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.

New Books at Our Little Free Library

Our Little Free Library is really getting a lot of use! We get thank you notes frequently. I love seeing the books change over, noting which ones have found new homes, finding new ones that I didn’t add to the library appear. I do admit I feel a little bad for some books that never seem to get picked from the library.

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First Books

Did you ever write a book when you were a kid? Even a short one? As you can guess, I did. And so did a young writer in our neighborhood. The best part is that this young writer was able to put their book in our Little Free Library! It was incredibly inspiring to find this book by a young author in our library. I pictured how excited this little storyteller was when they placed their book in a real library for others to read. I hope other young writers share their books, too.

first books

NaNoWriMo

Speaking of writing books, it’s November. And you know what that means. Time to write a novel. Earlier in October, I shared some information about NaNoWriMo in the library. Only one person took a tear-off tab, but I’m hopeful that maybe some others visited the website and attempt to write their first (or second?) novel.

nanowire mo

I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. I know what kind of work it takes to “win” and write 50,000 words. Maybe in a few years one of my novels will be in a Little Free Library. But it won’t get there if it isn’t written, so it’s time for me to get to work. Let’s write!

 

A Little Free Library – Finally!!

We finally have a Little Free Library in Tyler Park! About a year ago, I was in Minneapolis, MN, for a volunteer conference. While I was there, roaming around the very flat city, I walked by my very first Little Free Library. I had heard of these delightful book boxes, but never seen one.

As you can guess, I was incredibly inspired by the idea of sharing books with the community. I promised myself then and there I’d get one in our park. And it happened. Sure, it took over a year, but I never said I’d do it fast.

The Dream

First, I mentioned the idea to my neighbor on the board of our neighborhood association. Then I emailed the info to the board. After they approved the idea, they got approval from the township to install it in the park. Then I selected the design and ordered the LFL. It arrived in early June…and sat on my back deck for several months. I was sad about that, but there wasn’t much I could do. I’m not skilled with digging holes and pouring cement and I did not want this to be installed poorly.

I dreamed of the day the LFL would be ready. My husband and I visited the park often and debated where the best place would be to put it. We settled on a spot near the playground and the driveway. I often looked across the park and pictured it. But every time I tried to line up installation, scheduling or weather got in the way.

So at the bus stop one morning, I mentioned my dilemma to some other families, and a dad volunteered to help me out. And that Friday, we met at the park and dug in!

Installation

We had a little helper who loved to measure.

lfl6

While the LFL shipped with basic installation instructions, the steps were a lot more involved than I could implement at the park. We didn’t have electricity for sawing wood. So I purchased the installation materials based on a useful blog post I discovered at Hugs and Kisses and Snot. Their idea was genius in my opinion. All we needed was two mail box posts, cement and screws. I did a very good job holding the mailbox posts in place.

lfl5

It was so great learning tips and tricks from my very skilled neighbor. After we leveled the posts, I assumed we’d have to mix the cement in the bucket, but he pointed out it was just as easy to mix it right in the ground. That smoke is like magic!!

lfl2

We let the cement set for a day. Bright and early Saturday morning my neighbor secured the LFL onto to the posts with a kind of construction glue and screws. Then the kids, my husband and I hustled over there with our big box of books and loaded it up.

lfl4

Little Free Library Opening Day

We didn’t have a huge Opening Day celebration. But the Little Free Library worked like a charm. My kids saw books that looked interested, grabbed them out of the LFL, and cracked them open. Perfect!lfl3It was very hard and very easy to make this dream come true. The Little Free Library is open in Tyler Park. I’ve checked on it every day since it opened. (Yes, I’m over eager) It’s exciting to see that people have taken books and left new ones! We even got a thank you note! It’s pretty thrilling.

Little Free Library

It’s funny, when I saw that Little Free Library in Minneapolis, I didn’t even open it. I remember I gazed at it longingly, but didn’t open the door or take out a book. I could have, of course, because the books in Little Free Libraries are available for anyone. But I realize now I thought those books were only for Minnesotans. So I declare now, if you visit  Tyler Park from you are allowed to take books from our Little Free Library!

Summer Reading Fun with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

All school year I help my young kids log books. Our school has a program called Ross Reads and as the kids read books and pass quizzes online hosted by Scholastic, my kids earn prizes. They get colored rubber bracelets that signify their total of books read. They earn coupons for yogurt and local attractions. My kindergartener even earned tickets to a Washington Wild Things baseball game this year!!

And the reading doesn’t stop in summer. There are dozens of programs out there encouraging kids to read for rewards. At the library. At Half-Price Books. All summer I’m supposed to help them log books. When do I get a chance to earn rewards for reading??

Now.

reading

Bookmarks Up!

Finally, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh heard my woeful cry and offered a program for adults to earn prizes for reading. Their Summer Reading Log for 2016 is all online. That is perfect because it’s time consuming to drive across town to turn in a paper log. And I love that I am entered to win prizes for something I totally rock at doing: READING.

The program even offers suggestions for books I might like, but I don’t really need that aspect because my “To-Read” list on Goodreads is already a mile long and doesn’t even include the books that are stacked on my nightstand waiting to be read. I’ll read them all, I promise!

I really felt this program was designed just for me, but it turns out Carnegie Library wanted it to be easy for the whole city to read books and log their reading for rewards, so they challenged Pittsburghers to read 90,000 books before August 31, 2016. And we did it. I helped in my small way.

We Win!

We Win!

 

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Why Did This Book Win a Newbery Medal?

I’m working my way through the Newbery Award winners, and while I’ve read some books I really loved, there are some serious duds in the list. So far I have to say Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon and Ginger Pye are real disappointments compared to some of these books.

While I gave both of those books three stars on Goodreads, you should know I give almost every book I read three stars, unless it’s truly terrible or offensive. I guess I don’t feel the need to give a book one or two stars because I tend to find merit in at least one chapter, paragraph or sentence. But neither of these earned four or five stars. Neither one excited me. Passages may have entertained me and I certainly learned something to use in my writing, but honestly, neither of these books would stand a chance with my kids. So I wonder what earned them the award?

Gay-Neck is a gentle but somewhat confusing story of a boy raising a pigeon. I don’t know anything about the boy who is the narrator. I learned some things about pigeons, but after reading reviews on Goodreads, I’m not sure what I learned was true. I learned about an Indian hunter experiencing the trauma of World War I. Yet each chapter felt like a separate anecdotal entry, not a story. The writing wasn’t bad and much of it was poetic and painted a beautiful mental image, but the characters didn’t captivate me at all.

I started reading Ginger Pye to my middle son a few months ago and he was bored by the first chapter. I forced myself to push further into the book. I learned a lot about the life of white people in a New England town and their attitudes towards girls and transients. I also felt disappointed that the title character, Ginger the puppy, was missing for most of the book.

Ginger Pye was published in 1951, Gay-Neck in 1927. Were librarians more interested in boring books those years? Were no other good books for children published?

Let’s look.

There were two Honor books the year Gay-Neck won. I haven’t read either, or even heard of them, but I had never heard of Gay-Neck either.

gay neck newbery

The summary of Downright Dencey looks interesting, and overall Goodreads readers give it 3.76 stars compared to Gay-Neck’s 3.23. I’m actually eager to pick this up and give it a try. Still, was Gay-Neck the best we got in 1927? This was the year of Sherlock Holmes, Death Comes for the Archbishop and To the Lighthouse (all books I’ve read). There had to be better children’s books out there. Luckily, Goodreads lists indicate Now We are Four and Emily’s Quest are proving to be a lot more popular.  Yay for L.M. Montgomery!

Now Ginger Pye came out in the 50’s. Lots more competition. And more Honor books.

ginger pye newbery

Unfortunately I haven’t read or heard of any of those books, either. But thanks to Goodreads I know it’s the year we got The Catcher in the Rye, Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, two Narnia books and Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary.

Now, it shouldn’t always be a popularity contest, but we also know that the best book doesn’t always win. So the Newbery Award isn’t always going to the best book. I knew that already, thanks to my local librarian. At least I’m branching out and finding books I haven’t heard of before and learning a lot about different ways of writing and telling stories.

Here’s a good article from the ALA that lists other books that should have won the Newbery but didn’t. I know my oldest son loved Frindle, because he also tried to invent new words. I plan to read several of the books listed there.

What award winners do you think really lived up to the hype and what didn’t?

Advice for Writers from an Agent

In May, I attended the SCBWI Western PA Agent Workshop. I learned a lot and got some excellent advice for writers on pitches, storytelling, and revision and I wanted to share it with you!

Pitching Advice for Writers

While they need to be short, they still need to include the main character, the obstacle and some sense of resolution.

This was my pitch and it was well-received.

Short and sweet!

Short and sweet!

Storytelling Advice for Writers

  • Mirror, Mirror. Please don’t use the tired device of describing your character’s physical appearance by having your your character look into a mirror.
  • Too Much Telling takes away from action.
  • Why Should I Care? This is the feeling that readers get when they confront too much backstory. Weave it in, don’t dump it.
  • Bubble Boy or Girl. Or Alien. Make sure your characters don’t exist in a bubble. Describe the setting and use all five senses!

Revision Advice for Writers

More advice for writers covered how to revise your manuscript. Envision your manuscript as a road that your readers will travel on a wondrous journey. The first draft is like that rocky, dirty, bumpy path carved out by construction equipment. Each stage of renovation makes it smoother, easier, more pleasant to travel.

As you read your manuscript, look for places where you’ve left out setting details, where you’ve used passive voice and -ly words, and if your main character is changing. If not, go back and call in that construction crew.

Advice for Writers of Picture Books

Did you know 60% of the story should be told through illustration? That means for non-illustrating writers like myself, I should only write 40% of the tale in the text. This is an interesting way for me to examine my texts, even though I never considered myself particularly mathematical. I like the idea of making sure the larger part of the tale comes through in the art, even if that does make writing harder.

Does Watching the Movie First Make Kids Better Readers?

Lots of parents don’t let their kids watch the movie versions of popular books before their children read the books. I’ve heard this about Lord of the Rings, Divergent, Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and more.

I totally see the logic of this. Parents are worried their children won’t read the books if they’ve already seen the movie.

I want readers in my family, too. But we probably sound a little crazy and lazy to other families, because I let our kids watch the movies before they read the books. In fact, I often encourage it. I think it’s a great way to for my children to find stories that interest them and that it actually encourages them to read more instead of reading less.

Recently, I let my kids watch entire collection of Harry Potter movies. And you know what? Watching the movie first might have made my kids better readers, because after the movie they only wanted to read the books more.

harry potter spell

Imperious doesn’t work when it comes to making kids better readers

My oldest son, who is 11, had already read the first four a few months ago but after the movies he was even more motivated to read the final three. He was so interested, he actually went back to the beginning and plowed all the way through the entire series of books. My middle son, who is only eight years old picked up the first book and is now almost finished the fourth book. My middle son was actually more excited about reading the books after seeing the movies because he wanted to know more of what happened. Instead of going from the rich, detailed book world to the skim-and-dip experience of a two-hour movie experience, he went the other direction. He went from the brief, delightful movie experience and dove into the fully fleshed out magical book world of Harry Potter with extra scenes and extended dialogue and an imaginative setting. He loves pointing out things he didn’t understand in the movies that are now clear to him because of the detailed book.

Movies Before Books

I did try it the reverse once, with the classic book The Last Unicorn. I read that book out loud to my sons over the course of many weeks. They were transfixed and captivated by the unicorn’s search for her lost people. When we finished, I announced that we could now watch the movie. At the end of the ninety minutes, all they did was talk about the parts of the book left out of the movie.

“If I watched the movie first,” my middle son declared, “I would want to read the book right away to learn what I had missed.”

I totally think the books are always better than the movies. Truly. And I want to reiterate that I get that parents are looking for ways to make their kids better readers. But parents might not realize their well-intentioned plan can backfire.

Look at this way: Did you ever play a sport as a kid? Did you ever have to run laps as punishment for something you or your team did wrong? Did it make you love running? Sure, it made you stronger as an athlete but it became a punishment, not a reward. Many adults still think about laps with loathing and dread running. Reading shouldn’t be the same thing.

It’s possible that when parents say kids must read the books before getting to enjoy the “more desirable” result of viewing the movie, parents are turning reading into a chore. If they make it task or duty to be suffered before getting to the fun movie, parents should think about whether they are really encouraging a love of reading or sabotaging their own goals.

Were you allowed to see movies before books as a kid? Did it make you more or less of a reader?

What other ways do you find helps make kids better readers?

Read All the Newbery Medal Books, March 2016 Update

We’re into March of 2016 and I feel like I’m finally starting to tackle my “read all the Newbery Medal Books” project. I was stalled at the beginning of the year because I wanted to finish Ulysses. While that book is an excellent but very long read. Then in the process of researching the biology of the Sargasso Sea, as well as the migration of eels and monarchs, I stumbled across an amazing book of Rachel Caron’s writing called Lost Woods.

If you’re interested at all in nature, science writing, or the power of the written word to influence public policy, I highly recommend this book. There are passages in there that are still relevant today, even though they were written half a century ago.

But then I finally started those Newbery Medal books I’ve been collecting! So far this month I read King of the Wind, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I’m almost finished with Julie of the Wolves.

I enjoyed King of the Wind for its sensory details and historical and cultural information. I started with this book because I am working on an animal story myself and because I’ve read Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and have fond memories of that book.

I knew I’d love Julie of the Wolves because I loved Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I recently re-read that book last year and still love the idea of leaving civilization for the wilderness and living off the land and in tune with the natural world. I don’t think it’s quite the lifestyle for me, but I love the escapism offered by these books. Julie of the Wolves offers even more as she lives in the tundra. It’s a world so foreign made so real by Craighead George.

Picking up The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an emotional moment for me. This book represents some tough coming of age experiences for me. Like a lot of kids, I struggled in my sixth grade year. I went to a small school and unfortunately my sixth grade teacher was the mom of a girl in my class with whom I didn’t quite get along with at the time. We had been friends in second grade, but by sixth we weren’t. Anyway, for some reason or another I was put in the lowest reading group that year. Me! I wasn’t good at a lot of things in middle school, but I was really, really good at reading. I have no memory of what book my group read, but I know the highest reading group read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was very bitter about this unfair grouping. I held a grudge against this teacher and this book. Now that I’m 40, I decided it was time to read this book and move on with my life!! I did enjoy it and now I want to visit the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

newbery books

I miss the Book It program! (But books are their own reward.)

More Newbery Award books to come!

Is the Problem Bad Reading or Bad Writing?

reader symbol bad writing or bad reading

Is this innocent reader to blame?

Let’s say you’re reading a book and the author makes a reference to something and you just don’t get it. It could be a phrase, a symbol, a name. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make sense to you. Some readers might feel confused and give the book a bad review. Some readers might just skip over parts they don’t get, finish the book or story, and go on with their lives. Some intrepid readers might do a little research online to try and understand what they read. I think the worst scenario is the reader who doesn’t even know they didn’t get some understand some reference, finishes the story and says, “huh? didn’t make sense” and then leaves a bad review.

Is the problem bad writing or bad reading? Is it the writer’s fault? When is it the reader’s fault?

Binge Watching

I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Wife lately. Yes, I’ve been binge watching. But this is a darn good show. First, I love the focus on female characters. Second, the story line is strong and compelling. Third, it also explores a lot of psychology and motivation of people. Many episodes also explore the concept of blame and responsibility.

(See, binge watching can be good for writers!)

I think it would be really cool to have a courtroom style drama to explore whether bad writing or bad reading is to blame when certain parts of a story are not understood.

“You Honor, the book didn’t make any sense. No writer can expect a reader to understand the phrase Plumtree’s potted meat.”

“Objection, your honor! Any well-read reader knows that a home without is incomplete!”

[the above is excerpted from my not-yet-written one-act stage play in which James Joyce is charged with obstruction of instruction.]

Yes, I’ve been reading Ulysses and learning a massive amount from his densely symbolic writing. Let me just say it’s been quite an education. But seriously, Ulysses is an excellent example.

I don’t have the grounding in the daily life of early twentieth century Dublin to get all of his references, just as much as I didn’t get all of the references in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or those short stories by David Foster Wallace.

Is it really Joyce’s fault if I don’t quite get all of the things he has to say in his really excellent, moving, comical, intellectual, insightful story?

Is it bad writing or bad reading? I think in Joyce’s case, it’s not bad writing.

The condom and the burka

(Here we come to another interesting question. Do symbols really have meaning once they leave the hands of the writer? Once a writer puts a symbol in the story, they are leaving the symbol open to the interpretation of the reader. As a reader, I can imbue those symbols with something that matters to me and that something could be quite different from what the writer intended. I did this recently at my critique group where I applied a much deeper meaning to a condom and a burka than my fellow writer had intended. This is a longer discussion.)

pyramid reader symbol bad writing or bad writing

Fraught with symbolism

Bad Writing or Bad Reading?

But back to the main question. Let’s say it’s important to the story, When is a failure to understand a reference a problem with the reader’s background, or with the writer’s writing?

At a recent critique group, we faced a problem I often hear when reading someone’s work and we have the chance to question the author.

I used the name “Selene” as the name a Moon base, used the phrase “star sailor” to describe a Greek astronaut, and had a character make a claim to another character that “we are all made out of stars.”

More than one person didn’t get my references and suggested I take them out of the story. But my story is about a child celebrating Christmas in his home on the Moon. Is it my fault as a writer that they didn’t get my carefully chosen words and phrases? And if it is writer error, how can I address that?

This story about Christmas on the Moon is intended for kids and it’s meant to be a short story. I have word limits, and I think adding in things like “the moon base was named Selene because that’s the name of the Roman moon goddess and NASA has a history of naming their space projects after mythological deities” is a bit awkward for story flow.

How else do readers figure out symbols and meanings when they aren’t in English Literature classes writing papers? Maybe they won’t get it. But if they don’t get it, then they might not enjoy my story as much. But is that my problem? It could be, if it gets bad reviews or if people feel I’m a terrible writer because of it.

Maybe it’s question of finding the right audience. But wow does that feel like a gamble.

(P.S. – I just asked my husband about this and he said, “it’s your fault.” Then he said, “know your audience!”)

(P.P.S. – Then he just made a huge claim that not every symbol needs to be gotten! Then I countered that it feels so disheartening to think people would read my story and miss out on some of my favorite little symbols. And he said, “Some will, some won’t. Those that do get it will enjoy a happy accident, a little serendipity.” So I said, “it’s not serendipity when I put it there on purpose.” And he said, “touche.”)

Now what do you say?

SCBWI Western PA Fall Conference

SCBWI Promising Writers!

SCBWI Promising Writers!

In November 2015 I attended my third fall conference hosted by SCBWI Western PA. I felt very excited for this conference, mostly because I felt very prepared. It’s nice to be past the novice stage and to be heading to an event with clear goals and specific things I wanted to learn. For instance, Valentine’s Day and Halloween are big book selling times.

(If children’s writing isn’t your thing, here’s some advice about going to a science writer’s conference from my friend Beth Skwarecki. )

As always the conference organizers did an amazing job. We were at the Hyatt Airport and there was an intensive the night before the main day of sessions on Saturday. I decided to stay the night on Friday so I could skip any traffic snarls and get to my volunteer station early. The rooms at the hotel are expensive, and I had missed the discount rate period, but luckily I had enough points (thanks to stays at the Hyatt in NYC for the SCBWI Winter conference!!) and got the room for free.

I helped at registration and greeted many of my writing friends. My favorite presentation was by Ariel Richardson from Chronicle Books. She covered novelty picture books and wow was my imagination sparked. I also particularly enjoyed the presentation by Susan Hawk who went into great detail on the agent/client relationship. She answered some tough questions about what happens once an agent likes your work.

The food at the conference was excellent and the rooms were fine, but I wasn’t thrilled that we didn’t have wireless internet access. I feel like conference attendees should get the code.

SCBWI Promising Writer

One special moment at the conference was when Ariel told me she had selected my story, Mission Compostable!, as her favorite. This meant I was honored with eight other writers as a Promising Writer. We received a coupon for a discount off a future WPA SCBWI event. In addition to her kind words, Ariel also offered some very generous advice and guidance on revising and submitting my manuscript.

It was really thrilling to be chosen as a Promising Writer. As we stood in front of the conference attendees, I looked at the people to my left and right and realized I was in a very special group of talented people! I promised myself again to keep working on my craft.

The networking and education that I get at these conferences is really so valuable, but like many conferences there never seems to be enough time for critique or discussion. And there is always so much to learn!

This year, I’m hoping to get to an SCBWI Conference in Cleveland in late summer and possibly the LA SCBWI Conference in August. Stay tuned!

What conferences do you attend? What is some good advice you’ve gotten at a conference?