Mining Memories: 5 Steps to Using Our Childhoods to ‘Write Funny’...by Marcie Colleen
There is something about Halloween that evokes a lot of childhood
memories for me.
I get a teary-eyed smile when I see the little trick-or-treaters
out gathering their candy. I remember eating donuts and drinking cider while carving pumpkins and toasting their seeds. Getting all upset when my mom tells me I have to wear a coat over my costume. Eagerly waiting for “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” to be aired (of course this was before DVDs and On-Demand viewing).
One particular memory that has me laughing every time has to do
with a robot costume made out of a large cardboard box covered in aluminum foil, a dark driveway, a vicious poodle and shaky footing. Yeah. Such great memories.
Of course, any bookstore is just brimming with Halloween themed
picture books right now. Jerry Seinfeld did a great job of capturing the Halloween experience for those who grew up in the 70s and 80s in his picture book, Halloween. I question whether it would be enjoyed more by adults than children, but it is really quite funny and obviously autobiographical.
But we aren’t all stand-up comics. So how do we capture the “funny” from our childhood and turn it into a picture book?
Marcie’s 5 Steps for Mining Memories to Create Funny Picture Books
1) List 5 memories from your childhood that make you laugh. You know, those stories that get shared at family get-togethers? Now these should be vignettes. Moments. We aren’t going for an epic novel here, only a short picture book.
2) Pick one of those 5 memories and create a stream-of-consciousness list. Remember your 5 senses. Flesh out the memory, listing all you can remember about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of that moment.
3) Regress, yet stay present. Go back in time. Reconnect with the younger you. But remember, this is a story
for today’s kids, not adults, so you want to be sure to have a kid-perspective that today’s kids can relate to. Might require some jiggling. Not sure kids can relate to the costumes in the “cardboard box with the cellophane top” that Seinfeld talks about in Halloween.
4) Fill in the holes. These are stories. They are based on truth, yet as a writer you are able to take artistic license. Is your memory foggy is parts? Who cares! You are a writer. Give yourself permission
to write and create. Embellish and exaggerate. Remember, kids books are about the main character’s BEST or WORST day. So pump it up and think big!
5) Mash and Twist. Is your memory about your pet dog? What if you change it to a dinosaur in your re-telling? How does that change things? How does that add humor? Have fun with it. Think of Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets. It was inspired by a childhood memory, however I don’t think Peter was ever a female bear or that he was captured in the woods by one. Yet, he twisted the memory and what we have is a brilliantly funny
book. Remember, you are telling a story here. Up the ante to up the fun!
So what are you waiting for? Mine those memories and have some fun!
PS. A very special thank you to Brianne and Marissa for the use of your childhood photos!
In previous chapters Marcie Colleen has been a teacher and theatre
educator, but now she splits her days between chasing the Picture Book Writer dream and chasing toddlers on the playground as a nanny. Both are equally glamorous!
Her blog, The Write Routine and her Teacher’s Guides, can be found at www.thisismarciecolleen.com. You can also follow her on Twitter. Additionally, Marcie is the Education Consultant for Picture Book Month. She contributes the 4th Friday of the month, as a Blogette, right here, posting on humor in picture books.
She lives with her fiancé and their mischievous
sock monkey in Brooklyn, NYC.
I recently returned home from Costa Rica. We had no TV there, just DVDs. Our neighbor loaned us American Graffiti, which I’m embarrassed to say I’d never completely seen, even though it was filmed in my home county - Sonoma County, California.
American Graffiti’s a classic. It was the 2nd film George Lucas directed and it was produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Impressive. Still, I didn’t find the characters in the film compelling. Interesting perhaps, but not compelling.
The movie stands more for it’s crystallization of a moment in time, the reader’s digest version of teenage life in the 1960’s. Digests and compelling characters don’t always go together.
However, I did find the “Personal Story” addendum to the movie fascinating. It delineated the casting process, which was lengthy. George Lucas wanted the perfect actor for each unique character. Much care was taken, not only in choosing the right actor for each character, but the right combination of actors.
Casting our stories with care is also what we, as children’s book writers, should do, thinking about which character gets which part and who performs each action and who says what words.
A few years ago I was working on a chapter book with a spunky eight-year-old as the main character. I was in Germany, taking a leisurely rowboat ride down a river, with several other boats in front of me, when I saw her. Ahead of me, sitting near a large dog, turning her head back and forth to view the sights, was the spitting image of my main character. Actually, my main character’s physical attributes had always been a little foggy before that moment. But no more. There she was, my Abigail. Short red hair. Glasses. A pink striped t-shirt. And a steady gaze on the world. Did I mention that my Abigail character has a huge dog in my story? Serendipity at its best.
Whether your characters are human or animal, be aware of those around you who might be the perfect actor for your starring role.
What might help you become a better casting director? Try this. When you’re waiting for your flight or for your child at school or if you’re in a restaurant or a park, make up stories about the people, the strangers you see around you. Cast characters. Establish relationships.
Over there is a small child going home after a trip with her grandparents. She’s traveling by herself on an airplane, reluctantly returning to her single mother. That silly stuffed rabbit was a gift from her grandmother, and the child, whose name is Jazzy, is already best friends with it. It will always remind her of the homey feel of Grammy Lou and Granpy Richie’s big ranch house, so different from the cramped apartment where she lives.
This can be an entertaining and fun way to practice your craft. I suspect many of you creative souls already observe and view the world with a curious gaze and are practicing a similar type of storytelling already.
Last week, I had the pleasure of a long phone conversation with my editor. We talked about the woodland characters in the picture book I’m working on. Confession time: I usually don’t do character sketches, working instead, largely through intuition. But how my intuition works can be challenging to explain and intuition can leave out important pieces of a story puzzle.
My editor asked the age of my two main characters and wanted specific information about their relationship and actions. It soon became obvious I needed to take a bit more care with my casting.
When I hung up the phone the first thing I did was open Scrivener and start posting images of each of my characters there. I pulled these from the Internet, mostly using Google Images, but also just searching “bear” or “mole.” This will help me get to know them, to think about their ages, relationships, personalities, strengths, weaknesses…their essential nature.
Should Mole be the grumpy friend or would that part better go to Bear? Is Walrus going to be the sailor or should that role go to Albatross?
(Note: Names have been changed to protect story integrity.)
It can be illuminating to take a picture book and switch the characters, noting how this would change the feel and theme of the story. Would havoc arise if you switched the roles of Bear and Mouse in A Visitor for Bear? What would happen if you switched who said what in the Elephant and Piggy series?
Take care with your casting, creators. Because part of what makes a great character is great casting.
Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold wrote the award-winning “homegrown treasures” column prior to penning eleven award-winning picture books. Marsha recently contracted with Neal Porter Books for two new picture books and Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin for another, coming out in 2016. She grew up on a Kansas farm, but today creates imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California surrounded by her garden, deer, hummingbirds, turkeys, oaks, and redwoods. Marsha's course Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school and Skype visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com.
Illustrating your Own Story! Becoming an AuthorArtist - Part 1 with Maya Gonzalez
Hands down the most important thing I have ever learned to keep creativity flowing is to do just that, go with the flow. Last month the computer crashed, the blog seemed lost and all I could do was my best to stay buoyant and trust. And here we are! Flowed all the way into the next month! The computer lives! And here is the post I thought had vanished deep behind the blue screen of death last month. Viva creativity! Viva the flow!
I realized recently this would be the perfect space to begin a short series of guidance toward illustrating your own children’s book manuscript. The other day I was chatting with someone professionally and they said I was a “rare breed” to be both an artist and an author of children’s books. Interesting, I thought, since my first rule of art is EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST. So I’m out to spread the word! I’m no rare breed. YOU too can illustrate the tale you’ve told! You don’t have to think of yourself as an artist to do it. You already are an artist. You’re a story teller. You’ll just be adding another dimension to your telling. Authorartists! A NEW breed! Rare at first perhaps, but growing!
I won’t go into all the details or the this and that’s of illustrating. No, no, no. To begin, just let your imagination run free. Take it slow. Take a nice long moment to be FREEE. Let yourself just look, look, look around to see what kinds of illustrations you like and might even feel like you could do! Look everywhere, not just at children’s books. Look at magazines and CD covers, advertisements and movie posters, fine art, even recipe books, fabric patterns, food labels! Look at everything.
Look for things that look fun and easy to do, like cut paper, collage, photography and simple drawing and painting. Be a kid again. Remember what it’s like to feel that you can do anything in the world. Pretend and play. Download my Everyone is an Artist handout to color. Mess around drawing figures and funny faces. Get a new pencil or some charcoal and scribble and smear. Don’t be precise. In fact, be imprecise--please!
I LOVE images that feel raw and immediate and I love children’s books with art a kid could figure out and imitate. Gather a nice cache of images to start. I’ve included some of the images at the bottom of this post that I’ve gathered lately. You will begin to see what you like. Don’t try to figure out how it’s done just yet. Know that you are an artist and soon you will be making more and more art. Next month we’ll take it a step further. Did you know relaxation and a sense of play allow the flow to flow more flowingly?
So to recap, your job this next month is to:
Come be part of a new breed of authorartists!
This month I’ll also be joining Mira in her Hero’s Art Journey interactive e-course, a great place to gather lots of images from art history, journey through your blocks and fears about creativity, learn gobs of techniques and begin to make art in community! And of course, play!
And, here's some imagery that I've been drawn to lately: (click images to view the gallery)
Maya Gonzalez is largely self-taught. She has illustrated over 20 award-winning multicultural children’s books and written 3 with, not an end in sight! Her latest book, Call Me Tree, set to come out next year with Lee&Low Books, is her most recent labor of love! Her fine art has shown internationally and appears in numerous books about the contemporary Chicano Art Movement including on the cover of Living Chicana Theory and Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture and Education considered to be "the Bible of Chicano/a art." Ridiculously creative, she’s probably making art as you read this or thinking about making art if she’s driving a car or using the stove. And one of her ultimate passions is inspiring others to create books, because she believes that creating children's books has the potential to be one of the most radical things you can do!
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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