From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, January 22, 2018

5 Places to Rake In Picture Book Ideas

1. Hidden History

Ever heard of Grace Hopper? Jean Jennings? I hadn't until very recently. Did you know they were instrumental in the development of the modern computer, coding and programming in particular? Our history is full of characters, women especially, who made insanely awesome contributions to our world that we don't know about. And picture book biographies are the bomb! Find the hidden stories and bring them to light. Keep asking questions and keep researching. Who was the first African-American woman in space? Who was the empress who smuggled silkworms out of China?

2. Old Diaries and Photo Albums

Your life has hidden gems too. Nobody grew up quite exactly the way you did. Maybe you were an only child who lived in a high-rise in New York. Maybe you grew up on a farm in Idaho. Maybe your parents immigrated to Canada from Syria when you were 4 years old. Maybe your brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Whatever it is, find the richness and uniqueness from your own life and bring it to the page. Best of all you get to call it "fiction" so nobody can make fun of you for that purple underwear you wore every day of third grade. We know that was you.

3. Dreams and Nightmares

I once had a dream about sword-fighting a wolf in my old school's gym. There's something ethereal, childlike and whimsical about dreams, even scary ones, that might be a perfect match for the ethereal, childlike, and whimsical experience we want readers to have in our picture books. Its a good idea to have a notebook with you wherever you go, but for sure keep one by your bed and jot down the craziness that happens inside your brain while you're asleep.

4. Mythology and Folklore

I recently watched Myths and Monsters on Netflix and it was really fun! I learned a lot about western European mythology that I hadn't known before. It's a classic but excellent place to go digging for story ideas, especially if you look through areas that maybe haven't really been explored before. I'd be excited by some picture books featuring Ghanaian folk tales. I'd spend my grubby, hard-earned dollars on picture books about heroes from Korean mythology.

5. Other Picture Books

There aren't really very many "shoulds" when it comes to writing. Yeah there are wise suggestions that most likely it's a good idea to follow, but really we are free to blaze our own path. But one really solid "should", at least in my mind, is the idea that if you want to write something, you've got to read that something. I mean come on. Freddie Mercury only happened because the Beatles happened. We've gotta know what conversation we're joining otherwise we might get stuck playing in our own mess, thinking we're creating something new. So if you wanna write picture books, then read picture books. Let the ideas you love inspire you. Let the pictures you love best spark something in your own mind. And you'll have ideas coming out your ears as thick as Grandpa Norbert's wiry grey ear-hair.

Write on, everyone!

Sarah Allen

Monday, January 15, 2018

5 Habits That Will Amp Up Every Scene You Write

1. Admit that you need amping. I think sometimes we writers--and by we I most definitely mean me--think of some of our most precious scenes like songs from an acoustic guitar. We imagine these scenes like intimate notes sung quietly, soothingly, so poignant and whatever because by now your reader has fallen asleep. These scenes are where most of those darlings reside, those darlings you must rip out by the roots and toss into a wood chipper, no matter the stream of tears coursing down your cheeks. Here's the thing. Am I saying we can never have acoustic scenes? Not remotely. In fact intimate, acoustic scenes are my absolute favorite thing (examples to follow), but you have to earn them. They have to be placed just right, so that when the audience reaches them they're on the edge of their seats, chills running down their spine as they wait for that next, solitary chord.

2. Place your calm in the eye of the tornado. You know that seen in the movie Babe, where farmer Hogget has walked his pig out onto the field of the sheepdog trials and everyone laughs and then Babe beats every record and herds the sheep into the correct pens and as Farmer Hoggett shuts the sheep pen, slowly, so slowly, every single person in the audience is dead silent and you hear that final metallic clink of the latch and then everyone bolts to their feet cheering their heads off and in the midst of the applause Farmer Hoggett looks down at Babe and says, "At'll do Pig. At'll do." You know that scene? Well the feeling of that scene is sort of what I mean when say put your calm in the eye of a tornado. That look on the Farmer's face when he looks down, the sun shining behind him, is an acoustic, intimate moment. But it means everything because of what's around it. Because we've gone through jeers and mockery and dog bites and cat scratches and a myriad other animal hijinks to get there. Even that silent latch click moment. We get a storm of jeering and harsh laughter before it and an eruption of validation and applause afterward. A perfect, tender chord will stand out all the more for surviving the chaos that surrounds it.

3. Stare Down the Gun Barrel. Here's a story I read recently in Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me (which you should all go read immediately why are you still here go read it). He tells the story of a professor in a creative writing program. A gruff, boot wearing, bearded professor from the south. One day in workshop one of the students turns in a story about a young man being robbed at gunpoint. The robbers have the gun directed at his head and the young man thinks through all the things he's going to miss out on if he dies. He'll miss making love to his girlfriend. He'll miss ever visiting Australia, and a bunch of other things. The student finishes this story, and gruff professor tells him to start reading it again. In the midst of this reading the professor, with no warning, pulls a gun from his coat and points it between the kids eyes. "What are you thinking about?" he says.

The story may or may not true, but there's no doubt it's worth remembering. Your knight racing toward his opponents javelin is not going to be pondering the various shades of blue in the princesses eyes. He's not going to be thinking much at all. He's going to be fighting an aching shoulder barely able to lift his weapon. He's going to be feeling the roll of his horses gait. His vision will become tunneled. So get that metaphorical gun pointed at your forehead and ask yourself, "What are you thinking about?"

4. Activate Your Setting. This is another idea that has its basis in Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me book. We writers can easily slip into the habit of allowing their setting to be still. Unmoving. Static. That in many ways is how we interact with the world, isn't it? It's not like our desk moves. But keeping our setting's static gets us low-amp level scenes. Say you've got two neighborhood kids daring for the first time to approach the local haunted house. As you show your reader this house for the first time, what does move? What motion is your tour guide? Is there a breeze rustling the shredded grey curtains? Is there a grey mouse moving across the floorboards from the orange-stained kitchen to the cobwebbed library and down the creaking basement steps? Follow the motion. Make your setting dynamic. Make your world dance.

5. Think Triangle Dialog. We often think of dialog as between two people, but your scenes will level up if you add a third element. The best dialog is more than just talking heads. A conversation may just have a player and their guitar, but when you add an amp it boosts the music to a new level. That amp, that third element in your triangle, is something like action or active setting. An argument between father and son in the kitchen is fine. An argument between father and son during the down-to-the-wire ninth inning of a National's game is much better. Or maybe you need to put the seen in the kitchen. If so, have the muffins in the oven burn. Give them a leaky pipe in the fridge, or a cut finger while they're trying to chop onions. Have your characters do something while they talk, and the dialog will amp up to a whole new level of strength.

Write on!

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Developing a Thick Hide Against Rejection

I think it's tragic that this quote comes from Harper Lee--one can't avoid the implication that an insufficiently thick hide has something to do with why Ms. Lee never published a book after her seminal classic.

However, there are some good points here. As we develop our talent, we must be self-insulated enough not to get blown aside or knocked down by every wind of condescension, negativity, and rejection. Because when you choose to be a writer, this is an unavoidable part of that choice.

Everybody's got their own hide. Some are tanned and muscular. Some are bubbly and adorable. Some of us are blessed (cursed?) with hides flat enough to sketch on that can barely hold up a pair of jeans. Anyway, we all gotta develop our own hide, ya know? Each writer would do well to take that moment of self-analysis and figure out what it will take for you to keep chugging along like a freight train down the tracks of this writer life, no matter what nails and chinks and rocks and shrubbery that regular ol' life or malicious stinking trolls put in your way.

Chug on, little writer trains.


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Monday, December 11, 2017

A Writers First Baby-steps To Plotting A Romance

Sometimes I think we go through paradigm shifts as writers. The writer we thought we were is suddenly no longer the writer we now know ourselves to be. It's as if we're a cute little Charmander with no conception of the power we will one day have as a mighty pen-wielding Charizard. We evolve. We level up.

This can take many forms. Maybe it's a form change. Maybe we've been trying to write short stories and we realize we're actually super great at poetry. Or we've been turning our nose up at epic fantasy but you've secretly got epic world building abilities and can write sorceresses like nobodies business. If you're a Geodude, own your Geodudeness. Don't be a Squirtle. Unless you're a Squirtle. Then be a Squirtle.

Of course figuring out what kind of pokewriter we really are takes a lot of time and experimentation. And maybe our true form is something like the head of a Pikachu with Rapidash's body and the soul of a Snorlax. (Behold the mighty Snorlax soul, hear her snor.) Point is, whatever monstrosity your writerly self evolves into, just be the best monstrosity you can be.

Which brings me to my latest personal writerly evolution.

In high school I had a very specific view of my writerly self. In class we were reading stuff like King Lear and Crime and Punishment and Cry, the Beloved Country, and A River Runs Through It. I wanted to BE Norman Maclean. For our big book projects one semester my teacher assigned me Moby Dick because he thought I could handle it. (I went to a small private school and had the same English teacher for all four years of high school, so suffice it to say, we all knew each other REALLY well.) Outside of class I read Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Amy Tan.

Then I grew up.

In college I found a new part of myself. My college roommates introduced me to Star Trek and Avatar, the Last Airbender. I spent a year watching all eleven seasons of Frasier and ever chick flick I could find in the days before Netflix.

Most of all I saw all the glorious young adult and middle grade books I'd missed out on. I discovered Geraldine McCaughrean and Gary Schmidt, who both pretty much changed my life. I'd read and totally adored Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume as a kid and reading these books was almost like coming home again.

Point is, we all have different phases and interests that combine and mash together to form us into, well, us.  My particular mashup means I am absolutely rubbish at world building. Seriously, watching me try and world build is like watching an elephant seal flub across a beach. I've just never had the immersion in world building that it takes. (Basically my only child/teenhood exposure to sci fi and fantasy was Lord of the Rings and Galaxy Quest.) BUT, it does mean my writing is crisp and clean, and I'm prepped like a squirrel with walnuts when it comes to character development and a youthful, earnest voice.

So we play to our strengths. We wouldn't use a fire pokemon to fight a water pokemon, right? We would put a child molester in prison, not the Senate, right? Let's not be silly here.

In high school, if you told me I'd be working on a YA romance I'd have laughed in your face while hiding my copy of Twilight under my copy of Hamlet. But now I've realized how much certain romance stories have stuck with me, and meant to me. Maybe not Twilight, which was largely enjoyable, though not my kind of romance. But Jane Eyre is my kind. Eleanor & Park is my kind. I'm evolving, guys.

But with every evolution, new challenges arise. You don't grow a third leg without some stumbling, you know? So if you're in my situation and looking for crutches, check out Sarah Eden's blog and her incredibly useful 9 point story structure for plotting romances. I've never been steeped in the regency or traditional romance genre, and for those of you who live there, spread your wings and fly you beautiful pokewriters you. But even if you just have a small romantic subplot, Sarah Eden's powerpoint will save your tucus.

So go, writers, go.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Whatever you do, DON'T by "girl books" for your son this Christmas

We have a problem in this country. A stinking, reeking, pustulous problem that’s just beginning to burst the boil in politics, business, and Hollywood. Stories are coming to light, showing just how ubiquitous this problem is. Just how long it’s been going on, and been kept under wraps like toe fungus. The true victims of this problem are beginning to speak out and speak loud, despite being revictimized, despite not being believed.

So what is this problem?

We don’t have enough male characters in our media! Not enough strong male role models for our sons! The strong heroes we used to know have been made weak.

Just look what they’ve done with Iron Man. High-level anxiety and possible PTSD? Real men don’t have anxiety!

Now, some will have you believe that objectification of women is the problem. That female characters aren’t treated as real. This could clearly not be further from the truth. We’ve got Wonder Woman, so why do we need a Black Widow movie? We’ve got Anne Shirley and Buffy the Vampire slayer...why do we need more melodramatic, hormonal teenage girls?  See what I’m saying? Sure little girls dress up like Batman or Sherlock Holmes, but a boy version of Wonder Woman? A male Nancy Drew? Now let’s not be silly here.

One of these people who are suggesting that boys should read “girl books” is Newbery Award Winner Shannon Hale. Anybody else seeing a conflict of interest here? Her Newbery book is called “Princess Academy,” not “Prince Academy.” So maybe sometimes when she visits schools the administration doesn’t let the boys come to her speech. Why should boys know what it’s like to be a princess? Didn’t America make it quite clear in the last election how very, very, very desperate we are to avoid female leadership? I once heard Shannon tell a story about a little boy who waited until after everyone else had left, because he was too ashamed to ask for a copy of The Princess in Black in front of other boys. Darn right he should be wary! What are our sons learning these days? That girls can be just as tough as them?? Pshaw.

Sure, everybody on earth deserves respect. This is something we can all agree on. But shouldn’t women be respected as one would respect a statue? Quiet, benevolent, bestowing its grace and beauty on all who behold her? Statues have a place, as do all things of beauty.

But no, these whiners might say, women are just as varied and have just as many facets as men do. There’s just no way for men to know this for sure. I’ll even admit that it might be good if there was some way for men to understand the perspective of the other half of the human population, but there isn’t. That’s just something we have to live with. We must read from the best! What about the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds! What about the Clancys and Grishams! Look at the list of books your child is reading in school. Look at the latest bestseller the millionaire is reading in the plane seat next to you. Are most of the authors white men? Maybe that’s for a reason!

It’s like some people think reading female protagonists will increase a boys empathy and lead to a more aware, enlightened, and respectful adult. How ridiculous is that!

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