Caution: Writer behind the wheel!

“Caution: Student driver driving.”

I kept re-reading these four words as I waited in a long line at a stop sign. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this sign in the rear window of a car. I was fixated. I grinned. Then, suddenly, I bust out laughing. For gosh sakes, if anyone needs a sign in their rear window, its writers! Driving is prime thinking time; it’s when ideas hit.

For the record, I don’t imagine and drive! Well, it’s hard to explain. I guess I do. Ideas hit when I am: stuck in traffic and barely moving; in a long line at a stop sign or light; backing out of my driveway; or, have just parked. And, occasionally, I take a spontaneous detour, like when I recently saw a cathedral. I parked up close, jotted notes and drew pictures. What an excuse for arriving late! “Sorry, but, I drove 10 miles out of my way, because I needed to fine-tune a description of a building in my novel…”

So, does driving really shift something in our brains and fire up our creative engine? Researchers have found that any bodily movement builds brains, according to Kimerer LaMothe, PhD, author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. Yes, even driving! Every movement a human makes matters, and repetitive motions deepen and strengthen future attention and energy flow. Hmmm…sure sounds like typing, writing longhand, plus, all the routine movements of a writer – turning on a laptop, standing up and walking to a printer, shuffling through papers. And, don’t forget, every little movement involved in brewing coffee, tea, and tearing the wrapper off of chocolate.

After seeing that student driver sign, I came home and drafted a list (instead of revising my works in progress). Here’s my final list of signs for writer’s cars:

Caution: Writer driving.

Be patient. Writer driver decided to get rid of a character.

This vehicle makes frequent stops and turns frequently. Writer driver pulls over to scribble ideas.

How’s my driving? Call your librarian.

Imaginary load.

Warning: Stay close. Writer driver studying you in her rearview mirror. Wants her main character to have your hairdo.

Caution: Slow moving vehicle. Writer driver sighted a landmark that she wants to feature in her book.

This vehicle stops at all railroad crossings. Writer driver studying crossings for accurate portrayal in her book.

Our adult writer driver is on a Revising Roll.

Perhaps, I should relocate my office to the inside of my car – and sit in my driveway and type away! I’ll wait till fall, when the temperature drops.

 

 

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Revisiting Misty of Chincoteague

This summer I went to a writing retreat (at the beach home of my friend and critique partner, Susan) on the pleasant shores of Delaware. The house was just north of Chincoteague and Assateague, the setting of my all-time favorite book from my elementary years, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but when I looked at a map and saw how close I would be, I knew I had to reread the book and to try to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies for myself.

A Newbery Honor book in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague was already considered a classic when I discovered the book. The book tells the story of wild ponies, who washed ashore from a the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s,* and lived on the island of Assateague “alone and forever part of the rocks and streams and wind and sky.”

Set in the 1940s, the nearby town conducts a yearly round-up of the wild ponies, swimming them across the narrow part of bay and selling the foals. Paul and his sister Maureen buy the sweetest little filly, who is named Misty, along with her mother, Phanotm, the most elusive, wild mare in the herd. Through heartwarming trials and tribulations, Phantom returns to the wild and Misty remains with Paul and Maureen.

It’s always interesting to reread books we loved as children as adults. Rereading Misty of Chincoteague, I was able to reflect on what was so delightful about the book to the 10-year-old me. But, rereading the book through the lens of adulthood, there were also some disappointments.

As an animal and nature loving girl growing up in suburban Denver, the wild ponies, the windblown island, and the adventures of the Paul and Maureen, siblings who live with their grandparents on a pony farm, captured my imagination.

As I reread the book, I could remember imagining myself as Paul or Maureen, galloping my horse through the ocean surf, riding a pony into town to do chores for the neighbors, and laboring on the pony farm where I mucked the stalls and gentled the mares. In my imagination, I raked clams and gathered oysters, halter-broke colts, rode in and won a big race, and hurled myself into the sea to save a colt from drowning.

It should be noted I have never done any of those things and I never will. But as a child I loved the idea  someone out there had. The book opened up my world and let me know there are many exciting and different ways that people live.

As an adult reader, I cringed at the underlying assumptions in the book. Paul, the brother, made all the decisions and experienced most of the excitement, while Maureen was stuck in the farmhouse doing chores. It was hard to read Paul’s constant belittling of his sister for being a girl. There were volatile social, economic, and environmental issues simmering beneath the text. The grandfather’s dialect was nearly impossible to read and his over-the-top adult moralizing set my teeth on edge. It wasn’t the exciting adventure story I remembered. In many ways it was just a flawed, old-fashioned children’s book.

But there I was… one hour away. Despite the summer traffic and tourist crowds we woke early and made the pilgrimage to Assateague Island National Seashore. We knew from our research the wild ponies are elusive and often visitors do not see them.

When we drove over the bridge onto the Assateague Island, there they were. The band of wild ponies grazed on the salt grass as the wind blew their manes and tails and the sunlit Atlantic sparkled behind them. The stallion imperiously watched his band, as a trio of juvenile males hung around looking wistful. A little foal with Misty’s coloring, gold and silver with a blaze down her forehead nuzzled and nursed as her mother, reminiscent of the wild mare Phantom, eyed me warily.

Just as my 10-year-old self knew, the wild ponies were special beyond belief. Seeing them was absolutely delightful. All my adult cynicism was suddenly gone and I was left with the magic of the moment. I was in a spectacular place, led by the power of a book, imagination and memory.

 

*This is a myth. Assateague National Seashore scientists have determined that the ponies are descendants of ponies grazed by colonial farmers on the island to avoid taxes.

 

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Getting Rid of an Attention-Grabbing Secondary Character

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Over the years, my MG historical novel has been critiqued, revised, submitted, requested, and rejected. It is a grueling process. In fact, there is only one reason why I have not abandoned this project all together – I love this story. I really do.

It was time to take some drastic action. Try something “out-of-the-box.” After thinking about it for weeks, I decided to hire a well-respected private editor to do an in-depth critique. I had recently attended her workshop and felt she would be a good fit for the story.

The editor agreed to do the work and asked me to email the book. I was elated, thrilled, and proud of myself for taking this step. Unfortunately, months went by without a word from her. I began to worry. I became convinced  the manuscript was beyond repair which was why it was taking her so long  to getback to me.  Finally, her response  arrived. I opened the attachment and braced myself for the  news. And there it was,  twenty-four, single-spaced, pages of notes.

I took a deep breath and began scrolling. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that the writing was strong. Yay! I had done a wonderful job of building my world. The setting was  authentic and believable. Double yay! She also loved my lively cast of characters. Jumping up and down!

But there was bad news. Well, let’s not call it that. After all, I had hired this editor to find out what wasn’t working. Bottom line – My main character’s story-worthy problem was not story-worthy. The stakes were too low. The outcome was unsatisfying. I needed to amp it up – make my protagonist’s dilemma more urgent and emotional. I read on, hoping  the editor had provided ideas on how to fix this. She had. She identified two meaty subplots that could  be “mined” and turned into story-worthy problems. Great! I could do that. I loved those subplots.

Except for one more problem. My main character  was being overshadowed by some of the more interesting secondary characters. Ugh!  I had done that on purpose. This particular protagonist was supposed to start out naïve and meek and evolve into a dynamic, action-taking person as the story unfolded. Only it wasn’t happening fast enough. This girl was a wishy-washy pushover who was being too influenced by those around her. Especially her rebellious older sister and her spunky best friend.

The editor assured me that this was a common mistake. Main characters needed to grow and change over the course of the novel. They had to stretch themselves and become risk-takers as they jumped over hurdles and surmounted obstacles. But this girl needed more pizazz, more flaws.  Readers were not going to care enough about her to follow her to the end of the journey.  She had to drive the action more, make larger mistakes, recover, flounder, and keep going until her new story-worthy problem was solved.

My head began to spin as I read through those twenty-four pages. This was going to be a ton of work. A total rewrite! Then, suddenly, a plot-twisting possibility popped into my brain. It was like an annoying mosquito buzzing in my ear.

Get rid of the rebellious sister,” it hissed.

“What?” I said, swatting at the invisible bug. “I can’t. I love that sister. And she’s critical to the plot.”

The buzzing continued. “She needs to gooooo.”

“No,” I said, more emphatically. “She’s too important.”

She’s not,” the insect hummed, flying around to the other ear. “She’s stealing the thunder. Grabbing the attention away from your main character. Delete her! NOW!”

I didn’t want to admit it, but the editing mosquito was right.

I opened my computer and took a deep breath. It was time to re-plot. I began by eliminating the snarky older sister. Then I focused on transplanting her “attention-getting” traits into my main character. I made a new plot-map and merged it with a SAVE THE CAT – Beat Sheet. It was only a preliminary plan, but I could already see my protagonist morphing into someone who was more impulsive and action-oriented. She would have good intentions, but would make a lot of mistakes as she went along. Readers would root for this girl. They would cheer her on as she ran amok before solving her brand new story-worthy problem.

I miss the sister. But deep down, I know my story will be stronger without her.

Have you ever had to get rid of a lovable secondary character? Let me know how it turned out.

 

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Bookstore Finds

I recently took a stroll through the children’s department at my local bookstore and picked up several good reads that I had to share. Two of the books are adaptations of other stories, and the last one was an original.

The Night Before the Fourth of July by Natasha Wing caught my eye. I realize I’m a little late for a pre Fourth of July read, but it’s a good summertime book. The family in the story start the day by putting on their festive red, white, and blue then take off for all the favorite Fourth of July activities including a parade, BBQ, and fireworks at the end. The story told is in rhyme and Amy Wummer has amazing art to accompany this spin off of the classic, The Night Before Christmas.

There Was An Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! by Lucille Colandro does a great job of  highlighting some of the sights you can see in space. From the moon, to stars, comets, and satellites, the astronaut devours everything in the universe. In the classic tale, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, the old lady swallows things that are progressively larger, until she dies, of course. This version deviates from that format but is entertaining and has facts about space included as back matter.

I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld is told in the light of seeing the glass half full through the prospective of a child. The repetitive phrase, I wish you more, is used to highlight overcoming some of childhood’s challenges like kite flying, tying shoes, and keeping your head above water in the deep end. And finding joy in the simple things. It’s told in a playful way that keeps the story moving all the way to the heartfelt end.

What are your favorite summertime stories?

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THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK

By Susan Wroble

Over the years, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and workshops, but after this year’s Spring RMC-SCBWI conference, I felt that what I needed most was some way to organize the information so that it would stay relevant and useful.

That’s when it hit. I already knew how to do this! About a dozen years ago, I had taken training in document organization. In addition to writing for children, I moderate a support group for parents whose kids are twice exceptional (2e). These are highly gifted students with a myriad of learning differences, and anyone who has a special needs kid knows that the paperwork mounts quickly. There are medical reports, 504s and IEPs, neuropsych evaluations… the list is endless. In my role as facilitator, I had attended a WrightsLaw Special Education Conference, where a major part of the conference was teaching parents to manage the papers.

And so, with a nod to both dyslexia, which is a frequent piece of the 2e puzzle, and my critique group, who affectionately refers to SCBWI as “Squibby,” I present to you THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK, also known as Children’s Writing Resources.

You’ll need a big three-ring binder (preferably the type with plastic outside that lets you slip a paper into the front and back covers and spine), a hole punch and a pencil. Slide something eye catching in the front plastic sleeve (I use a page from an SCBWI calendar) and make a label for the spine (my label says “The Squibby Notebook”).

The hardest — and most valuable — part of this system is the Table of Contents. Create a spreadsheet (landscape orientation) with the following five columns:

  • Date
  • Name
  • Title/Profession
  • Document Type
  • Notes

 

Make a header for the Table of Contents that reads “Children’s Writing Resources.” And then start filling in information on the spreadsheet. The “Notes” section is the most important. That’s where you connect the dots, linking this document to one or more of your works in progress. The notes section reminds you of why that document is important.

And then you file documents chronologically: oldest in front, newest at the back. With the pencil, date each document on the bottom right-hand corner. One of the beauties of this system is that each time you attend a webinar, workshop, or conference, you update that Table of Contents, and in the process review what the notebook holds. You’ll know which agents and editors you’ve seen and when you saw them. And with luck, by keeping the lessons at the top of your brain, and the documents corralled, you’ll shorten that journey from idea to publication. Happy filing!

 

 

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Revising those first ten pages

Edited page from thebookdesigner.com

I keep revising my first ten pages. Over and over again. And for good reason – it’s the first time you interact with a reader, it’s the time when they really decide if they’re going to be invested enough in your story that they’re going to keep reading. You need to establish your voice as an author, establish your main character as someone they will care about, create conflict to keep driving them forward, and on and on.

So much work to do. So much weight that the first ten pages carry – that the first page itself, that the first sentence has to carry.

You work and rework and rework it again. Share it with your crit group, share it with them again.

The right time to shine and polish and edit those first pages can vary for you in your process, and here are two right times to consider.

At the beginning. You basically write and write and rewrite and rewrite the opening until you feel that voice, that excitement, that opening, and then BOOM you rush through and write the whole rest of the book. It’s like a little toy race car that you rev and rev and rev and then whoosh you let it go and you cross the finish line.

This isn’t me. It’s not how I work. And I recommend that, if you take this approach, you make sure that you will eventually let that car go. That eventually you will leave those first pages and that you will finish the rest of your book and that your car has enough gas to get you there.

The second way is – at the very end. This is what I’m doing right now. I planned and plotted out my novel. I drafted my novel, revised it. I gave it to various readers, got their feedback, and revised it again. Now I’m majorly reworking the beginning. Cutting away, slicing away, melding chapters together, cutting chapter two completely, saving just a few lines of important information. Trimming again and again, literally thousands of words. If you’d asked I would have said, no way can my story stay intact if I cut that much. And yet it can. And it’s better. I’m also adding in more voice, making the beginning sound more like the middle where I was really hitting my stride.

There are surely other times to do it, but I think the key is that, if you perfect chapter one at the start of your process, don’t forget to finish your story. And once the book is finished, regardless of how much work you put in, be prepared for how much work you may still need to do on the beginning to get it right.

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Hot Trend: Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are one of the hottest trends in children’s book publishing. From mathematicians to ancient astronomers to obscure inventors, picture books are bringing inspiration and understanding about how real people impact the world in which they live.

My published works are early reader biographies, so I have experienced researching and writing about people with an inspiring story to tell. I admire the people I write about and enjoy the challenge of conveying their story, as well as their life and times, to young readers.

My next project is a picture book biography. To understand what publishers are looking for, I have read hundreds of picture book biographies, which has been an education in itself. I have been awed and inspired by the lives depicted in the books.

Over and over, I have learned about people whose stories are not well known, but who lived compelling lives. The new crop of picture book biographies contain stories of courageous people who overcame challenges, while others highlight someone who saw a problem in the world and dedicated their life to a solution. The books show how creativity and inventiveness led to inspired lives or how a person’s moral or intellectual strength gives a person direction and meaning. Such stories inspire readers to pursue their own passions with hope and determination.

A picture book biography is limited in scope- 32 or 40 pages, 1,000 or so words. It also must be written to appeal to a child’s understandings. A cradle to grave exploration of a person’s life is not possible given the format or the audience. These authors have winnowed down the stories to their essence in purposeful and imaginative ways.

As an author and not an illustrator, it has been interesting to me to study how the text and the pictures work together to tell the story in a picture book biography. The author does not need to expend words describing how their subject looks or the setting, because the pictures can surround the words with those details. The text is as carefully rendered as the pictures, with each of the words adding to the story.

After reading so many picture books biographies, I highly recommend them for children and adults. I’ve included the titles of twenty books that stood out for me… and left many more off this list.  I hope the intriguing titles will draw you in and make you want to read them or to share them with a child. Prepare to be inspired.

  • I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
  • Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee
  • The Boo-Boo’s That Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein and Chris Hsu
  • Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone and Steven Salerno
  • Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport
  • Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic and Brett Helquist
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
  • The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone and Kathryn Brown
  • The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanetter Winter
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant
  • Away With Words” The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen and Kristy Caldwell
  • When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin and Jose Ramirez
  • Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins and Lucy Knisley
  • Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham
  • Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Laura Freeman
  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson
  • Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner
  • Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon
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Dreaming of Audio Book Narrators

Many authors dream of seeing their book published, on shelves, in a library, or just in their hands. Others dream about which of their favorite publishers might take on their projects and make them a part of their publishing families.

I have now started dreaming of who would narrate my audio book.

For many years, I never really listened to audio books, and if I did, they were adult non-fiction. I remember going into the audio book section and deciding that I would pick out a fiction book. I don’t read romance, and yet I chose Black Hills (a romantic suspense) by Nora Roberts and pulled it off the shelf.

I was immediately swept away by the narrator, Nick Podehl. And I’m not the only one – he has narrated The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and a little book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

And in that moment, suddenly I thought to myself that I would listen to books he narrated, even ones I might not necessarily pick to read, because he was just that good. Imagine if he narrated one of mine!

The next narrator I vocally fell in love with? David Tennant, as I listened to him narrate How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, taking on myriad voices, including dragons. I had a total fangirl moment while at the movie Ferdinand when I thought he was voicing Angus, and couldn’t wait for the credits to see if I was right (I was). My dreams got more specific. Tennant is Scottish, and I started to wonder – could I set any of my books in Scotland to up my chances of scoring him as a narrator?

Soon after that, I was totally entranced with Katherine Kellgren and her amazing voicework in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. I loved her narration so much that I became immediately attached to her and to the way she voiced these beautiful and charming characters, complete with howls. Sadly, Kellgren passed away in 2018, and I experienced such a feeling of loss for her, for the rest of the Incorrigible Children’s series, and for my own future hypothetical stories.

My most recent dream narrator is Jim Dale (join the club!). One of my son’s was delighted to find Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling in the audio book section of the library one day, and of course we checked it out. With so many characters, it was amazing to hear the way Dale made each one come alive, each character recognizable before we even get to the dialogue tag. It inspired me to work harder to make my characters unique. And Dale himself is recognizable to me, now, as well – I had such joy when I realized that he is also the narrator on the version of Peter and the Wolf by Sergey Prokofiev we listened to last month.

Audio books are not just a wonderful way to experience a new story, but fodder for you to dream as a writer – who would you love to hear read one of your books?

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Where, oh where can paper be?

It’s the most desperate feeling. An idea hits – for dialogue, a character or a chapter, and darn it, I can’t find a piece of paper. Help!

It happened last week. I was driving and thinking about one of my picture books, and finally figured out the ending (that I’ve revised umpteen times). I know, I shouldn’t drive and revise.

I couldn’t wait until I got home. I had to tend to this spark immediately. So, I pulled into a parking lot and opened my front seat console where I stash scraps of paper. I saw my pen, but no grocery receipts, dry cleaner pick-up tickets (which have lots blank space!) or business cards. My always-reliable mini notebook was filled up. Surely, I would find a napkin or paper or facial tissue in my purse. Nothing, not even a bookmark in my book.

Next, I checked the glove compartment. The car manual cover? Nope. The front and back are black. Obviously, they didn’t have writers in mind when they designed it!

I considered typing into the notepad on my cell phone, but it hardly had any power. Then, I felt under the passenger seat. Something slippery. I pulled out an ad circular and tested my pen on the one-inch margin at the top. It worked! I wrote in cursive, small enough to fit sentences in the margins on the front page and turned the page… I was on a roll! I wrote a paragraph and a new opening for a magazine article.

Thank God for circulars! The last time I felt that desperate, I resorted to writing an idea for a picture book on my empty coffee shop cup. Perfect cardboard and generous space.

But, have to say, I still prefer napkins, especially restaurant ones. Oh, and lest I forget, giftwrapping and paper bags.

By the way, I wrote this blog on the back of a bill.

What have you written on lately?

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Where, oh where could paper be?

It’s the most desperate feeling. An idea hits – for dialogue, a character or a chapter, and darn it, I can’t find a piece of paper. Help!

It happened last week. I was driving and thinking about one of my picture books and I finally figured out the ending (that I’ve revised umpteen times). I know, I shouldn’t drive and revise.

I couldn’t wait until I got home. I had to tend to this spark immediately. So, I pulled into a parking lot and opened my front seat console where I stash scraps of paper. I saw my pen, but no grocery receipts, dry cleaner pick-up tickets (which have lots blank space) or business cards. Surely, I would find a napkin or facial tissue in my purse. Nothing, not even a bookmark in my book.

There wasn’t any old snail mail laying around on the floor of my back seat. I checked the glove compartment. The car manual cover? Nope. It has a solid black front and back cover. Obviously, they didn’t have writers in mind when they designed it!

I considered typing into the notepad on my cell phone, but it hardly had any power. Then, I felt under the passenger seat. Something slippery. I pulled out an ad circular and tested my pen on the one-inch margin at the top. It worked! I wrote in cursive, small enough to fit sentences in the margins on the front page and turned the page… I was on a roll! I wrote a paragraph and a new opening for a magazine article.

Thank God for circulars! The last time I felt that desperate, I resorted to writing an idea for a picture book on my empty coffee shop cup. Perfect cardboard and generous space.

But, have to say, I still prefer napkins, especially restaurant ones. Oh, and lest I forget, giftwrapping and paper bags from stores.

By the way, I wrote this blog on the back of a bill.

What have you written on lately?

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