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by Shutta Crum

Let’s talk a minute about that list of story ideas you’re keeping for Storystorm month. You may be keeping that list in a journal—or simply on a piece of paper hung on your fridge. Either way, I know there will come a day when you will stare at it and think—I’ve shot my load. I’m all out of ideas! Of course, that isn’t true. Ideas just like to strike when you’re not expecting them—like that cousin you never got along with—sneaky gits! (Ideas & cousins!)

One place authors always look for inspiration is in their journals. I know! You’ve combed them already for this challenge. That’s fine. But the truth is you may not have been keeping exactly the right kind of journal that can help you out of a tight spot. On the 5th Mike Allegra talked about his Journal of Misfit Ideas. I like that! But I want to tell you about a type of journaling that has engendered numerous ideas for me. It’s a journal I keep by my side when I’m reading.

This is a “Good Words” journal in which I note word choices and phrases that stand out to me in the books and poems I am reading, or the lyrics I am listening to. It is a way to go back and suss out why it is that a certain author’s voice moves me. Almost always, it is word choice.

Whether we write picture books, novels, non-fiction, poetry, or beginning readers we are all word artisans, fabricators, roustabouts, and surgeons. So let’s talk about words.

It seems to me that words have personalities, and like any person there is always more than what meets the eye. Words have emotional baggage, a cultural upbringing, physical sensibilities and an historical demeanor. For example, take a look at these beautifully written lines.

  • “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself #52)
  • “Life’s got to be lived, no matter how long or short. You got to take what comes.” (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”  (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
  • “Have you ever heard a blindfolded octopus unwrap a cellophane-covered bathtub?” (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)
  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low…” (Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher)
  • “So the salesman jangled and clanged his huge leather kit in which oversized puzzles of ironmongery lay unseen but which his tongue conjured from door to door…”  (Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes)

There is gut-deep emotional baggage in Whitman’s use of the word yawp, especially when it is paired with barbaric. The perfect word choice. Compare yawp to wail, or yell. Each carries a different emotional feel.

One can see the cultural differences in the language used by Babbitt and by Fitzgerald. Babbitt’s speaker is countrified, perhaps unschooled. This comes about through her use of the verb got. Fitzgerald’s character is highly educated, and perhaps a bit proud of his erudition.

Both the Juster and the Poe quotes arouse a physical (sensual) response on our part. That word cellophane paired with an octopus! And a blindfolded one at that. How perfect. Also listen to all the “d”s and the low vowel sounds (the “u”s and “ou”s) of Poe’s opener to his classic short story. The effect is one of dragging us down, just as the rider is emotionally dragged down upon his approach to Usher’s house. Or for a simpler example of the physical qualities of language: compare the word slide to scud. Which is heavier? Bet you said scud—though we never actually pick the letters up to weigh them. Vowel sounds can create emotions that can feel physical.

Finally, the Bradbury quote is a wonderful example of how language can be dressed in historical garb. The story takes place in the mid-1900s but words like ironmongery and conjure evoke an earlier, less-scientific time in which the rainmaker/salesman seems to be rooted.

When I read someone who obviously has a mastery of language I keep a list in a word journal of all the great words and phrases that writer uses. (It’s OK to learn through imitation! That’s how the masters did it, too.)

From Seamus Heaney I have listed: flood-slubs, whiff, sluicing, glarry, bogbanks, bestowals, etc. From Robinson Jeffers: enskyment. From Charles Wright: scrim & snow-scud, sealash. From M. T. Anderson: maw, starveling, suckings & buffetings. From Edith Wharton: indolent and purpling. From William Steig’s wonderful Shrek! (the original) I have; varlet, afoul, scything.

Often, just looking through this collection of scrumptious words can make ideas come to the table. Put words together from various author lists–and bingo! What if a starveling got lost amid the bogbanks on a purpling night? And then, a sucking sound rises… You get the picture.

Later, when I’m polishing my manuscript this journal helps when I’m searching for just the right descriptive word. Now, you might ask, why not just use a thesaurus? I do use thesauri. Love them! However, this is more personal. These are words that tickled my ear or made my jaw drop in awe, and were used in a masterful way. Also, when I scan them and see the word choices as groupings by author, I get a feel for how each writer created his/her own voice.

But, please! Don’t ask me about my personal daily journaling habits. I’m abysmally undisciplined. I’m much more interested in individual words than I am in words about me as an individual.

So here’s another challenge. Start a Good Words journal as you read this month. And before Storystorm ends, use it and see what happens. Here’s to jumping in and scaring up an idea before it jumps out at you like that crazy cousin of yours!

Cheers!

Shutta Crum is the author of several middle-grade novels, more than a dozen picture books, and many poems and magazine articles. She adores speaking about children’s books and is an oft-requested presenter, guest lecturer, panel moderator, and keynote speaker. Her latest picture book is MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion). It’s her auto-mouse-biography—about a mouse who becomes a swashbuckler of words. The idea came from one of Tara’s Storystorm (PiBoIdMo) challenges. Thanks Tara for challenging us!

You can follow Shutta on her blog & website at shutta.com, on Twitter @Shutta
and on Facebook here.

  

Shutta is giving away two prizes for two winners–a picture book critique to one winner and two of her books, MOUSELING’S WORDS and SPITTING IMAGE, to another winner.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

Shutta Crum wrote one of my all-time favorite Storystorm posts a few years ago about crafting an irresistible picture book opening. Her “four W” technique grounds the reader in time and place with the character, leaving just enough detail unanswered so one must turn the page to discover why. WHY????

When I learned Shutta the word whisperer released a new book celebrating words, I just knew she’d have lots of wonderful words to say about it.

Shutta, you know I’m a “wordie”—that’s a new word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this year and it means “a word lover”. Words bring Mouseling great comfort and belonging in this story. Which words foster those same feelings in you?

You ask a great question that I had to ponder quite a while. I mean, there are so many wonderful words that can engender feelings of comfort and belonging, like family and chocolate. So I thought about what I’ve lost and miss the most. And that would be my parents. They both died in 2008. Anyway, I bear my father’s nickname as my legal first name, Shutta. But he never called me that. He gave me a nickname, Shud. What I wouldn’t give to hear that word in his voice again! And thinking about my mother, I think of food. Specifically, biscuits and gravy, a Southern breakfast staple. It’s real comfort food, and makes me think of home and all the wonderful smells of Mom’s cooking.

So circling back to your childhood, did words give you comfort then? Were you an avid reader and writer even as a little girl?

Was I an avid reader?—hah! I read everything I could get my hands on, especially as we did not have many books in our home. I remember Mom telling me to put my books down and go outside and play. My siblings were real outdoor lovers and I think she thought I was a bit unusual. I also remember being proud when I could finish a book in a day. Sometimes I’d hide them in my textbooks at school as I read. Words were comforting, and amazing! Whole worlds were opened to me. As an avid reader I was also an avid day-dreamer. I’d play out scenes in my head all the time. I still do. It’s made me a very visual thinker and, I believe, a better writer.

A funny story: if I found a book, I’d pick it up and start reading it. One time, when I was in high school I found a rather salacious book at a bus stop. I opened it up in geometry class when we had a few extra moments to read and my teacher just about had a stroke. He came bounding over to me and ripped The Story of O out of my hands in an apoplectic manner yelling, “Where did you get this?” I’d only read the first page, or so, but my, oh my! However, most of my reading material was adventure, mystery and science fiction.

Why is learning tough (but fun) new vocabulary words important to young readers?

Humans have been communicating since the time we could only point and grunt. There is an instinctive desire to communicate—even with our first breath we communicate—we cry when we’re birthed. It means: Hey it’s cold out here! What’s happening to me? Where am I? And, This doesn’t feel right. Communicating is like breathing; it is part of our basic nature. And miscommunication can be disastrous. Deadly, even. So finding the right word or the right way to say something is important. When we build our vocabularies we have more skill at pinpointing exactly what we mean.

This is always important to writers! But for people who love words it goes beyond meaning to the music created by the sound of words, and even the way words sound in our mouths. We use all our senses to communicate.

In MOUSELING’S WORDS, Mouseling feels the whirr of “fur” in his throat when he says it. He sees the two round vowels that look like mouse tummies in the middle of the word “float.” He tastes the word “milk.” He smells “perfume.” And he hears the loud crinkling and crackling of the word he balled up to throw at the cat. I really wanted young readers to know that when we communicate we use our whole bodies—not just vocabulary words. But it’s also handy to have a large vocabulary to choose from. It’s like having lots of pairs of snazzy socks to wear. You wouldn’t want to wear the same old white ones every day. That’s the fun of words!

Obviously, you’re a “wordie” too. Any special hints for writers about word choice?

Well, I’ve just had an article published at the RYS site about wielding the right words and using the right journals that goes into this question in detail. I can sum it up by saying that when I think about word choice I think of words like people. Words have personalities, and like any person there is always more than what meets the eye. Words have emotional baggage, a cultural upbringing, physical sensibilities and an historical demeanor. Considering all of these factors is critical when writing for young readers. I only have so many words to play with—very few in the case of my picture books. Those words have to be weighed, analyzed and found to slot perfectly into its place.

I should also mention that I keep special “word” journals. I do not just journal generally. I note words I find, or phrases I love, from my reading. I keep an onomatopoeia journal and other specific journals. These help me keep the focus on word choice. The full article with examples from great writers can be found by going to this link at my blog.

Thanks, Tara, this has been fun…keep those lovely words coming!


Shutta Crum is the author of thirteen picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her THUNDER-BOOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as “one of the best board books of the year.” Many of her books have made the Bank Street Best Books lists and have been short-listed for state awards. Her newest picture book MOUSELING’S WORDS is garnering glowing reviews. PW says: “…a tribute to the way books can unite even the unlikeliest of friends.” Booklist says, “This earnest and encouraging title fits on the shelf of books for book-lovers…” And Kirkus Reviews sums it up as, “Encouraging, lovely words.” For more, visit Shutta.com.

Shutta is giving away a picture book critique (less than 1000 words)—what an awesome opportunity! Just leave a comment below mentioning you want the crit (in other words, use your words).

A random winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
black kite

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

THE UPPER CASE:
TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 1, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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