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1. Huzzah, huzzah

"How about a story? Spin us a yarn,” says Grams. And so Sharon Creech does in Walk Two Moons. And it’s a thumpingly good one, as the main character Sal would say.

Writers should read, we’ve been told that. They should be literary carnivores. According to author Roz Morris, “reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. …there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience.”

Elmore Leonard says writers should decide which books they like and study that author’s style. Then, you should take that author’s book or story and “break it down to see how he put it together.” The thought was echoed by Jennifer Nielsen at a recent 2014 Professional Writer’s Series event at the Pleasant Grove Library. 

Fine, I’ll do that. Since I want to write like Carol Lynch Williams, Matthew J. Kirby, and Sharon Creech, placing Walk Two Moons under the microscope is a good place to start.

What works so well in this story? Quite simply, everything. 

Creech has plot, two of them in fact. Sal is traveling with her grandparents to Lewiston, Idaho to learn why her mother abandoned the family and went there. Along the way, she shares a story of her friend, Phoebe, whose mother also has disappeared. Sal admits that uncovering Phoebe’s story was a lot like discovering her own. The road trip to find her mother becomes a journey of acceptance and understanding for Sal.

Plot involves characters. Creech delivers not just Phoebe and Sal, but a multitude of others, each richly drawn, each deserving of a book of their own. Sal’s mother had her reasons for leaving. Phoebe’s mother is multi-layered with a lot of stuff going on. Other memorable people include Sal’s father, Mrs. Cadaver, Mrs. Partridge, Ben, and Grams and Gramps. Creech seamlessly weaves all of them into the story without any sense of it being clunky. It’s most definitely a character-driven plot. But there is so much else going on in this book.

The title is from the Indian saying about not judging another man until you walk two moons in their moccasins and the metaphor is used effectively. Creech layers numerous subplots. Inspirational, secret messages, including the one about the moccasins are left on Phoebe’s doorstep and come into play throughout the story. Phoebe’s wild imagination conjures up lunatics and ax murderers. There is a kiss just waiting to happen. Creech twists and turns the story arc over upon itself revealing the multiple layers. She wraps up every loose thread and ties it with a bow. And she keeps you guessing, keeps you hoping, even though she drops hints along the way. It is masterfully told. 

To better understand the craft, I revisited this story over the summer. I read it as a writer but still managed to get choked up about it, even after sharing it multiple times with students when I was teaching.

Huzzah! Huzzah! The story works on so many levels.

What works have inspired you?

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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2. Antagonists

The next project is a rescue. This flat story that has sat in writer purgatory for a few years, waiting for motivation to do something about it, longing for the inspiration to remedy it.

I’m there ready to take it on, its finding the cure that is the problem. Thus, it is back to basics. Characters, stories are about characters. Check. Plot, protagonist wants something, antagonist keeps him from it. Wait, that could be it. I don’t have an antagonist, at least not in the traditional sense. 

John Truby (The Anatomy of Story: 22 to Becoming a Master Storyteller) is my go-to guy at a time like this. He says the hero, of course, is important. So, too, is the opponent along with the rest of the cast. Truby focuses not on the main character in isolation, but looks at all the characters as part of an interconnected web. Writer’s Digest this week had a quote by mystery writer Elmore Leonard who says “the main thing I set out to do is tell the point of view of the antagonist as much as the good guy.”

This is all well and fine, but what if your my story doesn’t have a

Hmm. Good points, but I still don’t have a traditional antagonist. There is no detective and no criminal to pursue, my Harry Potter has no Voldemort. My protagonist has only his own shortcomings to trip over. Truby doesn’t directly address such a thing. He does illustrate his points with story examples from movies. The likes of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, andTootsie, don’t have traditional antagonists. 

Another valuable resource, KM Weiland, discusses an “antagonistic force” and says, “nowhere is it written that your story has to have a bad guy (or girl, as the case may be).” She says there are several non-human antagonists. They include:
-Animal - King Kong and Jaws comes to mind
-Self - the age old existential quandary of man as his own worst enemy in which the MC must overcome his own problems before he can deal with the external one
-Setting - survival stories in which the hero goes up against nature. Cast Away is a good example. Weather related tales are an offshoot of this.
-Society - dystopia is the extreme example here, but simpler themes in which the protagonist faces poverty or inequalities of some sort
-Supernatural forces - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be of this sort.
-Technology - a lot of sci-fi uses overarching technological forces as antagonists.

Non-human antagonists can be anything that throws obstacles in the way or the hero getting what he or she wants. They could be a thing, an idea, or any inanimate object that the protagonist must overcome to reach the end goal of the story. As long as you have conflict (to have a story is a must) you have an antagonist.

Weiland says one mustn’t limit themselves to just one antagonist and most stories will use a combination of several.

Think Sharnado.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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3. Writing Is Like Chili

I love chili.

I love eating chili. I love smelling chili. I love cooking chili. I know a thing or two about chili, I like to think. In fact, I know enough about chili to know better than to call myself an expert, because there's always going to be somebody else who is a bigger expert, even if only in his or her own mind. That's because we chili-heads are passionate about our chili and can argue for hours about which of the many styles of chili is the only kind of chili that counts. It's kind of like pizza or barbecue that way.

Or like writing. A lot like writing, actually.

When I make chili, it's a long-term, complicate procedure. Why? Because I throw in a ton of ingredients to try to achieve a complex, interesting flavor. Chili doesn't have to be complicated. There are very easy recipes that satisfy a chili craving just fine.

But when I cook it, it's an event. If not for the consumers, then for the chef. Because I never make it the same way twice. People have asked me for my recipe, but I don't have one. I just do stuff.

I've been known to combine as many as 12 different kinds of chile, as well as other spices and ingredients, in a single pot of chili, because each ingredient adds a unique element to the complex formula.

One of the most important elements for a good pot of chili, I believe, is time. When I want to go all-out on a pot of chili, I think about it for a while. I let it cook in my mind for a while while I figure out what this particular batch is going to be made of.

There's a lot to consider. I consider the chili I want to make, first of all, the experience I want to create for my own benefit as a chili artist. I'd love to cook exactly the chili I imagine. See, I like my chili hot. Hot is not the right word. Scorching. Explosive. Intense. Even violent. I want the chili to be an experience as much as a meal. But searing heat alone is boring. It is only effective when combines with those complex flavors I mentioned. Problem is, if I make it exactly like I would for myself, I'll be the only one who eats it and I'll be stuck with a big pot of chili, because a small one is not possible. I have to think about my audience. I have to tone down the heat and be somewhat moderate in any experimentation because, ultimately, I want to see my audience enjoy and appreciate the end result of all the work I put into it.

So, once I figure out what I'm going to put in my chili, I start making it. Making a good pot of chili is an exercise in constant tweaking. I want to get the flavors just right, which means constant tasting and adjusting, realizing that with every adjustment, the end result will be different than it seems the moment I make the change, because the flavors change and deepen during cooking.

Which brings me back to time. To meld all those flavors requires time. I believe in cooking my best chili all day. Again, there are plenty of recipes that can be prepared quickly and many of those are tasty. But if I cook mine quickly, all those spices will still be separate because they need time to come together for the rich, deep, flavor I crave. It's as much about patience as it about the right mix of ingredients.

Of course, not every chili is as successful as every other. That's the risk of making it differently every time as I try to learn to be a better chili cook. I can accept that. I don't think I've ever made a bad chili, and my audience has always seemed appreciative, but as the person who made it, I can be tough on myself, dissatisfied by the smallest things.

Finally, I want my chili to stay with my audience after they've eaten it. Sometimes, people remember it as something that, if not life-changing, at least improved their lives for a little while. Other times, the chili stays with them in other ways, which probably don't need to be discussed here. My chili has sometimes kept me awake all night, contemplating each and every ingredient. If you know what I mean.

And that, you see, is how writing and chili are very much the same.

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4. You Have to Write Crap

I’ve discovered over the years how much being a teacher’s pet was detrimental to my writing habits. The majority of my teachers from third grade on all fawned over and praised my writing even when I put little to no effort into what I turned in. This quickly taught me that I didn’t have to put effort into my writing. I could write whatever I wanted at the very last minute, not even bother to do a quick edit, and pass with flying colors.
College changed that a little bit. Surrounded by other people who were capable of stringing two good sentences together, I started to have to actually pay attention to what I wrote and do a least some cursory editing. Even then, I found I could get away with a lot.
But, when it comes to my novel writing I know that if I have any hope of even trying to get published, I need to write something that will hold up against some of the best writers in the world—at least enough to be placed in the same bookstore. I have to admit it—more often than not that idea totally paralyzes me. I was trained from too young of an age that I didn’t need to put any effort into my writing to be successful (in the classroom), so the idea that I could put all my effort into my writing and still not be good enough makes the idea of trying almost too much.
In school, you write to please your teacher. You write each essay with your professor in your head, taking what you’ve learned from their lectures about their opinions and preferences and you write accordingly. That’s what I’m used to doing.
When it comes to writing my novel, I’ve learned that I can’t do that. I have to forget the possible editor, agent, or bookstore shopper who may one day read these words. Thinking about them—at least in my first draft—cripples my writing. Whatever I do get on the page is stifled and self-conscious. So, I have to forget them. I have to write as though I’m the only person who is ever going to care about what is written. I have to just let the words come out of me and not analyze them, not worry about how good or bad they are, but just enjoy the process of getting them on the page. That’s the only way I can ever get my first drafts written.
As a student, I wrote without caring because I knew I could get away with it. I knew my least effort would be good enough in my high school where people struggled to understand the function of a paragraph. As an amateur novelist, I have to write the same way because that’s the only way I can write. That’s the way I’ve learned how.
Afterwards, I can deal with cutting out all the crap.

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5. Mg or YA?

My “next” project that I’ve been working on forever has been giving me fits. One of the dilemmas is what age to make the characters, and therefore, who the target audience will.

I’m an MG kind of a guy. I’ve spent a career teaching fifth and sixth graders. I know how they operate, what shenanigans they think they can get away with, and the cocky attitudes they employ to pull it off. And I’m smart enough to realize they probably got away with a few things I wasn’t aware of. They’re as capable as teenagers of scheming wild ideas, just not as aware of when the silly notion won’t work.

Earlier this week, Julie Daines said to listen to your gut, our writer’s intuition that is our friend should we choose to listen. I think my friend is telling me to take it MG. But the first time I did that, I overshot my audience. What to do, what to do?

Then a timely article arrived this month from Writer’s Digest.  In “The Key Differences Between Middle Grade Vs. Young Adult,” agent Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency helps clarify the two. She sees a lot of queries of manuscripts with “an MG/YA identity crisis.” She rejects many of these simply because the writer did not know the basics of the age group they thought they were writing for.

In a nutshell, the differences boil down to a few areas:
Age of readers
Middle-grade does not mean middle school. MG is for readers ages 8-12 and 13-18 for YA. While there is no “tween” category, middle school libraries tend to have shelves for both. There are upper and lower MG as there is in YA.
Age of protagonists
Kids “read up” so your characters should be on the higher end of the age of the readers. Thus a 10-year old hero would be ideal for a lower MG, 12 or even 13 for upper MG, and 17 or 18 for YA. Your YA character can’t yet be in college.
Manuscript length
30,000-50,000 words is the norm for MG while YA starts at 50,000 and goes up to 75,000. These are not set in stone, but a good length to shoot for. Fantasy novels can exceed that due to the world-building necessary.
YA is usually written in first person while third person is common for MG.
There is a difference in what is allowable in each. While there is no profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality in works for younger readers, they are acceptable for YA,  the exception being erotica. In a recent Writer’s Digest webinar, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency says a few “Hells” and “damns” are okay for MG, but the harsher curses should be avoided. MG heroes can have romance, but it should be limited to a crush or first kiss. Generally, MG novels end on a hopeful note while that isn’t necessary of YA works. Marie Lamba says there are gatekeepers between you and your middle-grade audience - parents, teachers, librarians - who may discourage the book. That ultimately could affect a publishers’s choice to print it. This isn’t as much an issue for YA, though gratuitous sex, numerous F-bombs, and extensive violence could mean the book may sit in fewer schools.
This is a biggie, the one I missed when I originally wrote the book. MG focuses on friends, family, and the character’s immediate world and their relationship to it; character react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection. YA characters discover how they fit in the world beyond their friends and family; they reflect more on what happens and analyze the meaning of things. Jennifer Laughran says that MG kids test boundaries and have adventures “finding their place within a system” whereas YA teens do the same, while “busting out of the system” and find themselves.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Once you have the writing chops of J.K. Rowling, you, too, can write a 200,000 word tale. But even Harry didn’t kiss Ginny until they were teenagers.

So I’m listening, gut, my quiet friend. I do wish you would speak louder sometimes.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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6. When Stories Collide

Last week I wrote about finding stories through the simple act of taking a walk. I said there are stories all around us. All we have to do is open our senses and find them.

Two days later, a possible story hit me in the form of an unusual person acting in a slightly unusual way. Now, I was in San Francisco on business, a town where unusual people are all around, but this one man and the way he was dressed and the way he moved through a crowded street struck me as though he were from another time and place.

I've already been thinking about setting a story in San Francisco. I grew up near there, and I spend a lot of time there, and I enjoy studying the city's relatively short but very interesting history. I was a little hesitant, though, because one of my writing group partners had recently set her own story in San Francisco. I didn't want to step on her territory.

Of course, San Francisco has many stories. Many have already been told, and there would be many more, and my story would be nothing like my friend's. So I let myself play with this idea in my head. I often have to let an idea simmer in my mind for months, even years, before a story emerges, so I was letting it hang around and occupy a part of my brain where I would leave it alone. No need to bother it. It's not hurting anybody.

That story idea was just a situation, a what if. Many of my ideas are. The what if itself isn't a story. There's no real conflict or plot, and only sketches of characters who have not formed themselves yet.

The new idea is a character. Who was that man I saw? What was he doing? Why did he act in such an unusual way? Why was he in such a hurry?

I saw him on Friday, and he's been haunting my mind for the last five days. I was thinking about him last night, wondering if he could fit into the situation I was already contemplating. At first I thought he could, but as I continued to think about it, it felt like a square peg in a round hole. That's not necessarily bad. Many great stories are about a peg that doesn't fit a hole.

But this felt forced. Two story ideas had collided, and I didn't see a good match. Combining these ideas could spoil the story I was contemplating if I tried to include too many things.

So I thought about it some more. The situation idea I had came about because I wanted to write about a specific time in the city's history, and this what if question would let me do so while combining it with an even earlier idea I had been contemplating. I had forgotten about that. Two stories had already collided. Maybe that's why the new character didn't fit.

But then a situation for the new character popped into my head. So now I was dealing with four ideas. Looking back at the earlier ideas, they were really just an excuse to use this city that I love so much in a story. So why couldn't I take some of the ideas from the old idea and adapt them to the new one? That's when things began to click. Maybe this collision of ideas wouldn't be a disaster after all.

I'm already working on a story, making revisions that I hope will bring me to a finished manuscript soon. It's difficult to juggle two stories, especially when it's already hard enough to find consistent writing time. But maybe I need to take a break for a day or two and see if there is really a story in this new character I found and his collision with a previous setting and situation.

When I have a new idea, I have a number of things that I do. The first is, I jot it down and let my mind work on it. That has worked for me before, but often the idea cools down and fades away. If it does that, I probably wasn't passionate enough about it to spend the time required to turn it into something.

Sometimes, especially if the idea is a scene, I write it in detail. Sometimes, that fires my imagination and turns the ephemeral thought into something tangible. I've shared a few of these with my group. When that happens, I store the idea in my mind and let it work itself out. But other times, I don't feel the excitement. I don't find the story that has to be told. I put those away in my files, and scan through them once in a while when I want to find a story and see if maybe it grabs me again. It usually doesn't. The heat of the idea is gone.

And sometimes I'll whiteboard or mindmap the idea to see if the rest of the story appears. That has worked for me before. I end up with characters and conflicts and plot points. In other words, a story.

I don't know yet what I'll do with this new idea. I'm thinking I'll make some time to write a scene based on the moment when this new character entered my life. I'll see if he grabs ahold of some of the other ideas he collided with and takes them for himself. I know there's a story in this character. The question is whether he wants me to tell it.

I'll spend some time with him and find out.

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7. Pacing: Listen to Your Gut

By Julie Daines

I'm not much of an outliner. I've tried it before, and it just doesn't seem to work for me. I wish it did because it seems like a much better way to write. But no. For me, I just can't.

So, I'm constantly asked, how do you work out the pacing of your novel?

Good question.

I am now going to divulge my secret and never-before-spoken-out-loud trick.

I listen to my gut.

Here's how it works:

I'm writing a scene. It's going great. The dialogue is fun, the action intense, and the conflict building. Then suddenly, I get this wrenching, panicky feeling right in the middle of my stomach. It says, "Oh my gosh, this is getting too long. You're dragging it out. Something new has to happen. You've got to move on." My blood races and my fingers shake unsteadily on the keyboard.

"MOVE ON!" it screams.

I listen. I wrap it up and move on. On to the next scene and the next plot point.

Is this a scientific method? No. Will you find it on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat beat list? No. But it works--for me.

Our guts--our writer's intuition--can often be our best friend if we take the time to listen. Feed back from critique partners, from beta readers, pacing, character names, character reactions, almost any part of our novel will speak to us.

Take a moment, consider carefully all sides, and listen to your gut. It is your friend.

When have--or when do--your writerly instincts kick in and help you?

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8. Character webs

The “next” project is one I’ve been working on forever. 

Okay, not forever, but for 30 years or more. It was an MG story conceived, then started, then abandoned (but not forgotten). It was the one that got me into writing. I spent a few years on it and as I sent it out, editors and agents pointed out some glaring issues with it. By then, not only was I into a new project, but had become weary of it and had no more energy to devote to it. 

This year I brought it out again, blew off the dust, repackaged it as a YA, and workshopped it at WIFYR. There I was struck by an inner voice, perhaps the ten-year old stuck in my head, that said I’m an MG writer, not a YA. Okay, back to working it for younger readers. 

Still, the story is missing something, no matter what audience it reaches. 

Imitation of those who do it well seemed like a good strategy, so I’ve been re-reading exemplary MG stories.
In A Clockwork Three, Matthew J. Kirby gives his three main characters something to work for then expertly raises the stakes making it harder for them to achieve it. Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons is a richly woven tale about Salamanca, a girl searching for answers to the disappearance of her mother. A supporting cast of characters are among the reason this book resonates. Solveig in Kirby’s Icefall also involves a compelling protagonist who rides on the shoulders of strong supporting characters. The lesson here: stories are about people. 

I also revisited John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. He says writers need to focus not just on the hero, but the whole web of characters that help define him. Most writers start by listing traits of the MC, write a tale about him, then force a change in the end. Truby says this is wrong, that the hero does not act alone in a vacuum. The most important step in developing your MC is to connect and compare them to others. This forces you to distinguish the hero in unique ways. As in life, we are affected not just by our families and co-workers, but by the idiot that cut you off in traffic, the writer that brought you to tears with her prose, or the politician whose ideology you disagree with. How we react defines our character. The heroes in our stories are no less so connected to the web of characters in our stories.

Truby provides a writing exercise to help build your character web. It is worth looking into. 

Okay, “next” project. I’ve got my eye on you. I don’t know if you’re going YA or MG, but you are going to have some interesting people carrying you along.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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9. "The Giver," The Godmother

I was on a recent business trip and wandered into the airport bookstore. Always dangerous. I can rarely keep my purchase contained to just one book, even when I'm traveling. This time I was able to squeeze out with one literary magazine, a terribly thick nonfiction book, and "The Giver" by Lois Lowry.

I picked up "The Giver" because it had the gold Newberry Medal Award sticker on its cover and a fascinating illustration of an old man (not to mention the bare tree limbs that also look like crackles of lightning that merge with the old man's scraggly beard). It wasn't until after I read the back cover that I noticed that next to these copies of the book was another grouping with the same title but a cover that had the two hot teens on it with the blurb "Now a major motion picture!" 

Being the book snob that I am, I almost put it back. I just don't like jumping into a book because it is already popular or because a movie is coming out. In fact, it almost ruins it for me. I like to find a book and love it all on its own long before someone tries to ruin it by making a movie of it (which I will inevitably get super excited to see, then afterward complain about all the details the screen version got wrong). And I never, if at all possible, buy a copy of a book that touts "now a major motion picture."

"The Giver" was a fairly thin novel, so when I settled into my flight I pulled it out first. What piqued my interest the most was that I knew absolutely nothing about it other than what the lovely jacket with the old man on it had hinted. I love going into books like that, don't you? When there are no expectations, no preconceived ideas, no pre-knowledge of plot lines.

As I got into it I saw that it was another dystopian YA book, but it was well done. Interesting. Held my attention. But the focus was a bit narrow and it ended somewhat abruptly and left me a little unfulfilled. I couldn't help but compare it to "Matched," "Hunger Games," and "Divergence." It had the same feel, but not quite the complexity of the others. 

On the other hand, it felt ... clean. Clean like contemporary furniture or modern architecture. The plot line was direct, not overly embellished, and structurally sound, with a beauty coming from the complexity of its spare but perfect balance.

"The Giver" felt like the grandmother, the genesis, of all the others. The forbearer.

When I got home I did some research on Lois Lowry and I found that she is indeed considered the godmother of this type of book. I also found out that she wrote three subsequent novels of a similar vein with different characters, and then a fourth that wove all of their stories together. But the most interesting point was that she wrote these four books not as a preconceived series, but as what I can only describe as sister-books, related but individual, between many other novels and publications over some 20 years.

This may all be old news to many of you, but it was a delicious revelation to me.

I'm glad I found "The Giver," in spite of the fact that I must give credit to the movie for bringing even this Newberry Award edition to my attention. Because without the film, the book wouldn't have been in the airport for me to find.

I'm eager now to pick up "The Giver"'s mates and, I must admit, I'm curious about the movie. 

But I'll be sure to read all the books before seeing the film, so that I have plenty to complain about at dinner afterward.

Have you been moved by "The Giver"? Eager for or dreading the movie adaptation? 
What book has recently surprised you?

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10. Take a Hike and Find a Story

If you're looking for story ideas, one way to generate them is to get out and take a walk.

It helps if you can walk in an area you don't already know by heart, but anywhere you go, there are stories to be found. Keep your eyes open. That kind of strange building on the corner? What could that have been? Not necessarily in reality, but in your imagination. Are the decorations possibly symbols of some heroic or diabolical nature?

And what about that person you just passed on the street, the man who looked like he didn't want to be seen? Why? What's he up to? Is he hiding? What could he be hiding from.

Keep your ears open too. Maybe you'll hear a snippet of a conversation. The other day, I walked past two guys. One of them was saying, "The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original, that was a really--." That's all I heard. How would he have finished the sentence? Why was he talking about it? Could he have been an alien laughing at the way Earthlings view men from outer space?

If you happen to be where there are fountains or statues, look at them. Really look at them. Ask yourself about their expressions, what they are up too. Like this fountain I saw on Sunday:

Why are they so happy? Why is the child in the background almost peaceful when one of her companions looks like this:

I also happen to know that this little park is the site of the Huntington mansion, which burned in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The only mansion that survived on this part of Nob Hill is in the background of this picture. Are these children dancing to celebrate the open space that was created by the destruction of a great house that was meant to be a symbol of not only wealth but superiority? Are they happy the other place survived? Or are they enjoying a brief moment of San Francisco sunshine? Maybe something exciting just happened in their lives.

There are stories everywhere. If you open your senses and explore with the objective of finding the stories that are around you, you'll find one.

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11. Submitting

A year ago, I had an MS ready to start pushing to agents/editors when the wonderful Carol Lynch Williams offered to look it over. She found issues. Since then, my writer’s group has gone over the thing again, cleaning and tightening. This week I finished it, wrote a query and submitted to an editor. Then appears an article on submitting.

Okay, maybe it came out with it before. It’s been a busy month. The editor at WIFYR gave us until the end of July to get anything sent off to her. I’ve been cramming to get the story in a shape to send off, so emails have not been looked at.

The article, “Submission Tip Checklist: Double-Check These 16 Things Before Sending Your Book Out” was written by Chuck Sambuchino who is somehow associated with Writer’s Digest. I subscribe to his mailings and a link to the article was embedded in another piece.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to follow most of the suggestions Sambuchino offers. I failed with the that says to make a final check on Twitter or their site to make sure they are still open for submissions. Another embedded article caught my attention, “Query Letter Pet Peeves - Agents Speak,” also by Sambuchino.

He says its not just a matter of what to write in the query letter, but what not to write. Among the irritants of agents:
-Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc., does not like vagueness. If you can’t tell her enough about the novel in the query then she will reject it.
-Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc., mirrors the same. Some authors spend too much time on their bios without presenting essential story details.
-Linda Epstein of Jennifer De Chiara Literary reminds us that agenting and publishing are businesses and the query should be a business letter that should be professional and taken seriously.
-Nicole Resciniti of Seymour Agency agrees. We should treat the query as a job interview. It should be professional and concise and the writer should know their craft and understand the market.
-Bree Ogden of D4EO Literary wants to easily know what the manuscript is about. “It shouldn’t be an Easter egg hunt for the pot line,” she says.

Not included in the above are things such as glaring grammatical or spelling errors, mass emailings sent to a dozen or so other agents, and misspelling of the agent’s name or agency. Those seem rather obvious. Most of the agents in the article mentioned statements that tell the agent the story is “the greatest,” or a blockbuster or masterpiece. 

At WIFYR, agent Amy Jameson of A + B Works shared some of her treasured queries not to write. They included the above mistake extolling the brilliance of their writing. One simply included a picture of the writer. While stunningly handsome, there was no mention of his story specifics. Amy rejected it.

Dang it. And to think I just blew a bunch of cash on a studio photographer.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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12. Lessons from the Yard

Let me tell you the story of a fountain. First, you should know that I love water. I mean LOVE water. But I live in a desert valley. I had this idea many years ago that I should add a water feature to my yard. And a friend had one for sale. Perfect.

So. I bought the fountain. It's made from a special resin stuff that looks like real granite and weighs like it, too. This fountain stands about 4 feet tall and has three tiers. It's fabulous.

My friend didn't have a working pump. No problem. I bought one. My hubby even installed an outdoor outlet so I could plug it in. I put it next to our garage in the back yard, where I could enjoy it from my patio or my dining room table. Three problems became immediately apparent. 1) It was hard to find the perfect power for the pump. One pumped the water so hard it just splashed all over the yard. Another was so little that it created barely a trickle. 2) My dog loves water, too. In fact, she drank out of the fountain and played in the water reservoir, thereby using up all the water, leaving the fountain dry. 3) I had little kids at the time and little time to go out to the yard to fill the reservoir, keep the dogs out of trouble, or remember to turn off the fountain when the weather got cold. Ruined the pump. Therefore, we unplugged the fountain until further notice.

The troublesome dogs.

But did I give up on it? Not at all. I always knew I would find the perfect fit for the fountain. Years later, when I tore up my front lawn and replaced it with a water-thrifty landscape, I decided to move the fountain out front. That solved one problem: the dogs don't go in the front yard. But, I also don't have an outdoor outlet in the front. I had a plan, though. I'd get a solar powered water pump and eliminate the need for electricity altogether.

It took a while--read: several years--to find a solar powered fountain pump. I could find solar powered pond pumps and other almost-fountain pumps. Finally, I found one. But I had another problem. The solar panel had a wire that only stretched about five feet, and I had placed the fountain under a giant elm tree, so I couldn't get the solar panel to a spot with enough sun throughout the day to power the pump for more than a couple of hours.

So we moved the fountain to a spot by the front door, which gets much more sunlight than under the tree. Problem solved. Bonus: get to enjoy the fountain every time I go in and out of the house.

But. . .turns out the solar panel wasn't really that powerful and even with more sunshine, it still didn't pack enough punch for me. Hubby noted that the thing weighed far too much for us to move anymore, and I would have to find a way to make it work in that location. Solution: buy a more powerful solar panel/powered pump. Again, it took a while to find one, and when I finally did, the tree had overgrown most of the front yard, blocking the available sun and limiting the solar power.

Okay. I'm not a quitter. We'd go back to electricity, so hubby found a way to run a power cord through a window with a weather protective box to cover the plug. I bought a new electric pump. Beautiful. Almost there.

Almost? The electrical works. The pump is the right power. The dogs can't bother it. What now? Little tweaks. The water tube sometimes falls down inside the fountain. The reservoir dries up in the 100-degree heat. Sometimes leaves and gunk block up the water intake filter in the pump. These are small problems. I keep tweaking them, because when the fountain is running, I can sit on my living room couch and hear the sound of water through the front window. When I go outside to dig in the dirt, the water trickles through and I can pretend I live along a creek. And now my kids are grown, so I have the ease of going outside to tend the fountain whenever I want, without the distraction of diaper changes, bloodied knees, and arguments over who gets the last popsicle.

Where I pretend I am when my fountain is running.

What does this have to do with writing? Creative thinking. Persistence. Revision. Problem solving. Working until you get it right. Making dreams and goals happen, no matter what.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

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13. Summer Doldrums

It's hard to keep up our writing routines this time of year. Kids are home. The outdoors beckons. We take vacations. The heat makes us lazy. There's a lot of yard work, and we have to deal with all that stuff from our gardens and fruit trees. We have add things like summer camps and similar scouting and church activities. It's a wonder we can get any writing done at all, if we do.

So what can we do about it? How do we keep from destroying our writing habits? Here are a few ideas.

Reset Expectations

Maybe you can't write for an hour every day. How about twenty minutes three times a week? Whatever your schedule allows, try to do it. You might keep up your usual routine, but any kind of routine at all is better than a summer of no writing at all.

Mini Retreats

Do you have friends who write? Are you part of a writing group? Sometimes you can jump start your writing by getting together with other writers. Meet wherever you can, even if only for a couple hours, and write away. You can spend some of the time socializing or discussing writing problems, but make sure you leave plenty of time to write. One tip: don't get together in somebody's home. That's not going to work for the host. Unless, of course, there's nobody else at home and so it's quiet and comfortable with minimal distractions.

Prioritize Your Writing Days

Set regular writing days and decide that you won't do anything else until you've written to your goal, whatever that is. Make sure your family knows that you are unavailable for that time, but that you'll do whatever they want and whatever else needs to be done when you've finished. This works best, of course, if you don't have small children and you have a somewhat private writing area. You might have to start early or stay up late, whatever works best for you, to avoid all those other things you need to do. You might not be able to do this every day during, but if you have scheduled writing days and your family understands that you need that writing time and that it's your time, it can work.

Just Accept It

Finally, you might just have to accept that summer is not a good time for you to write. If you have young kids who are out of school or other summertime distractions, you might have to take the summer off, or accept that your production will take a nose dive. If you're in this situation, just accept it. Don't feel guilty. You have priorities, and some of those might be higher than writing. There's no shame in that. You haven't failed. You're doing what's most important to you during those months. It's OK. It can actually be a good thing. Sometimes it helps your story if you can set it aside for a while and let it simmer. Your brain is still working, and you'll come back to the work with fresh eyes when school starts. Those fresh eyes will help you identify weak places you didn't see when you were in the heat of creativity.


These are just a few suggestions. Maybe something else works for you. The point is, if you need a different routine in the summer, or if you're not able to write as much, it might just be the way things are for the life you want to live. Summer won't last forever.

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14. Pinterest and Your Novel

By Julie Daines

The other day I had the most wonderful surprise. A reader read my book, Unraveled, and loved it so much she created a Pinterest board for it with a few pictures that sparked her imagination about certain elements of the story.

I can't believe I didn't think of that. What a great way to share fun visuals with readers. I started thinking how Pinterest could be used as a promotional tool, as a forum to draw readers together to share something they love, or as an idea generator while drafting.

Here is a link to her awesome Pinterest board. It's only got seven pictures, but it captures the novel perfectly.

I'm not always the best at using all the tools at hand when it comes to writing and promoting.

I'd love to hear ideas from all of you on ways you've seen Pinterest--or any of the social media platforms--used in any part of the writing process.

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15. Another WIFYR come and gone

James Dashner, Carol Lynch Williams, Lisa Mangnum, Ann Cannon, agents, and an editor. Another fantastic WIFYR is in the books.

I don’t know how Carol Williams manages to pull this magical week off every year, but she does. And keeps up on her personal writing. And plays Mom to her five daughters. The lady is amazing. She can dance, too.

Ann Cannon was awesome again. We had a baker’s dozen in our workshop this year. When the enrollment looked small, Ann had assigned 20 pages to share. Then one of the instructors dropped out and our class absorbed some of those writers and critiquing that many pages from so many people became a task. Certainly not in negative way. There is something rewarding about working with other writers, all helping each other lift their craft.

One of my favorite presenters was Lisa Mangum. She had a session on pitching your work and another on reader grabbing first lines and openings. For pitching, it depends on the situation. She touched on the tradition 30 second “elevator” pitch, but sometimes you may not have that much time. At a book signing at Costco, for example, you may have only two seconds to interest someone. She gave suggestions for boiling down your book to it’s essence for situations like that.

John Cusick, agent for Greenhouse Literary Agency and a fiction writer on his own, gave an inspiring presentation. One of his tricks for staying on task during his writing moments is a timer program that does not allow email or internet interruptions. As far as pushing yourself to write, he said, nobody cares if you don’t finish your novel. I care.

Those were just a few of the many intriguing and energizing moments. Start stashing away your nickels and quarters now because Carol will be bringing this conference back again next June.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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16. Trolling

I'm not writing today to share advice. I'm asking you to share it with me (well, us). I have to admit that as a teacher of journalism, published journalist, playwright, and personal historian, I am pretty comfortable with my writing skills. Hey, there is always more to learn, but I feel like I have solid footing there.

What I am truly, desperately, profoundly lacking in is even the desire to query when it comes to some of my children's stories. I am so fond of them that I'm almost terrified to let them out into the world—the cliche overly protective mother. And thus, without having had to practice, I am still not happy with or comfortable with writing query letters.

Yes, I have the books. I know the structure. I know the rules and recommendations. But I would love to hear what you, Utah children's writers, my fellows in the trenches, have learned from your own experiences with query letters.

What was the best advice you received on writing queries? How do you decide whom to query first? Do you dare "menage a queri" (you know, in multiples)? What little tricks have helped you write or even want to write these nasty little oversimplified descriptions of your precious darlings? (Ahem.) That is to say, when staring down the Writer's Market, where do you focus your efforts?

When it comes to queries, what has worked, or conversely, what would would you never ever do again? Give us your best, worst, funniest query stories.

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17. Pantsing aka Free Writing

It wasn’t until I went to the last LTUE in Provo that I first heard the term “pantsing,” short for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I attended the panel on the topic and found it to be one of the most liberating writing panels I’ve ever sat in on.
I’ve known for a while that writers pretty much divide themselves into two camps: outliners and free writers. Both camps have their pros and cons. Outliners have the big advantage of being organized in how they approach their writing, so they know exactly what’s going to happen before they write it and they don’t have to do as much rewriting and editing later. Free writers, on the other hand, seem to have no idea what they want to write until they start writing. They just get words on the page, and only later do they go back and make sense of it. This often allows their writing to be more organic and natural, whereas outliners can be more confined by their structure (emphasis on can). However, free writers have to put in at least ten times the work that an outliner does, because they have to go back and redo everything many, many times after their initial creative word-vomit session.
I’m definitely a free writer. Many, many times I have wished I could be an outliner. It just sounds so much easier. It’s such a struggle for me to define in advance what my characters are going to do. One of the writers on the panel at LTUE put it this way: pantsers often have the characters of a story come to us first, and we just don’t know what we want to do with them yet. We like letting the characters “decide” for themselves, which basically just means we prefer to figure that out as we go, using the character we know in our head as the guideline.
There were many times that I felt like maybe I was less of a real writer because outlining was so hard for me. That’s why that LTUE panel had me feeling so validated. I realized how many other writers there are out there who are like me, and yet are still successful. I realized it was ok to be a pantser, as long as I recognized both the benefits and pitfalls to this method of writing, and adjusted accordingly.
Here are a few important tips for successful pantsing (hopefully I’ll get good at following all of these one day):
·         You CANNOT edit as you go. If you let yourself go back and fix things before you finish your first draft—you will never finish that first draft. Also, you never know when something you went back and changed might have turned out to be just what you needed after you finish. Leave it alone, finish your first draft, no matter how crappy, and leave the editing for later.
·         Don’t be afraid to redo everything. This is hard for me sometimes. Not only do I get attached my writing, but I also get lazy. Sometimes I look at it and think, “This scene is already written. It’s decent. It could be a lot better. My whole story would drastically improve if I let myself completely redo the whole first half, but it just sounds like so much work.” In the end, you just have to face the monster. The biggest pitfall of pantsing is you have to go back and drastically rewrite everything after your first draft in order to end up with a decent manuscript. As a pantser, you can’t be afraid of how much extra work you give yourself because of your chosen method of writing, or it won’t work for you.
·         Make an outline as you write. This would have saved me so much effort if I had figured this out from the beginning. Though we pantsers never outline before we write, we need to outline after we write. After every writing session, update a separate document with chapters or page numbers listed and what is going there. Make it detailed and keep it updated, or you will be very sad later on. It helps so much to know what you’ve written and where for when you have to go back, rewrite, and rearrange. The truth is, just because you’re a free-spirited pantser doesn’t mean you get to be totally disorganized. Often times, you’re actually just making your outline by writing the whole first draft first. By the time you’re done, your outline should be ready for you to work with for when you start over again—and make it all make sense this time.

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18. The writing habit

Taking time away from writing is hard sometimes. Getting back into it is even harder.

The year has been a productive one for me. I found that if I log my writing time, I am more encouraged to keep at it each day. Using an Excel sheet, I’ve recorded the number of minutes on a particular writing task, and the same for the next one. At the end of the day, I’ve totaled the time and converted to hours. Each daily count was added and then averaged. For the first half of the year I’ve been spending just a tad over four hours a day on some writing activity. Not all of it was actual writing. Some was fulfilling WIFYR assistant duties or meeting with my critique group or attending a writing presentation. But still, four hours is four hours.

The day after WIFYR, my family whisked me away to Europe. What was I to do about my writing? I was in a groove and was quite enjoying a regular dose of scribbling down words. Plus, I didn’t want to mess up my daily writing average. Yet, with the activities planned, I could tell early on my laptop was not going to get much use. Add to the fact it would be a nuisance to haul around, I chose give myself a break from it altogether.

And that was okay. I missed it, and thought about my works-in-progress, and spent a few minutes in my characters’ heads, but I managed to live without writing.

Now that I’m home, I’ve been surprised at how slow it has been to get back into the swing of things. Blame it on jet lag or whatever, I haven’t been productive. I can’t get motivated to open the laptop and when I do, the story I was so enthused about a few weeks back seems impossible to resume.

Fortunately, the habit is beginning to return. Two SCBWI events this week has helped. The editor at WIFYR gave us ’til the end of July to submit to her. My writer’s group is providing a boot to the backside to help that deadline become a reality. I’m a writer and words insist on being written. 

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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19. How Marriage is Like Writing

 This week I’m a little caught up in a very important milestone—my 30th wedding anniversary. First of all, I can’t believe I’m that old. And second, I’m pretty proud to have made it this far, seeing as how lots of my friends have been divorced. So even though I want to focus on writing, I’m distracted by this momentous occasion. So I thought, why not combine the two?

I've compared writing to gardening, parenting, and a host of other long-term occupations. Marriage has many similarities, as well.

Like, it’s hard. That’s kind of cheating; everything really worth doing is hard. But I think a lot of people enter into marriage in that deliriously happy stage of love where everything is sunshine and roses and they can never imagine how hard it will be at times. It’s all so easy in those new love moments. Writing is the same. I know hundreds of folks who think writing is the easiest thing in all the world. I mean, everyone does it, right? Facebook, twitter, everywhere you look, people are writing. Which is great. But they aren’t really writing that well, nor are they writing with a book length manuscript in mind. Nor do they have to revise (although sometimes they really should) or work with an editor or make sure their characters are consistent. Writing is just as hard as any other work, more so than some. No one would say playing the violin in the New York Philharmonic is so easy anyone could do it. Really good writers work equally hard on our craft as professional musicians or professionals of any kind. Because it’s hard.

Successful marriages don’t just happen. They are in need of constant attention and dedication. Same for writing (and any artistic form). You have to practice it, do it consistently, pay attention to it, and work on it. You don’t sit down, write one draft, and call it good. Just as you don’t recite your vows, buy a house, and that’s it. You have to think about it all the time. I’m constantly writing in my head, even when I’m not at the computer or with a pen in hand. I’m always asking my characters how they would react to a certain situation. I’m communicating with my work. Just as I communicate with my husband all the time about various things big and little in our lives.

Marriage is a partnership, and sometimes others are needed to help the marriage thrive: counselors, friends, family. Writing is a collaborative process, in the end. Sure, we all sit at our desks and write as solitary beings. But to bring that work to the world requires the help of critique friends, editors, agents, production staff, sales staff, etc. It may feel like a lone wolf profession, but even self-publishing authors should seek the help and support of all those people in order to produce the best work possible.

Delayed gratification is a hallmark of both a successful marriage and a successful writing life. Or, as the Rolling Stones sing, “You can’t always get what you want.” You know what I’m talking about. There’s rejection, over and over again. Even when your work is acquired, there are often years of work still ahead before it hits the shelves. Marriage works the same way. It’s not a finished product, ever.  It’s always in a state of revision or work in progress. You don’t just get married and have the white picket fence dream at once. Sometimes you live in your parents’ basement until you can afford a house. Or sometimes you put off having children until you are done with graduate school. Or sometimes you never get the “dream house” you have always wanted. Sometimes you drive a broken down car instead of a new one in order to send your kids to college. Life is full of delayed gratification in order to achieve a goal or a dream. I wish more writers understood this. New writers, myself included all those many years ago, are so eager and anxious to get published that they send work out that isn't even near ready for publication. Delay that gratification and work on the writing. The rewards are great in the end.

In marriage, as in writing, it is totally acceptable to celebrate every small step toward success. Our first anniversary, we celebrated enormously. One whole year. Wow! The first time I got paid to write, I was so happy. Yes, celebrate each milestone, knowing that many more will come your way if you keep working hard, putting in the time and energy, focusing on growth and renewal, and waiting for the right time to move ahead. 

by Neysa CM Jensen
(in Boise, Idaho)

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20. Holiday

All work and no play makes Jack (or Jill) a dull boy (or girl). It probably makes for uninspiring writing, as well. 

WIFYR was, again, amazing. 

Ann Cannon is a great instructor, my classmates are serious writers. Carol Williams puts on this annual event and runs it to perfection.

It kicked my butt.

Thus, I’m going on holiday. I’m going away and am not taking my laptop, will do no writing at all. Not even for this blog for the next two Saturdays.

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

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21. Guest post: Sharon Mayhew on her writing process

Scott's note: I'm happy to introduce Sharon Mayhew. Sharon commented on one of the posts in my Mobile Author series about her not-particularly mobile writing method, which spawned a couple of requests for more information. I'm happy that she agreed to write a guest post showing her process in detail. And so, without further ado, here is a highly instructive post about one writer's process. I hope you find it as helpful and interesting as I do.

When Scott invited me to share my organizational system for writing, I was thrilled. I've been writing and blogging since 2007. I occasionally blog about writing, but usually my posts are about life, books and other writers. There are so many blogs doing a terrific job on the craft of writing that I thought I would stick to other things.

Some people say they are plotters and some say they are pantsers, to be honest I'm not sure what I am. Maybe you guys can tell me once you see my writing process.

For the historical fiction MG novel I just completed (well, until I hear otherwise), I started by listening to my grandparents tell about their experiences during WWII. I started taking notes and telling them why I was jotting down their memories. I took lots of notes and am so grateful they were willing to share what was a difficult time in their lives with me.

I also wrote letters and got letters back from other family members who lived during this time period.

Then I typed up notes and potential scenes to use in my manuscripts.

I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. Some books were for children and some were not, most notably I read selections from Winston Churchill's THE SECOND WORLD WAR series. (I have to quote him here, as his words were and are such an inspiration to me.) ~Never, never, never give up~ I realize he was talking about the war and the spirits of the people in England, but for me it took on a whole different meaning. Sharing my families and friends stories is something I have to do and I won't give up until it is published. It was my honor to fictionalize moments in their lives.

I visited museums and took lots of pictures, then organized them into envelopes, so when I started writing I could pull out photos for those scenes.

One museum I visited had replicas of government brochures, posters, and letters available for purchase. These items were extremely helpful for finding details about daily living. I also visited antique shops and purchased bits and pieces to inspire me. My grandfather gave me some documents from the war, too.

Then I organized all the research and books into files based on locations that they applied to.

I printed of a variety of different maps of England. I even found one that showed the railroad system during the war.

To my surprise, one of my blog friends, Gary at Klahanie Blog, told me he was from the village in England I was writing about. He sent me photographs, which was spectacular, as I hadn't been to Leek since I was a child.

Once I finished with my initial research, I organized and typed up my notes. Then I wrote them on index cards. It may seem redundant to write notes, type notes and then write them again, but each time I did this I was ingraining the research into my brain.

I kept a list of words and phrases that I liked and were appropriate for the time period. I mounted them on poster boards and then hung them up on bulletin boards in my office.

By now I kind of know where the scenes are going to take place in my story, so I mount the scene cards on poster board and then mount what could potentially happen in each location. I try to use the senses as much as possible in each scene. (ex: the sounds, the smells, how things feel and taste) 

Most of the poster boards  were hanging on the bulletin boards in my office, so I could glance up from my desk and review them as I was writing and thinking. I also used an easel for the scene I was currently working on close to me.

I didn't use all of my research notes in this manuscript, but I left the manuscript open ended so if I do have the opportunity to write a sequel I already have some starting spots.

I'm sure there are much better ways of organizing your research and thoughts, but this worked for me. I think you have to find what method works for you...

Thanks for letting me share my process with you guys. If you are interested in reading my blog it's called SK Mayhew, Kidlit Writer. I'm @SharonKMayhew on Twitter.

So, what do you think? Am I a plotter or a pantser? 

What are you?

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22. Break It

Naturally the UCW has been all agog over WIFYR. And sadly, I was not able to attend this year (sigh). But it got me thinking about all of the inspiration I've received from writing groups and conferences over the years. One speech given last year at WIFYR by Stephen Fraser, a literary agent from Jennifer De Chiara Lit Agency, has really stuck with me.

What he essentially talked about was the importance of following your inner compass.

At many conferences and at many writing classes, the fear for most not-yet-published writers is to look like an unpublished writer. To look like an amateur. So a zillion classes are given about what the "rules" of publishing are: exactly how long each genre should be, exactly how it should be written, exactly what most publishers are looking for ....

I don't know about you, but I always bristle at these boxes and labels and rules. My hand is the one that shoots up every time with the every annoying "But why?" (Yep, I'm still that kid in class.) Why do books with beautiful illustrations have to be for three-year-olds? Why do characters in middle grade books have to use pop-culture vernacular? Why can't a picture book have 1500 words? Why ...? Why ...? Why ...?

There are many reasons to follow many of the rules. But the answer usually given to me is always the least satisfying: Because publishers know that X sells because that is what has sold.

But Fraser pointed out the importance of being the first. You never know if your version of breaking the rules could be the one that starts a new trend.

Who knew sparkly vampires would be irresistible until it was done? Who thought that mixing fairy tale archetypes into a hodgepodge world based on Greek mythology and Joseph Campbell-like folklore would capture the fascination of young readers in today's pop culture ... until it was done? Who knew that rewriting classics using monsters would be a "thing"? Who said Death could be a popular narrator?

And this viewpoint came from a well-known literary agent who had previously worked at such publishing houses as HarperCollins, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster. In other words, a guy who is looking to publish rule-breakers. There are those in the publishing industry that can think outside of the highly organized, very rigid box of publishing.

And they are looking for writers like you and me.

This fact has probably given me more strength and determination to keep writing than any I've received.

So break it. The rule. The narrative arc. The law. The genre. The stylebook. The mold. The norm.

Take that idea of yours that just doesn't fit and run with it.

Write it from your soul. Be the one to do what hasn't yet been done.

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23. Another Way to Use Your Writing Group

Most of us know how useful a writers group can be for receiving feedback on your works in progress. My group has been invaluable, improving not only the quality of my work but my skills as a writer as well.

We don't limit ourselves to critique sessions. We email each other, share work online, and have our very own top-secret Facebook page. Occasionally, two or three members of the group will meet at a local cafe to write for a while. The women in the group have even had overnight writing retreats. We are there for each other, to trade advice and support each other how ever we can, even when we're not sitting around a table.

Yesterday, we tried something a little different.

Some of us have been struggling to write recently, with all the usual summer distractions or heavy workloads. So we decided to meet for an afternoon of writing. We didn't set any ground rules except one: meet in a neutral place so nobody had the distractions of home.

We considered several locations, from work conference rooms to libraries, and finally settled on the church near one member's home. It was a good location, quiet and comfortable.

A couple of people couldn't make it, due to work schedules or World Cup parties. I often miss daytime get-togethers because of work, but we intentionally scheduled it during my vacation.

I can't speak for the others who were there, but it was a productive afternoon for me. I'm revising a difficult part of my WIP, and it has been easy to find excuses to avoid the work. But sitting in a nearly empty church building from about 1:30 to about 5:00 meant that I could either work or sit there and do nothing. Sure, some of that time was spent socializing, but for most of it, we worked. Once in a while we'd ask each other for advice on a difficult passage or commiserate when struggling with a name or a scene. Mostly, we supported each other and kept each other on task.

And, of course, we enjoyed treats. That goes without saying.

So, if you're part of a group, or even if you just know some writers, I can recommend taking an afternoon to write together. Ultimately, writing is still mostly an individual process, but sometimes working by yourselves together can provide a great boost and ensure that you don't spend another day mastering your avoidance skills.

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24. Read Like a Writer: The 100 Rule

More than one local prolific author has said she read hundreds of books in her genre before writing her own well. Hundreds. Good books, bad books, but all in the genre in which she intended to write.

I think this is possibly the best course one could take for writing. And you'd be surprised how many people I know want to write in a genre that they don't actually read: people with a picture book idea who think if they throw some rhyming words together it is publishable without ever cracking a published picture book, people who read nonfiction but want to write dystopian YA, people who only read romance but want to write memoir.

It's normal to be in love with our own ideas. They are our babies, after all. But if we are going to send them out into the world, we have to know what their place in the world could be. And to do that, we have to know something about their peers. (It also helps with writing the dreaded queries ... a topic I'll discuss on my next post.)

So I want to pass on this advice: read in your genre. Read a lot in your genre. Yes, hundreds of books. Okay, start with 20 and build. But make a serious goal.

But when you read, read like a writer.

Reading like a reader is passive, it is as simple as deciding if you "like" or "don't like" a book.

To read like a writer is to question and answer exactly what it is that is and isn't working. In fact, finding a book that you don't like can be of more value than digging into a book that you love. When we love a book, we are taken by it in a visceral, emotional way. It becomes "ours" in a way that our own writing is "ours." It is hard to be critical of your darlings.

On the other hand, good old favorites—the ones you've read over and over, the ones that you feel you already know—can be useful to look at closely because you aren't getting caught up in the plot. You know it well enough to lift the curtain and see what is underneath each page.

When you are reading hundreds, though, you are bound to find those that you don't like. Those can be easier to take apart. Because the undeniable fact is that this book made it. So you have to figure out what it is about the book—the language, the construction, the story, the setting, the dialogue, the characters—that managed to get it passed the gauntlet of queries, slush piles, agents, publishers, and book stores to find its place on this shelf (be it physical or digital).

So, break it down.

Really understand the construction of the book. Think of it as a scaffolding upon which the words hang. Even in a picture book—the most compact of stories—plot is carefully built like the frame of a building. It must be solid and balanced. Writers are engineers. Read like an engineer.

Carefully note dialogue that moves you and dialogue that seems unnecessary. Then figure out why that is. The "why" isn't always that easy to decipher. It may be the language, or it may be the setting in which the dialogue takes place. Also look at the balance of dialogue to exposition. When does the description of a movement from a character "say" more than dialogue? How is it done?

Are there single, carefully chosen words that tell more about the setting than a lengthy description?

Whatever it is you want to learn, you can learn a lot about it by the careful reading of many examples. The more, the better. Say, one hundred.

How long will you take to read one hundred ... like a writer?

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25. SCBWI Is Here for You

If you're involved in children's writing and/or illustrating in any way (which I assume you are since you're reading this blog), and if you don't already know about SCBWI, let me enlighten you. Because this organization will help you in perfecting your craft, learning about the industry, connecting with colleagues, and avoiding many mistakes that will save you time. 

The world's most unpronounceable acronym stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Our international headquarters is based in Los Angeles, and we have regional chapters throughout the world. The region we're in is Utah/southern Idaho. You can learn lots more at the web site scbwi.org and at our region's page on that site. 

Tonight--yes, July 18, 2014--you have a chance to connect in person with others in the organization, including me. We're gathering for the annual summer potluck, which is just a time to socialize, talk shop, and generally have a blast.  Here are all the details:

Hello writers and illustrators in Utah and Southern Idaho!

Writing or illustrating can be a lonely endeavor, so join us this summer for some much-needed social time.  We'll be coming together at the Rice Terrace Pavilion at Liberty Park (600 E. 900 S. in Salt Lake City, Utah) on Friday, July 18th from 6pm-9pm to eat and mingle.

You don't have to be a member of SCBWI to join us for this free event, so bring all your writing or illustrating friends with you. The more the merrier! 

Potluck assignments are as follows:
YA writers: pasta salads, potato salads, deviled eggs
MG writers: fruit, fruit salads, desserts
Picture Book writers: fried chicken, finger sandwiches, other finger foods
Illustrators: green salads, chips and dips
You may want to bring your own lawn chair as well.

Are you still struggling to figure out where to start with your online presence? Bring your smartphones and other wifi-enabled devices and we'll help you get connected. We'll have teachers on hand to walk you through the steps to signing up and using your social networks of choice, as well as offer suggestions on ways to contibute to the online conversation.
Can't make it to the social? This year you can join us virtually! We will be using the hashtags #GoSocial and #SCBWIUtahSouthIdaho for this event, so you can follow the event on twitter, instagram, and other social networks.

We hope to see you at the social (in person or online)!

For a map and directions to the pavilion, please visit our website at http://utahsouthidaho.scbwi.org/events/2014utah-summer-potluck-social/

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