Blackout Poetry and Other Avenues of Creativity

My son came for a visit this weekend and we had a lot of fun spending time together – just hanging out and, among other things, creating blackout poetry! Yeah, we do things like that. He’s a high school English teacher and I work in the author publicity field, so I always have my nose in a book of some sort. Anyway, we are definitely cut from the same cloth and every time he visits we tend to gravitate toward a few favorite activities involving some sort of creativity. Here are a few ideas to ignite your imagination:

Shakespeare anyone?

The first cultural activity we had planned included a visit to Zilker Park Hillside Theater, a beautiful outdoor venue in Austin, TX. Twice a year they host free shows for the public. Austin Shakespeare always hosts the May production, featuring one of Shakespeare’s works (obviously).  This year the show is “The Merchant of Venice” and we were really looking forward to going.  We typically pack a picnic, spread out a few blankets and soak up some Shakespeare!  Unfortunately, it rained all day Saturday. Sounds like the show still went on in spite of inclement conditions, but, I’m a fair-weather girl, and between the tornado warnings and the thought of sitting on wet grounds, it didn’t really sound all that appealing, so we opted for Plan B.

Plan B – Jigsaw Puzzles!

Best laid plans, right? If you’re stuck inside or just choose to be inside and want to spend quality time with family and friends – do a jigsaw puzzle! Along with some great conversation and laughs, there are also many benefits from doing puzzles – such as developing increased problem-solving skills, lowering stress levels, improving your mood – the list goes on.

In fact,  Here’s a good article about some of the benefits. I do at least two or three puzzles a year. I’d do them more often, but they tend to take me away from things that need to be done – though I do love a good distraction. Still, I think they spark creativity because they stimulate your mind and require thinking outside the box.  This is the puzzle we did this weekend.  The photo didn’t turn out that great – It’s a blueprint of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” house and it was a HARD puzzle!

But, what about the blackout poetry?

What about the blackout poetry?  Yes, it is so much fun! I’ve heard about it but never actually tried it, so we took a break from the jigsaw puzzle to create some blackout poems of our own! I found some helpful information online outlining the process. John DePasquale of Scholastic says of blackout poetry:

“Blackout poems can be created using the pages of old books or even articles cut from yesterday’s newspaper. Using the pages of an existing text, blackout poets isolate then piece together single words or short phrases from these texts to create lyrical masterpieces. Blackout poems, as I’m sure you can imagine, run the gamut from absurd to sublime because all of the words are already there on the page, but the randomness is all part of the fun!” Read his full article here for instructions and guidelines to create your own blackout poetry.

My son does this activity with his classes and says it’s always a big hit with the kids.  I found it to be engaging, inspirational and thought-provoking. It definitely stirs your creative juices, so it may even help you in other areas of your writing.  Hailey Hudson of “Craft Your Content” says every writer should do blackout poetry because it relieves stress, restores creativity and helps with writer’s block! Read Hailey’s full article here.

Handiwork from our blackout session.

Here is one of my creations from this weekend. A lot of blackout poetry includes artwork and it’s quite impressive. I’m not there yet – I’m just playing around with the words at this point. All in all, I was happy with my first attempt (though it is a bit dark – I have a goal to work on being more inspirational in the future). I can say this – the whole process is addicting!

To learn more about blackout poetry and see some examples, just Google “blackout poetry” for some amazing inspiration. I’d love to see some of your blackout poetry and hear how you bring creativity into your days!

Becoming a Picture Book Scholar

Lately, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about the craft of writing picture books in the hopes of becoming a picture book scholar! There is so much information available to new authors.  While I have to thank those that take the time to share their experiences with newbies, like me, it can get overwhelming.  What are your favorite craft books about writing picture books?

Learning from those who’ve gone before us.

I’m currently reading “Writing Picture Books” by Ann Whitford Paul and I’m about 1/3 of the way through. It’s REALLY good – an actual step-by-step process for writing your picture book.  The author recommends following the steps through the book in real time, as you are writing your book. Of course, never one to completely follow directions, I’m reading it cover to cover and will then go back and work my way through the steps.  I like to see the big picture first.

The first chapter is titled, “Becoming a Picture Book Scholar,” hence the subject of this week’s blog post. The very first sentence in the chapter sets the tone of the author’s matter-of-fact, straightforward manner.  She says, “Having had your appendix out doesn’t qualify you to perform an appendectomy, so why should having seen picture books as a child qualify you to write one?” Touché.  I love it!

Photo by Wokandapix from Canva

So how do we become a picture book scholar?

Of course the author recommends, reading, reading, and more reading, and I am more than happy to comply.  This advice also inspired me to start this blog so I could write picture book reviews while learning the craft. As I study each new book, I am amazed at the creativity and in awe of the number of wonderful stories there are available in picture book format. It is so inspiring!

Following are a few of my takeaways on some of the topics covered in the first chapter of “Writing Picture Books.”

Everything is a New Adventure

Children create an adventure out of anything and everything. They are curious, full of wonder, open to trying new things. They see things from a different perspective. Imagine for a day that everything is new. If you have a hard time imagining something as new, seek out something that IS new to you. Research a topic you’ve always wanted to learn about or a place you’ve always wanted to visit. How do you feel when tackling something new? Do you treat it like a new adventure or are you more reserved and cautious? Try to look through a different lens and return to the natural wonder and curiosity of a child.  It will change your whole attitude.

It IS a big deal.

As a child, everything matters.  Everything is important.  Children care deeply about everything. Your little guy may have a t-shirt he wants to wear every single day.  It’s his favorite. It matters. As an adult, we know it needs to be washed, but this will come at no small price to him.  He feels strongly about wearing that t-shirt. Think about something that matters deeply to you.  Multiply that times “everything matters” and write with those emotions.

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies.

Ann Whitford Paul recommends printing a sign or writing a sticky note and putting it where you work and will see it while you are writing that says, “CHILDHOOD IS NOT ALL SILLY AND JOYFUL.” As parents, we sometimes like to shield our children from all things unhappy, but that is doing them a disservice. I do love a good happy story, who doesn’t? But, the reality is we learn about life through our challenges. What we can do as responsible adults is to be thoughtful while remaining realistic when introducing tough topics to our kids by teaching through compassion and empathy.

Becoming a Picture Book Scholar

There’s a lot to learn on the road to becoming a picture book scholar.  I think the biggest takeaway I have from reading the first chapter of “Writing Picture Books” is to call on your inner child.  Treat everything like a new adventure, imagine it IS a big deal and everything matters and is important. Tapping into the essence of your child-likeness could very well inspire your next picture book.

For more information

NOTE: I purchased my copy of this book from Amazon. This is not a book review, though I do highly recommend it for whatever stage you are at on your writing journey. You can purchase “Writing Picture Books” on Amazon and through the links on the pictures below. I am an Amazon affiliate and receive a small compensation for purchases made through the links on my website. Full disclosure notice here.


I am reading the first edition, located here.

There is also a revised, expanded version, available here.

Jumping Off the Deep End – My Writing Journey

No diving sign. Jump in to your writing journey.

The Writing Journey Begins at the Beginning

And so it begins. Up until now my writing journey has consisted of book reviews and the occasional blog article.  I am at the beginning of my journey. And, in contrast to my usual impatient, I-know-what-I-want-and-I-want-it-now attitude, I am fine with this. This is where I need to be – reading, writing, learning from those who’ve gone before me, taking courses (the most recent being Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic”), absorbing information, and practicing. I am fine with all of it. Or rather, I was fine with it all, until a recent incident, which I share below.

Anyhow, just looking over my now 2-week old blog, I realize I have already accomplished a lot.  I put my name and my intentions “out there” for the world to see.  Just stating that I am an aspiring author is a huge step for me – I am a private person, shy until you get to know me, and this is out of my comfort zone to say the least. I didn’t even share with my husband yet – he kinda found my blog by accident (or rather, by looking over my shoulder at my iPhone), exclaiming, “Sheri Hoyte Books, what’s that?” 

Face of a woman with a secret about her writing journey holding her finger to her lips.

The Secret is Out

GROAN… I wasn’t ready to share with my family yet. The only person that knew up until now is my business partner. I wanted to start building my platform, get several hundred picture book reviews under my belt, maybe a few concrete story ideas and then announce it to my family. Why am I so shy about sharing with my family? How can I share such intimate details about my goals with total strangers yet be so wary of those closest to me?

And, now that my secret is out, I do feel a bit more pressure to perform and that hampers my plans more than anything else. But, I have to get over this (or over myself)? I’m in this for the long run. I want this journey to be fun.  I’m doing this for me (and my future grandkids, let’s be real 😊).

blurred photo of antique pocket watch and pearls - a perfect time to start your writing journey

There’s No Time Like Now

So, the timing is perfect. The circumstances are ideal. I have a job in a related field with flexible hours and access to a variety of tools.  I couldn’t ask for more. To find my voice, to act on my passions, to discover who I am – I feel like I am in for an exciting ride – I just have to get past my insecurities.  Can anyone else relate to this – I’d love to hear more about you and your experiences.  Are you new to the writing world or do you have years of experience to share? Drop me a note with a link to your blog or website so I can follow you on your writing journey.  Happy writing everyone!

How Do You Focus When the Ideas Aren’t Flowing?

How do you focus when the ideas aren’t flowing? Am I the only one hampered with distractions? While searching the internet the other day, (conducting research of course), I came across a pitch generator that uses the letters of your name to determine how you should pitch your book idea to publishers.

According to this generator, my pitch using my first name should be for a “high-voltage tragedy about an exuberant ghost’s failure.” Well, that was so much fun I tried it again with my last name. Then my brother’s name, then my third cousin’s name…you get a clear picture of my afternoon, right? A session that began with a specific plan, ended with letting distraction stand in the way of productivity. Anyone ever play “predictive text” on Twitter? That can distract for hours!

Going down the rabbit hole.

It all started with the blank page, my biggest obstacle.  All that whiteness creates overwhelming anxiety for me. While some writers see a blank page as an opportunity for total creative freedom, I just freeze.  So, how do you focus when the ideas aren’t flowing?

To answer this question I had to consider what actually works best for me, not what everyone says should work for me.  Realizing that trying to fit within “accepted norms” wasn’t helping, I set out to determine three things that hinder my productivity, and come up with a plan to create new habits to help my focus.  Here is what I discovered:

I am a perfectionist.

That old “do it right or don’t do it at all” philosophy somehow became my mantra, and it is quite a burden. It is challenging for me to write a first draft of anything, whether it’s a book review, an article, or an outline for a story idea, because I have this notion that everything must flow from my mind to the paper in perfect form. I’m sure you can guess how this is working out for me. To get over the fear of the blank page I started jotting down my random thoughts into files on my computer and saving each thought in a separate document.  This helps me in two areas: there isn’t a blank page to contend with, and since there is already the start of a rough draft on the page, it releases me from perfectionism.  It’s not fool-proof, but it has been helping.

My inner critic is brutal.

There is a little “mean girl” inside my head just messing with my creativity, and filling my head with doubts about my ability to write. This is tough. The key here is to set my work aside for a day or two when possible. This appeases my inner critic by accepting there may be some changes needed. I usually find that I return to the project with a clearer head and am more able to see which areas need improvement, without using any negative self-talk.

Setting goals is counterproductive for me.

This doesn’t even make sense, but as soon as I set a goal, that voice inside my head starts saying things like, “You can’t do that,” or some other such nonsense. This is not just a writing phenomenon with me either, as I discovered one day while exercising with my husband.

We typically walk around the lake close to our home a couple of times each week.  It’s really beautiful and is a nice change of pace.  Anyway, I’ve been trying to build up my endurance by setting short jogging goals.  It never fails – as soon as I say, “I’m going to run to the next tree,” the task becomes impossible to accomplish. It seems the tree actually keeps moving farther away, my body starts protesting, and it’s harder to breathe. It’s really quite a sight. Yet, if I don’t set goals, how can I push myself?  I’ve found that by setting an “intention” to do the best I can rather than a hard-fast goal, I am more successful.

The reality?

The reality is we are all a work-in-progress. Just being aware of the things that stall productivity can help.  If you find yourself in a situation that takes you away from your intentions, it’s time to take a break. Be gentle with yourself. Get a cup of tea or a snack. Go outside and do some yard work.  Or just stretch.  Whatever works for YOU.  By moving the focus away from the things that aren’t working and concentrating on developing realistic long-term habits, you are creating the best possible environment for your own success.

So, how do you focus when the ideas aren’t flowing?

*This post originally published on www.readerviews.com.

Next Gen Authors – Encouraging Kids to Write!

If I had to choose one thing I enjoy most about my day job, it would be reading the book reviews written by the kids reviewing our children’s books at Reader Views Kids. Kids see and absorb everything, noticing details using all of the five senses.  Things that, as adults we have learned to tune out or take for granted.  Seriously, who does ‘show versus tell’ better than kids? And what better way of encouraging kids to write than by starting with writing about books?

Fresh perspectives.

Not only that, but there is a fresh, honest tone in the writing – if there is something in a book that doesn’t appeal to a young reader, it will be voiced! I get a bit reflective when I read things written by children, first looking back to my own childhood and my love for books, and later, passing it down to my son.   When he was younger he loved to write poems and short stories and we even submitted some of his work, at least a couple articles of which were published. He’s now a high school English teacher, sharing his own wisdom and passion for words with the youth of today. Perhaps there’s even a Great American Novel in his future!

Today, with publishing being more accessible than ever, there are many kids developing their craft, becoming illustrators, authors and co-authors with their parents!  Does your child have curiosity for everything around them?  Does she have a love for books? Is he a natural story teller? Here are some things you can do right now to support and encourage that passion:

Support and encouragement

  • Read to your children every day! It not only cultivates a good habit, it enriches and stimulates young minds. While reading, be sure to let them ask questions, and also ask them what they think – about the story, characters, pictures, etc. This helps develop the ability to express opinions and with self-discovery as they learn more about their likes and dislikes.
  • Find book clubs, reading circles and publications, either online or locally, where kids can network to find other kids involved in reading and writing. The local library is a great place to start!
  • Look for publishing opportunities. There are plenty of companies that publish kid’s works, such as Highlights, StoneSoup and Cricket Magazine.  Be sure to also check out writing contests, online sources and even the school newsletter.

There are so many benefits to encouraging kids to write. And, writing and reading go hand in hand so keep your children reading, encourage their creativity, and submit some of their work. 

Note: This article was originally published on www.readerviews.com.

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Let’s Talk about Star Ratings

What’s Up with Star Ratings?

Much like judging a book by its cover, I find star ratings to be highly subjective, and I really don’t like “assigning” a number to a book I’ve just read.  I find the coveted 5-Star-Review to be a bit over-rated – in my mind it’s the content of the review that matters most. 

I read and edit a substantial number of reviews each year for Reader Views, and there is nothing more baffling to me than reading a review laden with critiques that somehow scores a 4 or 5 star rating.  Gee, the plot was full of holes and the characters were like cardboard cut-outs, but I highly recommend this book as a 5-Star read!  What?  Likewise, I don’t think a book necessarily merits a 2 star review just because the reader didn’t like the story – there has to be more than that.  For me, 2 star issues include a lack of readability, numerous grammatical errors, character development issues, stagnant plot and dialogue issues, etc.

The Magic Numbers?

I personally assign star ratings based on the following scale:
5 Stars – Excellent
4 Stars – Very Good
3 Stars – Good
2 Stars – Fair
1 Star – Need a bit of work

I just want to point out that 3 stars is a good review!  I think the mind-set of everyone in the industry today is that if a book doesn’t rate 4 or 5 stars it isn’t any good. I totally disagree with this line of thinking!  A good review is a good review.  Not every book you read is going to be great or blow your mind, but there are a lot of good books that will leave an impression. 

When I read a book, whether for pure enjoyment, to learn a new skill, expand my knowledge, or for a literary contest, I want to feel a connection to that book. Be it fiction or non-fiction, humorous or biographical, when I finish a book it is the connection I make with all points of the book that will determine the number of stars.

What are your thoughts on star ratings?

Originally published for Reader Views.

Sheri Hoyte Books
8650 Spicewood Springs Road, Suite 145-178 Austin, TX 78759