This Tree Has a Story

Tree #9 This Three Has a Story Photo by Sandy Malcolm

Tree #9, This Three Has a Story
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

When my friend, Karen Saltmarsh, told me that she wanted to write a book of creative writing prompts for kids, I said, “Let’s do it!” (You know that I can’t turn down a good book project.)

Karen has been an educator for 28 years, and she was one of my son Peter’s kindergarten teachers. Karen’s dream was to inspire children to tell creative stories, just as she taught her own children.

Amelia Island Plantation is where it started. First with her son and then two daughters, Karen immersed them in the wonder of nature on a daily basis. Any time they came across an unusual-looking tree, Karen prompted them to tell a story for how the tree came to be like that. “This tree has a story,” she would say.

This Tree Has a Story Cover Photo by Sandy Malcolm

This Tree Has a Story Cover
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

During her 28 years as a teacher, Karen has seen a number of changes, some welcome, others not as much. Twenty-eight  years ago, there wasn’t a TV in every classroom, much less a computer. And while technology has brought so many conveniences, so many benefits, there’s an enormous downside. Twenty-eight years ago, kids didn’t spend all afternoon sitting in front of their TVs playing video games. How many times have you heard someone reminisce (or reminisced, yourself) about the days when they came home from school and went right outside to play, only coming in reluctantly at suppertime?

A number of factors have contributed to this change, and while there still are many kids who do get to enjoy the outdoors, 21st century children are wired differently. As infants, they learn how to operate touch-screens. They understand texting and Facebook updates, even if they don’t have their own accounts. But here’s the thing: kids are still wired to love the simple act of playing. I’m talking about going outside and kicking a ball around. Or climbing a tree. Or looking for lizards. (Can you tell I’m a mom of boys?) When I was a kid, I pretended that azalea leaves were money. I learned how to suck the nectar from a honeysuckle. I ran laps around the backyard. I dug for roly polies. And even when I was bored, I went outside and whispered stories to myself.

There’s not enough of that going on anymore, and as a teacher, Karen has seen the negative results of this firsthand. In a time when brevity and instant gratification prevail, it seems that creativity and imagination are often shoved to the side. But when children have the opportunity to explore and create, amazing things happen.

When Karen first shared with me the dream that she’d been harboring for 25 years, she explained it as a book of writing prompts. But not just any prompts. She wanted to inspire children – children who are babysat by Nickelodeon or mom’s iPad, kids who live on the Xbox – to learn the art of storytelling in the same way that she taught her own children.

Our first step was to find interesting trees. At first, we collected photos from all over the country, but as we developed the book, the focus shifted from interesting or odd or unique trees in general to the trees of Amelia Island. It was the place where Karen received her original inspiration, so it seemed appropriate to start there. (But never fear, there is a short section with photos from other regions, too.)

We narrowed it down to 12 Amelia Island trees. As you can see from the cover photo, we included some really interesting ones. Karen chose one of these photos (the one at the top of this post, in fact) and decided to test her theory on kids in her own kindergarten class.

When I saw Karen that afternoon, she was practically bursting. “It works!” I think it was overwhelming for her to imagine her dream coming to fruition, but then to see it at work – it went beyond her expectations.

When Karen sat down with her kindergarteners, she simply showed them a photo and asked if they could tell a story about that particular tree. I did the same at home with Peter, who is a year older. Peter’s story, plus two from Karen’s students, are included in the introduction of our book.

Karen’s original vision was for the target age group to be from kindergarten to second grade, the years when students are really learning how to spell and write and structure. But after receiving some professional guidance from a child psychologist, we broadened the spectrum to K through 12 – and, of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.

If only we stop to look around, we can find a story in almost anything, and trees are a great place to start. There’s been quite a learning curve in structuring and formatting this book. We’ve searched, and as far as we can tell, there’s not another creative writing book like this on the market. This is wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because we can do anything we want and not be expected to confine ourselves to some pre-existing convention. Scary because it was a challenge to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.

But we finally took This Tree Has a Story to print, and it’s now available. In addition to the trees, our photographer, Sandy Malcolm, took some wonderful photos of wildlife in the trees. These were too good to pass up, so there’s going to be a sequel. But first…

We’re going to conduct a pilot study, and we’re going to do it over the entire spectrum. We were wowed by the stories from the kindergarteners. I can only imagine what we might get from older kids. Kids who are going through adolescent trials. Kids who may never have tried to create a story before. Kids who don’t realize what kind of potential they harbor, that’s just waiting to be stimulated by, I don’t know, an interesting tree.

Karen and I are so excited, and we have lots of plans for our new book, not the least of which is that a portion of our proceeds will go to help preserve or plant trees in areas that have suffered from erosion and natural disasters.

I’m giving away 30 advanced reader copies, so you can conduct your own creative writing study with your students or children. If you’d like to throw your name into the hat, or if you have any other questions, please contact us via the contact form below.

The Proud Authors! Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

The Proud Authors!
Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

Haunted by My Story

November is so close it’s almost scary.

It was just a few weeks ago that I was surprised by October’s arrival, so how could I let November sneak up on me, too? Lots of important things happen in November: Thanksgiving; Christmas shopping; several important birthdays, including my elder son’s; two clients’ book projects are due; a slew of writing assignments for a new client…

And the month-long time-gobbler that is both daunting and exciting, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Last year, I participated for the first time, and I will say again and keep on saying that it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. In fact, I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever produced.

The goal this year is to at least match the enthusiasm and success of last year – or surpass it.

For the early part of this year, I wasn’t worried about NaNoWriMo 2014 because I was still finishing my 2013 novel. In early July, I produced 10 copies for beta readers. And then what typically happens when I’m busy with one project – I had a great idea for a new novel.

If you keep up with my blog, you’ll know that I decided to hold off writing, saving that new story for NaNoWriMo this year. But as my beta readers started giving me their critiques on my 2013 NaNo novel, I realized I wanted to edit it and write the sequel for NaNo this year. (And don’t worry about my new novel idea – I wrote a few important scenes and took plenty of notes for when I’m ready to start up with it again.)

I figured that it would be easy to edit last year’s book by October and even start querying literary agents again, saying, And if you like this, I’ll be working on the sequel in November.

Except that if today is the corner, then November is right around it, and I’m not done editing the first book yet.

Forget agents – I’ve got to finish this book in order to be able to properly start the next one. There’s nothing that says I absolutely have to start with the opening scene. If I feel like it, I can start with the last one (and yes, I already know what it will be – a cliffhanger leading up to book three, hee-hee). But I so want to start with confidence. That, and I don’t want a lot of editing to slow me down. 50,000 words in one month is a lot. Granted, I wrote 80,000 last November, but they say that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, so…

If only I’d written the first book perfectly to start with, right? But that would make me a magician or a novel goddess or something, which I am not. Or if I am, someone forgot to tell the big publishing houses because I’m still waiting for my million-dollar advance.

Instead of dreaming about gross improbabilities (or impossibilities if I don’t get myself in gear), I need to do both stories justice. The ending of book one was so hard to nail, but talking with several of my beta readers helped cement what I need to do to make it more satisfactory, yet leave readers hungry for the sequel. Now I’ve just got to make that happen, so I can pick right up where I left off on book two. By Saturday.

Picture me biting all my fingernails at once.

So I’m posting a tad earlier than usual in order to fully immerse myself in last year’s novel, and I hope that the next time I crawl out of my writer’s hole to blink at the sun, I will have nothing but positive results. And since sharing goals is a great way to stay on track, here they are:

  • Finish editing book one (soon!)
  • Get it under 100,000 words (I still have 3400 to cut – eek!)
  • Write seamless transition from the first to the second book
  • Write 14,000 words by the end of November 7th

Like I said, it’s daunting and exciting. And did I mention terrifying and exhilarating? Time to go to bed so I can indulge in a few NaNo nightmares.

Happy writing!

Apparently, I Have A Conflicted Personality

They say you write what you know.

Well, maybe not you specifically, but I know I’m guilty.

I can’t help turning my life into stories. There I am, walking along, minding my own business, when I realize I’m narrating what I’m doing. But instead of carrying a bag of groceries into my condo, maybe I’m a World War II nurse with an armful of gauze and blankets for my patients. Or maybe the phone rings in the middle of the night. It’s someone dialing the wrong number, but I can’t help wondering, What if that had been the call that no one wants to receive, that something terrible happened to a loved one?

Years ago, that very situation happened, and instead of going back to sleep, I lay awake all night, constructing a new story. I built it around what might have happened. Since the catalyst was something that actually happened to me, it was hard not to give the main character some of my own attributes. Sure, I made her older, gave her a different job, changed her appearance, let her live in my dream house, but to take it from a theoretical “what if” to the story I’d imagined, the main character turned out a lot like me.

I decided to workshop my story, and according to the class rules, I was not allowed to say one word during the reading or subsequent critique. I’d been through the process several times before, so I was over how unnerving it feels to have my story alternately praised and criticized with me sitting right there, helpless to answer any questions or defend myself.

My fellow workshoppers started talking about the character. She was too needy, they said, and there was no way she could be A and B, when she was so obviously P and Q, as well as Y and Z. She was conflicted—how on Earth could a person like her exist? Part of me wanted to laugh, and another part was dying to defend her—because I was A,B, P, Q, Y, Z, and every letter in between. Of course she was real because she was mostly me! But I certainly wasn’t needy. . . they’d gotten that part wrong. (Gulp—am I needy?)

Since then, when other English majors I know complain about how they hate math or just can’t get organized or don’t understand other kinds of artists, I smile and remember that I shouldn’t be able to do those things either. After all, my type of personality isn’t supposed to exist. But somehow I got creativity and organizational skills from both parents, a talent for spotting typos a mile away from my mother, and a math brain from my father (and his mother before him). If asked about my favorite pastimes, I’d be hard-pressed to put my top four in order of importance, but alphabetically, they are as follows: bookkeeping, reading, singing, and writing. Yep, that was bookkeeping on the list. I also love editing (sometimes I have more fun editing something I’ve written than actually writing it to begin with), but I lump that in with writing.

It makes me think that, while I don’t know any other Sarah Cotchaleovitches, certainly there are other “conflicted” personalities out there. Come on, admit it—you are, too, aren’t you?