THE POWER OF LISTS: Early Chapter Book Style

I am a list maker and have been all my life. As a child I wrote lists of what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays. I also kept lists of the books I read. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I even had a list of last names that I thought would be good for the main characters in my future books. Whipple was at the top of the list!

My mother was a list maker too. And so was her mother. I know this because my mother insisted that I make packing lists before traveling and showed me how to do it. And my grandmother kept lists on index cards documenting every single dinner party she ever hosted, who came, what time they arrived, and what she served. My daughter is now a list-maker too. This summer she kept a list of healthy snack and meal ideas which we still refer to regularly. 

Now that I’m mid-century age-wise and somewhat forgetful at times, I keep daily lists to help me remember the things I need to do. I also keeps lists of things such as blog posts I’d like to write about. For awhile, I kept a list of every new word I learned. And I still keep lists of the books I have read and the books I want to read. This post actually is becoming a list of all the kinds of lists I like to make.

The point is – I couldn’t survive without lists. Neither could my writing. Flip through any journal of mine and you will see lists. Lists of potential story ideas. Lists of potential character names. Lists of favorite memories. Lists of craft ideas and poem ideas. You name it, I’ve listed it. Indeed, lists have become one of  my go-to strategies for combatting writer’s block. But even after I have an idea and the creative juices are flowing, lists play a crucial role in developing that idea.

As I wrote each of my rhyming picture books, for example, I paused many times to make lists. I wrote lists of fun rhyming pairs and vivid sound words and more. And, as I point out to students at school visits, those lists helped immensely! Indeed, many of the words and ideas generated in those lists appear in the final versions of each book.

This month I’m applying this list strategy to chapter books. That’s right, as part of my challenge to myself to write a chapter book series, I have set a goal for myself to make a list plot ideas throughout the month of November. Actually, in this case, the list is a little more complex. I’m collecting vignettes or scenes for possible future use in this potential series, so my “list” includes not only one-word or short phrase “titles” for each possible vignette, but also a page or two of free-writing that potential story scene from the POV of my chapter book protagonist. 

Of course, it’s only November 5th. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m already excited about how this new chapter book-themed list is taking shape.  (And I’m blessed to have a chapter book critique group taking a similar challenge to keep me accountable – and I recommend that too.)

Are you a list maker? If not, why not give list-making a try this week as a way to get those creative juices flowing! Have fun!

FIVE Tips for Using FEEDBACK PRODUCTIVELY

One of the best decisions I ever made as a writer was to be open to critique.  By this I mean showing my work to others with the express purpose of receiving feedback. Over the years, these critiques have come from a variety of sources including teachers, editors, agents and fellow writers.  

It takes courage and thick skin at times, I but opening oneself to critique is an essential part of growth. With that in mind, here are five tips for using feedback productively. These are geared to writers, but I think they apply to other situations as well. 

FIVE TIPS FOR USING FEEDBACK PRODUCTIVELY

TIP #1:  BREATHE AND BE GRATEFUL

  • Recognize that each person offering critique is doing so in spirit of being helpful.
  • Try to set aside feelings of defensiveness or sensitivity to criticism.
  • Feedback is a gift! 

TIP #2: BEFORE YOU DIG IN, RECOGNIZE THAT THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FEEDBACK

  • GLOBAL: Overarching feedback which pertains to piece in entirety, addressing issues such voice, setting, pacing, marketability, heart and more
  • STRUCTURE/STORY LEVEL: Pertains to structure of piece: rule of three, cumulative, parallel, story arc etc.
  • SENTENCE LEVEL: Focuses on details of story at sentence level. May pertain to voice, character and any elements of story. More than just grammar, but can also include grammar, word choice, meter/rhyme.
  • PRESCRIPTIVE: Gives specific suggestions for what to fix. 
  • DIAGNOSTIC: Makes observations and asks questions without prescribing specific solutions.

For more thoughts on these, visit:

https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/story-level-versus-sentence-level-thoughts-on-revising/

https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/heres-what-i-tinkle-thoughts-on-critiquing-stories/

TIP #3: GIVE EACH CRITIQUE A FIRST READ THROUGH

  • This is your chance to get an overall sense of feedback. Don’t try to react or respond. Just read.

TIP #4: DIG IN MORE CLOSELY

  • Look for types of feedback. 
  • Interact with feedback: Take notes, use a highlighter etc.
  • Look for patterns in feedback. (Are several people saying similar things?)
  • Look for the deeper message behind the comment. (Maybe, for example, what they are commenting on about an unconvincing plot development, is really grounded in an issue of theme or character.)

TIP #5:  APPLY WHAT RESONATES

After you have thoughtfully considered all the feedback, it’s time to revise!  Remember, though, that this is YOUR story.  Feedback is a gift to help you bring it to the next level.  That doesn’t mean, however, that you must apply every suggestion to your story.  Choose what resonates, always remembering, that you, ultimately, are the crafter of your own writing and that you know best the heart of your story.

Most of all, enjoy the process, because this is what we writers do. repeating the process until our stories sing!  HAPPY WRITING ALL! 

HYBRID AUTHOR VISIT: Inspiring Young Writers in Australia!

A lovely 3rd grade teacher from Australia reached out to me because her students are writing their own stories and she thought it would be special if they could meet an author and ask questions about writing. This is the second time we have done this, but with a new group of students. Before the visit she read LOVE IS KIND to them. Next, because it was hard to get a steady “live” video connection, I sent them a short video introducing myself and welcoming them to ask me questions via email. I received their questions just before they went on holiday and returned them yesterday. Once again, their questions are WONDERFUL and I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them. I’m also including a short excerpt from my video chat with them. What a marvelous use of technology and wonderful way to inspire children near and far to be readers and writers.

First, the video clip:

Next, three of their amazing questions, along with my responses.

 How much do you write in a day?

Sometimes I write a whole page. Sometimes I write a few sentences.  Sometimes, if I’m at a tricky part and have some story bits that need working through, my writing will take the form of notes or lists.  But even when I’m not writing, I’m very often thinking about writing and what is going happen next in a story I’m working on. That’s why I always keep pen and paper handy.

 In your book, Love is Kind, why do you have different lengths of text on each page?

This is a very good question. It shows you are reading like a writer! I think it’s a matter of keeping the story varied and interesting. Just as it would be very monotonous to have every single sentence be exactly the same number of words, it’s very boring to have the text on every page look exactly the same. Variety is the spice of life, and that’s true in page layout as well.

 What inspires you to write books that include morals?

It’s not that I purposely write stories with morals. It’s more that in a good story the protagonist needs to grow and learn something and be a better Little Owl, for example, by the end than he was at the beginning.  This is true of life too, isn’t it?  We hope to grow and learn as we journey along life’s way.

Finally, here’s an invitation for teachers to please reach out to me if you would like a visit – either in person, or virtually, or some sort of hybrid like this! And I still have a handful of free KINDNESS AUTHOR visits left. For more details on that visit: https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/back-to-school-offer-celebrate-kindness-with-a-free-author-visit/

FINDING A CRITIQUE GROUP: Four TIPS for NEW WRITERS

After singing the praises of critique groups, I think it’s only fair now to offer a few tips on how to find a good critique group. After all, finding a critique group can be daunting, especially for a new writer who has been spending most of her/his time writing in isolation. At least, that was my experience as a new writer. I first posted these tips in September of 2016, but they are just as applicable today.

Here then are four tips, I’ve found helpful:

  1. Look inward.  First, decide what you want out of a critique group. Do you want an in-person group or an on-line group? Do you want a genre-specific group (i.e. picture books or poetry, YA or MG etc) or would you like a mix of genres? How much time are you willing to spend per week/month writing critiques? How often do you want to be responsible for submitting work? How big or small do you want the group to be?
  2. Network, network, network.  Once you have a sense of what you want from a critique group, you can use your social networks (on-line and in person) to see if anyone you know is part of a group. If so, is that group open to new members?  Another good strategy is to be pro-active at conferences to see if anyone is in a group that is interested in new members.  The SCBWI blue boards also have a thread devoted to critique groups seeking new members so that’s another possible venue to tap.  Finally, check your local library and book stores to see if they have groups that meet there.
  3. Do a little research.  Once you’ve discovered some potential groups, do a little research. Do the groups have both new and seasoned writers?  Have any members of the group be process? (In my experience, most of the better groups do.)
  4. Give it a try.  Once you have done all of the above, it might be time to take the leap and give it a try! If you feel it is the right step for you, apply to the group that sounds best for you.

Thanks for checking out these tips! I hope you will find, as I have, that being part of a critique group makes all the difference in your growth as a writer.  Happy writing, all!

Special note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider following my blog or “liking” me on my Facebook Author page, Twitter, or Instagram. I’d love the support and connection.

TOP TIP FOR ASPIRING WRITERS? Join a Critique Group

In the thoughtful category, children’s author Glenys Nellist has written an inspiring post about her top tip for aspiring authors:  attend a writing conference. I love her tip and I wholeheartedly agree that attending conferences is important. It’s a great chance to interface with editors and agents, for example, and to network with other authors. It even led to her first book offer! (Yes, you really should read her post.)

But what would my top tip be?  Hmmm… there are so many possiblities.  Writing daily, reading voraciously. Attending conferences. Yes. But I guess if I had to pick one top tip for aspiring writers, it would be to join a critique group.

Often when I chat with newer writers, I discover they’ve been writing in isolation. And very often the manuscripts they share would benefit from several more rounds of revision. As a new writer, I, too, was guilty of writing in quiet isolation, never sharing my work in progress with anyone (except maybe my husband or mother) and consequently sending pieces to publishers far too prematurely.

It wasn’t until I started sharing my work with a handful of trusted critique partners that my writing really improved. Joining a critique group also got me connected with other writers eager to learn and grow and succeed.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that being part of various critique groups over the years has made all the difference in my love for this writerly journey.

Here then, with gratitude to my awesome, trusted critique buddies, are FOUR wonderful perks I’ve enjoyed by participating in critique groups.

1. COMMUNITY SUPPORT:  Writing can be lonely and the intricacies of the publishing world are certainly confusing. What a blessing it has been to be part of various critique groups that have included both new and seasoned authors, all eager to support and encourage each other, providing advice and insights along the way.

2. FRIENDLY ACCOUNTABILITY:  Most critique groups have rules for submitting and sharing work. Members are expected to abide by those rules and are kept accountable by the other members in the group. My current online group, for example, has seven members and we each take turns submitting one manuscript per week. I’ve also met virtually for in-person critique a couple of writing buddies during the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to set a story aside because I’m stuck over some sticky wicket, but instead I’ve pressed on.  Why?  Because my critique group was counting on me (and cheering me on) to produce a presentable draft.

3. FRESH EYES AND FRESH PERSPECTIVE: I am grateful for the honest, thoughtful feedback I’ve received from my critique partners. Indeed, there’s nothing like fresh eyes on your story to give you much needed perspective.  I must confess, however, that I have grown as a writer, just as much, if not more, from giving feedback to others. Sometimes it’s easier to see what is and isn’t working in someone else’s writing. And if you can articulate that for your critique partner, you not only help them, but you can most likely apply that feedback , or some variation of it, to your own writing.

4. DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR GENRE:  Finally, participating in a critique group offers members a chance to gain a deeper understanding of their genre. This happens quite naturally as you read and respond to each others’ work.  For example, when critiquing each others’s work, members in my groups will often suggest helpful titles to read, perhaps pieces that follow a similar structure, or that have a similar theme.  Through this process of feedback and discussion and reading suggestions, our understanding deepens and our skill improves.

Now it’s your turn. What critique group perks have I missed?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy reading, writing, and critiquing all!

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. I plucked this oldie, but goodie, from the September of 2016.

PLUCKING SAPLINGS: Thoughts on THE LITTLE PRINCE and, of course, WRITING!

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One of my favorite books as a child was LE PETIT PRINCE which I read in French because we were living in Paris at the time.  My teacher, Mme. Lucas, chose it for our class because it was relatively simple in terms of word choice and sentence length, which was perfect for intermediate level students (and foreigners) like me.  But even as an eleven year old, I understood that there was more to the story than the relatively simple word choice and plot structure.  THE LITTLE PRINCE, I soon discovered, had the magic ability to touch readers on different levels.  It was my first exposure to allegory and symbolism and reading it brought storytelling to life for me in a new way that still resonates with the reader and writer in me.

But, there was one part of the book that for years I just didn’t get. What was up with those pesky baobabs? The Little Prince was so adamant about plucking them the minute they sprouted on his little asteroid B612, that he insisted the narrator draw a picture of what a planet overrun by baobabs might look like as a warning to children who might travel to faraway planets as he had. “If you attend to a baobab too late,” he warned, “you can never get rid of it again!” As a child, the picture of the baobab infested planet was of my favorites because I thought it so preposterous.

To this day, every time I pluck a wayward oak or maple or elm sapling, I think of the Little Prince and those baobabs which is, in and of itself, a testament to the power of story. It wasn’t until last summer however, when an unusually large number of Rose of Sharon saplings invaded a corner of our back yard, that I fully appreciated his insistence on attending promptly to wayward saplings.

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At first, I ignored our sprouting Roses of Sharon. After all, they were small and green and seemingly harmless, right?  By end of summer, though, I had second thoughts and decided I should pluck them.  And guess what? The Little Prince was right!  I had waited too long. It was such hard work plucking all those tenacious little saplings that I vowed never again to ignore a wayward sapling.  However, I noticed this summer that I didn’t quite get them all, which attests to his princely wisdom.

I think the Little Prince’s wisdom can be applied to our writing as well.  First,  if we’re not careful, just like that baobab-infested planet, the little planet that is our work-in-progess can quickly become overrun with filler words, tell-y descriptions, forced plot twists etc.  Our job as writers, then, is, first, to be able to recognize those unwanted story bits, and second, to be willing to pluck them, just as the Little Prince insisted, before they take over our story planet.  

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But the Little Prince didn’t pluck everything. He allowed some seedlings to grow, like his treasured rose. He tended to that rose with the utmost care because she, unlike the baobab, was the perfect size for his planet.  And he liked her company. Likewise, our writing notebooks and computer files are filled with all sorts of stories-in-progress.  Some have more potential than others. The trick is to have the discernment to see which story seedlings are worth pursuing so they grow into magnificent – publishable – stories.  

With that last thought in mind, I’d like to share one final image. Nine years ago I spotted a wayward sapling growing in the garden by the fence.  It was a nice little sapling and I kind of liked it there, so let it be and it grew… and grew… and grew. It now provides nice shade in that part of the yard. It turns out it’s an elm, the offspring, probably, of the old elm just up the street that had to be chopped down last summer because, after almost 100 years, it was sick.  And now… there’s a new tree – with a new story to tell.  

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This week as you sit down to write, what kinds of seedlings do you spot – both within your stories-in-progress and in the larger body of your ideas and projects? Are there some story bits that need to be plucked or stories-in-progress that need to be set aside? Then do that! But surely there are also a few projects or ideas, that like this vibrant young elm, are meant to survive and thrive and enrich the world. Don’t pluck those! Instead tend to them with loving care!  Happy writing, all! 

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. I plucked this oldie, but goodie, from the summer of 2018.

Want to Write a Chapter Book? Helpful Links to Get You Started.

Often times my little picture book fans, who have grown up just a little bit and are ready for chapter books, ask me if I have any “older” books they can read. The answer thus far has been no, but that’s going to change this summer! I have a fledgling idea for an early chapter book series and each day this summer I will be working towards making that idea a reality. As prep for the project, I’m reading up on some tips from the experts.  

And, just in case you’re interested in joining me on the chapter book writing journey, here are some helpful links to get you started.

Happy Writing!

How to Write a Children’s Chapter Book

Writing Chapter Books

Writing Chapter Books: A Look at the Numbers

Chapter Book Challenge!!! (This writing event takes place each March.)

Kidlit 411 Chapter Books (Includes more links!)

“Scuffin” or “Mone”: 4 TIPS to TEST the TASTINESS of your STORIES

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!

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few 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 April 2018 (but it was baked in 2016).

QUIET WALKS and BABY SQUIRRELS: Four Tips To Help the Writer in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew!)

On a recent walk, I noticed a squirrel scurrying up and down a tree carrying bits of thatch and leaves, to line her nursery, I guessed.  A couple weeks later this baby squirrel showed up on my porch. Could he be one her babies, I wondered? 

I don’t about you, but during this pandemic, going on walks has become a soul-nurturing necessity, so every day I strive to intentionally slow down and savor the little things. With all that’s going on the world right now, it would be easy to miss these little glimpses of joy and wonder and that would be a colossal shame. 

This deliberate slowing down has gotten me thinking about my life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying writing days are those in which I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder chirping birds or baby squirrels (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world with the child-like wonder we all once possessed.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves slowly enough, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from pausing to see the world from the unrushed and wondrous perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of child-like wonder and the pleasures of slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes. (During this time of social distancing, this can be done virtually!)
  1. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still – or go on a quiet walk as I do. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  1. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  As soon as libraries and bookstores re-open, settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.  (And for now, go investigate the books you have on hand, or tune in to the many virtual read-alouds that are temporarily available – thanks to the generosity of many publishers – during this unprecedented time.)
  1. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and revel in the wonder of small joys – both new and old – and transform them into amazing new writing pieces.  

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!