I’ve learned some really interesting and helpful things lately that I know will help me be a better writer.
Things That Help Me Be a Better Writer
Libraries. Did you know the Library of Congress website offers free photos for your use? They are available online in the “Free to Use and Reuse” section on the homepage of the website. These photos can help with information, but they can also offer inspiration. I was so excited to discover this awesome feature. I loved clicking through a collection of Irish heritage photos.
A good reminder!
Friends. I’m trying to research some information on Rosalie Edge, and her papers are in New York and Denver. I wasn’t sure what to do – it’s pricy to travel there. So I posted online and asked writing friends who suggested I ask reference librarians for help.
Libraries again. Reference librarians are awesome and really helpful. I want to look at primary source materials, but I can’t pay for a plane ticket to Denver. So I emailed a librarian at the library, and the librarian directed me to the reference department, who showed me the online index of her papers. I’m now waiting to see how much it would cost for the folders I’m interested in to be photocopied. Whatever the cost, I’m sure it’s less than a plane ticket!
Friends again. I’m back coaching a young person who wants to be a writer. This young person has some great ideas, but like we all do, struggles with getting the ideas written down in a great way. I want to help my young writer to do his best but I don’t want to change his language or his story. I asked my amazing writer friend Wende Dikec for help. She does a lot of coaching and teaching for young writers and she suggested I focus on guiding, not editing. I kept that in mind for my last coaching session and it felt so great. I felt like I was really doing the right thing as a coach. I’m so grateful!
I’ve had a good end of summer and beginning of fall for my writing projects.
At the end of the summer, I turned in eleven short documents that were examples of different text structures. These documents are going to be used by a teacher to help students identify types of text, like cause and effect or problem and solution.
I found out I sold a craft and a fiction story to Highlights for Children.
Then, I received an offer to write a non-fiction book for an educational publisher.
I also started working on my young adult novel. I am excited about the story, but I realized I need to make a story map.
Sometimes I think real books are better than e-books.
I’m not anti-e-book, because I love to read and e-books make it so easy to read. I love using my library’s app to find an e-book, check it out, and start reading. It saves me the time and gas of driving to my library! I’m not sure the environmental impact of making e-books, but I wonder if it’s offset by reduced driving, printing, shipping, etc.
But I do love a real book. And there are some very special things about real books that can never, and will never be replaced.
I started thinking about this when my youngest son dragged a giant book he loves off the shelf called “Our Fifty States.” On the inside page was an address label for my grandfather, who we called Gonky.
“This was Gonky’s book!” my youngest exclaimed. This was a thrilling thing as my youngest has always felt a special connection to my grandfather. Finding out that a book my youngest loves belonged to his great-grandfather is a very special surprise that could never happen with an e-book.
Eight Reasons to Love Real Books
Here are things that are so great about real books that make then better than e-books.
Making new friends. This is accomplished by spying and being nosey. At soccer practice, I spied a mom reading a giant book that I was reading. I struck up a conversation, confident that I could find something in common with this woman. We are real friends now, and I am so grateful to that real book.
Inspiring my kids. My kids are also nosey and love reading the titles of real books I’m reading. They ask what it’s about, is it good, do I wish I had written it, should they read it, etc. Then they tell me what they are reading. When they see me with my phone, they think I’m playing a game.
Bookmarks. Real books need bookmarks. My kids make me bookmarks. If I only read e-books, my kids wouldn’t have such great gifts to give me. They buy me bookmarks. I use a wide variety of bookmarks and many hold special places in my heart.
Gifts. It’s hard to gift an e-book, at least for me. I love giving a real solid book and I love receiving them even more. In fact, I received two books about oysters for my birthday, and purchased a book as a vacation souvenir. Not e-books, real books.
Inscriptions. My older son gave me the two oyster books as gifts and I was so excited for him to write me an inscription. He wouldn’t be able to do that with an e-book. Now I’ll always remember he gave them to me, selected by him, based on his knowledge of a topic that excited me.
Passing books down. My grandfather had lots of books to pass down, and we love them. I’ll have books to pass down, too. I love that we have these memories of him and love that my real books will be based down, too.
Selling used books. But not every book is worth keeping and passing down. I don’t know if one can sell used e-books, but I love being able to sell (and buy!) used books.
Access to information for all. I love the ease of an e-book, but I think it’s important we still have real books that don’t rely on technology to access. Many of my reasons are based on the emotions surrounding books, but this reason is a larger good reason. I don’t ever want access to books restricted and if we only used technology to read books, I worry our access could be limited or cut off.
I want to always have a book to read, even if it’s one I’ve already read. And I always want you to have a book to read, too.
Based on an idea I call the Stuart Little Experiment, I think it’s harder to be published today in children’s literature. I’m reading Stuart Little with my kids right now. At first they were reluctant to start it. I don’t give in to complaints easily, and they can’t resist me reading to them while we are all snuggled under blankets. After the first few chapters they were hooked.
“There’s not much happening,” said the middle kid, age 11. “But this is fun to read in a day-in-the-life-of kind of way.”
I agreed, parts of it are really entertaining. I particularly liked the scene where Stuart gets caught up in a window blind. The cat is very amusing in that chapter and the idea of a mouse wearing dapper clothes.
Yet there are other parts that make that same kid cry out in disbelief and a little touch of dismissiveness.
“Why does the mother still think this mouse is really her child?” he asks more than once.
We kept reading. And then it happened. I read one chapter that made me think, “Nope. No way. This would never make the cut.”
Stuart Little first edition
Published or Punished?
Before I did my research, I assumed Stuart Little hit the shelves after Charlotte’s Web. Editors would take anything he wrote after Charlotte, I supposed. I was wrong. Stuart Little was written in 1945, and it was White’s first book. But back then, I’m not sure White had very stiff competition.
(Have you even heard of, let alone read Rabbit Hill, the 1945 Newbery winner?)
Some classic books, while quiet, could still find life in 2018. I think Charlotte’s Web easily could be published any year. The horrible pigeon book I read that somehow, beyond all rational thought, won a Newbery Award would never, ever make it today, in my opinion. Probably the roller skating book that also won a Newbery would be dying a slow death in a slush pile today. At least I hope it would.
I think, sadly, Stuart Little would be, too, thanks to the sailing chapter. It started out fun with a cute image of Stuart longing to sail the boats at Central Park. Of course he was dressed for the part. But then White basically dives deep into self-indulgent waters and overloads his text with so many nautical terms that I don’t think either of my kids could form a mental image of what was happening. I think they were relieved I was reading aloud so they didn’t have to struggle with the strange terminology that was served up without enough context to help them grasp the ideas. They got the gist, but I think other kids might have lost interest, or felt frustrated.
At the very least, I think editors today would heavily revise the chapter.
And what is the purpose of the chapter? To show off White’s nautical knowledge? It taught us a little of Stuart’s character, and perhaps it will tie in later with some kind of plot or story, but it really felt like White was pleasing himself and not necessarily a reader. I’m think this book would not be published.
The Stuart Little Experiment
I would love to try this experiment. I want to put chapters from older, beloved children’s books in front of editors with altered names and see what modern editors would say about the content, writing style, language, etc. Would Stuart Little be published today?
It would be challenging to try and identify books that editors hadn’t read, and to not clue them in that they are reading already published books. We’d need to throw a few fakes into the mix. I wonder if there’s an idea for a conference session somewhere in here??
The conference will be November 9 and 10 at the Hyatt Pittsburgh Airport. Our faculty this year includes Samantha Gentry, Charlotte Wenger, Susan Graham and Stephanie Fretwell-Hill. Linda Camacho will also be providing critiques. We’ll have new PAL-led sessions and a pitch party on Friday.
Writing conferences offer a lot of great tips on how to improve your writing. One tip that’s always stayed with me is to use at least three different sensory descriptions in a scene. Using at least three senses helps readers visualize the scene better and it makes the scene more real.
Here’s a snapshot of a wetlands in Florida. Using sensory descriptions, how would you describe it?
You might mention the colors, but what about sounds? The swishing grass and maybe clicking insects. Now what about touch? Maybe the humid air settling on your skin, or the clinging net of a spider web on your face. And smell? I’ll never forget the slight odor of rot that stuck to the back of my throat.
I also remember reading that when people read about a smell, their brain activity is the same as when people actually smell that scent. So, mentioning sensory experiences like smells basically tricks the brain – or convinces the brain – that the person is in the scene, smelling the same aromas and fragrances if they are nice ones, or the same putrid stinks.
Also, in broadening the diversity of our writing and reading, how do we use descriptions that will appeal to readers of different backgrounds? What kinds of descriptions of food smells, hair care product scents, fabric textures, footwear discomfort, background sounds, and more will reveal our cultural, gender, and class biases?
Practice to Improve Your Writing
It takes practice to improve your writing. If you don’t, you’ll just write “he saw” or “she heard” all the time. We need practice describing what people feel in ways that aren’t cliche. And how do you describe the smell of the earth after rain, or the smell of freshly baked bread, without just saying “you know that smell?”
I’m trying to practice my sensory descriptions by writing sensory sentences each day. Not just sentences about my feelings, or thoughts, but sentences that focus in on a sensory experience I’ve had that day. Something I’ve seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched. Even if I don’t use the actual sentences I write in a story, I’m getting some writing done. And I’m practicing my observational skills of the world around me, which is good for any writer to do.
Here are two examples from July:
1.The clock on the wall in my office ticks and rocks out of rhythm with the swing of the pendulum.
2. I ate a fresh tomato from the garden and it was sun-hot and huskier in flavor.
3. The carpet under my desk feels flatter under my feet than the carpet over by the printer.
Try writing sensory sentences and see how they improve your writing.
Are you looking for writing help? My writing friend gave me a stack of Writer’s Digest magazines on Thursday, bringing my total to 14. 14 glossy collections of insightful advice, commentary and exercises from experienced writers who for the most part, know their art and the industry pretty well.
These magazines are useful to me. Back in the spring of 2012, I used them to correct my arm form while running. I guiltily admit that I haven’t used them as the publisher presumably intends: to effectively to improve my writing. But after a day spent in partial procrastination and office cleaning, I have formulated a plan.
How long would it take me to read a slim publication like Writer’s Digest? 30 minutes? An hour if I took notes?
I’m going to read each issue and take notes, maybe even make a video with highlights of the best tips and advice. That way I know I’ll remember the info better – because I learn when I write things down. I’ll have the information and tips preserved for later use and be able to share it with other writers who are short on time like me.
I’m always looking for ways to organize writing ideas. I have a lot of them and yes, not all the ideas are great. But I do a variety of writing, from magazine articles to crafts, educational market fiction and non-fiction, and I hope to produce books for the trade market, too.
That’s why it’s important to write down my ideas somewhere because you never know which ones will be perfect for a quick magazine article or a reading comprehension passage. There are a few ways I organize writing ideas.
It might seem like spending time organizing is taking time away from writing. It might seem like procrastination. But I think organizing prevents wasted time and increasing productivity because ideas are always ready and waiting for you.
Try these systems out, some combination will hopefully work. Feel free to share your ideas, too.
My super quick way of organizing ideas is to use the Things app and jot down ideas in either Fiction or Non-Fiction. I don’t edit or limit my ideas, I just put them down so I don’t forget.
Table of Contents
I handwrite in journals almost every day, and have for years, which means I have several journals. After I’ve jotted down an idea in Things, at some point I take the time to add some details in my journal. Instead of turning page by page in my journals looking for where I’ve jotted down an idea or an outline, I make sure to dedicate the first few pages of my journals to a table of contents. Then when I write in my journal, I fill out the table of contents.
Writing Ideas Ebook
I just started this version of organizing ideas, and I’m excited. I created an ebook in Pages and then inserted a Table of Contents. (Yes, the table of contents is SO KEY.) Then I created different headings in the ebook based on the kinds of writing I plan to do. Next, I went to my ideas in the Things app and started putting the various ideas into different categories. Some ideas went more than one place, which is good, because I like to be able to use one idea for a variety of outlets. I love the electronic table of contents, because I can click on the page number and go right to the specific section. I can also create sub-headings as I use this system more.
What systems do you use to organize writing ideas?
This summer, my critique group is working through a middle grade summer reading list. We’re trying to read a book a week, and we are answering questions about the book when we’re done. Here’s our summer reading list. The questions we answer for each book are below the list.
Middle Grade Summer Reading List
The Nameless City (The Nameless City, #1), Hicks, Faith Erin.
Belly Up (FunJungle, #1), Gibbs, Stuart.
All Summer Long, Larson, Hope Larson.
Knife’s Edge (Four Points #2), Larson, Hope.
Compass South (Four Points #1), Larson, Hope.
Summer of the Monkeys, Rawls, Wilson.
The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex, Adam.
Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, #1), Carlson, Caroline
The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (The League of Princes, #1), Healy, Christopher *
Once Upon a Marigold (Upon a Marigold, #1), Ferris, Jean.
Amal Unbound: A Novel, Saeed, Aisha.
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor, #1), Townsend, Jessica.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Barnhill, Kelly.
Running on the Roof of the World, Butterworth, Jess.
Sheets, Thummler, Brenna.
Orphan Island, Snyder, Laurel.
The Seven Tales of Trinket, Thomas, Shelley Moore.
Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave, White, Jen.
Questions for Middle Grade Summer Reading List
Did you like it?
Was there a point when it hooked you? What page?
What was your favorite part?
Did you find any part boring? What section, plot line, or character?
What surprised you?
Rate the opening – on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the best opening ever!)
Rate the ending – on a scale of 1 to 5
Did you like the writing style?
Did anything seem cliché?
What did you learn from this book?
Did the story remind you of any other books?
If you have any book suggestions, please feel free to add them here!
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