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.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #15 - Different Wavelengths

The Seed: It seemed the most natural thing in the world to me - a child and his stuffed bear changing places. What child wouldn't want to see a favourite toy come alive for a day?  And as for the child temporarily changing places and becoming a toy - what a perfect way to experience the everyday world  from a different  point of view.
(c) Ruth Ohi 2013

The Story: Yancy and Bear  (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick Press, 1996)
It's Raining, Yancy and Bear  (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick Press, 1998)

The Writing Tip:  Sometimes writers become painfully aware that not everyone is on the same wave length as they might be.
     The book had only been out a few months when I happened to be speaking casually with two sales reps for the publishing company. They asked what my next book was about and I told them it was a sequel to Yancy and Bear.  That's when the look on their faces froze.  They didn't say anything further but clearly something was amiss.
     I got the explanation from the publisher.  The reps hadn't been able to sell the books. Book store owners/buyers (adults, every one of them of course!) had been completely mystified by the concept of a boy and his stuffed bear changing places. They just didn't "get it." The sequel would do even less well.
    What does a writer do in this kind of situation? I can tell you what I didn't do.  I didn't argue the merits of the book. I believed in the story ... I still do!  But I also believe that readers - children and adults - have every right to decide for themselves. And I  know that books, like children, have lives of their own.  You do the best you can while they are under your care but sooner or later you have to wish them well, watch them head out the door and see where they end up. 
       Happily, the book was being carried in libraries. Parents began to tell me that their two-year-old had discovered Yancy and Bear and insisted on having it read to them over and over.  Other parents shared stories of how their own small children had always pretended to change places with their stuffies.  And then, during school visits, students in grades one and two began telling me they'd read (and listened to!) Yancy and Bear on their class computers.
       This was early days for books in electronic format and it took me a bit of time to track down what the students were talking about.  But - yes! There it was in living colour, accessible through an internet site. It had been photographed in a manner that made full use of the delightful little vignettes with which Ruth Ohi had so lovingly illustrated the book and there was a feeling of gentle animation that went well with the nature of the story. Even today, it's alive and well and still being enjoyed through electronic format.
      The book had taken unexpected pathways but it had indeed made its own way in the world. Sometimes you just have to keep faith and enjoy what might come your way! 


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

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #14 - To Steal or Not To Steal

The Seed: Several books about growing up on the prairies during the Great Depression had recently been published.  I began to think about the tales my own parents, aunts and uncles had told me about living on farms during those tough times.  Among the pieces of oral history, was there a story that I could offer to today's young audience?

(c) copyright ruth Ohi 2013

The Story:  Tess (Annick Press 1995, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Picture Book ages 5 - 8)

The Writing Tip: The one bit of family history that most appealed to me was an anecdote about how my aunt and my dad had been sent into the fields to gather cow paddies (cow poop!) to be burned as fuel in the cook-stove during the summer months.  Dry cow paddies are free for the taking and they burn well - they are sometimes still used in less less developed parts of the world. But my aunt sensed that here in Canada the gathering was to be done secretly...not because it was bad, exactly, but because her parents were ashamed of how poor the family had become. When a neighbour happened upon her with her bag of dry cow paddies, and commented that he now understood why their house smelled so peculiar, my aunt was totally humiliated.  That sense of humiliation is what told me this story would work -- it was something today's kids would be able to associate with even while going "ewwww" at the idea of the cow paddies.
         Now my aunt, among many other accomplishments, is also a writer. She had already written about this incident for one of the farm newspapers. It had been a a short, factual article - not really what I was planning. But still, I couldn't steal her story --- I wouldn't steal anyone's story! And yet every time I sat down to write, I found my pen beginning to move in that direction.  The more I tried to forget the idea, the more it returned, stronger than ever.
       Finally I did the only reasonable thing. I phoned my aunt and asked if I could use her anecdote in my own way, turning it into a picture book for little kids.
       The answer was an unqualified "yes". And because I, too, grew up on the prairies -- some thirty years later but still surrounded by endless horizons beneath a huge and wonderful arch of sky --I was then totally free to add my own twists to the tale. The characters grew, a crises fell into place (entirely apart from my aunt's original tale) and the story began to have a life of its own.
         Is stealing a story always as simple as asking someone?  No - of course not! Nor is it as easy as simply being aware of  copyright considerations  (copyright itself is seldom simple!). But in cases where a story calls to you with a strong voice, my best tip is to follow it up in any and all ways possible.

           I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my wonderful Aunt Mag for the story Tess.  Besides gathering cow paddies, her life has included riding bucking broncs, driving army transport trucks in London during the Blitz (the WW II bombings), being one of Calgary's first police women and success as a writer in many different areas.
        Thanks Mag -- always!

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


Tuesday 28 May 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #13 - Disciplne, Determination and Dreaming

The Seed: It was impossible -- the four small paintings simply did not exist! And yet the snow from the first one seemed to be seeping into my bedroom.
(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi

The Book:  Within a Painted Past  (Annick Press 1994, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, novel ages 8 - 11)

The Writing Tip: It was that single precious hour that I had so carefully carved out of my day with three young children. I was sitting on my bed with pen,paper, tea, cookies,cats and dogs. But my page was blank.
         What was I going to write? If I wanted to be a writer I had to write about something! But I'd tried all my usual tricks to get my pen moving across the page and none of them had worked. Totally fed up with staring at the blank page, I looked up and stared at the blank wall instead.
           That's when the paintings appeared.  They weren't there....but they were there! Four little paintings of the mountains - spring, summer, fall, winter.  The winter one was of a cabin in the woods and the snow was painted so realistically it seemed be falling right into my room.
            At that moment, my whole room seemed to change around me.  I have a white ceiling...but suddenly it was made of dark wood.  The ordinary window behind me was suddenly a gabled window.  And the hallway became a staircase going down.
           I knew it would be a story going back in time.  Hurrah!  I love stories that shift back in history! But almost at the same moment I realized I couldn't write it.  With three young kids, I barely had time to write let alone time to get out of the house and do the research that would be necessary.
          There was no way I was about to lose the moment, however. I quickly wrote four pages of scattered ideas in connection with the paintings.  Four years later, when the kids were all in school and I could get to libraries and museums to gather enough background information to make the story work, I returned to that notebook and wrote the story itself.
     The three D`s of writing: discipline, determination and dreaming. 
      If you want to be a writer, over and over you need to rise to the challenge by always setting aside time to write and by continually refusing to give up -- even if it means staring at a blank wall.

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

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #12 - Truth and Fiction

The Story Seed:  My young daughter had recently experienced two incidents that were rapidly letting her know more about the layers of the world: one in which she was unjustly accused of shoplifting and a second that had her thinking about a large fish at a pet store we'd visited.

(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi
The Books: Believing Sophie, illustrated by Dorothy Donohue (Albert Whiteman and Co. 1995)
      The Catfish Palace, illustrated by Ruth Ohi (Annick, 1996)

The Writing Tip:  It was an editor who helped me learn what I needed to know in order to get these two stories to work. She had just picked up Believing Sophie from her desk. I could tell that the manuscript was about to be rejected and it made me sad to think that such an honest story idea wasn't going to make the cut.
     "That's something that really happened," I told her quickly. 
     Her brow furrowed thoughtfully as she looked at it one last time.
     "Perhaps that's what is wrong with it," she commented.
     And handed it back to me.

     The comment puzzled me but I respected my editor hugely (and still do!) and I knew that no comment was ever made lightly. Over the next months I thought about what she'd said.
     What I came up with is this. All my stories are based on "something that really happened" — that's what my current blog entries are all about!  But up to that time, the real life incidents had only been starting points. The stories themselves had been allowed to grow into entities all their own.
     The manuscript she had just rejected, however, had not been allowed to do that. Thinking it would be the best way to capture the sense of what my daughter had experienced, I'd stuck close to the facts. But facts are tricky things. If you let them rule your narrative, the immediacy and emotional connection that are so vital to the entire purpose of "story" can become lost.
     I took a deep breath and stepped back. A picture book story is different in style, language and technique from either a more journalistic piece or from a straight retelling. I needed to remember all the important story elements. Character. Pacing. The right voice. Beginning, middle, end. And a whole lot of other things!
     And I had to be careful that I wasn't a mother writing about a daughter. I had to be an author seeking the heart of a story and telling it well.
     The resulting stories -- while still very much holding the facts at their core -- were richer, stronger and more revealing on all levels. 
      A strong fictional story, no matter how dramatic the original incident, is never as simple as a retelling. It needs to have a life of its own.

     On a side note .... the publishing of The Catfish Palace was the first time I realized that the illustrator and the book designer are sometimes separate people.  Ruth Ohi did the wonderful illustrations. Sheryl Shapiro designed the layout, including notebook paper on the front cover and an envelope on the back, to perfectly complement the story within.
(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #11 - Small but Telling Moments 

The Seed: One of the things that totally intrigues me about life is the way in which the big events -- the holidays, birthdays, grand weddings or ceremonial graduations -- are often not what one remembers as being the truly significant times.  The truly "telling" moments, at least in my experience, are often small and intimate. They are touched with mystery and occur when you least expect them. Occasionally  humorous. Definitely many-layered. And always sincere.
(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi
The Book: The Best of Arlie Zack (Annick Press1991, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, novel ages 8 - 11)

The Writing Tip: There are times when one needs to allow a story to grow outward.  But some stories, like this one, fold inward right from the start.
           I still used my notebooks, per last week's posting. But it wasn't a single idea seed that sprouted.  Instead scattered bits and pieces from many spots in different notebooks began to knit themselves together. Each had a small telling moment at its core.  And because those kinds of moments always hint at something deeper, it wasn't long before other half-remembered bits and pieces from childhood came to join them, each with its own small and perfect magic.  
         With no single succinct writing tip to be pulled easily from its pages, I almost skipped this novel entirely for the purpose of this blog. But I decided to include it as a reminder - to myself as much as to others - that stories have endless ways of coming into existence. 
        I've also included it because one of the many symbols in the novel -- the mysterious, dark and cluttered basement through which Arlie must eventually find his way -- suggests that deep dream-scape where so much of all our creativity lies.

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

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips # 10 - Hurrah for an Idea Notebook!

For the next few months my blog is featuring writing tips gathered from my own experience of growing story seeds into published books. 

Story Seed: “I don't want to be the cat. I always have to be the cat. I hate being the cat!”
          I opened my idea notebook and there they were...three sentences of dialogue spoken at least four years earlier. It had become totally lost among the thousand other things that had happened.  But I was on the search for a story idea...and here it was.
(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi 

Book Title: And You Can Be The Cat (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick 1992)

The Writing Tip: Keeping a notebook, journal or diary is a huge benefit to a writer -- we've all heard that one more than once!  A beginning writer, however, sometimes feels that she or he has to officially sit down and capture every nuance from a certain moment in time for it to count ...and that can lead to avoiding the task entirely.  
     So here's my trick.  I give myself permission NOT to write down every last detail. My goal is always "just get a few words down on paper."  I often do indeed write more but even a single line is better than letting a great idea (character, location, oddball thought or snippet of dialogue) slip away. 
     Here are some of the shorter bits and pieces that speckle my notebooks:
      - an unusual way of looking at a common-place event
      - a theme that particularily speaks to a child's view of the world
      - a bit of humour ... that lovely unexpected touch
      - strange and amazing facts
      - an idea that screams "story!" even though I have no idea as yet how to build it into something with a beginning, middle and end. 

    The original three lines of dialogue never did get written into the actual story itself. The pacing of the tale called for action not discussion at that point (another thing I'll talk about in future posts). But it all began with the immediacy of that moment -- and a tiny bit of its associated emotion -- being captured on paper. 

        Write those ideas down!

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