafts are full of extraneous words including unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and an over abundance of helping verbs.  I also tend to overuse certain “icky” words.  “Indeed”, “very”, “really” and “but” tend to fall into this category. So, as I floss my stories, I keep a close lookout for these “icky bits”. Do you recognize your “icky bits”?  Great! Then get flossing.

Floss every nook and cranny.  As my children will attest, proper flossing is tedious (though well worth it).  Thorough editing also takes time. Don’t short change your story’s sparkle by rushing the process. Instead carefully examine and floss each sentence and paragraph until your writing is tight and streamlined.

Make flossing a habit. When my kids first started flossing with braces, their gums were irritated, but now that it’s a daily habit, it’s much easier. Likewise, flossing your stories can seem painful at first, especially if you are overly enamored by certain turns of phrase.  Once it’s a habit, however, you’ll find it is not only easier, but the icky bits are fewer and farther between.  Your smile, er, writing will quickly improve!

Listen to the hygienist (and dentist and orthodontist, too!).  Every six months, I take my kids (and their teeth) in for a proper cleaning.  Megan, our lovely dental hygienist, has known the kids since they were little and is a good assessor of their dental habits.  As she cleans their teeth, she lets them know where they are doing well and where they need improvement.  It seems they always need improvement with those pesky back molars.  Similarly, my stories are lucky enough to be scrutinized by a trusted, and sometimes brutally, though lovingly, honest set of dental experts, otherwise known as critique partners.  So my last bit of  “flossy” advice is to find one or two, or small group, of trusted writers who can critique your work and let you know where it needs extra flossing and where it shines!

Happy flossing all!

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Lunch at the Beach (with Seagulls!) and a Blog-cation

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With just a few weeks of summer left and a “Goodnight, Manger” book launch to get ready for, I have decided to take a little holiday from blogging so I can focus on family and fun book matters. I will be back  in September with brand new posts. In the meantime, here’s my favorite summer post from 2013.

A friend and I took our kids for a day at the shore this past Friday. It was a beautiful day with clear skies, mild surf and salty breezes. The kids spent the morning jumping waves and building sand forts. By lunch time they’d worked up hearty appetites and couldn’t wait to dig in to the delicious picnic we’d packed.

Sitting on boogie boards and towels, they unwrapped their sandwiches and took their first bites.  I, too, was about to dig in when, suddenly, I felt a nasty pinch and flapping of feathers. I screamed, just in time to look a seagull right in the eye.  He was trying to get my sandwich, but had gotten my finger instead.  Moments later, another seagull swooped in, this time successfully nabbing a chunk of my son’s sandwich right out of his hand. Looking up, we saw several seagulls circling overhead. “They’re dive-bombing us, Mom!” my son shouted. Then he and his friend stood and started stomping and waving to scare them off.   It didn’t work.  The seagulls kept circling and swooping.

By now the girls were screaming too. Thankfully, my friend kept her wits about her. “Sit down, everyone,” she said.  “I know what to do.”  Then grabbing our boys’ towels, she covered their heads as they sat on their boogie boards, making two makeshift picnic tents.  “If you keep your sandwiches hidden, they won’t dive in,” she explained.  She made similar tent for the girls and one for herself.  And sure enough, they worked!

Just look at the boys…

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and the girls….

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and my friend…

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Alas, I’d forgotten a towel for myself.  My solution?  My son’s orange t-shirt strategically flopped over my wide-brimmed hat provided just enough cover to thwart those nasty seagulls.

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Writing sometimes feels a lot like trying to eat lunch at the beach.  I begin the day with great intentions, but as soon as I sit down to write, those seagulls start swooping in. They might not look like birds, but if I’m not careful, things like email, Twitter, Facebook, laundry and dustbunnies, can easily snatch up all my writing time.  What I need is a tent!  For me that means turning off the internet, not answering the phone, and finding a distraction-free place to write.  And if those pecking dustbunnies and flying laundry baskets still distract, I just promise them that I’ll feed them in an hour, after I finish my feeding my muse.

How about you?  Is your writing time ever besieged by seagulls?  If so, what’s your solution?

STAYING AFLOAT: 4 Writerly Things I Learned From Noah and his Ark (And a GIVEAWAY!)

IMG_0257With the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK just a week away, I thought it would be fun to share four things Noah and his ark have taught me about getting boats, er stories, to float.
Don’t expect your boat to float overnight. When I first got the idea for GOODNIGHT, ARK my mind whirred with possibilities. Which animals would be scared of what?  How would they get to Noah’s bed? And how would Noah ever comfort them and return them to their bunks?  I knew early on that I wanted to write the story in rhyme but finding the perfect meter and line length did not come easily. So I played around with plot and form again, and again, and again. Each time I finished a draft, I’d put it away and work on other things for several weeks so I could see it with fresh eyes. I repeated this cycle for two years and each time the story improved so much that it ended up with two offers! That experience has taught me not to worry about how long a story is taking me to write. Instead, I relax and let creativity work at its own pace until my stories are buoyant and ready to set sail.
Every ARK needs an ARC. Even with all that revising, my agent thought the initial version of GOODNIGHT ARK I sent her was too quiet. In that early version, the storm escalated and animals kept piling in, but there was no sense of rising action or urgency in resolving the night-time pile up. Except for the fact that the animals changed, the scenes were essentially static. In other words what the ark needed was an arc! The story still needed to be soothing for littlest readers, so I knew any tension/ rising action I infused had to be playful and fun. It took many hours of writing and re-writing, but I hope readers will agree that the final version with its ark tipping, bed crashing buildup and stinky, yet ultimately soothing, resolution is anything but static. I now analyse all my stories for effective rising action, climax, and resolution early on in the writing process. One way I do this is by making a 32-page dummy. That way it’s easy to see if your scenes are static as they build across 14 – 15 spreads or if there’s a sense of rising action etc. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you have little ones at home who like illustrating your dummies!
Don’t overload the decks. Noah’s ark was sturdy and well-planned with three decks, but though Noah may have been tempted to bring aboard extra animals, thank goodness, he showed restraint and took only two of each. Overcrowding would have put a strain on provisions. Worse yet, the ark might have capsized! Likewise, as a writer, I’m sometimes tempted to overcrowd my story with cute phrases and details that only weigh down the plot. During early stages of a project, I don’t worry about overwriting. My goal at that point is simply to build my story. Before I let it out of the port, however, I make sure to streamline the plot so every word and event pushes the story forward.
Everything’s better with a buddy. Noah didn’t try to build the ark all alone. His family cheered him on and pitched in with the building, providing much needed moral support amid the taunts and jeers of the onlookers. Likewise, I’ve found that the long, hard journey to publication just wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family, my lovely agent, 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 last bit of ark-themed advice for staying afloat and giving your stories a floating chance, is to find a writing buddy or two to join you on the journey!
Don’t forget to enter the GOODREADS GIVEAWAY for a chance to WIN ONE OF FIVE COPIES of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK.  Press HERE to enter.  GIVEAWAY ENDS August 4th.
(NOTE: This post first appeared on the GROG blog as part of my first ever blog tour.)

WEEDING BAREHANDED: Thoughts on Tending Our Stories

photo 1My husband likes weeding with gloves on which definitely has its advantages. It keeps dirt from getting stuck under his fingernails and protects his skin against nettles, thorns, and other prickly bits of nature. It’s also an effective safeguard against the wayward poison ivy which occasionally creeps into our flower garden from the wild weed patch next door.

I, however, prefer weeding barehanded. Scandalous, I know. To me, gloves are a hindrance.  When I have them on, I can’t properly feel the roots of those pesky weeds. And when I have gloves on, one of two terrible things happens:  1) I end up extracting only the top portion of some weedy nuisance, thus encouraging future weedy growth, or 2)  my hands are so clumsy that I inadvertently pull up more than just weeds! Either way, my garden suffers.

But, weeds beware, without gloves I’m going to get you!  And yes it’s dirty  My nails get cruddy and the swirls and curves of my finger prints really stand out in muddy relief, but it also feels good. Barehanded, I feel a connection to the rich soil beneath my garden. And it’s easy to identify the roots of each weed and to extract them completely. If my garden could speak, I think it would thank me, because when I weed barehanded the garden looks better.  Much better.

My writing, too, needs weeding and it’s done best without gloves on. Barehanded revising is messy, but if you are willing to dig in to your garden of words – mud, worms and all – and if you are willing to get to the root of the weedy bits, even if it means getting cruddy in the process, your story will flourish. Indeed, if your story could speak, I am quite convinced, that like my garden, it would thank you.

Don’t be afraid to take off those writerly gloves of inhibition and really dig in to the messy process of revising!  And may your gardens, er stories, flourish!