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.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Story Seed / Writing Tip #9 Zig Limple Plip Snurp

For the next few months my blog is featuring writing tips gathered from my own experience of growing story seeds into published books. 
(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi
The Story Seed: It was something a friend told me that sprouted this book idea. “My little guy talks non-stop except it's not really words, it's just sounds--- like a baby magpie. It's driving all three of us crazy.”

The Book: Katie's Babbling Brother (illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Annick 1992)

The Writing Tip:  
    Tip #1 : Sometimes you have to give up something very good in order to make your story even better.  Magpies are a medium-size bird, rather like a black and white crow.  Their babies really do chatter away in some language that sounds almost human and I LOVED the fact that my friend used them in her description. But right away I had a problem. Not everyone knows what a magpie is. 
         Would it work if I wrote it as babble instead?  "Bimble dee izzer? Gararumph iggle de snorkum zot! Sisbah yup yup.”  Hey! I really liked the babble!  And I soon discovered, while reading early drafts aloud to children, that they totally delighted in the babble language. This would work even better than I'd thought!      
Tip #2
Look at the world through a child's eyes.  With the babble firmly in place, I began to write.  However it soon became clear that the story wasn't working.  The babbling was good but the family parts - especially the bits about Mom and Dad - were boring. What was wrong?
           Experienced writers will have guessed my error. Because I'd gleaned the story seed from an adult, I'd unconsciously adopted an adult point of view. I'd used Mom and Dad's frustration as the main focus for the plot. But a kid's story should NOT be about an adult problem.  It should be about a kid's problem! 
            I couldn't write from the baby brother's point of view - he didn't even have a problem.  He was perfectly happy just babbling away.
             That's when I realized the real problem in the story belonged to five-year-old  Katie. She had a little brother whose non-stop noise drove her crazy but, even more importantly, it stole all the attention away from Katie herself. Yes - that was where the story was to be found! 
              (Katie's unorthodox solution to her problem turned out to be a bit of a stumbling block to my wonderful publishers for a year or two... but that's a blog for another day.)

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