Monday, September 26, 2011

Writing Opportunities

Sometimes when you least expect it, a writing opportunity may present itself.  Because I volunteer at Arboretum, the State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, several employees know that I’m a writer.  Recently, the education coordinator asked for my help.  In a few weeks, the Arboretum will be sponsoring the annual fall festival.  Volunteers will dress up as woodland creatures and plants and greet young children.  They will give short talks that describe who they are and what they contribute.

My job was to spruce up the old scripts of a deer, a spider, a sunflower, a skunk, and a tree.  The education coordinator envisioned livelier speeches. She wanted the scripts written in first person and kept to 300 words.  Then the rest was up to me. 

I decided that each script should have a hook, which would create interest and engage the audience.  Though I had a restricted word count, I still wanted to make sure that I had a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  (My nonfiction writing has taught me well).  I conducted a little more research, added it to the passages, and rearranged the order of paragraphs for clarity.  Lastly, as with any nonfiction writing, I tied the ending to the beginning.  Beforehand, these pieces ended abruptly.  With the new endings, the speeches had a more satisfying conclusion.

I suppose the biggest challenge was getting inside the heads of the animals and plants—come on, what would a tree think and say?  But actually, it was quite fun.  In fact, my tree had a bit of an attitude.

It's nice taking a break from writing nonfiction articles and picture books and trying something different.  Maybe you'll have an opportunity to attempt something new, too.  But you might ask: What’s in it for me when I share my writing talent with others?  Perhaps you’ll find it offers you practice and inspiration.  Maybe it will lead to another assignment.  It's a given it'll showcase your skills and quite possibly, help to get your name better known.  For me, writing these scripts fueled my imagination and made me feel good about helping a worthwhile organization.  How about you?  Are you willing to help others with your writing talent?  Are you willing to take advantage of the writing opportunities that may come your way?

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Rewards of Volunteering

Kentucky Children's Garden
Nature Center in the Children's Garden

I volunteer at the Arboretum, the State Botanical Garden of Kentucky.  My “job” is to read picture books in the Children's Garden.  My “work place” is inside the Nature Center—a breezy, three-sided cozy structure.  The entrance is flanked by Greek Doric columns.  The side yard contains barrels brimming with scarlet and purple flowers.  Nearby, two raised vegetable gardens are teeming with tomatoes and peppers, lavender and sage.     

Map of the Children's Garden at the Arboretum

My guests arrive: in strollers, hand in hand with moms, or carried by dads.  Ashley, the education coordinator, hands me Frog and Toad Are Friends.  Before I begin to read, I give a short discussion on the differences between frogs and toads.  Then I read two chapters from the book—the average age of the children is about two or three years old so we're talking short attention span.   

Halfway into the reading, several young toddlers are distracted.  They want to explore the waterwheel, chat with other children, and touch the glass cages containing caterpillars.  Nonetheless I read on, trying to emphasis my words, trying to add as much drama as I possibly can to entice the children to listen. 

But others huddle close, their eyes fixed on me and on the pages of the book.  Some want to help turn the pages, while others lean their heads on my shoulder.  In a small way, I’m connecting with them.  Story time becomes  meaningful.    
What do I get out of it?  On a professional level, I like to think that this experience is preparing me for the day when I’ll read my very own picture book to a small group of children.  But I don’t focus on the future.  For now, I spread burlap bags for seating.  I sit upon a bale of hay and read a classic picture book.  And afterward, I receive smiles and thank-yous.  I receive parental requests: “When will you be reading in the garden again?”  I receive hugs from the tiniest members of my audience.  It touches my heart to share books at the arboretum.  What more can a story-time reader ask for?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Value of Critiques

This past June, I attended Editor’s Day in Lexington, Kentucky.  Registrants could submit an entire picture book for a critique by Abrams Books Editor Maggie Lehrman.  Since Maggie and the First Grade Blues had won several awards, I submitted In Search of Awe. 

On the positive side, Ms. Lehrman liked the language and the descriptions.  She mentioned that I had a real knack for details that infuse a landscape with character.  However, she thought that the story was too quiet and nostalgic and that the plot was too subtle and interior for young readers.  She wanted to know more about my main character so that readers will invest in the story.

Overall, she thought that the story could serve as a scene in a lyrical middle grade novel.  She challenged me to edit the piece for an older audience.  I have great respect for Ms. Lehrman's  opinion.   Looks like I have lots to think about in terms of developing plot and character should I follow through on her advice.       

Here’s my thought on critiques:  If you have the chance to go to a writer’s conference and submit a manuscript for a critique, do so.  Usually, only a limited number of manuscripts can be accepted, so be mindful of the critique deadline.  It usually costs less than fifty dollars, but it is well worth the fee. 

You will most likely receive positive comments on your work as well as criticism on the elements that require improvement.  In addition, you may be offered suggestions on character development, plot, language, voice, and marketability. Most of all, you’ll gain insight into what an editor looks for in a manuscript.  If you take the advice and follow the “inside tips,” you just may create a manuscript worthy of an editor’s attention.    

Monday, September 5, 2011

Writing Tips from Fiona Ingram

Writing can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of your life. There are many reasons a person decides to write: to share their life’s experiences, to tell a good story, to express the feelings and situations of others—the list is endless. Some people even write just for fun. I wrote my book because I visited Egypt with my two nephews and wanted to write a short story to help them remember a special time. To my surprise, the short story turned into a book, and then a book series. So, you never know what’s going to happen once you begin!

Any good story is composed of two important elements: a really gripping plot and realistic, believable characters.

·      How to Choose a Great Story Topic:
Write about what you know best, or what excites you, or what you enjoy. Do you love reading about faraway exciting places? Then research a place you find interesting and set your story there. Do you enjoy mysteries? Think about something that’ll keep people guessing. Are you good at a skill or a sport? Set your story around a character with those abilities.

·      How to Construct your Storyline:
Structure is very important, otherwise your story will fall to pieces. So begin with a simple 3-point system: the Beginning (your hero appears—what is he doing? What does he want to achieve?); the Middle (something will happen to him and he has to …?); the Ending (your hero resolves the situation). From those three vital points, you will fill in your other plot points—how did… why did… what happens next.

·      Make Your Characters as Interesting as Possible:
Tip: take them from real life examples. You could write about someone like yourself, or else model the characters on friends at school, teachers, or other people you know. The dialogue between your characters is also important because that’s one place to develop the plot line. Don’t forget to break your dialogue with various activities so that readers don’t get bogged down in lots of talking but no action.

·      The Hard Part:
If you love what you’re writing about and you trust your imagination, then writing will be as fun and exciting as you can imagine. However, two important elements must never be forgotten: research and grammar.

Research will be necessary whether your story is set in the real world, or if it’s an imaginary, fantasy, or sci-fi land. Make notes before and during your writing process. Your heroes are likely to be around your audience's ages, so think about how they are going to get places and achieve things. If they are travelling, are they alone (not likely) and will they need assistance (possibly)? If they are in a foreign country, then make sure your facts are accurate. How did they get there, who are they with, and how are they going to accomplish their task/challenge? If it’s a fantasy setting, then make sure you don’t lose track of your characters and the various places and items found in your fantasy world. Make your own research notes relevant to your fantasy land.

Grammar is very important, otherwise your readers will never get through the first few pages. Make sure you use your spelling and grammar check on your computer (if you’re using one) and your dictionary and style guide (if you’re writing by hand).

A final piece of advice: writing should be fun and exciting. Just enjoy yourself and let your imagination take you to places you only ever dreamed of.

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