Monday, January 30, 2012

Thoughts from Ann Whitford Paul

As I have told you all before, I have become a huge fan of Ann Whitford Paul and her book, Writing Picture Books.  I have found her teachings to be very helpful to me in my execution of  my story ideas.  

Recently I asked Ann, "How does an author know when a manuscript is ready to submit?"  Here is what she said:

That’s a very interesting question and one that I’ve been grappling with in regards to a novel I just sent off to my agent. 
Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”  We know that it takes work to structure a story and find the right words.  A lot of work—months, years.  We think of the story constantly—when we take a walk, bake a cake, clean out the closets.  It’s always with us.  We polish, we share it with other writers, we put it away.  We bring it back out.  So when to let go?
I think the problem comes from our insecurity recognizing that a manuscript rarely lives up to the image of the story we have in our head.  We want perfection and there is no such animal.  There is always something more a writer can do with a story.  That’s a given.  I love this quote by the writer Gene Fowler, “A book is never finished.  It’s abandoned.” 
With my latest manuscript, I found I was going over and over and over it again, shifting chapters, revising language, upping the tension, bringing out the characters until I thought I’d go punchy.  Everyone in my writing group told me to send it off, but I couldn’t let go until I realized I could spend the rest of my life revising and still have more to go.  I’d done it all—even reading the 50,000 word manuscript out loud.  Each change sends ripple effects through the manuscript, but at some point one has to stop.
       So what made me stop?  Number one, the basic story flowed.  I had three acts, the drama came at the end and the ending was satisfying but not perfectly wrapped up.  The big issues had been handled to the best of my ability. 
Number two—I had checked and re-checked my research.  Facts I knew in my gut were correct, I still persisted in going back to the research just to be sure—a huge waste of time.
Number three—because my novel was based during the revolutionary war, I made many visits to my trusty Oxford Dictionary (the kind you have to read with a magnifying glass) and verifying words more than once.
And Number four, I realized that I was down to nit-picky revisions . . . working on word choice and punctuation and this was the killer I was changing some words only to return at a latter time and changing the words back to the original. 
In summary, I had gone as far as I could go with the story.  It was time for a fresh eye.  That’s when to send your manuscript out.

Ann Whitford Paul writes picture books, poetry, and early readers.  She was won a large variety of awards for her work including the New York Times Notable Books, and the Carl Sandbug Award for Children's Literature.  In addition to her writing, she teaches workshops and does school visit on both writing and quilting.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Writing Process

Today as I was scrolling through all of the fabulous blogs that I follow, I came across Write it Sideways by Suzannah Windsor Freeman.  She discusses how to embrace the writing process as a whole.  It is an EXCELLENT post, and I encourage you all to read it by clicking on her name up above.

Thank you Suzannah for inspiring me to take a closer look at my own writing process.  In order for me to examine what it is that I truly do, I have made a list below.  I love to make lists!  So here we go...

1.  I make a lists of all of the story ideas that are randomly floating around in my head.  This could include titles, character names, and funny one-liners.  You name it, I have written it down on sticky notes, my  hand, or even the back of a grocery list. . . somewhere.

2.  I write it out long hand.  I always write my first draft long hand with a blue ball point pen.  I cross out, scribble, and rewrite in teeny-tiny writing all over that page.  I squeeze thoughts into the margins.  I make arrows.  I carry that pad of paper with me wherever I go, and by the time I am done with that first draft that paper looks as if it has gone through my 3 year old nephew's grubby hands.

3.  I decipher what I have written and I type it into my computer, editing along the way.  For me, editing is not a one shot deal.  It is a constant component of my writing process, and I do it from before I actually write things down on that first sticky note.

4.  Print it out and write all over it in many different colors.  I really edit!  Recently I have been sitting down with Writing PIcture Books, by Ann Whitford Paul and using it as a guide (BE SURE TO CHECK  THIS BLOG ON MONDAY AS ANN WHITFORD PAUL WILL BE GUEST POSTING).  I have re-read this book so many times, you would think that I would have it memorized by now, but I don't--I discover something new each time.  I sit with my manuscript, and I go through the book chapter by chapter doing each of her assignments.  This part of my writing process has truly helped me to tighten my story and to bring out the best in each of my characters.

5.  I send to my critique group.  This is always hard for me.  I sit waiting for their emails to return saying, "Sandi, send this out!  It is ready!  Can I have an autographed copy?"  This hasn't happened. . . yet, but maybe someday.  When I receive their critiques I quickly read them over, and then I let their thoughts mill around in my brain for a while.

6.  I print and write all over it again. I carefully examine the comments that my critique group has offered and I pick through what I agree with and what I don't.  I HAVE TO ALWAYS REMIND MYSELF THAT THEIR CRITIQUES ARE MERELY THEIR OPINIONS AND I AM THE AUTHOR.  I GET TO DECIDE WHAT ULTIMATELY WORKS FOR THE STORY (AND FOR ME) AND WHAT DOESN'T.  After making the suggested changes I will frequently send it out to them again.

7.  Now here is where I get impatient-- I now believe that I have written the best story ever told and I start to research potential agents and publishing houses to represent me on my WORLD BOOK TOUR.  I begin to think about going shopping for what to wear when the Queen of England invites me over to the palace to sign her personal copy while we sip tea.

8.  I come back to earth and wait for their return comments. I also begin to share my story with children.  I like to see what they think.  My 12 year old always has insightful comments like "Mom, no one uses the word GROOVY anymore.  Stop sounding so old!"  Or, "you know Mom, that word might be too difficult for a 4 year old to understand."

9.  I now repeat step 4 and then bite off all of my fingernails.

10.  When I finally feel like I am tweaking just for the sake of tweaking I move on to my disorganized submission process... but I will save that for another post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Where it all began.. .

Now that I have decided to devote so much of my time to developing a career as an author, I had to take some time to think about why.

Why do I want to pursue a career that will, most likely: result in a great deal of rejection, bring me very little money, take more time than a standard 40 hour work week, and frustrate me to no end?

The answer is not simple, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

When I was a little girl I always loved to write.  I wrote letters to my friends and wrote long messages on birthday cards for my family members. I also loved to read.. . .in fact, today I read to my children some of the original copies of my childhood favorites.  I can't believe that both my mother and I saved them all of these years.  My children frequently remind me of my age and comment on how those books belong in an antique book store.

I also loved to read until I got to high school.  Before high school I was able to read for the joy of reading, with the occasional book report.  I selected the books that I wanted to, and if I wanted to read a favorite over and over I could.  In high school, however, that changed.  I had to read the books that my teachers required of me and then analyze them.  I disliked looking for symbolism--it bothered me that we had to try to figure out the author's thought process.  I believed that sometimes authors simply wrote a story for the sake of the story--nothing more.  This picking apart of a book actually backfired on my teachers' intentions. . . beyond my homework, I didn't read anything for my own pleasure beyond a magazine article for almost 20 years.  This is incredibly sad and embarrassing to me.  I was a poor model to my own students as well as to my children.

While reading was a downer for me in high school, writing picked up for me.  I will never forget the Advanced Expository Writing class that I took with Mrs. Edington.  She was a fantastic teacher and settled for nothing less than perfection with a smile.  I was driven to prove to her that I could attain the goal which she had set.  In fact, that year I wrote a story that was entered into a state writing contest.  As the grand prize winner I let a group of students to the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin and presented all of the winning stories to Governor Tommy Thompson.  I can even remember what I was wearing that day!

From that day on I joined the school newspaper, and continued to take a variety of different writing classes in college--still not reading.

About 7 years ago my husband and I experienced a tragic event and I needed to get some things off of my chest.  In an attempt to write a journal entry, my first picture book came out.  I loved it!  Despite the topic, I loved the rush that I got from putting it down on paper.  I love the rush that I got from editing, and I loved the rush that I got when I went to the mailbox to see if a publisher liked it.  It never made it to the shelves, but it did jump start me.

I have been writing ever since.  I always have a story running through my head.  I keep pads of paper next to my bed, in my purse, in my car, and any where else that I can stash one.  Today, I love analyzing a story!  In fact, editing is my favorite part of writing.

Going back to the beginning. . .why do I want to pursue a career as an author?

It excites me.  It has always excited me.  It just took a while to discover why, but now that I know. . . I am driven to attain the goals that I set for myself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ann Whitford Paul--Stay Tuned

Hello Everyone-

We have been honored to have Ann Whitford Paul prepare a guest post for The Write Stuff.

Keep checking back, as I will post her thoughts next week!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

All this, AND my shoes are on the correct feet!

I recently bumped into an old acquaintance who said to me, "Sandi, you look great!  Your hair is brushed, your clothes are clean, and your shoes are on the correct feet.  How do you keep yourself smiling while raising 4 energetic daughters, taking care of your husband, and crazy dog. . .all while trying to launch a career as a children's author."

I answered her with a simple, "A moms gotta do, what a moms gotta do."

During my drive home from the store I began to rethink my answer.  I decided that I am a fantastic multi-tasker.

Here is a sample day:

5:45 am- begin hitting snooze bar on the alarm clock so that I can get up by 6:10

6:10 am- take out dog and begin to wake girls for school (while walking between bedrooms I collect dirty laundry and check phone just in case that 6 figure book deal came in while I was sleeping.

7:00 am- load girls into mom-mobile and drive to school.  At every red light I exercise by doing stomach squeezes to try and tighten that twin skin.  My twins may be 6 1/2 years old, and they say that skin won't go back into place without a little help from a plastic surgeon, but I am going to keep trying.

7:45-8:15 am-- drive to grocery store and call my parents (on hands-free speaker phone only) to check in for the day

8:15 am-- grocery shopping.  I try to pick out healthy foods that my picky daughters will eat.  At the same time, I work on rhyming words with the items on my list (eggs = begs, milk = silk, granola = flanola. . . ok, not always so successful here)

9:30 am-  take mom-mobile to dealership for oil change and tire rotation.  While waiting, I work on editing the manuscripts for the members of my critique groups.

11:45 am-  home, let the dog out, and hit the shower.  I exercise while blow drying my hair with butt kickers and calf raises.

1:00 pm- eat lunch and fold Mt. St. Laundry all while catching up on listening to Katie Davis podcasts.

2:00-3:00 pm-  work on my own writing, catch up on emails and reading blogs of my colleagues, all while taking care of the dog.  He gets his tummy scratches while sitting on my lap.  He is a great critique partner, because he likes EVERYTHING!

3:00 pm-  drive to school pick up and listen to news on the radio, once again while exercising.  Butt squeezes at the red lights.

3:20 pm-  arrive at school and park in the car line.  Here I continue to revise my own work.  In fact, I am sitting in the car line right now while working on the blog post.

4:00 pm-  arrive home with starving children and try to convince them that after school is time for a snack and not a meal.  At the same time I am trying to decide what to make for the next meal in just a few hours

4:30-6:30 pm- homework for 1st, 5th, and 7th grade (I sure hope that the 7th grader doesn't have math tonight).  5th grader is doing a lot of writing projects this year so I get the opportunity to work on my editing skills.

8:00 pm.  tuck 6 year olds into bed and read 3 picture books to each one.  While reading to the girls I study the books for the latest lesson that I am working on for Anastasia Suen's online Picture Book Intensive class that I am taking.

9:00 pm-  tuck in 10 and 12 year olds.  12 year old still likes it when I tell her a story.  She gives me a topic (usually mermaids or unicorns) and I create an impromptu adventure.

9:30 pm- watch recorded TV with hubby (bet you thought that I forgot about him)

At the end of the day there is still laundry to be done and groceries that I forgot on my list, but everyone is safe and sound and ready to repeat it all again the next day.

Thank you family for your patience with me, as I have now figured out that I am an inefficient and scattered multi-tasker, so that I can become the children's author that I someday hope to be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I told you I would keep you posted, but. . .

I don't have exciting news for you.  I lost.

I didn't make it to the final round of the MeeGenius Author Challenge, and I have no idea if the editors at Real Simple Magazine liked my essay or not.  All I know is that I lost. I am not asking for your pitty, your sympathy, or even a comforting smile.

I am proud of myself because I took some chances.  I took creative work that was, and still is, near and dear to my heart, and I put it out there for people who have no knowledge of me to read and to judge.

I am proud of my writing.  I worked hard, and felt good about it.  In fact, I am going to share my essay with you for the Real Simple Life Lessons Contest right here, right now!  I enjoyed writing it, and I hope that you enjoy reading it!

Glove Box Love

“Check your tire pressure at least once a week, and you never know when you might need a screwdriver.”

This is what my grandfather, whom I so fondly called Papa, said to me when I tried to return his tire pressure gauge and screwdriver.  Still in their boxes, they were old, and in working order, like the 1978 Oldsmobile 98 that he had just passed on to me.  He had kept the tools in his glove box—always.

In 1993 I was a college student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was beginning my student teacher training.  I needed to drive off campus everyday to the schools where I was teaching.  Papa was 83 years old and no longer driving.  I needed a car, and he had one that he wasn’t using.

The Olds was quite a sight!  The flawless white exterior, carefully maintained by only parking in the absolute farthest parking spot, made any used car dealer’s heart flutter.  Shiny red vinyl seats and plush red carpeting created the perfect atmosphere for groovy music to blast from the radio.  It was big enough to park one of today’s smart cars in the trunk, and too big to pull into most campus parking spaces.  The engine that was held together with Papa’s strategically placed duct tape got me where I needed to go.  

I rolled my eyes, thanked Papa for his tools, and left them in the glove box so as to keep him happy.  What if he asked to see them some day down the road?

Papa was not about to just give me that car.  Papa was going to teach me about economy and the American Way.  He sold it to me---for $1.00.  I never paid him, and I still feel very guilty for that.

Papa had left Germany in 1938 with his wife and 6-month-old son on one of the last boats to leave before the start of World War II. He came to the United States with $4.00 in his pocket. He had sewn cameras into the upholstery of his furniture, hoping to sell them in order to have some cash for his young family. 

Upon arriving in the United States, not speaking a word of English, he selflessly provided a home for his wife, baby, brother-in-law, mother, and mother-in-law (she lived with my grandparents for the first 30 years of their marriage).   Papa worked for many years as a butcher, even sacrificing the holiest of Jewish holidays to work on Yom Kippur.  His family needed money to survive, and he couldn’t risk losing his job by being caught as a Jew. 

Through his strong work ethic and devotion to his family, Papa eventually sent his two sons through college, medical, and dental school loan free; not many people today can even say that they have done this for their children.  He provided for them in ways better than he could ever have imagined for himself.  That is quite an accomplishment for a man with only $4 and a few weeks of night school English.  He was proud of himself, and rightly so.  Love drove him.

Papa’s five grandchildren were his entire world—at least he made us feel that way.  Not only did he attend every school performance, graduation, recital, soccer game, and birthday party, but he carved out special time that he provided for us as well. 

Each one of us would have our own sleepovers with our grandparents.  I anxiously watched out the window, waiting for that big Olds 98 to pull into the driveway when it was my turn to be the center of his attention.  Papa always told me to sit in the back with my grandmother.  I loved her dearly, but I wanted to sit in the front with him. In his mind, however, it was chivalrous to have the ladies sit in the back.  I recall countless rides to our favorite restaurant, Benji’s, for dinner before the sleepover.  My dinner was waiting at the table when we arrived—a corned beef sandwich on rye (hold the bread, please) and pickles on the side.  Papa always made sure that it was prepared perfectly.  It was almost as if Benji had created a new menu item just for me. 

He taught me how to play poker with his friends—I couldn’t believe that at 7 years old I was good enough to beat all of those men who had been playing since they were my age!  Wow!   Papa was an amazing teacher, or so I thought. 

As I grew into my teens I knew that I loved my Papa.  Grandchildren unconditionally love their grandparents.  Yet, I always thought that he was a little quirky.  He would come into our house and after he adjusted the thermostat to his liking, he never failed to sit in the same squeaky chair and to gripe about something.  Whether it was his health, the weather, or the cost of gas, he always had a complaint. 

When I went off to college I didn’t see Papa as often as I used to, but still spoke with him frequently.  I became involved in my own life, as a college student does.  I focused on my next exam, the next party with friends, or the most current drama with my roommates.  All things, as I look back now, that were trivial. 

He called at least once a week just to see how I was.  Never failing to tell me to study hard, yet reminding me of the importance of catching a good football game with friends.   Before our conversation drew to a close, Papa always asked me how the car was doing?  “Are you making sure that you never have less than a half tank of gas?  You don’t want to run out.”   He loved that car, and he loved that I was driving it.

I only drove that car for about a year when Papa passed away.  It never felt quite the same to drive it.  No one asked me if I checked the tire pressure, no one reminded me to let it warm up in the cold weather.  No one else loved it as much as I did.  That car had become more to me than simply transportation.  It still smelled like Papa’s aftershave.

For my college graduation that winter my parents helped me to buy a new car.  It was time to say good-bye to Papa’s car.  The car never really was mine . . . it was Papa’s.   I always felt as if it was sort of on loan.  I was supposed to be able to give it back to him.  Before the junkyard handed over $300 in cash in exchange for 16 years of memories, I cleaned out the glove box. 

I remember smiling when I found the screwdriver and tire pressure gauge.   Instead of them symbolizing the nagging of an old man, they suddenly symbolized his love for me. 

Each time I have purchased a new car over the years before even putting the key into the ignition, I have faithfully placed Papa’s tools in the glove box.  After all, you must check your tire pressure once a week, and you never know when you might need a screwdriver.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I can't believe the overwhelming amount of comments for my last post.  One of the comments recommended that I watch this video.

I hope that you watch it too. . . the message is a great one.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What Will Become of the Library?

Just the other day I was driving past the construction of my new local library.  It is huge, and my kids and I can't wait to see it when it is complete (I am not sure of the projected date, but it looks like it will be late int he year before the doors open).

Its magnificent size prompted me to reflect on my days at my childhood library.

It was an old fashioned red brick building with a small playground outside.  A beautiful children's area filled with bean bag chairs, puppets, and shelves of books as far as the eye could see.   The reference area  had all of the latest additions of newspapers from around the world.  Encyclopedias from different publishers dating back to long before I was even born.  A spiral staircase that always made me hold on tight to my mother's hand took one up to the area where the microfiche machines were.

Wait a second. . . did I actually just type MICROFICHE?  Kids today have no idea of what that even is!  I mentioned a card catalogue to my 10 year old the other day and she thought that it was a catalogue that she could look in to order birthday cards for her friends---online!  Newspapers. . . ink on your fingers that you rub on your face when you scratch your nose.  Unheard of!  Everything in this world is not digital.  Do librarians even exist, or are they only there to make sure that the internet connection is working in the building?

All sarcasm aside, I think that the role of both the public and school libraries is changing dramatically, and  I see both positives and negatives to this.

Obviously, the internet has changed everything.  Information is at our fingertips as fast as we are able to type.  This is wonderful.  Our children have learned to satisfy their thirst for knowledge quickly, and can then continue to question in greater detail.  However, are they truly savoring that initial satisfaction?

Being that we are able to locate information so quickly, we, myself included, don't always take the time to store it in our memory banks because we know that we will be able to recover the information just as quickly the next time that we need it.  From my own personal experience, when I had to work to find the information I retained it better, and appreciated it more.

I think that there is something to be said for looking up your book in the card catalogue, recalling the Dewy Decimal System, and searching through the stacks to find it.  Once you find the book, then searching the index for the concept that you are looking for.

Don't get me wrong, I love everything that technology has given to us as a society.  I just believe that sometimes we value things more when we have to work for them.

Getting back to my new neighborhood library. . . I don't know what is in the grand plan for the building, but here is my wish list.

  • bean bags in the children's area
  • daily newspapers
  • a card catalogue
  • librarians who help the readers find what they need
  • and a fantastic media center. . . today's society needs it all.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Great Comment Challenge 2012

Today I signed up to participate in The Great Comment Challenge of 2012.

What is this?  This is a way to increase blog activity within the world of kidlit.

The goal is to make a comment on 5 different kidlit blogs each day for 21 days.  This will not only help to increase traffic to all of our blogs, but also help us to think more about the writing world.

So sign up on Mother Reader's blog and get commenting!  We'll check back in on January 25 to see how everyone has done.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Will 2012 Be the Year to Find an Agent?

As a new author, I often hear, "You need to find an agent or you won't be able to get your foot in the door."

I am not sure if this is true or not.  Sometimes when looking at agent submission requirements it says that they won't even entertain an author's work if not previously published.

A big Catch 22!

You can't get published without and agent, but an agent won't represent you if you haven't been published.

What to do?

Here is an amazing article with great advice on how to find an agent that is right for you.  I hope that you find the article helpful.  I certainly plan to use it as a guide in my own journey to find an agent.

How Do You Know if Your Agent is Any Good?

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year. . . New Look!

Now that I have sort of gotten a hang of this blogging thing, and I have a little bit more of a grasp on where I want to go with my writing, I decided to freshen up my blog.

Hopefully cleaner lines, and a sharper look will lead to cleaner thinking and sharper writing.

I would love your feedback on the new look!

If you have any thing that you would like to see here let me know.  As I tell my hairdresser. . . I am always open to suggestions.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Let a New Year of Writing Begin!

Happy New Year and Happy New Year of Writing!

I am so excited to be embarking on a new writing challenge this year, 12 x 12 x 12.  Author Julie Hedlund has organized this challenge.  The concept is for picture book writers to complete 12 new manuscripts in 2012, write a new draft each month.  This is a follow up challenge to PbIdMo in November organized by Tara Lazar.

If you are interested, it is not too late to join.  Just sign up on Julie's blog by January 15, and you are in!

Enjoy and Happy Writing!  Check back here, and I will keep you posted on my progress.

Progress status:  I have already begun my draft for January!