PEE-EW! The Power of Smell in Writing

Pee ew stinky

Recently, prompted by a very whiffy truck ahead of us, my daughter and I passed a most enjoyable half-hour brainstorming all the smells we love and hate. Some we agreed upon. Others we did not.  Still, we both agreed that smells add richness to life.

The lists we compiled serve as fragrant and stinky  reminders that kids LOVE the idea of SMELLINESS and that, as a picture book author, I need to remember my readers noses. Take a whiff (rather than a peek) at our lists below. What would you add?

Our List of FAVORITE SMELLS… coffee percolating,  puppy ears, strawberries, asphalt after a summer rain, salty sea air, damp earth, pizza in the oven, a clean baby, skunk (faint), lilacs in bloom, a crackling fire, candle smoke, newly mown grass, bubble gum, spring, balsam needles,  hamburgers on the grill, freshly laundered sheets, pumpkin pie, impending snow, herbs snipped from the garden, freshly sharpened pencils, old books, freshly polished wood, crayons, bacon sizzling, rubber boots, spent matches, peppermints, perfume, vanilla, honeysuckle, clover, brownies baking, mountain air, waxed hallways, leather, curry, onions sautéing, cedar chests, roses, hay, apple pie in the oven, soup simmering, new sneakers.

Our List of STINKY SMELLS… hot tar, mucky marshes, skunk (strong), cigar smoke, bus fumes, sour wash clothes, new mulch, dirty diapers, rotten eggs, doggy doo, butt snorts (as we call them in our family), clammy feet, stinky socks, wet wool, moldy cheese, manure, chicken coops, summer garbage cans, nail polish, sweaty armpits, old melon rind, gym lockers, dank cellars

A hint of odor, skillfully incorporated, can be a powerful addition a story. Indeed, I repeatedly hear from parents everywhere that their kids favorite spread of all in GOODNIGHT, ARK is the one in which two creatures, who shall remain nameless, make a BIG stink!

What whiffy addition will you add to your WIP this week?

Happy writing!

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 2016. 

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PONDERING SNAILS with EMALINE: Four Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

FullSizeRender (1)A special part of my recent trip to England was spending time with a friend who recently moved to London with her husband and three adorable daughters. My day with Charise began with a reading of “Goodnight Ark” to her girls’ classes at their lovely school in Hampstead, a village of London.  That was a wonderful treat in and of itself and I especially enjoyed answering the children’s questions after each reading, asked in charming British accents.

 

 

The readings ended at 10:30 and I think Charise’s youngest, who is just three, was a little sad not to get to spend the rest of the day at school with her sisters. It all turned out okay, though, because in the end, since Emaline was with us, it was she who got to show me the snails.

This is how it happened. First, Emaline and her mom gave us a walking tour of Hampstead. As we walked Charise pointed several spots that will be featured in the upcoming film Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, which I now can’t wait to see.  After our walk, it was still too early for lunch so we stopped in at their home for a few minutes.

Once home, Emaline took great pleasure in showing us her garden – and that’s where I met the snails. This particular morning there were only two. “Do you think this one’s the other one’s mum?” Emaline asked as we watched them move slowly across a patio stone. “Perhaps,” I answered. “Or maybe they’re friends. Maybe they play together. What do you think?”

Then, in quiet whispers, Emaline and I watched them for the loveliest long time. And, as we crouched there, I thought how good it felt to pause from the busyness of the day to ponder snails – how they might be related, where they might be going and what they might be doing etc.

This adorable interaction got me thinking about life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying days are those in which, like Emaline, I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder snails (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world anew.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from crouching down and seeing the world – snails and all – from the perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of three-year-olds, snails and 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.
  2. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still. 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.
  3. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  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.
  4. 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 ponder the snails this week.

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?

CROCUSES in FEBRUARY:  Thoughts on Rushing the Writing Process

Look at all these crocuses I spotted in my neighborhood this week. I mean, really, it’s only February, way too soon to be blooming!  Every time I walk past them, I think, what’s the rush?  I mean, they’re dazzling, but still… as a writer I don’t ever want to be tempted to force one of my stories to bloom too soon.

Early on, though, I have to admit I was like a crocus in February, only my stories weren’t dazzling. Far from it. The first few stories and poems I sent to publishers way back when were sent far too prematurely! They were stilted, clumsy and rough.

I should never have forced them to bloom.

It took me a couple of years to really take to heart the truth that good writing takes time – lots of time.  But now that I’m a seasoned writer, I can see that my best pieces are the ones I’ve let sit and then revisited over several nicely spaced intervals.  These intervals can be as short as a week or as long as a year. But, for me, taking time between revisions is a great filter for weeding out unnecessary words, seeing plot flaws and inventing even better twists and turns. The challenge? I’m impatient by nature. But, even though it’s hard, I’ve learned that taking time to let pieces sit between revisions is well worth it.

So back to those February crocuses. They’re pretty, yes, but something about them doesn’t feel quite right. Each time I see them- and they are everywhere this week – I feel the need to remind myself (and maybe you need reminding too) that writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, you don’t have to be like a crocus in February.  In fact, it’s far better, in my opinion, to let your story bloom when, and only when, it is ready.

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

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!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts on Carving Stories

IMG_1284There’s a sudden new nip in the air and it finally feels like fall is here.  With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this pumpkin-themed post from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.

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

 

FINDING A CRITIQUE GROUP: Four Tips for New Writers

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My wonderful in-person critique group celebrating the release of my first picture book with me!

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.

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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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.)
  1. 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!