Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Character

In mid-June I spent a week at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference (WIFYR) and was lucky to spend some time in Ken Baker's writing workshop. Ken is the author of several picture books for children such as Old MacDonald Had a Dragon, Brave Little Monster, and Cow Can't Sleep. His newest, How to Care for Your T-Rex will be released in April 2019.

In his workshop, Ken focused on how writers can create engaging characters. I am sure if you were to list some of your favorite characters, you would find that they harbor some common traits such as persistence, unique talents, compassion, wit, spontaneity, and unpredictability, along with some strong inner conflicts. In Writing the Break Out Novel, Donald Maass says that unforgettable characters whom readers end up talking about for years act in unusual and unexpected ways that are dramatic and irreversible. Characters like Charlie Bucket, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen come to mind, along with Olivia, SkippyJon Jones, and Mother Bruce.

But how exactly do writers begin to create those kinds of characters? Have you heard the phrase, "It builds character?" Hopefully, you have because I heard these words a lot growing up; and I hope it wasn't because I was a frequent complainer of long chore lists, or because I had the unlucky habit of getting into trouble. But like raising kids, creating characters doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't happen in a first draft. Interesting characters come with a lot of back-story or baggage--however you want to look at it, so figuring out exactly who your character is takes a bit of digging--before, during, and maybe even after you're done writing--and Ken's workshop helped me see how to do that with a variety of different exercises.

One writing exercise that I found especially powerful for creating picture books involved making and comparing lists. Ken had us brainstorm a list of things that our character wants. This list was followed with a list of things that children want.  Then we compared the two. It became immediately clear that when writing for children, our character wants/needs should probably mirror those of child. I suppose this exercise would hold true for whatever audience you write for. This exercise helped me sharpen a couple of my manuscripts with some subtle word changes. It also helped clarify the underlying themes my stories were based on.

A second writing exercise involved comparing two other lists we made. One of admirable or likable qualities of our character versus one of traits or obstacles that are in direct opposition to those qualities. The most surprising outcome of this exercise was that I saw I could actually write my manuscript-in-progress from two different perspectives -- that of the character I was focusing on, or that of the opposing set of characters he was up against. Either way, I saw that I had two equally interesting approaches to one problem, depending on which Point-of-View I wanted to take. And since I am in love with both characters in the story, I was intrigued by this idea.

I'd be interested to hear the results that other writers have with these exercises, as well as any tricks that you use to dig deeper in character development.

Ken has loads of writing resources and information on his  website, so be sure to check it out. You can also find him on twitter @KenBakerBooks and facebook https://www.facebook.com/kenbakerbooks/

Happy writing!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Children's Nonfiction Picture Books. Notes from the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference with Author Sharlee Glann

I spent last week at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference (WIFYR 2018) where I participated in the picture book writing class taught by author Sharlee Glenn.

I met Sharlee many years ago when I was first starting out on this writing journey, and I was so excited for the chance to reconnect with her in a small, week-long class where I could benefit from and become inspired by her wisdom, insights and experiences. I was also able to attend other classes taught by other authors in the afternoons, and I will be sharing bits of what I learned from them in later posts. But today, I am going to focus on Sharlee.

Sharlee Glenn's books include Keeping Up With Roo, Just What Mama Needs, One in a Billion,  Library on Wheels, which is her latest, hot-off-the-press nonfiction picture book, and Beyond the Green, which is a middle-grade novel scheduled for publication this coming fall 2018.

I absolutely love Library on Wheels for several reasons. First, it is about the very first mobile library in America, which many readers would recognize as a bookmobile. Need I say more? How cool is that? Bookmobiles have been a huge part of little Cache Valley, Utah, where I've lived for more than 25 years.

Second, the first mobile library was developed by Mary Lemist Witcomb who hails from my home state, New Hampshire. I love New Hampshire, return to it every year for a visit, and loved seeing the historic photos of places I recognized.

Third, I love the story of Sharlee's personal connection to the mobile library. Having grown up in rural Utah, Sharlee says she would not be the writer she is today were it not for the books that the mobile library brought to her on a regular basis when she was a young girl. For me, the local library in our area also played a vital part of my childhood. We didn't use the bookmobile, but my mother would drive my brother and I to the Nashua library once a week and let us browse the books in the children's section. I remember that the books were kept in wood boxes that jigsawed around the room. I could reach down into the boxes and pull out books. It seems odd that a library would be set up this way, but that is what I remember.

My mother also brought us to different art classes at the library.  My most memorable one involved making a paper kite with a wood frame. My kite ended up being almost as large as me. It was huge, and purple and green, and hung in my bedroom for several years above my bed.

Fourth, I think most writers can attribute their writing careers to the experiences they found within libraries as children, and I believe most readers continue to hold a fondness and appreciation for libraries for similar reasons. Libraries connect us to our local communities and to the world at large through their books, their programs, and the various opportunities that librarians provide for patrons. Thus, Library on Wheels holds appeal to a wide audience--both readers and writers, and its clear, simple, and interesting text make the history of the bookmobile accessible to young readers.

As for the children's picture book market today, Sharlee shared that if you are trying to break into publishing, the nonfiction market is growing and the best opportunities may be found there. The reason for the burgeoning market is the increasing focus on teaching a quality education to all students through a common core that has been adopted in each state. As a science teacher, I can attest to the need for engaging and relevant books for the classroom.

Thus, for new and established writers that are writing for the children's book market, it may be time to tap into your own interests and see if what you are writing or what you may want to write can be connected to the nonfiction market.

If you would like to learn more about Sharlee Glenn and her work, visit her website.

If you have additional information about trends in the nonfiction market, share them in a comment below.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Grandma's rhubarb custard pie and hints on how to freeze rhubarb

Rhubarb season is in full swing here, although I have to admit that my garden produces more than I can keep up with. Every year I am burdoned with the guilt of letting much go to waste, although I do manage to freeze a quart or two to enjoy later in the season after the harvest is done, and I also give some away to neighbors who are willing to take it.

There are numerous recipes for enjoying this tart plant. My neighbor makes a slushie, another neigbor makes crumbcake bars, a friend makes rhubarb-strawberry pie, and I have always made rhubarb custard pie. If you aren't a fan of pie dough, then just forgo the pie shell and make a custard pudding with the filling. The pudding has worked for me when I've ended up with more filling than can fit in the pie.

If you're uncertain as to whether you would enjoy this pie, then I offer this simple advice-- If you love meringue, than you'll love this custard pie. It's creamy-sweet like that.

Perhaps the most time consuming part of the recipe preparation involves the peeling of the rhubarb stem skins. I always trim the stem above the root and a couple inches below the leaf. Then I use a paring knife to pull away the stem skin. The skin will come off in strips. Then you will want to slice the rhubarb into small pieces until you have 3 1/2 to 4 cups of chopped rhubarb.

After that, the recipe is straightforward. Look below for what you'l need.

Grandma's rhubarb custard pie

3 large eggs
3 Tablespoons milk
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp nutmeg
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon butter, melted
3 1/2 - 4 cups peeled and chopped rhubarb (as described above)
rolled pie dough for 1 single-crust 9-inch pie

Place pie dough in pie pan and decorate edges as desired. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a bowl, beat the eggs, milk, sugar, flour, nutmeg and cornstarch together until smooth. Add melted butter and mix again. Stir in rhubarb, then pour the filling into the pie shell.
Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, then turn heat up to 400 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes.  Remove from oven, lightly brush top of pie with another 1 tablespoon melted butter and allow to cool. Store in refrigerator to chill. Then serve. This recipe makes about 8 servings.

Freezing rhubarb.

After peeling and chopping the rhubarb, blanche it for 2 minutes in boiling water. Then drain and immediately cool the rhubarb down by running it under cold water. Spread the rhubarb out on linen towels to dry. Lightly grease an aluminum cookie pan with oil. After the rhubarb is cool and mostly dry, then spread the chopped rhubarb out on the aluminum pan and set in the freezer.

This step allows the chopped rhubarb peices to freeze individually in their own space, rather than getting clumped up and stuck together if you were to put them directly into a bag. Once the chopped rhubarb is frozen on the aluminum pan, transfer the rhubarb to a labeled plastic bag.

I've added an image of some blackberries that I froze with this same method last year. Although I do NOT blanche the berries. I just rinse and dry them on a towel before freezing. Since these berries are the last of my frozen berries from 2017, I am anticipaing a fantastic new harvest for 2018!

If you have other suggestions, let us know in the comments! Happy summer!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Hand in Hand - Loving your Audience and Your Writing

Know your audeince.

These are words of advice given to writers and performers, regardless of craft.  In a general sense these words are a good place to start. A writer of Middle Grade fiction will use a different toolbox for story structure and vocabulary than a Romance author. Yet, I've come to realize that it goes much deeper than that. The author has to know herself as much as her reader, and in telling a story a bond needs to be forged from start to finish -- between the author and the words she chooses, between the reader and the words he reads, and between the phrases, the sentences, the commas and the periods that carry the story from begining to end.

As in any relationship, creating bonds takes work. It takes time. It takes careful attention. While we all are capable of creating relationships, some of us are better at doing so than others. So aside from mastering the craft of word-smithing with hours-upon-hours of practice, what is it that helps an author create that masterpeice - that universal story that speaks to many different types of people of so many different experiences and backgrounds?

I believe that the key ingredient in masterful storytelling involves imaging a specific person that you are writing the story for when you sit down to write it. Imagine you are engaged in a conversation and are about to share a best-kept secret for the very first time. Imagine you are sharing that story in a way that it is the only time it will ever be shared.

Why does imaging we are telling a stroy to a cherished friend or family member work? Because when we are with that person, we are comfortable. We share a chemsitry, humor, and history, which doesn't get in the way of saying whatever it is that we want to say. We commicate along established lines of trust. And trust is universal, and I believe readers can feel it coming from the page.

This reflection comes from personal experience. Of the stories I've published, the one I had the most joy writing was Little Red Riding Hood, Into the Foest Again (2011 KART Kids Book List Award).  While writing this story, I imagined I was telling my young nieces a story about characters I had fallen in love with - beginning with a cake platter, then a bitty gray mouse, and a bright blue bird, a jolly round porcupine, and a flat-footed duck -who each join Little Red on a new journey to grandmother's house. And in doing so, I gave my characters and my young audience (my nieces) every bit of attention needed in every word used to entertain them.

I wasn't able to put the experience of writing Little Red into perspective until I was poking around the internet for inspiration and visted the blog for Chronicle Books. and then it all made sense and led to my own blog post today. In their post on The 10 Principles of Story Telling, Chronicle Books advises writers to tell your story as if you are telling it to a friend. Exceptional words of wisdom.

Reading and reflecting on this part of the creative process has brought about a new energy and sense of vistion as I begin tackling new writing projects this summer and reflect on inspirational writing in the books I'm taking time to read now. I love it when I connect with words on paper - words that a author has not hurried - words that relay an experience in the life of a character with spot-on attentiveness.

With that in mind, I will leave you with some of my favorite books where I believe attentiveness is carried throughout the story and left me in wonder at the masterfulness of storytelling.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

It was late one winter night, 
long past my bedtime,
when Pa and I went owling.
There was no wind.
The trees stood still
as giant statues.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

   She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days. 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

   It was dark where she was crouched, but the little girl did as she'd been told. The lady had said to wait, it wasn't safe yet, they had to be as quiet as larder mice. It was a game, just like hide and seek.
   From behind the wooden barrels the little girl listened. made a picture in her mind the way her Papa had taught her. Men, near and far, sailors she supposed, shouted to one another. Rough, loud voices, full of the sea and its salt.