Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses

Originally published on thewingedpen.com

We are physical beings who experience life on this planet through our five senses. It’s true that our minds love to time-travel, pulling us out of the present moment, to worry about something we said in the past or to look forward to something about to happen in the future. Our characters, like us, do the same thing in their internal dialogue, which is good because it makes them real.

But the reader must also feel them living and breathing in the real world. Not only does this make your character more real, but it engages the reader by making them experience the same sensations. If your character smells burnt brownies or he chooses bubblegum mouthwash at the dentist, we don’t intellectually absorb that, we feel it with your character.

I struggle with this, too, because I don’t want my characters stuck in a sensory deprivation tank. I think it’s about feeling our way into our character’s body and environment, and not overthinking it. Some call it getting into the zone or entering a trance like a shaman writer. The physical experience of being on a subway is very different from the waiting room at the spa. The air, the light, the smells, the sounds and even the tastes are  different. But it’s even deeper than that, because the subway is different in the morning rush hour from late at night, and the zen spa is very different from the one at the mall.

The more mindful we are in our daily lives, the more we can bring that mindful experience to our writing. This means noticing how our bodies react to the physical world around us. Sometimes it’s easy to go for the standby descriptions, but if we tap into what we really, really feel, then our writing becomes  more authentic, and our readers will feel it.

Feeling Your Words
Instead of waking up with “bleary eyes,”  we can bring own unique experience of waking up tired. How do our eyes feel? Are they scratchy or is the skin around your eyes tight?

The next time something scares you, notice: what happens in your body? Instead of the usual “heart racing” and “shiver ran down spine,”  you can bring your own unique experience. Does your body clamp tight like a drawbridge? Does your hair prickle on the back of your neck or on your forearms? Does your heart pound, hammer, race, thud, pulse or beat in some other way?

Seeing Your Words
With visual descriptions, it’s about picking out the one or two things that stand out and are most important for us to understand the character or setting or whatever it is you’re describing. The reader can imagine the rest.

I loved Joanne Harris’s #TenTweetsAboutColour, in which she says, “In fiction, the objective is not so much to describe the color accurately, as to convey a feeling to the reader.” We can describe the  “blue sky” with any other synonym for blue, from azure to indigo to slate, but doing so is more clever than evocative. Instead, she suggests linking colors with a feeling or a sensation. She says: So: “ice-white” conveys something different to “milk-white,” or “bone-white,” or “moon-white,” or “ash-white.” Often even these color descriptions can become cliche, so we can add a feeling to the color like “blameless blue sky.”

And, of course, the same can be done with eyes. Instead of “piercing blue eyes” or “sparkling eyes,” try something different, depending on the feeling you’re trying to evoke. Are they “arctic blue eyes” or “forget-me-not blue” or “Hollywood-blue eyes”?

Hearing Your Words
This can also be applied to sound from a character’s voice to the sound of the wind through the trees. When you’re away from your desk, notice the timbre and tone of different voices, and if the sound of the wind is different blowing through the birch tree compared to the oak tree.

Smelling Your Words
Smell is our oldest sense. “Even a single cell animal has ways to detect the chemical composition of the environment,” according a researcher at Columbia University. Smell is such an evocative sense and brings the reader more quickly into your world than perhaps any other sense. You can describe a smell as acrid, sour, sharp, cloying, or you can evoke a feeling with it, like flowery, comforting, or repulsive.

Her skin smelled like chlorine from the pool.

The subway air was damp with the scent of humans, which neither their stringent deodorants or perfumed shampoos could hide.

Tasting Your Words
When I was a children’s yoga teacher, I would do a mindful eating exercise in which each child would get a raisin. They would observe it, smell it, touch it, listen to it as they shook it in their hand. They would share what they experienced through each of these senses. Then they put the raisin in their mouth, feeling it first before biting into it. I would ask them if they tasted anything? Where on the tongue do they taste it? Is it sweet? Grapey? Sour?  Do they chew it one side or both sides?  How long is it chewy for? Does the taste linger? You get the point. I don’t think we have to go into this much mindfulness every time we eat, but if we can bring a little noticing, it will enrich our writing! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

With that I give you all permission to go eat and smell and taste and hear and feel the world!

Are There Genres in Picture Books?

(Originally published on thewingedpen.com)

We always talk about genres in novels, but what about in picture books? Are there any? Are they the same as for novels? Is it even helpful categorizing picture books into genres? It seems to me that picture books can definitely fall into the adventure, mystery, sci-fi, horror (monster books), and fantasy genres, even though we don’t usually do this. Instead, we think of them falling into either character-driven or concept picture books. Then, of course, there’s nonfiction like biographies, and fairy tales, fables and folktales. Of course, there’s the ever-popular fractured fairy tale, which are fun twists on traditional fairy tales, like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Gliding Hood, and Good Night Baddies.

But there’s also an emergence of other picture book genres that are wowing young readers.

  • The first are what I call Wonder Picture Books. They’re usually beautifully illustrated with rich poetic language, often for a new baby or young child. Adults love them as much as children, maybe even more so! Some examples include: The Wonderful Things You’ll Be, All the World, and On the Night You Were Born.

Mindful Concept Picture Books are similar to wonder books but written for slightly older children. The text is sparse but the feelings are deep and sensory. Books in this category include The Quiet Book, Say Zoop! (which also falls into the meta category below), Water Can Be…, and I Wish You More…

“Meta” Picture Books: They ask the reader to think outside the book and question what a book is. Often readers are pulled into the action with the use of second person and even asked to physically interact with the book like in Press Here and Tap the Magic Tree. This has been the breakthrough picture book category of the past few years. Other books in this category include We are In a Book (Elephant and Piggy Series) and The Book of Mistakes.

The Don’t Books: Maybe, the recent surge in Don’t Books took off with Don’t Let the Pigeons Drive the Bus. Nothing thrills children like a bossy picture book because they’re usually the ones being bossed around. Examples include: You Don’t Want a Unicorn, I am Not Book I am not a Chair, You will not like this Book, The Day the Crayons Quit, and Be Quiet.

The Mash-Up Picture Books combine two popular things and mash them together. Kids love these, too, because they’re unexpected, and they break the rules and that’s pretty exciting stuff. Plus, they are usually packed with a big splat of humor. Examples include: Dragons Love Tacos, Dear Santasaurus, Pirosaurs, and Dinotrux.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know your thoughts on picture book genres!

Monster Picture Books are Monstrously Good for Kids!

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”– G.K. ChestertonChupacabra

As I’m partial to monster picture books, I think they should be enjoyed year-round, but as it’s Halloween, it’s time to get into full-on monster picture book mode!

After all, monster picture books feature so many hideously fantastic monsters! There are ghosts, werewolves, dragons, gremlins, vampires, sea monsters, yetis, aliens, furry creatures, Frankenstein, and even zombies!

Children love monster stories and have for thousands of years because children love to be scared within the safety of a storyteller or a book. Not only that, but reading scary books is good for children. It allows them to imagine themselves in the story, where they can confront and triumph over the monsters, thereby confronting and triumphing over their fears.

According to Bruno Bettelheim, a famed psychoanalyst and author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue…”

Our monster picture books today are not nearly as scary as our passed down fairy tales. Have you read the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella where one stepsister cuts off her toes to fit in the glass slipper and the other her heel? Then there’s Hansel and Gretel, about a witch who captures two children in the woods and tries to fatten them up so she can eat them. Yeah, that’s pretty horrifying, and if I were to write a picture book about cannibalism, I’m not sure that would go down so well (sorry, couldn’t resist)!

But we love these stories and their tamer monster picture books of today because ultimately stories show us how to live. They make us feel things in new ways and in new situations, and by doing so, they help us know ourselves and the world we live in. Stories allow us to face our darkest fears, from getting lost in the woods to losing our mother and surviving those fears.

I will leave you with this fabulous list of monsters, some of them from long ago. Perhaps, one of them is waiting for a starring role in a monstrous picture book.

Wishing you a very happy–and scary–Halloween!

Eight Tips on Writing a Picture Book

(First posted on Wingedpen.com)

Writing picture books is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or one hundred, just ask Jane Yolen or Mo Willems or John Klassen. But good news is if you keep writing and reading picture books, you will get better!

  1. Don’t think your way into your story–feel your way in. Instead of seeing your characters as separate, become your character. For example, if you’re writing about a budgie who has escaped out an open window, imagine what it’s like to be outside for the first time and feeling the wind rustle your feathers, or hearing the sound of cars zooming by.
  2. Remember it’s a picture book and pictures tell much of the story. Don’t waste words telling us something already described in the illustrations.
  3. Sweet spot s between 300-700 words. We get into trouble by going too wide. The secret is to focus on one main idea/feeling/theme/goal. Focus on your character’s goals. Does our budgie dream of being free and wild? If so, focus on this, and how what happens perhaps changes his goal.
  4. Picture books are audio books with illustrations! They are supposed to be read aloud so be aware how your words sound, the rhythm and cadence of your sentences. Use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia to plop us into your  world!
  5. Any good picture book captures a familiar feeling in a new and unfamiliar way. Twist, turn, and loop the world to find the unexpected and surprising. A talking crayon, a farting dog, a pigeon not allowed to drive the bus, or a budgie who wants to fly south with the geese… You get the idea!
  6. Avoid teaching a lesson. No preaching, no morals. Of course, your picture can and should have a theme but it should be an organic part of your characters and their choices.
  7. It’s all about the page turn. What will make your reader eager to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next? Some writers use the rule of threes or fives to build the page turn. Or you can ask a question, use ellipsis, or make us care so much about the character that we just have to find out what your character decides to do. Finally, creating a picture book dummy  is an excellent way to test your page turn-ability.  See Tara Lazar’s post on creating a dummy here.
  8. What to write about?  Character-driven picture books are wonderful, but don’t forget concept books. They are timeless and funny and mindful and beautiful and sometimes very funny. Some have characters but they don’t have a traditional story arc. Here are just a few:

Check out this Spotlight Interview Celebrating I Want to Eat Your Books! Bookaversary

Spotlight Interview with Karin Lefranc

You know you’re a children’s writer when…

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  1. …someone says the word DUTY and you giggle like a third grader
  2. …you know more about the books your kids read than they do
  3. …you shamelessly wear dragon jewels!
  4. …you have more in common with kids than their parents
  5. …you get a paper cut and bleed coffee/tea
  6. …you day dream A LOT
  7. …you have creative ways of procrastinating like sock skating
  8. …your co-worker is a cat or dog or rabbit or bird
  9. …every time one of your adult friends talks about an issue they’re having with their kids, you immediately recommend a middle-grade novel that deals with the same situation
  10. …you’re more excited about the BFG movie than your kids are
  11. ….you struggle to remember the last adult book you read
  12. ….you still secretly keep an eye out for the wardrobe that will get you to Narnia
  13. ….you analyze the story structure of every movie and TV show you watch (much to your spouse’s chagrin)
  14. …when you can’t focus on doing taxes and filing your child’s college aid forms because you want to finish your Rick Riordan novel
  15. …people in the airport give you weird looks because you’re reading a chapter book
  16. …you’re the one with the spaced-out look in the supermarket because your head’s still in the 1800s or on planet Zippon

 

New PB: I Want To Eat Your Books by Karin Lefranc

Darlene Beck-Jacobson, author of Wheels of Change, interviewed me on her fabulous blog!

Darlene Beck-Jacobson

Why not celebrate a new year with a fun-filled read?  My author friend Karin Lefranc’s debut picture book takes kids on a fun ride with an unusual student whose favorite food is…books.

The new kid in school is a zombie, who eats books instead of brains. When the monster catches a whiff of the library, the students need to find the perfect book to change his ways before all their books become history!   IWANTTOEATYOURBOOKSCOVER (1)

twitter: @karinlefranc
http://www.karinlefranc.com
I Want to Eat Your Books: Sky Pony Press, October 2015 (Illustrated by Tyler Parker)

Karin Lefranc grew up all over the world, living in Sweden, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, but she moved to the U.S. to attend college in upstate New York. She now lives in Connecticut with her three girls and one boy, who all love devouring books in all shapes and sizes. This is Karin’s debut picture book.

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Author Chat: Karin Lefranc talks about her debut picture book — I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS

Rebecca at WriteRebeccaWrite interviewed me for her blog this week!

Rebecca J. Allen

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 
I have lived in five countries but am now settled in a quiet Connecticut town with my French husband and brood of three girls and one boy. Apart from a few years owning a children’s store, I have always worked in publishing from newspapers to books. I like the written word in all its forms!

What do you do for fun when you are not writing?
I love reading, of course, and hiking, movies, yoga. In fact, I am a certified children’s yoga teacher and am busy creating a yoga lesson plan for I Want To Eat Your Books for teachers to use in the classroom to focus their students.

When did you first start writing?
Unlike many writers I had no idea I was going to write fiction until about five years ago. However, I have always loved writing. I…

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