WRITING TREASURE: My Little Antique Iron

IMG_0332Among the treasures I keep on my desk is a little antique iron. It belonged to my grandmother. Known as a “flat” or “sad” iron, which is an old word for “heavy”, my little iron has a very distinct #2 on its back.  After a little research, I learned that iron manufacturers numbered their products by size. The larger the iron, the larger the number. A #2 iron is on the small side. By the time this little iron was heating up on the stove, all the necessary lead-up work – the sewing (if it was a new garment), the washing, and the overall pressing – would have been completed. Only the last dainty details would have remained such as the delicate pressing of the lace on a collar or the little pleats on a shirt front.

Though in real life I despise ironing, I find this little iron inspiring.  To the writer in me, it signifies joy. It’s a reminder that after weeks of laboring and revising, there comes a point where my story is almost finished! The overall story is well-stitched and the time has come to delicately and attentively press through each sentence, making sure that every last comma and verb agreement are correct.

At what stage of the writing process do you find yourself today? Are you in the final, exhilerating round of pressing out every last comma, or are you still stitching away?  Either way, I hope that my little iron encourages you to press on!  Happy ironing, er writing, all!

Note: With just a few weeks of summer left, I have decided to take a little holiday from blogging so I can focus on family. I will be back on August 28 with brand new posts. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a few favorite oldies, like this one from spring 2015. 

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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?

REVISION REQUEST! HOORAY! Now What? (One Author’s To-Do List)

I’ve been so busy revising a picture book manuscript this past week, per an editor’s request (yay!), that I didn’t think I’d have time to write a blog post. Then I realized it might be interesting and maybe helpful if I shared my process.  So, here’s a list of what I have done over the last several days.

  1. Printed out a fresh, clean copy of the story I’d submitted.
  2. Read and re-read it several times, over a period of a day or two.
  3. Pulled up every earlier version of the story in question and read and re-read each as well looking for nuggets to possibly re-work into my revision.
  4. Brainstormed revision ideas in my notebook and recorded snippets of inspiration – possible new rhyme pairings and plot escalations – using the notes feature on my iPhone.
  5. In several sessions, separated by self-imposed time filters (i.e. walks, dishes, school work etc.) I wrote and rewrote until I had something I felt good about.
  6. Sent my revision-in-progress to a couple of trusted critique partners.
  7. Repeated step five and six as needed (and it was definitely much needed).
  8. Celebrated with a happy dance when, at last, I had a revision that I was really happy with.
  9. Resisted urge to send it right away to my agent – knowing that one extra time-filter can never hurt.
  10. Spent afternoon diverting myself by volunteering at our local history museum’s Sheep to Shawl Festival.  That littlest one is only two days old, by the way.
  11. Finally, after one more read through, I wrote a note to my agent and got my revised story ready to email first thing Monday  morning.

What would you add to the list?  Happy revising!

Write Like WONDER WOMAN (FOUR Tips for PICTURE BOOK WRITERS)

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Me- circa 1976 – during my “Wonder Woman” phase

Recently I was asked in an interview if, even as a child, I always wanted to be a children’s author.  And after a bit of thought, I answered no. When I was a child what I really wanted to be was Wonder Woman! I had her twirl perfected and everything.  Activating her super powers, I would spend hours with friends, or sometimes alone, creating fantastic make-believe scenarios.  These were the plot lines that brought wonderful play worlds to life.

As picture book writers we, too, have super powers we can activate to create engaging stories.  So now, in celebration of my first career dream as a super hero, here are FOUR SUPER POWERS we call all use to bring our wonderful picture book stories to life:

The POWER of the KID-FRIENDLY PROBLEM:  Losing a favorite toy, wanting a cookie, being afraid of a storm, not wanting to take a bath. These are just a few examples of kid-friendly problems in the books we read.  A kid-friendly problems connects the reader to your story.

The POWER of PICTURES that ADD: The hallmark of picture books, of course, is that they are illustrated. But there’s more. Good picture book writers let the pictures tell part of the story. Sometimes the pictures even include important details that are not in the text. (See Mo Willem’s KNUFFLEBUNNY for a great example of this, or GOODNIGHT, ARK for that matter.) As you write and revise your stories, put stars next to parts of the story that could be told (or enhanced) by the illustrations.  Then consider omitting the words from the text, instead substituting a simple illustration note, but only if absolutely necessary.

The POWER of the PAGE TURN:  With only a few sentences per spread, picture books include almost constant page turns.  These built-in pauses provide authors a great opportunity to build suspense. Consider pausing an exciting moment mid-sentence as you write.  What happens next?  To find out kids will have to TURN THE PAGE! (Note: creating a book dummy during revisions is a great way to figure out how you can take advantage of page turns.)

The POWER of HUMOR:  Kids love to laugh, or at least chuckle, and so do parents. So anytime you can infuse humor into your story, via text or illustration, go for it!

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. 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

 

Guest Post: FEELING STUCK? JUST ADD FOOD with Ariel Bernstein

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Today I am delighted to have fellow New Jersey author Ariel Bernstein as my guest. I met Ariel at the NJSCBWI Conference this past June. She is talented and articulate and joins us today with some tasty writing advice!  Take it away,  Ariel!

There are a lot of ingredients you can add to make an irresistible children’s book. A bold beginning, a charming voice, words that are fun to read aloud, and of course, a snappy twist ending. But sometimes when you are mixing all of these different parts together, you can end up feeling a bit stuck. You may have an original opening and a sensational end, but the middle is feeling lackluster. One thing I do to work out the kinks in a story is add food to it.

There are some books where food is an intricate part of the story, such as DRAGONS LOVE TACOS and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. But in others, food is used more sparingly in ways that help move the story forward.

Food can be a great way to show a character’s personality. If a character serves mushy oatmeal to children, you can be pretty sure they are not to be trusted, such as Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf. Choosing to eat some food versus others, like snozzcumbers instead of ‘human beans’ in THE BFG and eating carrots instead of bunny rabbits in WOLFIE THE BUNNY, help to explain characters’ trustworthiness and kindness.

Food can be used to convey mood and tone. Comfort food such as chocolate chip cookies are often used to create peaceful scenes of contentment and happiness. After much rousing competition between Billy and Javier in MUSTACHE BABY MEETS HIS MATCH, it’s no surprise that their eventual friendship at the end is shown in a scene of them eating stolen chocolate chip cookies together. And you could always be sure that Voldemort and his Death Eaters would never turn up in a scene to cause chaos when Harry Potter and his friends were drinking their favorite Butterbeer.

Food can even be used as red herrings. In LITTLE ELLIOT, the initial goal of Elliot’s seems to be getting a cupcake. But when Elliot meets Mouse, it turns out what he wants most of all is a friend. When Elliot and Mouse get the cupcake by working together, it ends up being the icing on the cake.

In my chapter book, WARREN AND DRAGON’S 100 FRIENDS, I thought about how to show the characters’ personalities. Dragon is a vain and sometimes selfish character, but I also wanted to add charm, so I decided to make him obsessed with marshmallows. It became a recurring joke throughout the story and whenever I wasn’t sure how to keep a scene moving, writing in a small bit about Dragon and his marshmallows provided humor and consistency.

Of course, not all books need food in them. But if you’re not sure where to go with a story, adding food can be a fun way to experiment and possibly come up with something delicious. And no matter what, doing the research will be often be its own reward.

13689753_10209437144387419_1500425181_nAriel Bernstein is a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, I HAVE A BALLOON, illustrated by Scott Magoon, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books in Fall 2017. Ariel’s chapter book series, WARREN & DRAGON’S 100 FRIENDS, will be published by Viking Children’s. Ariel can be found at http://www.arielbernsteinbooks.com and on Twitter at @ArielBBooks.

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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Since today is National Skunk Day, I simply can’t resist re-sharing these writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity. So, please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook last year, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

P.S. You might also enjoy this skunk quiz!

THE POWER OF LISTS: Getting Your Creative Juices Flowing

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Please join me over at my online critique group’s blog – PENS AND BRUSHES – for some thoughts on making lists as a writer. I’ll make it easy for you. Press here.

 M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E: Thoughts on SOUND Effects in Picture Books

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A few years ago, my husband and I were eating a lovely supper with our son, age three, when one of us, who shall remain nameless, passed some extremely audible gas. Before anyone had a chance to be mortified, my son squealed with delight: “M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E!” I share this because it’s a perfect example of the magical effect sounds have on young readers. They’re so mesmerized by sounds that, even when sounds aren’t emitted naturally (as above), they create their own. Eavesdrop on any small child playing and quite often you’ll hear the putt-putt of imaginary cars, the whoosh of imaginary jets, or the tippa-tap of invisible fairy wands.
As writers for youngest readers, we can enhance our stories by tapping into this intrinsic love and infusing our texts with sound words. Technically called “onomatopoeia”, sound words can add richness to any writing, but especially to picture books. Indeed, one of my intentions in writing my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK was to infuse it with as many ear-pleasing sound words as possible. Thus the hail in my story goes pop pop and ping ping and the lightning flashes with a zip and a zing. The wind goes whoosh and the sheep baah as they dash into Noah’s bed. The book trailer the publisher produced gives a fun sense of how sound words infuse the story.

I’m so keen for sound words that when no perfect translation exists, I come up with my own. Here are some examples of ear-pleasing phrases I’ve concocted to capture special moments.  See if you can guess what they are. (Answers at end of post.) NO PEEKING!

A. Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!

B. Flump-flump! Flurp-flurp!

C. Sloggle, sloggle…
IMG_3152 Are you a collector? You know, the sort who collects shells, or bottle caps, or little toy cars (as my son used to)? Yes? Then perhaps you’d like to join me in a challenge. This week, with ear-pleasing wordplay in mind, I plan to collect sounds as I go about my day and then translate them into creative sound words for possible use in a future picture book or poem. I’ll be collecting my words in my writing journal, but any repository will do.

Need a little inspiration to get you started? Here are two great examples of picture books in which the author splendidly incorporates sound words, often made up, to add hilarity to the text.

IMG_0006.JPG In PLEASE SAY PLEASE! PENGUINS GUIDE TO MANNERS (Scholastic, 2004), author Margery Cuyler does a splendid job of infusing fun sound words into her story about a little penguin who invites his friends to dinner. Each spread depicts a humorously horrendous manner, with the more polite, preferred alternative depicted on the page turn. This book was one of my daughter’s favorites when she was little and includes sound words such as hee-hee, splat, and wheee. My daughter’s absolute favorite bit, however, involves a hearty bur-r-r-r-r-r-r-p! 

IMG_0007Candace Fleming’s MUNCHA! MUNCHA! MUNCHA! (Atheneum/Schwartz, 2002) about three persistent rabbits trying to get into Mr. McGreeley’s garden is also rich in onomatopoeia. As the story builds, Mr. McGreeley takes ever more drastic measures to keep the rabbits out. Each time the rabbits outwit him, Fleming humorously celebrates their triumph with a repeating, sound-pleasing, growing refrain that begins “Tippy-tippy -tippy, Pat!” and ends with “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” In between, she adds sound words that reflects their success in overcoming the latest rabbit-thwarting barrier created by Mr. McGreeley. For example, after Mr. McGreeley installs a wire fence around his garden to keep out the rabbits, Candace adds a “Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash!” to the interior of the refrain.  Later, when Mr. McGreeley builds a moat, Fleming adds a “Dive-paddle, Splash! Splash! Splash!”

 

Happy sound hunting and word building all!

Answers to Onomotopoeia Challenge:
A.            The sound of our vacuum cleaner picking little toy bits.
B.             The sound of a little wingless chick trying to fly.
C.             The slurpy sound little paws make when trying to trudge through a muddy puddle.
(NOTE: This post first appeared on the lovely British blog, Picture Book Den in August 2014).