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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

There's No Last Way to Tell a Story

Recipes are a huge part of my life right now. I just said goodbye to a house full of company for whom I had to cook many meals over the course of the Thanksgiving holiday. The entire week before cookbooks covered the kitchen island: a 1965 Treasury of Great Recipes put together by Mary and Vincent Price, my trusty thirty-four year old binder into which I've taped and scribbled recipes most of my adult life, Barefoot Contessa's Back to Basics. I have a 1951 Whole Grain Cookery book with a preface by Pearl Buck, and The Fallingwater Cookbook, a collection of recipes that Elsie Henderson cooked for the Kaufmann family at their famous Fallingwater residence. Vegetarian cookbooks, pressure cooker recipes, a Polish Cooking cookbook, Martha Stewart, Rocco Dispirito and yada, yada, yada.

On night three of my obsessive search for a menu with just the right balance of easy (isn't it more about the company than the food?) and complex (well, it was my stage, after all) my husband wandered over and asked, "What are you looking for, now?"

"Cranberry salad," I said.

He picked up my notepad. "Isn't this a list of cranberry salad recipes? It looks like one, two, three, four, five, six different ways you can make cranberry salad.
Just pick one."

"I want someone to say, "Wow, love the cranberries.""

"How many ways can you make cranberries?"

That's funny, I thought, even though there's a finite choice of ingredients on the earth, they are the subject matter of every one of these books and thousands upon thousands more.

"I guess it's infinite. Or nearly so." It's the way the ingredients are combined, and stirred, and cooked that distinguishes them and allows for, literally, millions of recipes to emerge. There is no last recipe using cranberries and there never will be. 

It's the same with storytelling. Love. War. Winning. Losing. Hope.  The ingredients don't change. It's the writers recipe that makes it different. It's your secret ingredients that make it special. There's no last way to tell a story.The permutations are limitless.

                Whoops. How did this picture of my beautiful new grandson get in here?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dave Amaditz

Well, I hope all the turkey lovers out there have begun to get their fill of everything Thanksgiving - food, football - - and shopping. I know in my house plates were crammed full of goodies, (more than one plate full for most and a plan to fill up on leftovers today) football monopolized our television, and at least half of our family (not me) participated in the madness called Black Friday.

Now, I'm not one who gets the biggest thrill out of the Thanksgiving feast, probably because stuffing (dressing) and gravy and green beans are three of my least favorite foods. But in order to keep things positive, as I always try to do, I'll admit I do love to eat mashed potatoes and all the pies we served for dessert.

Where am I going with this?

Since for me, Thanksgiving isn't necessarily about giving thanks about all the wonderful food, I thought I'd give a quick rundown of a few of the so many things I have in my life to be thankful for, the things I thanked God for last night at the dinner table.

Having a wonderful family who are always there for me through good times and bad.

The blessed good fortune to live in a beautiful home and to wake up daily knowing I have a roof over my head.

Overall good health and well-being.

Acknowledging that, even with its flaws, I live in the greatest country in the world, the greatest country in the history of the world.

The freedom to celebrate this day, or any other, in any way I choose because of the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Perfectionism: The Turkey in My Studio (And a recipe for Leftover Turkey Chili)

Sigh. Once again I have a turkey problem.

I'm not referring to the tom who periodically patrols the road I take to the grocery store. ( But you wouldn't believe how big - and fierce - a wild turkey can be! Makes me a bit nervous in my little car when he doesn't want me to pass. Okay, practically terrified.)

My turkey's name is Perfectionism. 

And she's roosting on my pile of work-in-progress and keeping me from finishing things!

There is no one size-fits-all way to vanquish the perfectionism problem, any more than there's one perfect strategy for getting past that gobbler on Old Scrubgrass Road (though turning around and taking the long way nearly always works for me). I keep trying different things, and usually something clicks.

Here then, in no particular order are approaches that have helped me in the past and that I'll be trying the next few days:

Accept that I WILL make mistakes - and I can correct them later
I often want to be the sort whose first draft, first submission, first published piece is Just Right.  But then I remind myself that I usually have contempt for the Miss Perfect Pants sorts and feel a Yes! I'll-buy-all-your-books love for those authors whose success is preceeded by struggle.

Truth is I DO learn from my mistakes, and I DO get paralyzed completely by my efforts to be perfect from the start. And I would rather not be Miss Perfect Pants either.

Sometimes I have to read this quote from Mary Pickford (America's sweetheart) to remind myself to try again:

Try to be as nice to myself as I am to my writing buddies
I don't know about you, but I can easily get a tad, um, critical with myself over efforts that don't measure up. And I say things to myself that I would never say to someone in my writing group. Then I have to stop, fix myself a cup of tea, and maybe a little chocolate too - and read these wise words from Anne Lamott:
It does work - notice how I didn't even rewrite this notecard when I screwed up the "n" in "can"?

Bond with a perfectionism pal
Having a partner makes it easier for me to do almost anything I find hard - whether it's exercising, dieting, or being brave enough to take the short route, turkey or no turkey. Reaching out to a friend whose struggle mirrors mine works with my perfectionism too. (I just have to take care to avoid people who have already put perfectionism behind them - too much like having my naturally thin husband as a diet partner - or who are too enabling of my procrastination).

Take smaller bites
Instead of trying to write a whole novel or produce a polished dummy, I try to concentrate on a big manuscript chapter by chapter. Or even paragraph by paragraph. Picture book texts might be word by word! I'll trick myself into staying loose with drawings by using cheap printer paper or post-it notes instead of my expensive sketchbook or by sitting in a coffee shop instead of at my drawing table.

I also use a timer. Work for 15 minutes, then take a five minute break. Then another 15 minutes.

Focus on enjoying the process
The truth is, I mostly LIKE doing my artwork or writing - even when it's not going well. How lucky is it to do for a job what most people have to content themselves with enjoying as a hobby? I'll put on music, stick a flower on the desk, let myself  have fun. And discover yet again that playing is nearly always a good route to creative ideas.

When all else fails, follow Bob Newhart's Two-Word Advice

"STOP it!"

Hee, hee! Works just about every time for me!

Leftover Turkey Chili

After you've vanquished your own turkeys, you can have them for Thanksgiving dinner - and then make this excellent white chili, adapted from a recipe from Lori Benson, a friend in my book club.

2 TBSP olive oil

1-2 medium onions finely chopped

2-3 ribs celery, chopped (optional)

2 3-4 oz can of chopped green chilies (NOT drained)

6 TBSP (3/8 cup) flour

3 cups cooked turkey leftovers (half a rotisserie chicken is also about perfect)

2-3 cans great northern beans (drained and rinsed)

2 tsp of cumin

1 carton of turkey or chicken broth (32 oz)

Shredded cheese

Saute the onion and celery in the oil over medium heat until tender (about 4 minutes).  Add the green chilies and flour. Mix and heat through.  Add beans, broth and seasoning.  Simmer for about 20 minutes until thickened and you've written a couple of paragraphs.  Add the meat.  Heat until warm.  Serve with grated cheese. And popovers or cornbread. And beer.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Western PA SCBWI Fall Conference

by Marcy Collier

On Saturday, I attended the SCBWI Fall conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I got there early to help with registration. It was great to see many old friends and meet some new people at the conference.

Nikki Grimes gave a terrific keynote speech about learning patience. She said that when an idea excites her, she can't wait to produce it from start until the finish. She encouraged the crowd to keep writing. You'll figure out the story eventually. You may not always know where your story is going, but trust the process.

Next, I went to a session on creating characters with Noa Wheeler, editor at Henry Holt. She gave the audience terrific questions that they should ask characters, especially the main character in your story. Your character must be active not reactive. The reader should be able to relate to your character. Motivate your character and push him through the story. Noa gave the class some great questions and exercises to help us each develop our characters well.

My next session was with Agent Joe Monti with BG Literary on query letters. He encouraged the audience not to stress so much over the query letter. Most agents skim the query, read the sample pages, then if the manuscript interests them, they'll go back through the query letter. Your manuscript will be automatically rejected if you don't follow guidelines. Explain why you've targeted that particular agent or editor. Did you meet at a conference or maybe read an interview about them? Make your voice shine through in your manuscript.

After lunch and first pages, the crowd enjoyed a session with Jonathan Gottchall. Dr. Gottchall is a professor at Washington & Jeffererson College. His latest book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human (Houghton Mifflin 2012), is about the evolutionary mystery of storytelling--about the way we shape stories, and stories shape us. People surrender themselves to story by reading, watching television, watching commercials and trading stories with one another. Daydreaming is the mind's default state. People have 2,000 daydreams a day, which equals about a third of their life. A story is about a character with a problem and the attempted solution. Stories are about people having their worst days and the problem structure is "the big fat thread in the story." Gottchall's talk was fascinating and made the crowd realize why the stories that we create are so important.

After an exciting day at the conference, I came home and attempted my 2,000 words for nanowrimo. Only 212 words later, my after-conference brain couldn't function. Instead, I made a yummy butternut squash soup. It's super easy and gluten free too!

Here's the link to the recipe Butternut Squash Soup, and a picture of the soup. This recipe calls for salt and pepper to taste, but I also add in a few shakes of cinnamon, nutmeg, basil and hot sauce for a bit of a kick. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


by Cynthia Light Brown

Don't be a 
Turkey by Douglas Brown

Or a 
Chicken from techvt
Or a 
Turkey Buzzard by dogtooth77

Or even a 


Just buzz on over...

Bee by ausiegall

 To your local poll


Vote! by Theresa Thompson

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How You Can Help Hurricane Sandy Victims

by Marcy Collier

Our New Jersey and New York friends have been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Kate Messner and Jen Malone have contacted editors, agents, art directors, and authors who are donating critiques, Skype visits, signed book packages, etc. The money raised will help provide relief to the hurricane victims.

Follow the link to Kathy Temean's blog to check out what's available.


Let's all try to help however we can, no matter how big or small.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Make 'em Laugh....

...or what I was supposed to present at KSRA before the interference of Frankenstorm...

    The Cat in the Hat would never have come back if Alice hadn't fallen down the rabbit hole.  There was really nothing funny at all in children's literature until Alice's Adventures in Wonderland arrived on bookshelves in 1865.  Yes, back in 1744 when A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly was published, there wasn't much  to be amused about.  John Newbery was too busy teaching morals and 'rules of life'  along with the alphabet and a proverb or two.  (Though I dare say reading it aloud now is hilarious:   "Spit not forth any Thing that is not convenient to be swallowed, as the Stones of Plumbs, Cherries, or such like; but with Thy left hand, neatly move them to the Side of thy Plate" or "Smell not of thy Meat, nor put it to thy Nose; turn it not the other Side upward to view it upon Thy plate.")
    Well, it is 2012 and children's author Dan Greenburg, speaking a few years ago at an SCBWI Conference noted that the funniest word in the English language for kids is UNDERPANTS.  Of course it is. Why else would we have Captain Underpants, Underpants Thunderpants, Aliens Love Underpants, Dinosaurs Love Underpants, and The Underpants Zoo? Lest we need a reason to use humor in children's writing, there is plenty of documentation of its benefits: increased endorphin and dopamine release, increased relaxation response, increased creativity, improved problem solving skills and enhanced memory. Why shouldn't we make kids laugh? 
    Humor in children's literature is divided roughly into four categories:
****Physical Humor
****Humor of Character
****Humor of Situation
These categories coincide with children's developmental levels.  Physical humor is much like physical comedy (very visual) and can be found in books like The Cat in the Hat, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, or I Want My Hat Back.
Wordplay is showcased in Runny Babbit and Amelia Bedelia,
Humor of Character with characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog, or Olivia
and Humor of Situation readily apparent in Dear Mrs. LaRue Letters from Obedience Camp or Click Clack Moo Cows that Type.

As most of my children's poetry is of the zany or nonsensical type, my school visit workshops are most often conducted with a humorous bent.  We write about insects from the their own point of view: what do spiders need these eight legs for?  What happens when a grasshopper wants to just take a walk? Does a ladybug have to act like a lady?
  Or pull out a map and ask kids what the people from Toast, North Carolina, Wink, Texas, or Embarrass, Minnesota like to be called?
  Suppose "There once was a monster named Dave, Who didn't know how to behave?" What do they teach in monster school if you like to bake cookies?
  Could a trout have a superpower?
  Or sometimes we just see what kind of a couplet we can make out of the words vanilla and gorilla.
  What kind of a creature is a SPLONK?
Engaging children with humor will reap huge rewards - and it makes the instructor feel good too.