Wednesday 2 October 2013

Story Seeds/Writing Tips #21 - No more books about cats!!

Continuing on my current blog theme of  1) a tiny, real-life seed from which one of my stories unfolded and 2) a writing tip that helped the seed grow into a finished story. 

The Seed:  The book Gentle Ben, about a grizzly bear in Alaska, had totally enthralled my son.  It reminded me how much kids love animal stories.  I couldn't write a story about a grizzly bear...but there was another type of animal that I had all kinds of information about.
The Story:  TJ and the Cats  Orca Publishers, 2002 

The Writing Tip:  Sometimes a great subject is right under your nose. We'd always had cats.  I had lots of great cat stories. Friends and family had cats. I knew lots about cats. It was perfect!
       Except it wasn't perfect.  Cats (unlike grizzly bears) are such common pets that lots of writers have written about them. A quick "google" of cat books gave me 80,000 results!  I'd even been told by my own publisher "No more books about cats."
     Did I give up?  Of course not.  But I was careful to find ways to help my book stand out.
     Most cat books are for/about people who like cats. I did the opposite.  My character announces in the very first paragraph "Cat's give me the creeps."
     I didn't write about just one cat either.  I wrote about four, all of them different.  I also researched hard to find unique and intriguing "cat facts" to weave into the story as well some truthful but pretty far out adventures cats have had.
     The final ingredient I added to the mix was a large dollop of humour. Of course that wasn't unique; lots of cat books have funny parts. But it still gave the story a bit of extra zip.
       Do I recommend writing a story about a subject that's been done 80,000 times before?  NO!!! But if you do find that you just can't resist - and if you truly feel it is a subject kids will enjoy - remember to think hard about ways, both large and small, to make your book truly have a life of its own.


(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips # 20 - Science for Small Folk

Continuing my current blog theme of 1) a tiny, real-life seed from which one of my stories unfolded and 2) a writing tip that helped the seed grow into a finished story. 

The Seed:  It was a game we played whenever summer thunderstorms appeared on the horizon: a flash of lightening and we'd start to count.  One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand.  Three...
The Story:  One Dark Night   Viking, 2001. Picture Book. Illustrations by Susan Kathleen Hartung

The Writing Tip: It's science of course! Light travels much faster than sound. But for this youngest crowd, I knew I couldn't start quoting the speed of light or explaining sound waves.
        I stripped things to the basics. I did want to include information about distances (each three seconds translates to about one kilometre distance from the storm; each five seconds about one mile) but even then, I didn't do it textbook style. I wove that information into the fabric of the story using the counting itself.
       Can you guess another concern I had while writing the story? A book is a much quieter medium than a storm.  I had to find some way to heighten the dramatic interest.
       That's when a momma cat appeared on the page--a stray cat intent on saving her three small kittens from the wildness of the approaching weather.  
       As she deposited the kittens at Johnathon's feet between claps of thunder, my story-brain took another little leap. There are many types of storms in life.  Jonathan  would be staying with his Grandparents, safe from some undefined storm as well.
       A quick recap:
     1. Strip the science down to basics.
     2. Avoid over-explanation.
     3. Ensure the story elements are every bit as strong as the science elements.
     4. Search for layers that might not, at first, be apparent.

And next time you see a flash of lightening, start counting!

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Story Seeds/Writing Tips #19 - Great Ideas from Unexpected Places

Continuing on my current blog theme of  1) a tiny, real-life seed from which one of my stories unfolded and 2) a writing tip that helped the seed grow into a finished story.

 The Seed:  It was a good-sized rope, as thick my thumb and much longer than I was tall.  "It's a climbing rope!" said one student.  "It's a skipping rope!" called another.  And then from the back of the room a voice called out something truly unexpected.  "It's a shoelace!"

(c) Ruth Ohi, 2013
The Story:  Two So Small Annick Press, 2000. Picture book. Illustrations by Ruth Ohi.

The Writing Tip:  As much as I wanted to laugh at the idea that my long rope might be a shoelace, I knew I couldn't. Laughter might hurt the student's feelings and that is something I never want to do.
       Luckily, my mind began to slip into story mode.  If my rope was a shoelace, then there had to be a very big shoe somewhere.  And if there was a very big shoe, then there had to be a giant.  And if there was a giant just around the corner, then we ALL had a problem. Stories are about problems!  This was a great idea!
Together the students and I began to look at "ordinary" objects around the classroom
     What might the metal waste basket be?
           The giant's drinking cup!
     What might the clock up on the wall be?
          His pocket watch!

Of course the entire story didn't all come together at that moment. It changed and grew over many weeks and months. It took on all kinds of twists and turns. But did it begin that day. And it began because I didn't laugh at a student's unexpected comment. 

Unexpected ideas are often the best ideas of all.

 (c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #18 - The Nostalgia Trap and How to Avoid It

Continuing on my current blog theme of  1) a tiny, real-life seed from which one of my stories unfolded and 2) a writing tip that helped the seed grow into a finished story. 

(c) Ruth Ohi, 2013
The Seed: My dad was a hard working farmer who was always in a race against the ever changing weather.  But he still managed to stop his giant tractor and move a duck's nest to safety. 

The Book:  One Duck  (Annick Press, 1999. Picture book ages 4 - 7. Illustrations by Ruth Ohi)

The Writing Tip: My dad had been so delighted the day he'd told us about saving the nest.  But many years later, when I tried to turn that memory into a story, words of caution were triggered in my writer's brain -- NOSTALGIA WARNING.  Nostalgia will kill a story faster than anything I know.  
     It takes more than fond memories to build a story. When you write for kids, especially, all the best story elements need to be present.  Kids want to be engaged. They want to care about and identify with the characters. They want action and suspense and drama!
     It took me many attempts over several months to change this childhood memory into a strong picture-book manuscript. Here are my best three suggestions for avoiding nostalgia and letting the story shine through.

1.  Keep the adult perspective to an absolute minimum. In One Duck, it's not the farmer (or even a farm kid) who is the main character.  The duck is the hero.'s an adult duck.  But kids identify and care about animals of all ages!   

2. Don't let information bury the narrative.  Information overload is an easy trap in cases like this.  "But I want kids to know what things were like!"beginning writers often protest when I try to get them to cut back on the details.
          But one MUST stay focused on the story.  There should be just enough detail to make the story clear and real.  But there shouldn't be more than that, especially in a picture book.
      And what to do with all that other information that doesn't fit?  Write another story of course!

3. Make sure the carefully chosen information that you DO include is ACCURATE.

     The things you remember from when you were a child, might not be as true as you think.  One has to be especially careful when nature is involved.  Besides reference books and the magic of the internet, ALWAYS try to find a real live expert.  In this case, my cousin Tom fit the bill perfectly. He double checked my duck facts, provided extra information and suggestions (including the raiding crow which heightened the suspense) and even caught mistakes in my description of farm equipment. Thanks Tom.

Here's hoping the above three tips help you turn at least one great memory into a great story! 

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Story Seeds / Writing tips # 17 - Imagination and Doodling

Hurrah! Life is returning to normal after basement flooding and I'm able to write again! For the next few months my blog will continue with 1) the tiny, real-life seed that became an idea for a book and  2) the writing tip that helped it grow into a finished story. 

The Seed:  A swirling, curling tangle of doodles was taking over my notebook.... and I'd just found a great ending to my latest novel!

(c) Ruth Ohi, 2013
The Book: The Prince of Tarn  (Annick Press, 1997, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, novel grades 3 - 6)

The Writing Tip: Free up your imagination with pen, paper and doodling!

        There is a different type of thought process that goes on when a writer works with pen in hand.  It's not necessarily better than typing on a keyboard, but it is different. And sometimes different is what a writer needs to get out of a rut and think in more creative terms.
        Pen and paper allows an open kind of story searching. Ideas fall out loosely all over the page...different angles, different scrawls, lots of doodles. It's a kind of dreamy state, a land of hazy ideas, of trying to make connections between thoughts half formed and thoughts one is only beginning to be aware might exist.
         Much of my writing these days is done directly on a keyboard.  But when I'm just beginning...or when I'm half way through and totally's pen and paper I reach for.
      That day, as I looked at the curling doodles, I realized they were taking over the pages of my notebook just like the trees in the story itself were taking over the magical kingdom of Tarn. Imagination and the words on the page were intertwined. If I handed my pen over the the prince, all would be well.
      Long live the doodle!  

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Friday 26 July 2013

Books do not like Flooded Basements!

All my books were purposefully on upper shelves in case of a basement flood but I have recently discovered that merely sitting above moisture is enough to start pages wrinkling and curling.  Another life lesson learned!

However I was very lucky at my place.  Things are steadily moving towards "normal" and I'll be able to return to making blog posts by the time fall rolls around.  My heart goes out to the many, many people who are still struggling with huge clean ups and, in some cases, permanent loss of their homes.

Many thanks to all my wonderful family, terrific friends and great neighbours for help during these last weeks.

Thanks also to those who have continued to check in on my blog.  I'm looking forward to getting back to all aspects of writing soon!


Wednesday 19 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips # 16 - Writing Within Editorial Guidelines - Robyn stories

The Seed:  Dear Hazel Hutchins,  We have a project which we hope might interest you. Attached please find a list of guidelines...

illustrations Yvonne Cathcart
The Books:  Robyn Series, Formac Publishing, 1997-2012

The Writing Tip: It was so nice to be at a point in my career where publishers had begun to approach me for material. But why did I now find myself hesitating?  Hadn't my rule always been  when the door opens a crack, jump in with both feet?  And what about the time I had lied outright, telling an editor "Yes!" when asked if a short story was part of a series...and then had needed to quickly write four more stories before my subterfuge was discovered? Where was that old "can do" spirit?

     The difference was a feeling of restriction. There is enormous freedom when one is working on one's own ideas.  Would I be able to bring the same kind of energy to this type of project?
     I did take on the challenge and (after a false start or two) I became totally comfortable with, and delighted by,  the "Robyn" character I was able to create while still writing within the guidelines. So many of the things Robyn does in the stories are variations of the embarrassing things that happened to me in grade three. I was indeed able to put my own personality into the work - hurrah! 
     Since then, I've accepted many other such offers as well.   Here are my suggestions for taking on projects of this sort
       - read all the guidelines carefully and make sure you are comfortable with them. They will almost always include length, point of view, genre, form, audience level and subject matter. There will likely be no chance to negotiate these points so if you aren't comfortable you need to back out now.     
        - be realistic in considering how long it will take you to write the piece.  Can you meet the deadline? Will it take time away from your favourite writing project, the one you really want to be working on? Or have you just finished a major project and would welcome a chance to  turn your pen in a slightly different direction?   
          - what might you gain (besides payment) from working on the piece?  Will there be some research involved that would be of particular interest to you and might lead to a different story of your own? Will the project help widen your audience as readers of this story possibly seek out more of your work? What about a back up plan -- if the publisher needs to withdraw from the project for some unforeseen reason, can you see some way in which the idea might be rewritten into a story that would have a decent chance of being sold on the open market? 
         -  most important of all, will you enjoy working on it and be proud of the finished product.

     Once you have committed, of course, always deliver your best writing.  Go on - jump in with both feet!

(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.