Category Archives: My Philosophy on Writing

Mimi, Tell Me A Story

Cooper (7) and Brayden (5) are going through a stage where they want me to tell them stories all the time. Not fairytales, REAL stories about things that really happened to me. Like the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident….the time our school bus fell on its side into a ditch…or the time an elephant charged at me while traveling in Africa.

They want to hear these stories over and over again. Just when I think I’ve told them every possible thing I can remember—something else pops into my head.

Last week, I read that hearing stories isn’t merely for entertainment, it’s a powerful teaching tool that prepares us to face issues that arise in our life. For children, especially, it’s like a dress rehearsal on how to face future problems. It’s a reassurance that they will survive accidents, dramas and unexpected events—just like we did.

In a culture saturated with storytelling (books, radio songs, movies, YouTube), kids favorites are still the true stories about their family or what THEY did as a baby.

I don’t guess this is surprising, though. Jesus used the same technique by telling parables to his listeners. His life lessons about mustard seeds, lost coins and wandering sons were passed along through storytelling. Since writings were unavailable to common people—word of mouth was the only venue, and eventually, whole communities knew these stories. Can’t you image the philosophical discussions about lost sheep that occurred around the water wells?

Today, people are holding the same types of “lessons learned” discussions around the water cooler and on Facebook, but the stories are circulated via books and screens instead: There’s no place like home. Don’t trust the wolf on the way to Granny’s house. A kind boy with friends can overcome evil Voldemort.

True, sometimes it is hard for a mere Mimi to compete with television or tablet—but I’ve found some ways around that. I tell the boys stories in the car, at the dinner table, and at bedtime when they spend the night. I remember when Brayden was about four, I was reading him some picture books before lights out. He stopped me and said, “No, I want stories from your mouth.” It’s a phrase he’s used many times since when he wanted me to tell him a “real” story.

I like this quote from the book Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. “We want stories to reassure us that the inner strength we can muster will be sufficient against self-doubt, loss, grief and disappointment…It’s not out of idle curiosity that your children and grandchildren want to know about you and your life. Your stories have power, and if they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren.”

I was thinking about that last weekend during a 5 hour road trip with Brayden and his mom, Leah. I must have spent 3 hours of that trip telling Brayden stories “from my mouth.” I wanted to make sure that I was reinforcing some life lessons at the end of each story, so I started asking, “Why do you think I did that?” or “Here’s what I learned from this situation….was that a good choice?” We had some good discussions—and he really seem to get some of the important points!

The boys favorite stories are about the girl that lived across the street while Laurie and I were growing up. She was the only kid we had to play with, so we had to endure her–but she ran wild and did all kinds of shocking things, like stuffing a wet cat into our mailbox, tying me to the basketball pole and going home for lunch, and being a general bossy britches.

We had a ditch in the front yard that connected to the creek alongside our house. Every summer, thousands of water snails would get into the creek and start laying egg sacks. Laurie and I spent a lot of time playing with those snails or taking them home as pets. One day, bossy britches was mad at me about something and she started jumping up and down on the snails, intentionally killing them.

I don’t lose my cool often, but I could hear the sound of hundreds of shells cracking. I snapped. I started yelling at her, “I can’t believe you are killing hundreds of innocent snails on purpose—you are a murderer and I don’t want to play with you ever again!” She looked shocked. I’d never stood up to her before. As I recall, I didn’t talk to her or play with her for several weeks after that. It was a big deal in my kid-world, that, and the fact that she gave me wide berth for a time.

Cooper and Brayden delight in hearing that story. They think she is the meanest person on the planet! I use that story as an opportunity to talk about bullying. It’s a tricky lesson, because I don’t normally advocate yelling at people when they make me mad–but in this rare case, I felt righteous indignation down to my core, probably much like Jesus did when he found his temple turned into a market. Aren’t some wrongs worth standing up for?

I know that between the family stories and the Bible stories they are learning—these two boys are being well-coached for the future. They are versed in showing compassion like the good Samaritan. They know that if you throw snowballs at someone’s face, you can break their glasses (right Laurie?). They know that when they turn 15, they should not sneak off in my car and wreck it like their Daddy did. At least I hope they’ve learned that lesson, because I’ve preached it often enough!

As a writer, I constantly hear that children’s books shouldn’t be preachy—that kids should be free to develop their own conclusions about a story. I think there is entirely too little guidance going on these days—and that questionable television shows and mainstream media are now shaping society’s current belief system. I see every conversation with a child as a golden opportunity to teach them the Biblical principles they need to live by, and when they ask me for a story, they’ve handed me that opportunity.

From now on, I’ll be infusing a little more “moral of the story” chatter as I tell them about the time I taught inner-city fourth graders…got lost in Munich…traveled with an acapella singing group…took a boat down the Amazon river…or had to be rescued on a skiing trip. Real stories where I learned a little about life.

P.S. The boys don’t know that I wrote this article last night, but this is too coincidental not to share. A few minutes ago, Cooper asked me to tell him a story while he ate supper. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Mimi, one of the best things about you is that you tell stories.”

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So You Want to Write or Illustrate a Children’s Book?

      You can!  But you will have much more luck getting it published if you add some preparation to that natural talent.
      Technology has made it easier than ever for folks to try their hand at writing words or creating illustrations—so the sheer volume of competition is overwhelming.  You may get tons of “likes” if you share your work on Facebook, but your fame may fizzle in a matter of days. Maybe that’s enough for you.  I, however, seem drawn to write something with…longevity.  I dream that my books will continue to have meaning and usefulness long after I’m gone.  
       The people who do their homework, play the waiting game, and pursue more traditional courses of publishing are most likely to have staying power.  It’s seriously worth the time investment to learn about the publishing industry before you waste a lot of time making mistakes, annoying editors, and burning book bridges.  

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Myself with Leonard Marcus, children’s book historian and author.  

      Getting published is a lot like creating a resume and interviewing for a job—you will get farther if you’ve had training that makes your resume worth considering.  Unless you have an arts degree, one of the few educational opportunities for writers and illustrators is to join a reputable organization that offers workshops, trade journals, online trainings and networking opportunities.  
       Attending “author talks” is my personal favorite form of learning, as I enjoy listening to other writers about their journey.  I always take away a nugget that helps me move forward.  But truly, editors and agents are at the pulse of the ever-evolving book industry.  Hearing what they say is like sitting at the feet of a master—because they hold the most industry power.  Professional organizations provide great opportunities for meeting these people first hand.  
      I have personally selected the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as my professional organization of choice, although others exist.  For several years, I’ve attended SCBWI conferences in my state, where editors, agents, and art directors from publishing houses give presentations, answer questions, and will even review writing and illustration samples.
      For me, networking with other writers is also invaluable—as writing can be a lonely business.  I am greatly encouraged by talking to folks who understand what it’s like to spend a ridiculous hour rewriting one sentence or to have a fiction character put words into my mouth.
       Sometimes writing is like having homework every day of my adult life, even when I’m doing it “for fun.”  Other writers and illustrators understand my indescribable need to create….and yet, my strange tendency to procrastinate finishing a book or article for fear it won’t live up to my own personal standard. 
       Creating the masterpiece is just the first step in the process for anyone who is serious about seeing their name on a book cover.  Next, a publisher has to see your genius and commit to it—which will never happen if your precious art remains on a computer drive or buried in a drawer.  For this reason, I reiterate that if you want to write or illustrate a children’s book, it’s worth the time to get involved with a professional organization that can guide your path toward publication. 
       The following Richard Bach quote has been taped to my bathroom mirror for many years, “The professional writer is the amateur who didn’t quit.” 
       Before I started getting paid for my work, this quote inspired me to keep going.  Now that I really am a professional writer (a fact which still sometimes surprises me), I’m reminded that the journey is never-ending. After writing several books and hundreds of articles, you’d think I’d feel satisfied, but I’m not.  Everything I write and everything I continue to learn takes me one step closer to the professional level for which I strive.  
       I still have stories to tell, and I still have to conform to the publishing industry’s ever-changing standards. Staying current with the publishing industry is for veterans and beginners alike.  So don’t quit!  Join a professional organization and learn how you can share (or continue to share) your natural talent with the world.
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I’ll be at this conference on April 16, 2016.  Non-Oklahomans welcome, too!
OKLAHOMA SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS
 
Sara Sargent, Editor 
is an Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Sara Sargent
Carter Hasegawa, Editor
Associate editor at Candlewick Press, came to children’s publishing in a roundabout way. Basically anything that has a great voice, is a good story, and is “unputdownable.”
Carter Hasegawa
Karl Jones, Editor 
Associate Editor, Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan/Cartoon Network Books, Penguin Young Readers. Karl works on a variety of licensed and original middle grade and activity books, as well as some early YA projects.
Karl Jones
Jodell Sadler, Agent
hosts workshops and presents on pacing, which includes Picture Book Pacing, Editing, and Avoiding Burnout tutorials and Webinars with Writer’s Digest.
Jodell Sadler
Vicki Selvaggio, Agent 
With her most recent publication in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Vicki’s passion for honing the craft carried over into reading manuscripts for the agency.   
Vicki Selvaggio
Jason Henry, Art Director
has over 15 years professional experience designing books for young readers. He has won awards for his designs from the Book Industry Guild of New York, designed numerous New York Times best selling books, such as Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change The World series.
Jason Henry

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How I Wrote the Book “Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013”

by Amy Dee Stephens

My second zoo history book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, hit stores last week! I’ve known I would write “Part 2 in the series” for many years, but I kept putting it off as my attention was focused on other things. Last fall, Arcadia Publishing contacted me and asked if I would write another book because my first one had successfully sold over 2,000 copies (a good number for a local history book). That was the impetus I needed; it was time to write that book.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Who Agrees to Write a Book in 6 Weeks?

I had a lot of overtime built up at work, so I took off about 45 days in the winter to write. Being used to writing magazine articles on a short deadline, having weeks sounded do-able. I signed the contract on Halloween, and started a few days later.

Taking off to write a book sounds great—right? But it was such a hectic time. My grandma, Myrtle Davidson,

went into hospice and passed away, and my husband had surgery, so I had a hard time fitting the book in! I had chosen a mid-December deadline in order to push myself to get it done before the holidays. Many times afterward I chastised myself for being so ridiculous. I stayed up ‘til midnight, one, or two a.m. nearly every night. After logging 250 hours in six weeks, I turned the completed manuscript in on December 18th.

Photographic Treasures

Although the writing was important, another major factor to this book was gathering good-quality photos for each story. First, I sorted through 10,000 photographs in the zoo’s collection. About 100 of these will be in the book, but I didn’t have much representing the 1960s and 1970s.

A fortunate event occurred when I visited the Oklahoma History Center to inquire about any historical images they might have. Within a few hours, an archivist made a very kind allowance—he took me downstairs to the basement where hundreds of unprocessed boxes of Daily Oklahoman photos were stacked. The newspaper had recently donated their archives to the history center, but staff has barely started to scan the images.

With a little searching, we found four boxes under Oklahoma City Parks; Lincoln Park. I donned white gloves, and for two days I sorted through precious photos dating between the 1920s and early 1980s. Only fellow historians could understand how exciting it was to go through such treasures! The staff quickly scanned these in, and I suddenly had another 100 high-quality images to add to the book.

Selecting the Cover

Finding the right cover photo was challenging. Why? Besides picking an appealing photo, there had to be empty space at the top to allow for the title— almost impossible! Who takes a photo with great material only on the bottom third? My publisher dropped a number of photos into their template—but none of them popped for me. I wanted both animals and people in the photo, something that felt old-fashioned, and an image that wouldn’t make all zoo people run screaming because of antiquated practices (such as dressing chimps up in clothing). I’d found lots of cute kids with goats from the Children’s Zoo, but they felt too farm-ish.

Finally, I found this picture of five men lifting a Galapagos tortoise. It had nice action, looked dated (being from 1961 and including one man smoking a pipe), and it had an obvious “zoo” animal. One of the men happened to be a significant Oklahoman named Bob Jenni, who worked at the zoo and later became a wildlife filmmaker who opened his own wildlife center. It was perfect.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Tweaks and Proofs

By spring, I started receiving proof copies of the book to review. I could tell I’d written it in a sleep-deprived state, as I found some obvious errors. Luckily, the publisher allowed me to make corrections. Since I’ve worked at the zoo for 16 years—the last chapters of the book were mostly written from memory. I was able to include events of importance to me—and a few of my family members even made appearances in the photographs. One image about Cat Forest wasn’t working well with the text, and at the last minute, I thought of the perfect image—a family photo of my late step-son visiting Cat Forest a few months before he died. The substitution was made, and I didn’t tell anyone until the first copy arrived in the mail. When I showed it to my family, we all got a little teary eyed.

It’s A Wrap

One day, the editor and I were making little word tweaks, and the next day I got an email that the book was “going to print in the morning.” It seemed so sudden. And so final. For the record—I wouldn’t recommend writing a historical book in 6-weeks. Although the subject was familiar and close to my heart, it took a long time to wade through 50+ years of research to pinpoint the most important themes. I also didn’t have the luxury of mulling over things, like I did with my first book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959, which I wrote over a 2-year period. I’m proud of the final product, and doubt it would be much different if I had taken a little longer– but with my self-inflicted deadline, I didn’t have time to savor the process.

In less than a year, the book went from “okay, I’ll write a book” to “for sale in stores.” That’s pretty great! I hope to do another one someday—but next time, I plan to allow myself a little bit more time.

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Writing and Fishing: The Tortures of Favorite Hobbies

Who knew that a cancer patient and a surgeon could form such a beautiful friendship?  During five surgeries together, my husband and Dr. V found a common interest in fishing.  Granted, my husband is a hard-core bass tournament junkie and Dr. V is a recreational fish-for-fun guy–but guess who owns the two-story lake house?           

In a great show of kindness, Dr. V invited us to stay at his cabin.  It was an interesting peek into the personal life of a man with strong family values and great capacity to play.  I’m sure it’s a nice escape from his usual work of intense life-saving.   For me, it was a nice escape from life-living.  For my husband, an escape from working-to-stay-alive.    

A sunny deck overlooking Grand Lake—what better place for a writer to write?  So why is it that while I craved the writing get-away, I found myself looking for ways to “get away” from the actual writing?  A cushioned window seat, a wooden boat dock, and a ping pong table captured my attention more readily than the laptop waiting in the corner.  Nature walks and reading “writing how-to books” also lured me away from the actual task of writing.  

Task.  Funny how this favorite past time…this hobby…this talent…this urge to write…sometimes seems like a chore, nagging at me like dust on the ceiling fan.  “I really should get the ladder out and clean that off,” I think.  “I really ought to plug in the computer and finish that article.”  How did it come to this?  Perhaps the answer is best demonstrated by my husband.  

The bass fishing bug opened its big green mouth and sucked him in at age ten. Hook, line, and watermelon cracker spinner bait.  He saved every penny to buy a real fishing rod.  Not the Donald Duck cheapie from TG&Y, but a real Berkley rod.  

During camping trips, he woke his family up at 5:30 a.m. so he could get down to the river and start fishing at sunrise.  Mornings got ugly, so his Dad finally gave him permission to “sneak” out of the camper on his own.   

Early in our marriage, my husband hinted that he would sure like to get a bass boat.  I suggested that if he doubled his sales that year, we could probably swing it.  He tripled his business.  

Since then, his favorite pasttime has produced all kinds of new challenges.  Boat payments, fuel, gear and gadgets are costly.  Tournaments, too, are expensive, time-consuming, and out of town.  In response, he has used his sales skills to procure fishing sponsors.  Now, he gets much of his tackle, rods and outerwear (all emblazoned with logos) for free, in exchange for marketing products and working at fishing shows.  

He’s slept in cheap, dumpy hotels, in freezing cold tents, and spent scorching nights in the back of his vehicle—all to be able to participate in his hobby, which launches in the wee hours of the morning and often involves pounding wind, blistering sun or drizzling rain. 

Doesn’t sound like fun to me!  But, I love his passion.  No matter how lousy the weather conditions or cheap the reward prizes are, no matter how frustrated he gets—he can’t wait for the next time.  He reads every fishing magazine, studies every fishing show, and spends hours on the phone picking the brains of his fishing buddies.  He works harder at his hobby than most people work for a paycheck.  Just what does he get out of all this agonizing, frustrating, expensive labor?  A satisfaction akin to a cold drink of Dr. Pepper on a hot summer day.  An explosion of pleasure and a thirst for more.     

Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t resent a moment spent on this insatiable drive.  Those green, slimy fish fire his soul and give his personality spark.  Believe me, the year he was jobless, fearful of his illness and in too much physical pain to go fishing—those were the dark days of our marriage.  Lack of soul.  

Any magazine article I could write that would pay the boat payment was a step closer to making him smile again.  And every surgery that happened before fishing season was the one he rehabed from the quickest.  

Such is the life of a hard-core hobbyist; the one who has pursued enjoyment of an activity to the point of competitive perfectionism and bank account drainism.  But in his case, it improves his life anyway.  Spark and soul.  

So why is writing–my enjoyment of choice–sometimes a task?  Because it has become competitive.  It’s hard work, never finished, consumes my thought, requires constant improvement, constant observation, and is a game of challenge (but fortunately less expensive than fishing).  I’ve entered the hard-core ranks.  One book is not enough.  One article begets another.  

But writing also gives me spark.  I’m hooked.  Book, byline and contract.                     

When my husband starts gathering rods at 5:30 in the morning, I groggily think through plots and subplots.  After he shares a good story about a lake adventure, I file it away for a future book.  Each time he gets a new sponsor, I wonder how I could write an article about it.    

I’ll be his loudest cheerleader when he finally wins the big money, and he’ll be my best salesman when I make the New York Times bestseller list.  And if I ever lose the ability to type words on a page, I’ll rehab fast or find another way.  I’ve married into this hobby, and I’ve married a man who understands. 

I’ve finally torn myself away from ping pong and plugged in the laptop.  Ah, yes, the feel of the keyboard.  Hours passing.  Storytelling.  I’m having a blast writing.  This is so fun!  Why did I put it off?  

I’m thankful to Dr. V for providing us this weekend get-away–a weekend in which we both relax by means of intense participation in our respective pursuits of pleasure: fishing and writing.  

A working vacation.

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Personal Pros and Cons to Writing Magazine Articles

When I got serious about writing a book in 2006, I lacked credentials.  Getting published in magazines seemed a necessary step toward attracting a book deal.  So, I did my homework, chose a topic I knew well, and targeted the right magazine. Viola!  My very first magazine query letter netted my first published article

 Now, I have about fifty articles published, and my writing resume is looking more padded.  I won’t say it’s an easy part-time job, but the side benefits have been delightful (as you’ll see below). 

For anyone interested in breaking into magazine writing, I’ll discuss technique in a later posting.  Here, I want to disclose some random insights and experiences that have come from my short career.  Some may be seen as pros and some as cons (you choose), but I hope they inspire you to write articles, too.

1.  In a rare gesture of thanks, the Junior Cotillion coordinator had flowers delivered to my office after I wrote a story about her work.

2.  Sometimes, my children actually read one of my articles. (Why do they always seem shocked when they like it?) 

3.  Working on a deadline is like having perpetual homework.  Even if it’s a fun assignment, it’s always looming in the background.

Leona and Amy at News Channel 9.

4.  International opera singer, Leona Mitchell, said I “captured her spirit.”  (Be still my heart!)  Then I had a front row seat to watch her perform—one of the most moving concerts I’ve ever witnessed.

5.   Those extra hundreds a month come in handy for paying down my husband’s medical bills. 

Leona in Concert. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens

6.  I read eight biographies to write one little story about astronauts.  It might be one of my better works–but I lost money on that one. 

7.   At events, I’m usually the one behind a camera or skirting the edges to look for a story or interview opportunity.  As Bob Green wrote in Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, “Show me a great writer and I’ll show you someone who’s rarely the life of the party.”

8.  Some topics sound boring at first (I won’t say which ones), but after a little research, they become fascinating. 

9.  One afternoon, I answered the phone and heard, “Hello, Amy, this is Reba McEntire.”  We interviewed for 18 whole minutes. 

10.  Magazine editors sometimes tweak my words.  It either improves my work or makes me cringe.

Jillian Harris (The Bachelorette) and Michael Moloney (Extreme Makeover Designer). Photo by Amy Dee Stephens

11.  I once stood in the snow for five hours waiting to get one on-the-spot interview with Jillian Harris (from The Bachelorette).  Her heartfelt story was worth it.

12.    What could be more inspiring than a compliment from another writer.  Best-selling mystery author, Carolyn Hart, honored me with this statement, “I feel your story is by far the best that has ever been written about my books.”   

13.    It is tough to stay focused on my novel, because writing articles offers a more immediate paycheck. 

14.    I’ve been asked to voice-record my articles for the Oklahoma Library for the Blind.

15.    When I hear that someone laughed, cried or learned from one of my articles—that’s one of the great compliments ever!

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Strong Characters Need to Laugh, Cry and Quake

If you write fiction, you know it’s all about the emotions.  What good protagonist doesn’t glare, stare or growl?  Surely your leading female will need to shed a tear, give a smile, or gasp with fear at least once during your story.

The problem is—how to describe these emotions without sounding trite or overdone. 

Well, I’ve stumbled upon a jewel that will help.  The book is called The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book by J. Ken and C. Shelton.  The authors have selected fifty common emotions, characteristics and movements, and listed over 3,000 ways to describe said emotions, characteristics and movements. 

Why have your bad guy act angry when you can have him glare with hostility or let rage distort his features?  Maybe his eyes can convey the fury within.

Speaking of eyes, let me tell you—romance writers know a thing or two about describing eyes.  This section alone has a list 8 ½ pages long!   Why have green eyes when you can have eyes the color of malachite? Eyes that glint indulgently. Or eyes that flash with azure fire?

Yes, some of these are a bit extreme for the non-romanticist, but this book is still a great source for thinking outside the stereotypical box.  I can truly say, without a shudder of humiliation, that The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book has spiced up my descriptive writing.

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