Photo & Artwork: Manatee by Jan Bill
Picture book authoress, Lisa Wheeler, hooks youngsters and their adult readers with snappy poems and ironic plots. With two-dozen published books and international sales, she delivers energetic hip-hop with jazzy beats.
Energy bursts from her prose. She spreads happiness in millions of lives by the use of her words. But, where does her creativity come from?
Sniffing began Lisa Wheeler’s writing career. She smelled her way into a passion for the old fashion paper-kind at her school library. As early as fourth grade, her natural shimmy received recognition by earning first place in a Halloween themed writing contest, but it wasn’t until after Lisa married and raised three children that she decided to build her talent into a career.
Success embraces Lisa. Consistently, she devises imaginative storylines with endearing characters. But, what about Lisa makes her unique?
Lisa’s most notable physical features are her exceptionally long thumbs, which makes sense. After all, thumbs separate man from beasts – reasoning intelligence from animal instincts. And it takes abundant brainpower to control her extra-lengthy phalanxes.
For writers who don’t have the ability to lengthen their thumbs, Lisa shares her insights.
Jan: By including the scent of books with your reading, you boost a passive activity into a physical experience. Do you apply all your senses (feeling, hearing, touching, seeing, smelling, tasting) to devise engaging characters?
Lisa: I am a kinesthetic learner. So I get my best ideas when I am moving. The act of walking, driving, biking, or even swimming sets all my gears in motion and ideas come to life. In a sense (no pun intended, this time) perhaps that can be construed as touching—not sure—but motion is very sensory.
My ideas sometimes come to me with a voice. I hear a character speaking in my mind and I know I have to tell their story. So perhaps that is hearing?
Sometimes my ideas come from a word or a line that enters into my head. If it is an exceptionally delicious line or word, I run with it. Tasting?
I truly cannot take credit for creating terrific characters as I think the characters come to me fully formed. I just have to introduce them.
Jan: You imagine an endless range of topics. A Hispanic family shares “I love you.” An African American family dances a jig. A cow becomes a sailor and a cricket refuses to perform chores. What inspires your creativity? Did you think about puns and irony before you began writing?
Lisa: I don’t really think about puns before I start writing. Since my humor tends toward ‘punny’, my brain takes me there when I am in the midst of a story.
And like many writers, everything inspires me. I rarely have written directly from real life, even though things from real life inspire my work. For instance, a noisy cricket that lived in the bush outside my bedroom window became Old Cricket. When my niece spit a piece of gum out of a moving car window I made note of it and that later became Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum. I believe that everyone can look at the same situation or object or animal and walk away with a different story. It’s all in how we are wired.
Jan: Despite your varying themes, all the stories connect with children. What are the core elements?
Lisa: Hmmm. . . I never think about these things before I write, so I had to give this some thought.
When I look at my body of work, I see themes repeat themselves. Love and friendship are at the heart of many of my books and I think that my universal message is “Let’s get along.” You see that message of community in many of my books, including Sixteen Cows, Ugly Pie, Porcupining, and even Boogie Knights. We are all reaching out to each other. I don’t write sentimental books, but once you strip away all the silliness and wordplay, I think that my message is one that we all can relate to.
Jan: You invent original rhyming patterns with snappy page-turners in several books such as Mammoths on the Move, and Jazz Baby. Do you have any tips on how a “tune-deaf” writer can develop her inner ear? Listening to music? Reading quality poems? Modify a classic?
Lisa: I never understand why non-rhymers desire to write in rhyme. It is much harder to sell! But since you asked, I’ll try and give some tips.
First of all, study Mother Goose. The rhymes there are very simple and some of them have perfect meter—like Mary Had A Little Lamb.
Second, a pre-school teacher taught me something interesting. When my daughter was in her class, she would have them recite rhymes. As the kids sat in a circle, she would walk around and pat out the rhythms gently on their shoulder. She said that feeling the beats physically as one is reciting rhyme, helps develop that ‘ear’ for rhythm.
Also, I joined a poetry group in my community. We met twice a month and read poetry aloud. The head of the group was a retired English teacher and a stickler for meter. She drilled it into us, giving lessons as we went along. I came away from that group with a much better ear for rhyme. More education is also a key ingredient. And if one does all of the above and still can’t make their meter work, then I suggest you write in prose.
Jan: Your stories place readers in the action. How can writers draw the child into the story? Do you make sure to include the Where, What, When and Why?
Lisa: I make sure to include active verbs, interesting characters, and picture book elements such as wordplay, repetition, onomatopoeia. I make sure the stories have lots of forward motion—no staling—and a tight word count. I often add elements of surprise to delight the young reader. But most of all, I make sure to tell a really good story.
Jan: Your knowledge about rhyming, tempo, and creativity earns you well-deserved praises. What are your top three suggestions for how writers can attain publication?
- Read, read, read. Read children’s books in the genre you want to write. Study them. Dissect them. Ask yourself whether they were satisfying. Why or why not. I feel that for every book we write we should read 100. If the last children’s book you read was written more than 10 years ago—get to a book store and see what is being published now.
- Write, write, write. You will write and fail. You will write and get rejections. You will write stories no one will ever read but you. That is the point. Not every story hits it out of the ballpark. But I had many ‘practice’ stories before I wrote the one that finally sold. As a matter-of-fact, I received 225 rejections before I sold my first book. Guess what? I still get more rejections than acceptances. But unless you are writing consistently, you can’t get better or stronger. Those unsold stories are not failures. They are the steps to writing the one that makes it out of the slush pile.
- Join, join, join. Join SCBWI and get involved. Join a critique group. Be sure that your group is made up of writers who are writing in the same genre as you. I recommend that picture book writers form a group in and unto themselves. Same for mid-grade novelists and non-fiction writers, etc. The reason I recommend this is that in all my failed critique groups, the dynamic was based on what the majority of members were writing. So if there are 2 picture book writers in a group of YA novelists, I have seen unhappiness result. Plus, if you are all writing the same genre, you learn from reading each other’s work. I am sure there are exceptions to this bit of advice, but in my experience, it always ended badly when genres were too widespread in one group.
Jan: Thank you for your priceless insights. Your compositions brighten homes, provide bonding time for families and fill holidays with love. You spread happiness and elevate moods by devising peppy lyrics.
For any writers interested in learning more about Lisa Wheeler, her website is www.lisawheelerbooks.com.