Category Archives: Writing Technique and Prompts

Burmese Climbing Rhyme

I’ve been exploring different forms of poetry for a book I’m working on, and I’m having such a great time.  Some people, I think, see form as something they have to squash their ideas into.  For me, though, form is more like a ladder to throw down to your poem.  Sometimes your idea may fall off, but often it will climb up to an entirely different place than where it started.

Which is why I’d like to share the Burmese Climbing Rhyme, or Than Bauk, a form that’s been especially challenging and fun for me (and that fits nicely into my simile since it rhymes in steps like a ladder.)  It consists of four syllable, also adapted to four word, lines with an inward-shifting rhyme scheme.  The format looks like this:

x x x a
x x a x
x a x b
x x b x
x b x c
x x c x
x c x x

You can read more about Than Bauk here.

This morning, I decided to try my hand at one in tribute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Enjoy, and if you feel inspired to try writing your own, please share in the comments – I’d love to read them!

To Dr. King,

words were things that

could sing our souls.

His words rolled stones,

touched goals as high

as dreams fly.  Speak.

Don’t die silent.

dr-king-landing-page-3

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Halloweensie Writing Contest

Happy Halloween!  Six years in, and I’ve finally learned about Susanna Leonard Hill‘s fun Halloweensie Writing Contest.  The challenge is to write a 100 word children’s story about Halloween using the words Spider, Ghost, and Moon.

Check out her blog to read all of the great entries… and submit yours!

Here goes…

Halloween in Korea

No zombies, witches, or ghosts prowl the apartment building.  Just one tiger and her dad.

“Trick-or-treat,” says Teagan.  Her dad speaks a slew of Korean.

Jamkkanman,” they answer, then disappear.  They return with ginseng candy, a pear, or stickers for Teagan’s pillowcase.

One ajumma holds a fresh steamed bun in her spidery hand.  Teagan nibbles the warm red bean center.

Teagan knocks on Mr. Moon’s door.  Her dad bows.  When Mr. Moon disappears inside, he returns with a girl.  Teagan smiles and takes off her ears.

Now, two tigers prowl the apartment building on Halloween night.

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Tim Bowers & my dog who made it in the Children’s Book World before I did

emmabean-016

This is Emma.

She was my woods-romping, tug-of-war-playing, stick-her-head-out-the-car-window-and-eat-the-wind-until-she-broke-wind, ice-cream-eating, adorable-looking, snuggling best friend from 1998-2011.

She is also a famous children’s book character.

sherman-crunchley-cover

Tim Bowers, whose awesome illustrations you might recognize from over 35 picture books as well as widespread greeting cards, lives in my hometown of Granville, Ohio.  His daughter graduated high school with me, and I remember when he visited our class and gave us a lesson in character drawing.

Shortly after, he needed some models for his own character drawing.  Dog models.  Since Emma clearly won the genetic lottery for cuteness, I auditioned her for the part.  Although Emma was very modest, I was a proud mama when I learned that she had won the role of the title character’s mother in Laura Numeroff’s book, Sherman Crunchley.

Sherman Crunchley (1).JPG

Tim did not only capture Emma’s likeness, he managed to capture her entire personality from just a photo.  Emma, who jumped in fright if she stepped on a stick and who barked nervously when a pumpkin appeared on the front porch, was perfect for the role of the sweet yet emotionally frail mother.

sherman-crunchley-6   Sherman Crunchley (3).JPG

Although this post is mostly a chance to show off my cute pooch, I’m also sharing it as a reminder that we are surrounded by real-life resources to inspire our art and our writing.

Carry a sketch pad or notebook with you to capture them, use your friends, hold contests, and come up with other innovative ways to draw from the world around you.  Not only is it a wealth of subject matter, engaging the community allows them to be a part of what you’re creating too!

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Radical Copyediting

I love writing because it inspires, empowers, and opens doors to new ideas and worlds.  But language can also be elitist, exclusive, and oppressive, sometimes in ways we don’t intend or are not even aware of.  Language, as my friend Alex eloquently puts it, transforms reality.

rad copyeditor

Alex is a radical copyeditor, a job they created to help authors to ensure that their words align with their values.  Check out Alex’s insightful radical copyeditor blog  for ideas on how you can use your words to empower, not oppress.

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I Am (however unfortunately) A Mountain

Writing is a way to share our perceptions of the world around us.  It pushes us to relate to people and our environment in new ways, discover connections between things, imagine ourselves in someone (or something) else’s shoes.  A writer’s world is woven from a fabric of stories.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a writer, you can think like a writer.  Here are a couple of “writer’s goggles” activities to help you turn on your writer’s perspective.

It's impossible not to look good in writer's goggles.

It’s impossible not to look good in writer’s goggles.

-Choose an inanimate object in your home.  Try to really get a feel of what it would be like to be that object if it were sentient.  Get your eyes right beside it and see what its world looks like, whether it’s perspective is from your bedroom floor or inside your Tupperware drawer.  Even go so far as pretending to be that object – if you are a washing machine, get your hands in some soapy water or spin around for a while; if you are a bath mat, lay on the floor and ask someone to (carefully!) step on your back.  Then write a “Day in the life” story from your object’s point of view, including not only what it does during the day, but what it perceives and how it feels.

-Tap into your senses.  Whether you are sitting at your all too familiar desk or take the opportunity to go somewhere new – a park, a busy coffee shop, an art museum – take a few minutes to observe, listen, smell, feel, even taste the air around you.  Try not to think during this time, just notice.  Then take a few minutes to write down what you noticed.  Finally, take some time to reflect on your experience.  How do you feel?  Why do you think your surroundings sound or smell that way?  Can you make any assumptions from what you saw?  Did it illicit any memories or inspire stories?  Can you turn your observations and reflections into a poem?

-Give yourself a metaphor.  Write a list of characteristics you have.  What kind of food shares one of those qualities?  What sort of building?  Animal?  Plant?  Geographic feature?  Did any of those connections surprise you?

Blue Ridge Mtns

The mountains are not only great for metaphors, but also a solid reminder of the old plot triangle!

Back to work after a weekend of backpacking the Blue Ridges, I discovered that writers must be mountains.   Our heads in the clouds, seeing the world from a different angle – this is the glorified pinnacle of being a writer.  This is where I wanted to stay, with my troubles down in the valley and my imagination rampant as rhododendron.  But the peak is just a tiny portion of the mountain.  To be a writer, one has to have a strong base.  We must be down to earth in researching our stories, our agents, and our editors; grounded in revision.  We have to stand firm against rejection letters eroding away our lofty thinking.  It makes being a soft, sandy beach or a gently cascading river sound appealing.  But every time I am back at my summit, I remember how lucky  I am to be a mountain.

 

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Some Ideas on Ideas

Happy PiBoIdMo!  To kick off the 30 Picture Book Ideas in 30 Days Challenge, I’ve got some tips on idea-finding.piboidmo2013-participant-214x131

Everyone already knows the so-called-elusive answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s “Everywhere.”

And it’s true – there are hilarious, imaginative, heart-warming ideas hiding in tree tops, promenading through the park, and nestled in your kitchen cupboards.  The writers’ advice to leave your desk and go for a walk is sage.  But what about when you don’t have time to go “Everywhere?”  Where do you find 30 picture book ideas when your month consists of going to work, coming home and lesson planning, and preparing for the holidays?  Sometimes, the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” can’t be “Everywhere.”  And then where do you look?

brainz1Here’s the secret.  The ideas aren’t always out in the world hiding.  They haven’t all been created yet.  That’s why you’ve got a built-in idea generator in your head.  Then, it’s less about the “where” and more about the “how.”  Here are a few brainstorming suggestions.

1. Create unexpected combinations.  Make some simple lists: things kids love, things you love, characters, settings, conflicts.  Then choose 2 or 3 that wouldn’t normally go together.  “A book about turtles” might not stand out on your picture book idea list.  But “A book about turtle scientists on Jupiter” has a little more flair.

2. Ask questions.  Question your questions.  “What if” and “Why” are popular choices, although I like “How” quite a bit as well.  Get into the habit of questioning everything you do and encounter.  When you drop your electric bill payment into the mailbox, you could ask, “How does this get to the electric company?”  Then, “What if those blue mailboxes were actually teleporters?” (‘You mean, like the internet, which is how I actually pay my bills?’  No.  It is helpful to ignore logic while brainstorming.  That comes in at revisions.) “What would happen if I climbed into one of those mailbox teleporters?”

me_Three_Little_Aliens_and_the_Big_Bad_Robot3. Fracture your own fairytales.  Fractured fairytales are a fun writing technique in which you put a personal twist on some age-old, widely known tales.  For example, you can change the characters or setting, like The Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot by Margaret McNamara and Mark Fearing, or you can tell what happened after the fairy tale ended, as Jon Scieszka does in The Frog Prince Continued.  But once you’ve got a story or two on your picture book idea list, you can even use this technique on your own work.  How would your story change if it was set 500 years in the past?  Or what if your hero and villain switched roles?  This is how you make ideas multiply.

4. Keep your idea-generator turned on.  Even if you don’t have time to go exploring for ideas, you might come across them.  They can jump out of closets or cross the street in front of your car.  But if your brain is stuck on work mode or the household chores setting, you might not even notice them.  Keep your gears turning and rust-free, and it will generate ideas for you.

Good luck!

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Mother-Loving Rhyme Time

Although I’ve posted about limericks before, I have a pretty special relationship with the five-line poems and feel compelled to point out that this year’s Limerick Day (the birthday of poet Edward Lear) happens to fall on Mother’s Day.

I promise to post my mother-loving limericks when they are finished, but I thought you might want some advanced warning in case you’d like to craft some creative gratitude of your own.  As cheesy as it sounds, if your moms are anything like mine, that sappy stanza will induce a few tears before getting shown to the entire extended family, neighborhood, and workplace.

Good luck, and as always, I’d love to see what you come up with!

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Preschool PhD: Lessons on Children’s Writing from Schools

Occasionally, I regret not majoring in creative writing for my undergrad degree or consider a masters in children’s writing.  But the truth is that I am continuing my education everyday.  I attend graduate school at a handful of preschools, elementary schools, and camps for teens across Asheville.  Surely, my firsthand experience of books in the classroom is worth some kind of diploma.

See, publishers?  I've got credentials.

See, publishers? I’ve got credentials.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from my courses.

AP Preschool:

In addition to being age-appropriate, books are most successful in a preschool classroom when kids can actively engage in them.  Wiggly kids will sit in circle time longer if they can contribute animal sounds, chant along with a refrain, easily guess what will happen next, or if a silly surprise in the story gets the whole class laughing together.

Books are more likely to be used in a preschool classroom if they fit into a basic category, like ‘colors’ or ‘getting dressed.’  Between this and the animal sounds, you can see why there are approximately 9 billion barnyard books for kids.

Ready, kids? Say it with me. “Four legs, good. Two legs, bad.”

Sorry, that Animal Farm joke was a little loaded.  Maybe keep Orwell out of your board books…

Public Elementary Schools 101:

Kids’ shrinking attention spans aren’t the only reason for publishers’ 500 word manuscript standard.  Unlike preschools that hold two story times a day, elementary school teachers are on a tight crunch.  When they do fit in time for a book, it has to have a purpose.

What teachers used to get.

What teachers used to get.

Like preschools, elementary schools are more likely to utilize books that fit into relevant topics.  Public elementary schools across the country are implementing the Common Core curriculum.  You can read more about it here, but basically, it is helpful when books can supplement units on history/social studies or science.

What teachers get now.

What teachers get now.

Discipline is also a hot topic in public education.  Teachers spend a lot of time teaching kids how to be people, but with the tight educational agenda, they don’t always have this time to spend.  Although I don’t like to preach preachiness, elementary schools definitely have a place for books that help kids internalize kindness and how to be a citizen of the world.

Intro to Waldorf, Montessori, and Emilia:

What these teachers choose.

What these teachers choose.

These alternative educational approaches are very different from each other.  For example, while Montessori focuses on children’s rational abilities from a young age, Waldorf teaches through a lens of natural beauty and art.  But these styles have commonalities as well.  Without the strict state standards, kids determine the pace of learning.  These classrooms provide space for greater creative freedom, encourage more hands-on learning, and give children greater ownership over their education.

When you apply these philosophies to children’s books, it tells us that it’s okay for stories to be slow paced.  Books are not just a unit supplement, but a space for kids to discover beauty, exercise their curiosity, and unleash their imaginations.  When kids are given some authority over their education, books should not only inform them, but inspire them.  (Fortunately, we children’s book writers already knew that…)

After School:

No matter what technique is used in the classroom, you might think that after a full day of structure and education, kids would be done with books.  I work with kids after school every day and watch them put down their Legos and abandon swingsets to listen to a story.  Instead of playing board games, older kids will sequester themselves in a corner with a chapter book.

Books have such an important role in education, but it is not their only role.  Books give kids space to unwind when school is done.  Books can provide a bonding experience between kids and adults.  Books are fun.

Schools need books. But even more, kids need books.

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“Dear Me”

Just over a year ago, The Guardian published a series of letters written by celebrities to their younger selves.  You can find them here:

“Dear Me: Celebrity Letters to their Younger Selves”

I particularly enjoyed reading it now, as I am in the midst of rereading old diaries and asking a little “What was I thinking?” of myself.

What would you have to say to young you?  It might turn out to be something that today’s youth need to hear just as much.

What might future you want to tell current you to get you through hard times and guide you toward happiness and achieving your goals?

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Owing to Odes

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda widely popularized the ode in the mid-1900s.

Dos veces es belleza la belleza,
y lo que es bueno es doblemente bueno
cuando se trata de dos calcetines
de lana en el invierno.
-Pablo Neruda, Oda a los Calcetines
 
“Beauty is twice beauty,
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.”
-Pablo Neruda, Ode to Socks
 

Writing an ode is a great exercise for getting the writing juices flowing.  They are also a great practice in appreciating life’s simple gifts – something kids can relate to and tend to be much better at than us adults.

Because of this odes make a great creative writing classroom activity as well.  Kids of almost any age can grasp the idea of an ode, and many older kids love the exaggeration in comedic odes or the cynicism of the anti-ode.

Here is the ode I came up with as my writing warm-up today. I would love to see your odes in the comments!

Ode to my Keyboard

To Z, whose location is often forgot-
To     the     space      bar,     for slowing down my thoughts-
To . for closure, to often single A-
To F and to J for centering me when I stray-
To Shift, whom I Capitalize on each sentence anew-
To B, to C, to D, to E, to I, O, U-
I owe you.

For providing a dance floor for my mental tap routine-
For allowing me to pound you when I need to let off steam-
For the playground that these fidgety fingers love to explore-
And most of all, for providing an endless store
of the only currency with which this writer knows
how to pay back a world to which everything is owed: the ode-
I owe you.

But, Backspace, for the thousands of my letters you’ve taken-
Next time I insist my words are worth erasing, tell me I’m mistaken.
That, I believe, I am owed.

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