Vivid Writing Through Photographs – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AWe’re often told to write about what we know, and writing what we know goes hand in hand with placing our stories in locations we are intimately familiar with. After all, our goal is to bring the setting to life in a believable way. Sadly, writers of picture books (myself included) don’t have the luxury of drawing out setting details. Much of this must be left to the illustrator. The advice given to picture book writers is to take a highlighter over everything that can be illustrated. Then, read again, skipping over those (marvelous, vivid, fun-to-write, poetic) sections to see if the story still makes sense. What is crucial to the story stays as illustrator notes…everything else goes out. (sniff… ouch…)  But still, the reader needs a handful of well-chosen words to move them from their reality into the setting between the pages of your book. With the use of photographs, taken in your chosen location, you’ll have what it takes to do this.

I recently finished writing a picture book which takes place on a farm. Now, if I had chosen Peru as my setting, I wouldn’t have any first hand knowledge of life there. I wouldn’t know what the living conditions are for the poor, the middle class, or the rich. I wouldn’t know what the local food looks like, what the typical garments are made of, or what homes look like. This is where photographs come in handy. If you’re lucky enough to live near your chosen location, go there to document as much as you can with your camera (or phone camera). Does your story take place on a farm? Visit a farm, photograph the animals, their pens, the barn’s interior, the farmer at work, and take careful notes of everything surrounding you that awakens your other senses (smell comes to mind). If you aren’t fortunate to live near your chosen location, you can go online and search for images of Peru, if that’s where your story takes place. Print out the images of the surroundings at different times of day as well as during the season your story takes place in. Find images of the local food, typical animals, clothing, occupations, and faces of the people. Once you have gathered these photographs, make a scrap-book you can reference. You’ll find that your writing comes to life.

Some other places to get pictures and more of your chosen location.

Hawaii sunsetIf you plan on setting your story in Hawaii, but have never been there, maybe a friend of yours has. I can promise you, most people jump at the chance to share their vacation pictures and will, no doubt, have lots of details to share about the climate, cuisine, customs, and locals.

Check through your blog followers. You might be amazed at how many are from distant places around the world you would love your next novel to take place. What a great way, no… make that fabulous way, to learn about life in other parts of the world and make a friend, too.

Have you ever noticed how good it feels when someone wants to know about your travels and shows an interest in seeing your vacation pictures? “Really? You want to see my photographs from Italy? Over coffee? And cake?” You bubble over with excitement and spill out stories, experiences, amazing encounters, unique experiences, and more. Most people jump at the chance to share their experiences.

The process of writing is more enjoyable when we’ve researched every aspect of our story and have a stack of photographs before us.

Our writing becomes vivid.

 

 

Mentor Text Study Questions – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AI’m coming into the final week of ReFoReMo month. (Read For Research Month for picture book writers and illustrators.) Each day we receive five new mentor texts to check out at the library, study, analyze, question, etc… If only my library (anyone’s library) had the five new picture books available on our daily reading list.

So what are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m reading (researching) a mentor text?

1. What is the central question, and does everything in the story try to answer that question?

Yes. Every story must have a central question. A rule I learned the hard way. After having a trusted friend and writer look over a manuscript a while back. The comment she made was that my story, though filled with great action, humor, and well crafted characters, was a bit like tangled Christmas lights. (Gadz!) Once I posted my central story question beside my computer and kept one eye on it and the other eye on my manuscript as I edited, I was amazed at how quickly my word count shrunk and how my story gained focus. One of those Ah Ha moments I treasure like crazy.

What other questions do I ask while researching mentor texts?

2. What is the main character’s motivation for doing what they did or for reacting as they did? (no motivation = who cares)

3. Why something happens the way it does in the story. The Story arc. 

4. Are the main character’s failed attempts escalating to the point that my main character falls to his/her lowest point?

5.  Will the intended audience care? 

6. What do I think of the end? Why do I think the author chose to end the story that way? 

7. Is the ending satisfying? What were my feelings about the outcome of the problem? 

A. Was the ending predictable?

B. Was the ending inevitable?

C. Was the ending a plausible surprise/twist? 

D. Was I disappointed by the ending? 

Even if you don’t write picture books, mentor texts benefit writers.

Do you read mentor texts? Are there questions you ask while you’re studying those texts? I’d love to hear from you.

Tighten your manuscript – Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations

chalkboard-3-AYou’ve heard these, I’ve heard these, and up-and-coming writers are sure to hear these comments about their work…

But those are my best words.

Kill my what? No! Not my darlings!

But I worked hard perfecting that lovely, poetic flow of flowery adjectives.

What’s wrong with adverbs?

Take out that “telling” sentence? But what if the reader doesn’t grasp the showing sentence?

My love of writing centers around picture books. Therefore, I don’t have the luxury of writing without eyeing the word count at the bottom of my screen. I take a deep breath as the number crawls to 550. Gad’s I’m at 750, and I haven’t reached my story’s climax! In my critique groups, I find it easy to help others trim words. Since I don’t have a relationship to any of their carefully structured sentences, I can highlight every adjective, adverb, and telling sentence, offer stronger verbs, offer suggestions, etc…

Here is what I look for…

Signs of a passive “telling” voice. I don’t want to read that Mary is happy, I want to see her hands clapping and her feet lifting off the ground.

In picture books, descriptive passages are word hogs and can often be deleted and turned over to the capable hands of the illustrator. Unless the color of Sarah’s shoes are important to the story, don’t write — Sarah slipped on her pink, sparkly shoes with the purple, satin bows. That sentence weighs in at 12 words. Let’s shorten it for a picture book: Sarah slipped on her shoes. Woo Hoo!  5 words.

We’ve all been told to delete adverbs. And after years of writing, most writers reach the point when, after proofreading, they rejoice at not finding any. Adverbs are a sure sign we haven’t chosen the strongest verbs to “show” the action.

Mark quickly ran to the corner.  Mark dashed to the corner.

It’s easy to string a series of adjectives together when the best choice is to use one or none.

Sarah pulled on her sky-blue, loosely knit, chunky, cowl-neck sweater.

In a picture book, the writer needs to leave the bulk of description to the illustrator and write: Sarah pulled on her sweater.

Lemons are yellow, so unless the lemons in your story are purple for a reason, leave out the adjectives.

Does your picture book open with lots of back story? Have you offered the reader a long look into your main character’s past? While this information is good to know. Correction: While this information is good for YOU to know, your reader can be spared. I recently read a picture book manuscript in which the first 500 words toured me through the main character’s house, offered me a look at his town, outlined his hobbies, pointed out the places his friends lived and, I’m not kidding you, went on to say, and now my story begins… Needless to say, the deletion of those first 500 words brought the word count down.

A picture book of 500 words or less requires the writer to put every word on trial and trim unnecessary words with the thought of receiving $20 per deleted word. (Make that $50.) Constantly question if every sentence reveals something about character or plot. At the top of my computer screen, I tape a slip of paper with the central question of my story. Everything I write must answer that question.

I’m off to tighten my word count.

Happy writing.

It’s Wednesday! Writer’s Prompts & Inspiration Day.

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Before I jump into the Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations, I’d like to share a little background story first.

My mother, prior to married life, studied in Germany as a scientific illustrator. Her talent brought her to America where she worked at the Field Museum in Chicago. Her appreciation and love of scientific/realistic illustration extended to artwork created with a loving hand, such as the highly detailed artwork illustrating certain picture books. Among the many books in her cherished collection, one caught my eye. I lived in the fantasy world of this book, often imagining myself wandering through the intricately illustrated pages, exploring with the characters, and rejoicing with them, too. The children’s book I’m referring to is The Secret Staircase, written and illustrated by Jill Barklem.

Two mice, Primrose and Wilfred, look in the attic of Primrose’s home, (a lovely mansion within the trunk of a large tree) hoping to find costumes to wear to the Midwinter Festival. What they first find is a key. Then they find a door hidden behind heavy drapes. Through the keyhole they see a long stairwell leading…? The key fits, and the two mice discover a world of grandeur far more splendid than their imaginations could conjure.

This leads me to my own life. Okay, my unconscious, dreaming life… Since reading this book thirty years ago, I have had numerous dreams of purchasing a home in which, after I move in with my family, I discover a door I hadn’t noticed before. When I open the door, another world appears. No, not like in the book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis where Lucy backs through the fur coats in the wardrobe and out into the snowy world of Narnia. In my dream, another house awaits me, fully furnished, closets brimming with clothing in my size and style, festive dishes line the cupboards, and windows overlook spectacular views.

So, here is the Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration you’ve been waiting for…

You have purchased and moved into your new home. While in the process of stacking sweaters in your enormous walk-in closet, you discover a latch under one of the shelves. You click the latch, and slowly the back wall of the closet slides to one side.

Keep an open mind for this exercise. Creative, out-of-the-box thinking is what will separate your piece of writing from others. Since this location could find its way into your future writing projects, paint it (write it) rich with details.

1. Could the place behind the closet lead to a dungeon, another dimension, the backstage of a comedy club?

2. What feeling comes over you when the wall moves?

3. Which of your senses are heightened when you get your first look?

4. What is the first thing you notice behind the secret wall?

5. What can you smell in this place?

6. What sounds surround you?

7. Are you comfortable exploring alone?

8. Do you first pack a small bag with a camera, a notepad, a pencil, a snack, a sweater?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Wednesday Prompts and Inspirations.

It’s Wednesday! Writer’s Prompts and Inspirations Day.

chalkboard-3-AWe all have favorite books–books that open naturally to our favorite passages, books we read annually, books we have purchased because they have deeply touched a part of us. We love these books for their characters. We also love  these books for their true-to-life locations. What a gift it is when a writer has researched a location well enough to transport us there. When written well enough, we can stroll beside the ocean, feeling the massage beneath our feet of stones washed smooth and slippery. We can move from room to room in an abandoned mansion, nearly tasting the musty smell of mildew as the foul air stains our breath. We can walk down the squeaky, paint-worn steps of an old farmhouse and hear the sizzle of bacon, crisping in a skillet. We can relax in a black gondola in Venice and breathe in the smell of… (never mind.)  We can hear the hush of snow sifting around us on a still, Winter’s evening. 

This Wednesday, I’d like you to consider the many locations available to us in our writing. Think about why you chose a particular location for one of your projects. Does that location add to the tension? Does it seem the most natural and obvious choice? Could the story work as well or better in a different setting?

Suppose in the book, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg that Claudia didn’t run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Suppose she ran away with her younger brother, Jamie, to New York with no plans. Two children alone in a dangerous city where anything can happen. A city where evil can lurk in shadows, where the darkness of night offers no protection. That would make for a different story.

How about Charlotte’s Web by E.B White. Suppose Fern lives in a little apartment with her parents. One day, while on a school field trip to a pig farm in the country, she spots a tiny runt of a litter. Fern, being the caring girl she is, packs this pink bundle of squirmy cuteness in her backpack (when the teacher isn’t looking) and brings him home.

Location/Setting is very important to the story. First we need a central location. For this example I’ll choose a farmhouse.

Next we need to broaden out. What lies beyond the farmhouse? An abandoned house? An office building?  What lies beyond the farmhouse is important as our MC will be moving around the area during the telling of the story. For this example, let’s suppose our main character is a little girl named Betsy. One day Betsy’s dog runs away (Not a complex story example, but one that will suffice.)  The chase begins! Now if Betsy’s best friend’s house is in the direction she’s running, will the tension increase? But what if Betsy lives next to a rocky stream, a forest, a cemetery, or…that abandoned house?

Sights and sounds play a part in location, too. Let’s pretend Betsy puts her fears behind her and dashes in the abandoned house after her dog. She might feel chilly breezes along her neck, hear the wind whistle eerie tunes through cracks in the windows, see cobwebs flutter. Tension climbs.

The weather and time of day add another level and must be appropriate for the location. Of course we’ll have the dog run away as the sun is setting. We might even add the threat of a severe storm. And what if it isn’t June 1st? What if the day is October 31st? HALLOWEEN!!!

Time to switch gears.

What if we decide that a little girl chasing her runaway dog in the country sounds boring? What if we really change-up that location? Suppose Betsy is on vacation with her family in Cairo. While there, Betsy befriend’s a child. One day while the two girls are playing near a street market, the little girl’s dog runs away.

* How does the location change the story?

*How do the actions of the characters change in this new place?

*Important items available to your characters are no longer present. What new things are present in this location to add challenges?

*By making this change you have introduced drastic cultural differences. The people’s attitudes and ways will be quite foreign to your main character, the landscape is now unfamiliar, and the language will pose a problem. The list goes on.

Are you ready for your Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration?

Take a short story you’ve written or the first pages of one of your novels, and see what happens when you give the location a major jolt.

I’d love to hear from you. To comment, scroll to the top of the post and click Comment below the title.

Welcome To The First Wednesday Writer’s Prompt!

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WELCOME TO MY NEWEST BLOG ADDITION.

As writers, we hope something we overhear will ignite that bestseller, lurking deep inside us.

We listen with fine-tuned ears.

We observe our surroundings with sharpened eyes.

We touch and breathe with heightened senses.

Sometimes we need a little push.

When answering, think outside the box… WAY OUTSIDE THE BOX.

I thought this was my suitcase until I got home from the airport, opened it, and found…

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

What could happen because of what was found? Might this spur a comedic picture book, a thriller, a middle grade mystery, a limerick? When answering, consider the many different kinds of people you’ve seen at the airport: young, old, student, retired, athletic, introverted, extroverted… Think about the countless occupations and pastimes people have: banker, circus performer, photographer, baker, ice cream taster, scientist, stamp collector, seamstress, journalist, etc…  The lists you could make are endless.

Open yourself to new possibilities. Let your answers take your writing in completely different directions from your norm.

Feel like sharing something from your list? I’d love to hear from you!

 

Follow this blog to receive your Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration.

On the process of writing

 

crayon fairyMy daughter flopped on the living room rug armed with a box of crayons (one of my favorite smells since preschool) and a pad of paper. “I’m going to draw until Daddy calls to say he’s coming home from work. Do you want to watch?”

“WATCH? Are you sure? It’s not going to squash your creativity?”

My daughter pushed her hand through a mound of crayons in an old tin box and pulled out a blunt, magenta crayon. “I’m going to draw a fairy.”

Once upon a timeI pictured myself at my computer, ready to write a story. NO  WAY would I ever say, “I’m going to write a story about a fairy. Do you want to watch?”

“Don’t you want to plan it out first?” the writer in me asked.  Do you even know what the fairy’s normal life is like? Have you given thought to the inciting incident that will cause her to flit from her world?” I pressed on… “Don’t you, at the very least, want to dump out the crayons and consider some of the other colors?”

“Writers.” She shook her head. “This isn’t the last piece of paper I have.”

As you probably guessed, this got me thinking about my own creative process.  Why can’t I write with the freedom my daughter feels when she draws? Why can’t I sit at my computer and fearlessly begin a new story? Probably because I’m never alone when I write. Aside from my dog, Max, sprawled over the larger portion of my chair, my pesky self editor, with good intentions, constantly reads over my shoulder. Let’s call that well-meaning voice in my head…Gretchen. (Now where have I heard that name before?)

“Gads!” Gretchen says. “Are you sure you want to start off your story with that sentence? Think of Charlotte’s Web! Think of Where the Wild Things Are.”

“You’re right,” I say. “And let’s not forget my all time favorite, A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck. I lean on the delete button and begin again.

“Ah hem,” her familiar voice nags. “You’re not actually considering starting with back story?”

Delete, delete, delete.

“Cliché!” her voice rings in my ear. “Stereotypical!    Done before!    Can anyone say SLUSH PILE?”

Writing, I have come to accept, is NOTHING like drawing.

Change of plans. I spread out my note cards, grab my set of highlighters, a bag of chocolate chips, and systematically create a character I want to write about.  Her personality must be endearing, yet suitably flawed in a way that contributes to the story problem.  Her fears, hopes, and wishes carefully chosen, too. I fill in the blanks on my lengthy Character Questionnaire. Then I write a series of more personal questions in the form of a letter and answer them the way I believe my character would. (I learn so much this way.)

Does this always work when I want to start a new story? No. Sometimes the writing flows better when I start with a problem common to most children. I then decide what kind of character would make a perfect match for such a situation, a humorous match, an unlikely match…. (So many factors to consider.) In most cases, the unlikely or humorous match makes the best fit for an entertaining story.

Now that I have a character, I have to place her someplace. I can’t have her bobbing like an astronaut in outer space across a blank sheet of paper. Once I decide upon her call to action, I add a few failed attempts at solving her problem, a low point, a moment of revelation, and one last go at resolving her issue which leads to success. (Maybe not the success my main character hoped for, but one that is better than she imagined.) And all this must cleverly tie back seamlessly to the beginning of the story, finishing with a suitable denouement.

Easy?

NO.

Little does my daughter realize the gift of mental clarity and freedom children naturally possess.

What is your writing process like? Do you like to create characters from scratch? Do you like to start with a problem or situation first? Do your childhood memories play into your writing?