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.

VACUUM BAGS: Thoughts on Beating the Inner Editor

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Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!  No, my vacuum cleaner’s not broken. It’s just that when my kids clean up their toys, they inevitably miss a few little pieces, camouflaged in the dense pattern of the oriental carpet. They hate losing pieces, so in addition to increased vigilance at clean-up time, we’ve established a fail-proof method of retrieving lost toy bits.

Whenever the vacuum bag is full, we take it outside, place it in on a disposable plain surface,  and carefully cut open the bag. Then, using tweezers and sticks, we gently and methodically go through the contents. As each lost item is found, my kids rejoice. It’s almost like Christmas morning emerging from a vacuum bag! Over the years, this strategy has saved countless doll accessories, beads, and Lego pieces from being thrown away.

If you think about it, the “delete” button on your computer is a lot like a vacuum cleaner. When I first began writing, I pressed “delete” far too often to vacuum up words or phrases I didn’t like. At the end of the day, I’d find myself staring at one or two flat, stiff paragraphs or verses and all the variations I’d played with and then hastily “vacuumed up” were gone forever!  I quickly learned it was too early in the process to be tossing phrases out.

Here are four strategies I use now to keep my inner editor from throwing away words too soon.

Ditch the eraser. When writing longhand I never, ever cross out or erase anything.   Instead, I put my extra thoughts in parentheses or write two versions – one right after the other – separated by dashes.

Keep a word repository. When typing, I don’t permanently delete anything. 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 when it comes to revising I have lots to work with.

Save and date drafts. Throughout the writing process, I keep a separate file for each piece, saving and dating “in-progress” copies of each round of revision. This helps me see the progress and journey my piece has made so far, which in turn helps me shape and polish the final version.

Be prepared. Wherever I go, I try to keep pen and paper handy so I don’t lose phrases or potential story twists that pop in my head.  Safe on paper, I can transfer them to the appropriate project file to be excavated as the project progresses.

How about you?  How do you keep track of deletions/ additions as you write, revise, and polish your pieces?

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 December 2012. I was reminded of it recently because as I was vacuuming, I heard the tell-tale clatter of something other than dust being sucked up by the vacuum. Upon retrieval, I discovered it was – money! (Just a quarter, but still.)

PORCH PONDERINGS: What’s YOUR Beeswax?

I’m trying something new on Facebook today. What do you think? (And what’s YOUR beeswax?)  

Check out the original post that inspired the video here. Happy Writing!

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!

Rejection, Ladybugs, and Setting New Goals

2018 has been a mixed writing year for me.  I have had the joy of two new picture books releasing and all the celebration that entails including author visits – my favorite!  At the same, however, in the new picture book department,  I’ve received nothing but rejections. 

Discouraging, yes? Well, sort of, but I’ve never been one to wallow in self-pity, so as a form of “chin up” therapy for myself and because I LOVE writing short, snappy pieces, in early November, I set myself a new goal. 

Now, in addition to working on new picture book manuscripts and revising others that are still in progress, each week I have decided to write one new poem or story suitable for magazine publication – to be sent when ready. Not only does this new goal keep my creative juices flowing in fun and diverse ways, it also helps hone my picture book rhyming skills. In other words, good writing leads to good writing and that’s a good thing!

And today, guess what I received in the mail? My first acceptance in what seems like a long little while! It’s for a rhyming rebus, starring one of my favorite beetles – the ladybug. It has been accepted by Clubhouse Magazines to appear in their July 2019 issue of Clubhouse Jr! What fun it will be to see that in print!

And, now, a special thanks to Miss A. for letting me celebrate by sharing her hand-made ladybug sun catcher which hangs cheerily in my kitchen window, a sweet reminder that if rejection is starting to get you down – spread those invisible wings – and set yourself some “chin up” goals!

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.)

LOVE IS KIND Blog Tour STOP FIVE: A Simply Seven Interview!

IMG_3148 2Today I’m delighted to be interviewed by Jena Benton as part of her Simply Seven Interview Series.  Interested in learning a little bit more about the backstory behind LOVE IS KIND?  Then grab one of these virtual cookies, baked by Miss A, and head on over!  I’ll make it easy for you.  Click here.  Oh, and there’s a giveaway too! Thank you for having me, Jena! I enjoyed answering your very thoughtful questions.

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.

“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!