Bad Soup Analogy for Bad Books

Should we let kids read bad books? Quick blog post today, readers, about the quality of kids reading materials. Lots of parents just want their kids to read. I’m lucky that my kids are hearty readers and devour most books without any fuss. In fact, taking away reading time is one of their dreaded consequences.

But what if the book your kid is reading is really bad?

Not full of bad words, but just written poorly? Bad books are all around us, but many of us don’t even know it.

Bad Soup

Here’s the bad soup analogy. I’m sure someone mentioned this to me, but I can’t remember who.

“You know when you make soup and you throw all the ingredients and cook it for 15 minutes and you can still taste everything separately that it’s not good soup. It’s bad soup.”

bad books

The Unwanted series is bad soup. If you read the cover, you think you’re getting this great combo of Harry Potter and Hunger Games. It’s got magic and science and death and teenage angst. But it’s also got head-hopping point-of-view problems, tons of showing, not telling, and in the first book, I don’t think the main character solves his own problem. I couldn’t read the other books in the series. The real unwanted is the kind of writing in these books. But my kids loved them.

Luckily, they are also reading Reina Telgmeier’s books and Judy Blume’s books and John Lewis’s books.

So does it matter if my kids are reading books that suck? Isn’t it more important that they are reading? I think it is, and I never once told them I thought the book was bad or poorly written. I let them read it and enjoy it and love it and when they are older and drag it out to read to their kids, they will figure it out for themselves.

Here’s a scary thought. What if I’m writing a bad book and I don’t even know it? Yikes.

And here’s another scary thought: they are making a movie.

Writing a Novel (Tips & Tools)

I use a few tools when writing a novel.

I do a long outline of the story. I write the shorter synopsis. I write a bunch of taglines to see what story idea sounds really catchy.

I use the alphabet trick when determining and deciding character names.

I draw maps of the novel neighborhood. I use the objective/obstacle/outcome approach to structuring and analyzing my chapters.

Today I adopted a new tactic: a calendar.

novel writing tools

Since my story is based about the school year, I realized part of my confusion and uncertainty while writing a novel was that I was having trouble keeping track of days. I’m also hoping this will help me analyze if my novel is too heavy in the beginning, and if it’s too weak in the saggy middle, and if there’s enough action at the exciting end.

I am absolutely completing this calendar in pencil, because I am still revising.

The Finish Line

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I believe a lot of times writers just have problems with their stories that they haven’t solved yet. These tools are ways that I eliminate writer’s block. They help me visualize the story in a new way. Some writers have big pieces of paper taped to their walls, or draw out big charts to track character arcs and plot lines. I think eventually I will trace the character arc of my main characters once I’m done this version of the novel. I want to finish first, then go back and strengthen. But using these tools along the way will make sure my finish isn’t me collapsing as I cross the line, to use a running analogy. I’ll finish strong. Then, unlike in a race, I will go back and fix the weaker parts.

When I don’t have a lot of time to work on actually writing, there are some useful activities I can do when I don’t have time to write longer chapters.

What tools do you use to keep your novel straight?

Highlights Foundation Workshop: Novel Beginnings

In March 2017, I returned to the Highlights Foundation for my second workshop, Novel Beginnings. Our amazing instructors were Clara Gillow Clark and Kelly Going (who writes as K.L. Going). This year I was in the Lodge, which I enjoyed just as much as the cabin. Another difference from my October 2015 visit: snow.

highlights foundation

Calkins Creek

highlights foundation

The scary bridge I made myself cross

highlights foundation

Snow!

 

There were about a dozen of us there for four days. Workshops like this are great because they are small enough to get to know the people but large enough to meet a diverse group of writers. And one of my favorite parts of Highlights Foundation workshops are that I don’t have to cook anything.

Each participant was able to submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript and received an in-depth one on one critique on their work. I found Clara and Kelly to be really open and honest about our stories and our writing. I know they offered sound guidance, because one of our attendees re-wrote her first few pages while at the workshop and when she shared them with us…WOW.

Group Critique

In addition to our one on one critiques, we also did a group critique session of our first three pages, hosted by Susan Bartoletti. Susan suggested we structure our critique feedback using the five points below, and I really loved the results.

highlights foundation critique

One thing that pleased me a lot was after only hearing my first three pages, a person in the critique group was able to lay out the overall plot of my story. If a writer can put that in front of readers and still make it funny and interesting, there is something good happening there.

Kelly shared a lot about the business of publishing. The time away from daily life helped me hone in on what I really wanted to do with my story. I received solid, positive feedback on my story from Clara and felt very motivated to keep working.

I haven’t yet told Clara that the week after I returned from the workshop I wrote every single day and made big progress through my manuscript…but was still really unhappy with the arc. I called up a friend, he’s 10, and talked it through with him. He brainstormed so honestly with me and I can’t ever thank him enough. After my conversation with him, I revamped the stakes in my story completely and now have a much better source of conflict that will interest kid readers. I hope.

Highlights Memories

But the Highlights Foundation Workshop isn’t all writing. Aside from working on my own story, I did a lot of running in the snow. And I spent some time traveling down memory lane and looking through Highlights from 1985 and 1986. I recognized covers and stories that I had read, re-read, and re-re-read as a kid, much the same way my son reads Match.

Word play and word history! I would love to write something like this for Highlights today.

highlights foundation

When I saw this story about the marathon, I wondered if it had influenced me, in a subtle way, to try running.

This is probably the first place I read about silkies. They are a favorite mythological creature of mine.

This story stuck with me forever. It could be one of the first science-fiction stories I ever read. It blended ordinary life elements with a strange idea and was also effortlessly entertaining.

This one made me laugh out loud. Reading this made me want to make my own butter so much and now that I’m the grown-up, we do!

Here’s a story about a young woman who played a role in shaping historical events. Could this be any more up my alley?

Six Word Stories Part 2

Who doesn’t love good six word stories? They are short and sweet.

I am so lucky to be able to visit classrooms and hang out with kids. As a writer, there’s nothing more valuable than learning from and listening to your target audience. So when I had a chance to go into my son’s sixth grade class, I decided the topic would be “brevity.” Now, I didn’t tell them that, but it gave me a framework.

Picture Books

First,  I read a short but very skillfully done picture book. You’re never too old to read a picture book and really learn about the essence of story. A picture book needs to tell a story in very few words.

ABCs

Then, we worked on a 26 word alphabet story about sixth graders. There were some funny parts, like when we included eating and farting. We had tech, including iPhone, video games and memes. One girl suggested we delete “sleeping” and write “Zzzz” – which was GENIUS. We had a lot of sports like gymnastics and karate and soccer.

 

Six Word Stories

Finally, we got to dessert: the six word story.

As I took them through the first two parts of the visit, I explained how stories build to a climax of emotion and action and then offer a resolution. I challenged them to include all of those elements in their six word stories.

Here’s what we came up with:

Kids

Last man on earth heard knock.

I am cool, you are not.

Roasted, toasted marshmallow on the fire.

Learn something!

I really loved hearing their stories. And since the main character in my current project is in middle school, I decided to write some six word stories for her.

Mine

She quit everything, until she didn’t.

She botched everything except dreaming big.

For Fun

Do you agree that a lot of six word stories sound so ominous? I love to laugh and have fun and wanted to write a humorous six word story.

Apology accepted. Now explain the bird.

No Time to Write

Some days I have no time to write.

Some days I have hours to write and can lay down over 2,000 words. Or I can read and heavily revise two or more chapters. I really lose myself in the story and just let it flow.

But other days are busy and it seems I have no time to write.

That’s actually not true. Even though I may not have hours to write a lot of words for my story, I have time to work on my story. There are numerous short tasks writers can do to improve their stories and manuscripts and novels even if you only have 15 minutes.

Take a look at this stream. Sometimes it’s rushing and deep, traveling through the farms and fields. Sometimes it narrows to a little trickle, barely a thread of water snaking between the banks.

Whether its wide and deep or shallow and tight, the stream keeps going. Like you, writer.

no time to write

Let it flow.

 

Some days you’re the rushing flood, some days you’re the persistent trickle. Either way, you’re moving forward.

Here’s a list.

No Time to Write Tasks

  • Write out your character’s appearance.
  • Write out the appearance of your secondary characters.
  • Check how many exclamation marks you have used and delete at least 2/3.
  • Draw a map of your story world.
  • Fill out character background sheets.
  • Think of sensory details to add in to your story.
  • Work on your tagline or logline.
  • Look for comps for your story.
  • Check for adverbs. Remove some.
  • Show instead of tell. Search for “I felt” sentences and rewrite some.
  • Write with action. Check for “I started” sentences and just start.
  • Pick a scene and make sure there are three senses identified.
  • Read a chapter and check for transitions.
  • Do the ends of scenes and chapters hook readers?
  • Summarize your story from the antagonist point of view.

Several of these ideas came from my recent workshop at the Highlights Foundation. I spent a great four days learning from K.L. Going and Clara Gillow Clark. They hosted the “Novel Beginnings” workshop and critiqued the first 50 pages of our novels. We also discussed craft, voice, most common mistakes, emotions, movies, layering and so much more.

 

How a Book Smells

I love how a book smells. I love that slightly dusty, dry papery smell mingled with the chemical odor of ink. Unfortunately that smell can often fade, but it’s in my memory.

Writers are encouraged to use smells in their books because when our brains read the description of the smells, our sensory areas light up just like we’re actually smelling the smells. Our brains can’t tell the difference between smelling with our noses, or reading about a smell that we know.

I do try to weave scents and smells into my stories, but only when they are appropriate. Recently I read a YA (young adult) book that I think was a tad heavy handed about incorporating smell data into the story.

 

Book Smells in A Cure for Dreaming

A Cure for Dreaming is a mix of humor and horror set in early 1900s Portland. A young girl is hypnotized in an attempt to remove her egalitarian views. There is some romance, parental tension, references to Dracula and a slight education on women’s equality and suffrage. I wanted to love the story, but I basically just enjoyed it.

What stuck out to me was that in every chapter, the author inserted an odor, scent or smell somewhat early. It was part of setting the scene but it also felt a little like checking a box. Maybe that’s not really a problem. I’m probably more picky than the average reader for this book. It really stood out to me as a task, not a story element.

Several smells appeared in the first sentences of the chapter.

Cigarette smoke and warring perfumes. How long until most readers are unfamiliar with cigarette smoke odor? Neither of these smells are very appealing.

book smells cigarette

“cigarette smoke…warring perfumes..smelled overcooked”

Food smells trigger not only our scent memories, but our appetites, too. Does your mouth water when you read this?

“smelling of chicken”

The smell of black coffee is unmistakeable and quite enjoyable in my smell collection.

book smells food

“poached eggs, black coffee and a touch of rosemary”

 

In later chapters, the smells appear after a few pages. Here we have that tingling dental office smell that often triggers fear in people. Did you get tense reading this?

book smells fear

“A sweet, antiseptic, and metallic potpourri”

And the smell of peppermint makes me think of Christmas. This book is set at Halloween. Maybe she should have referenced cinnamon.

book smells holiday

“peppermint-scented candies”

These three scents aren’t really familiar to modern day readers. The purpose here is to reference a society from a different time.

book smells historic

“Cologne and pomade and the scent of wool suits”

 

Reading How a Book Smells

So not only does the physical book smell, but the book has smells. As you read your next book, take note of the book smells that are mentioned and think about how they help set the scene, the time period, the mood. Or, just read the book.

Writing Prompt: The Lost Potato

Do you see that? There on the ground? It’s a potato. It’s just sitting there, all by itself, on the sidewalk. How did it get there?

This lost potato is the perfect writing prompt. I can think of lots of stories about how that potato ended up there.

Send me your stories about the Lost Potato. Feel free to change the title. I’ll share them here and someone (or ones) may receive some kind of recognition for their creativity.

Room for Improvement

room for improvement

Stop here.

Running has a finish line, but with stories, there’s always room for improvement.

Virginia Wolf wrote that it’s essential for women to have a room of one’s own, and I don’t disagree. But there’s another room that’s also essential. Room for Improvement.

I don’t usually write stories for specific contests, but I will revise them. There’s this website, Mslexia, that I like. I like what they say about women and writing. I want to send them a story and get good feedback. They have a contest with a deadline of March 1, 2017. I have a story I think they will like. Their contest has a word count limit of 3000 words. My story is 4719. I’ll have to cut 36% of my story to have it qualify. I worked on it for two weeks and I finally have the story down to 2995.

Is it the same story? Is it better or worse? Who knows.

There’s always room for improvement.

I have another story that meets the word count for the next round of Pen Parentis, in fact, it’s well under. It got great reviews on another website but when I pulled it out to re-read it today, I realized I can rewrite it even better, stronger. I overused the word “too” for example. I can spruce this up, get it proofread, and send it off to the contest, which opens March 1.

There’s always room for improvement.

Back in October 2015, I wrote a 50,000 word draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t really write the full story. I wrote the fun scenes of a story. Now as I’ve pushed this manuscript through one round of revision, I realized I didn’t have a strong story line and I need a synopsis. So I’ve paused my revision and I’m now telling the story in synopsis form. This is a good exercise because I have to turn in my first 50 pages to the hosts of a Highlights Foundation workshop, and the pages are due March 1. (It’s a busy time.)

Once the synopsis is done, I’ll go back and revise those first fifty pages and make sure they really set up the story I plan to tell, so the workshop hosts know what I’m bringing them. I know my revision won’t be perfect, but that’s why I’m going to the workshop. I’m eager for their advice and feedback.

Because there’s always room for improvement.

 

Pen Parentis Fellowship Now Open

This is a photo of me in New York City with antlers, not horns. That’s significant, if you’ve had a chance to read my story “Cernunnos and Me.” The story is about being a hunter, about going after what you want. The day I took this photo was the day I attended my first Pen Parentis salon and received my fellowship award.

antlers

Antlers, not horns.

 

Writers are hunters. We chase after our prey – the elusive story – consume it, and crave more.

Sharpen your weapons, writers, because the Pen Parentis Fellowship is now open to submissions. From now until mid-April, Pen Parentis wants your new, never published stories. One skilled writer will be selected as the 2017-2018 Fellow and have their story published in Brain, Child and receive a $1,000 stipend to continue their craft.

pen parentis fellowship

I still remember the day I received the call from M. at Pen Parentis. I was smack in the middle of parenting. It was summer and I was picking the boys up from art camp and they were telling me three different stories at once and I had my hands full of art projects and was trying to thank the teacher and my phone rang with an out of state number. I don’t often pick those up, but this time I did.

As I answered the phone I said, “Boys, can you just give me one moment to take this call?”

M. laughed and laughed and told me she knew she had the right person and told me I had won the fellowship. I was in shock. I sat down. My kids stared at me and then broke out in cheers when I explained what was going on. It was one of the most special moments of my life as a writer and as a mom, and honestly, I’m glad they were there with me.

Pen Parentis Salons

The Pen Parentis award night was in September, my birthday month, and I was so lucky that my mother-in-law could stay with the boys while my husband and I spent three fun days exploring the city and attending a literary salon in Manhattan. I’m not really a shy person, but I felt surprisingly nervous about reading my story aloud. It’s quite different to share my stories at critique group, or have people read them quite a distance away from me. But reading aloud at a salon meant the reactions were immediate and quite visible.

I met other wonderful writers who offered support and some very kind compliments on my story. My favorite, most thrilling part, was when the audience laughed at just the right moments.

My children do inspire my writing, but it also seems like sometimes they conspire against it. It’s a balancing act, but groups like Pen Parentis know that and want to support us. I look forward so much to returning to New York this fall and meeting the next fellow. When I won, I was passed an invisible crown. I am thinking I might pass on something more personal, something inspired by my story.

I wish you a bountiful hunt.

Wild About Reading Books

We love reading books in this house. We also love reading books outside, on the bus, while we’re walking, and even in the parked minivan in the garage.

reading books

Van Reading

Graphic Novels

The book that has captured the attention of this van reader is a graphic novel in the Amulet series. He got book 4 in his Scholastic order, and the older brother got book 5. They’ve both read both books in one day!! That’s the problem and the benefit with graphic novels, I guess. Easy to read, and too easy to read.

The kids are devouring these books, so if you’re looking for something that interests graders 4-6, get your hands on Amulet soon.

Graphic novels are such a good transition from picture book to the meatier picture-free novel. But novels still work in read-aloud format, like picture books. I think that’s one big problem with graphic novels, they can’t be read aloud. Or, they can’t be read aloud and enjoyed like other books.

And though my kids are all gaining very secure footholds in the reading world, picture books are still a source of enjoyment. Recently, I cleaned out two shelves of picture books with my youngest and we had a chance to notice and comment on our favorites.

Picture Books

I think Wild About Books might be my favorite picture book. The kids love it, but it’s so well-written I think adults love reading it, too. Well, bibliophilic adults do. And my favorite part of the book is the insect zoo haiku part is my favorite part of favorites.

The witty puns, the clever word choice, the clever insect choice! It all comes together so effortlessly that I am willing to bet she spent days working on this part.

I feel a sort of familiar pain when the scorpion delivers the harsh, and sometimes true, critiques of the insect haikus. But to be a writer, one needs a thick skin…or chitin.

I love reading this story aloud.