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2013 GradeReading.NET Summer Reading Lists
Keep your students reading all summer! The lists for 2nd, 3rd and 4th, include 10 recommended fiction titles and 10 recommended nonfiction titles. Printed double-sided, these one-page flyers are perfect to hand out to students, teachers, or parents. Great for PTA meetings, have on hand in the library, or to send home with students for the summer. FREE Pdf or infographic jpeg.
See the Summer Lists Now!
When I teach writing, I realize that I make everything sound like it’s a straightforward process. Well, it’s not. Listen to Anne Lamott:
Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t–and in face, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. Anne Lamott, novelist and essayist.
When we discuss writing, we separate out the voice, the character, the plot, the language used, etc. so we can actually find useful things to talk about. And there are many useful and helpful things to discuss. However, the actual writing is a combination of all these, a gestalt. The whole is greater than its parts.
It’s helpful to embrace uncertainty in the writing process, to just write and see what happens. Those of you who are outliners–who plot endlessly and have cards for every scene–you still have to just write. You’ve managed to remove one level of uncertainty, but there are still enough layers left to keep you on your toes. You still must make decisions on what details to include, what words will express the thoughts, and so much more.
For every sentence, there are numerous decisions to be made: the basic thought expressed, nuances of that thought, connecting the thought to what came before and what follow, the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and punctuation and spelling. Outliners only manage to eliminate the first choice and maybe ease the nuances and connections of the thought to other thoughts.
Every time you face the blank page, you face uncertainty. It’s a normal part of the writing process.
Back we go to finding our story, which is, you'll remember, something that happens to somebody and its significance. Ideas frequently come in segments, scenes, or situations rather than a fully realized story, so a writer may not know right away what is happening to whom and its significance. In that case, you can search out information to use in building a story by first developing basic story elements. We've talked about doing this with character and setting. This week we're hitting point of view.
There are a number of points of view, but for simplicity's sake we're only going to talk about two, first person and third person limited omniscient.
First Person: The "I" person. A character is actually telling the story. This is often the main character, but not always. (Think Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories or Brandon in the Hannah and Brandon stories.) First person narrators are in every single scene. Everything that happens is filtered through their minds. It's very easy to develop a voice with a first person narrator.
Third person limited omniscient: A "he/she" narrator. We think of third person narrators as being all knowing (omniscient) and being able to move from character to character, but the moving-from-character-to-character thing isn't used a great deal nowadays and is difficult to do without appearing confusing and as if the writer is jumping all over the place. Writers will sometimes try to switch to different characters in different chapters, but that can stop the forward movement of a story.
What is easier to do is a third person limited omniscient narrator, something that is also known as a "point of view character." You have one main character who appears in every scene and through whom everything is filtered, just as with the first person, but there is a storytelling type voice telling the story and referring to this character as he or she. Michael in Saving the Planet & Stuff is a point of view character or third person limited omniscient narrator. With third person limited narrators, the storyteller voice can actually know more about the point of view characters than first person narrators often know about themselves.
One thing writers can do while trying to determine what their stories are is write a scene twice, once in the first person, as if the chosen character is talking him- or herself and once in the third person, as if a storyteller is at work. You should find yourself coming up with different material from each voice, giving you some ideas about what could happen to these people.
Another thing you can do is try different characters as both the first person narrator and point of view character. Even if you end up sticking with your original choice, writing about other characters in different ways may give you ideas you can use.
Yes, point of view can be a lot of work.
Okay, before we broke for Easter, we were hunting for our story using character. By "story," we mean something that happens to somebody and its significance. Sometimes the "idea" that moves us to write something isn't that actual story but merely a scene or situation. The theory we're working with here (and which helped me to write my last two, granted unpublished, books) is that developing the elements of fiction--character, setting, point of view, theme, and plot--can generate the material that will finally make the story, the something that happens to somebody and so what, clear. And once we know the story, we go back to the elements again and develop them still more. It's a back and forth process.
So, this week, we will talk about setting. Why? How can setting help us come up with ideas for what might happen to characters and what that event might mean? Because certain things can only happen in certain places. So once you have setting pinned down, you're in a better position to start thinking about what could happen there and to whom it could happen.
And, remember, setting isn't just about location. It's also about time. Thus, if you're thinking about a setting in the past, that will help to narrow down what can happen in that time. It will help to narrow what kinds of characters can exist then. If you're thinking about a setting in the future, it will broaden what can happen there or who can exist there. Or will it? Got to think about that one.
If you're thinking about working in genre, a setting in a fantasy world or on a space station impacts to a huge degree what kinds of things will be able to happen in your story. A setting in a culture at war vs. in a twenty-first century high school or office will mean very different events and characters. Or, again, will it? Hmm. Deep.
Think about sense of place while developing this material. Think about world building.
Okay, so, if all you have for an idea is a situation or scene, how do you get to a real story idea, one in which something happens to somebody and so what? Well, remember the elements of fiction, the basic parts of a story? I mean the most basic parts that you may have studied in middle or high school, not more involved, elaborate ones from college or graduate school or...you know...somebody's blog? I'm talking character, setting, point of view, theme, and plot. Every story has these elements/parts, and sometimes if you can work on developing those, you can use the material you generate to get to what happens to someone and why anyone would care.
Character--Try working on some characters, particularly the one who might end up being your protagonist. You can end up changing your mind about this. You can find various charts to help you do this. Some people suggest that these charts go over the top. How much does anyone need to know about another human being, especially one who only exists in your mind and who you might end up deep-sixing before you start the writing? There's also the possibility of overwhelming yourself with detail. I used character charts for a couple of books, but quite honestly, I haven't sold them. But beyond that, yes, working on characters can help you determine what these people have to do with your original situation or scene.
Some things to consider: How this character may change because of the scene, it's impact on him or her. Also, you can't go wrong dwelling on the classic journalistic questions of Who, What, When, Where, Why in relation to this character, not the story as a whole. Who is this person, of course, but additionally what is she doing in the scene/situation, when is this scene/situation going down, where, and, most importantly in my humble opinion, why.
This should give you some material that will intersect with the other elements when you start working with them. More on that next weekend.
Why am I going on and on about story when I'm supposed to be going on and on about writing and, specifically at this point, getting started on a writing project? You know, getting started on writing a story? I'm obsessing on this because story, in my meandering research on the subject, is very ill-defined. How can anyone do a job they can't define, if they don't really know what they're doing? I read once that organic writers (I'm one! I'm one!) will sometimes use an entire first draft just trying to find their story. That kind of thing makes writing hell, let me tell you. If we knew our story, if we could find the damn thing, before we started writing, wouldn't we work more efficiently and suffer less?
Well, that's my theory, and that's why I've developed a story obsession.
I've mentioned before that some people would say that story and plot are the same thing. There's a famous quote from E.M. Forster regarding the difference.
"The King died and then the Queen died is a story
The King died and then the Queen died from grief is a plot."I've never understood Forster's definitions. (But I never understood Forster's A Passage to India, either.) To me, "The King died and then the Queen died from grief" is the story. Something happened to someone and why it's significant. What Forster might have been trying to get at was that plot is supposed to have cause and effect--Plot Point A leads to Plot Point B, leads to C, and so one. Otherwise, you just have a list of unrelated events, as in "The King died and then the Queen died." But why is a list of unrelated events a story? "So once we have our "account of incidents or events that convey a deeper understanding of the human condition" or our "something happened to somebody and so what?" we work those incidents
Story is an account of incidents or events that convey a deeper understanding of the human condition," according to Laura Cross at The Write Network.
Doesn't that sound like "The King died and then the Queen died from grief?" "Plot," Cross says, "is how those events are arranged to achieve an intended effect."
to tell the story the way we want to.
So last weekend we started talking about how our writer lives will be much easier if we begin writing with an idea to write about, an idea that involves something happening to somebody and the significance of that event. We need an idea for a story.
In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron talks about how humans evolved listening to stories. The telling of and listening to stories was how we passed and received information, much of it being important information we needed to stay alive. We listened to stories about things that had happened to other people so we would have information about how they survived (or didn't) in various situations that we might find ourselves in at some point. A story well told could save lives. Our interest in them was a matter of life and death. Presumably those listeners who could best appreciate a story were most likely to survive and get their genes into the gene pool. (That's me running with Cron's info.) Appreciation of and desire for story was a life skill. It is a life skill.
And, thus, having an idea for a story is important for writers in terms of humankind, the Big Picture, and all that. Additionally, it's important because every single thing writers do while writing must support that story idea.
So, seriously, you ought to have a story.
The other day as I sat on the beach at the edge of the breaking surf, I thought about stories and how they exert their pull on us as readers and writers, calling to us just as the sea calls to us.
What is it that pulls us into a story? And how can we as writers learn to exert this pull on our readers?
That pull, that tugging of our heart, begins the moment we open a book and begin reading the
I’m happy to have Mike Mullin here today, talking about writing with courage. I love his post, and I’m honored by what he wrote. I believe Mike Mullin already has lots of writerly courage, and it’s something I like and respect. I think it can help make deeper stories. Take it away, Mike!
Writing with Courage
When Cheryl invited me to be a guest poster on her blog, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about: courage. You see, I’ve been admiring Cheryl’s writing from afar for almost two years—since I first read Scars. And while there may be a few better prose stylists or a few better plotters working in young adult literature, there is no-one writing with more raw power—with more courage—than Cheryl.
Re-reading the paragraph above, I realize that “admire” is the wrong word for how I feel about Cheryl’s writing. Insanely envious is more like it. Seriously, when we finally meet, I’m going to steal a strand of hair from her to use in a voodoo ritual—your juju will be mine, Rainfield!
Courage, particularly in writing, is rare, precious, and essential. I certainly don’t have it in the generous measure Cheryl does. For over a year, I’ve been trying to write a blog post—yes, a mere blog post—about my own childhood brush with sexual abuse, and I’ve found I can’t. My experience was, thankfully, far less traumatic than Cheryl’s, but I still believe there are lessons we could take from what happened to me, if I ever found the courage to share it.
I was a voracious reader, but in fifth grade I had read absolutely nothing about pedophilia. While the subject is fairly well-covered in today’s young adult literature, it was then and is today—to the best of my knowledge—nearly nonexistent in middle-grade novels. Yet children are more likely to be abused as middle graders than as teenagers. I believe if I had read more about it—if our middle-grade literature had been darker—I might have been better prepared for what happened to me.
That’s not to say that I’m completely devoid of writerly courage. Achieving any measure of success as an author requires it. But I tend to mask the parts of my novels that cut closest to the bone in fictionalized flesh.
For example, I’m occasionally asked what my favorite part of ASHFALL is. (ASHFALL, my debut novel, is about a teen struggling to survive and find his family after the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging the world into a cataclysmic natural disaster.) I always answer that the scene in chapters 37 and 38 is my favorite. It was never part of any outline; I wrote it spontaneously while I was visiting my Uncle Chuck, who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. The most difficult part of that visit wasn’t watching my Uncle Chuck die—we’d known he was going to die for some time—it was seeing his wife and children showering love upon him, even while they were trying, and failing, to hide their own grief.
In chapters 37 and 38 my protagonists, Alex and Darla, meet a woman who’s just lost her husband. She’s pulling three young children behind her on a toboggan, and one of them, Katie, is desperately ill. Alex wants to stop and try to help. Darla, who is far more practical than Alex, argues that they should go on—that they can’t help everyone who’s suffering. Alex wins the ensuing argument. They stop and try to help, but Katie dies anyway. I think the power of that scene flows from the fact that I chose to pour what I was feeling into it—despite the pain that writing it caused me. That, perhaps, is also a form of courage.
I believe writerly courage can be developed like any other aspect of writing. One of the reasons ASHFALL broke through and got published, while my earlier manuscripts did not, is that ASHFALL—despite its post-apocalyptic setting—is at its heart a personal story, a coming-of-age story based in my own teenage years. I credit one book in particular for helping me write closer to my own bones, Ralph Keyes’s Courage to Write. His numerous examples—particularly his stories of other writers’ struggles to find courage—inspired me to dig a little deeper and put a little more of myself on the page. If you’re an aspiring author, I highly recommend it. Perhaps I’ll re-read it soon, searching for inspiration to finally begin that blog post.
I knew I had something good in Chapters 37 and 38 of ASHFALL when my wife read them. We were on our way to an education conference in Pittsburg, and she was reading the manuscript out loud while I drove. (That’s a fabulous revision technique, by the way. By listening to your prose, you pick up errors that your eye will skip over while reading.) I heard a catch in her voice and glanced at the passenger seat. Tears were streaming down her face, shining in the mid-morning sun. I thought, yes! I’m a great writer and a terrible husband!
What about you? What inspires you to write courageously? Let me know in the comments, please.
Thank you so much for that thoughtful post, Mike! I think you have a lot of writerly courage–you wrote about grief and pain that you’ve seen and experienced. You dug deep.
People, you can find out more about Mike and his books here:
About Mike Mullin
Mike Mullin’s first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn’t last long either. For a while Mike juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he’s really glad this writing thing seems to be working out.
Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. Ashen Winter is his second novel. His debut, Ashfall, was named one of the top five young adult novels of 2011 by National Public Radio, a Best Teen Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and a New Voices selection by the American Booksellers Association.
About ASHEN WINTER
It’s been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this trilogy. It’s also been six months of waiting for Alex’s parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex’s parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.
Read an Excerpt
The first two chapters are available on my website: www.ashenwinter.com. You may reprint the first two chapters in whole or in part on your website so long as you do not charge anyone anything to access them.
Find Mike On:
Barnes & Noble
The Book Depository
I've always loved Little Bear (as drawn by Maurice Sendak)
imagining himself flying to the moon and telling his mother all about his plans.
And I also love his mother, in the words of Else Minarik, replying that maybe he is "a fat little bear cub" and "will come down very fast, with a big plop."
I've landed with a big thud: my book is off to its first readers and I'm back in the world of doing my freelance work and getting my taxes done and cleaning my house, those kinds of things. Being OUT OF that world and in another of one's own creation is part of the fun of writing.
But this book reminded me of the other things I love about writing -- things I haven't felt in a long, long time. When I revise, I can just do it -- and for long hours at a stretch; it's very satisfying to be so engrossed and to see something get better. The first draft is usually torture, though: all the waiting, all the times when nothing comes or what does seems (and may well be) completely inadequate. This time, though, sometimes what I wrote in the first draft surprised me and made me laugh out loud, and that was fun, too.
One difference between a book that has life and potential and one that doesn't are those surprises, those ideas that just come....but those moments don't mean the book as a whole is GOOD or even works.
What I enjoyed most, though, was being IN the book: not wanting to do anything else. Not thinking about anything else. Waking up in the morning and wanting to write -- even though it usually took a lot of dawdling before that happened.
This is the first book I've really enjoyed writing in a long, long time -- and whether it all holds together or not (my biggest worry), whatever my first readers say about it,
I've had that -- and learned a lot, too, about how to make it happen.
“My books aren’t good enough.” “My writing is crap.” “I’ll never…”
I’ve thought those kinds of thoughts many times over the years about my writing–before I was published, and even after. I have always struggled with worrying that my writing isn’t good enough, powerful enough, polished enough. Part of that is being a survivor of abuse, having my abusers intentionally go at my self-confidence. But in talking to other writers, I’ve found that part of it is just about being a writer and a creative, sensitive person in our society.
There’s a lot of rejection and criticism involved in the writing business, which I think can increase or at least reinforce insecurity and doubt–and there’s also a lot of vulnerability. As writers, we our baring our soul on the page. We are showing so much of ourselves, and the deeper and more fully we show ourselves–which I believe makes a more powerful book–the more vulnerable and insecure we may feel when others read and react to our work.
Before we first get published, we can receive hundreds upon hundreds of rejections for years before getting that elusive “yes” and a contract. And it can start to wear at our self-confidence; we may worry that our writing isn’t good enough. It’s painful to get rejections, over and over again, and it can feel like publishers or agents are saying that not only is our writing not good enough, but that we, as people, aren’t–because there’s so much of us in our writing.
And that’s really hard. We work so hard at our craft, and yet the quality of a novel is so subjective; it’s based on the opinion and life experiences of the reader or editor, and everything that makes that reader respond or react the way they do. It’s not the same as, say, turning out a finished product in a factory, where most people will agree on whether it’s finished or not, it’s beauty or lack of. Writing technique is important, and polished writing is important, but we all aren’t always going to agree on what is beautiful, moving writing and what is not. So we face repeated rejections as a writer, and that can feed our feelings of insecurity or doubt or not being good enough at our craft. And, it takes time to hone our craft. So we work at it, and we improve. And if we’re lucky, we have someone around us remind us that a rejection letter doesn’t necessarily mean that our work isn’t good enough to be published; sometimes it’s just that we haven’t gotten the right fit yet with the right editor or agent at the right time. But it still feels like a rejection–of our work. Of us.
And writers are often very sensitive people, and many also struggle with depression or self doubt or other things that make the repeated rejection even harder. But if writing is part of the fire that makes us feel alive, we keep writing and submitting.
Even after we get a book published, there’s rejection and criticism through reviews of our book. If we put a lot of our heart and soul into our writing, it can be incredibly painful and feel very personal when someone says they don’t like some aspect of our book or the book at all (though sometimes there’s something we can learn from it and take into our future work). I know some writers who don’t read their reviews at all because of how it can affect them. I know that I usually get many, many glowing reviews for my books, but that just one negative review stays with me, cutting into my mind and heart like barbed wire, making me doubt my writing, my talent, my worth as a writer, and it takes a lot of effort for me to get distance–something I am still trying to learn.
And once we’ve got a book contract, before the book comes out into the world, publishers ask us to see out blurbs–recommendations of that book–from other, more established and well-known authors. Some authors will never respond, some will refuse (which feels like a rejection), and some will be willing to read but not find the book fits for them, while others will like our work and lend their recommendation. But that whole process involves yet more rejection and can feed into our insecurity.
There also seems to be a natural stage that many writers go through in their writing and repeatedly editing a manuscript where we go into doubt and worry that our writing is crap. Maybe when we’ve become too close to the writing, maybe when we’ve gone over it too many times–but many writers seem to go there. For me, that’s a sign that I’m finished editing the manuscript, at least for the moment, and need to put it away for a while or submit it. It’s helped to learn that over many books, and to be able to see it, remind myself of that stage. But I still go to that place: my writing is crap.
And the rejection or possibility for more self-doubt doesn’t stop there. Even after we have a book or books published, it doesn’t mean we automatically get the next one published. We may receive rejections from publishers or editors still. Or we may lose a trusted editor, may have our publisher fold or be absorbed into another publishing house–changes that again can rock our confidence. Or we may not sell as many books as our publisher wants us to, or as we want ourselves to.
It can be hard not to compare ourselves to other writers who we see as doing better than us with their books, or to see the things that other writers do better than us. And yet it’s so important to be able to recognize our own strengths. I know I write with strong emotion and being inside the character well. I write with passion, I write with tension and fear that make great suspense, and I write about the things I care about, the things that move me, the things that I need to speak about. Those are all important to me. I also know that I have to go through my manuscripts every time and look for more ways to ground the characters in their surroundings and settings, add in more body language, more of all the senses, and layer in symbols. But that’s okay; that’s what we do as writers. We go in through our edits and we round out our characters and story worlds to make them the best that we can make them.
Before I was published, I thought that once I had books published the insecurity would fade, that I would feel more confident. And in some ways it has. I know that I’m a Writer, and that I’m making a living through my books; it’s something I’m proud of and feel good about. But even after having five books traditionally published and one self-published, even after several awards and many glowing reviews, I still struggle with insecurity and doubt about my writing. I still worry that what it’s not good enough, and I’m still always trying to make it better. I think that last part is actually useful–the trying to always learn more about the writing craft and make our writing more powerful. But the insecurity and doubt is not useful, and can get in the way.
I’m editing a manuscript of mine right now that I deeply care about, and that in some ways exposes me even more than my other books have (and I always put so much of myself into my work). This has me feeling even more vulnerable and insecure about the writing than usual. I’ve been working from a critique of the manuscript from a fellow writer. I trust this writer, but the first three pages of her feedback are all about the things she doesn’t like and that don’t work for her. It is so much harder to work from the negative first (at least for me), and for me it increases my insecurity and starts those old negative messages running through my head. I found myself jumping at her suggestions, thinking I had to do everything she said in the way she said, even though some of it felt wrong for me and for the story I was trying to tell as I worked. There’s a lot right that she said, but some things just don’t fit for me, and I started feeling a bit stuck. So I had to take a step back and remind myself of the same thing I’ve always told other writers when I critique their work: “My feedback is my opinion, it’s subjective. Take what works for you, and ignore the rest.” Once I did that, the writing/editing flowed for me again, though I’m still battling insecurity and doubt.
What I’ve needed to re-remember is to trust my gut in my writing. I know I need to edit and polish my writing; I want it to be the strongest, the most powerful it can be. I want it to move readers, to touch them, to make them feel for and side with and understand my main character and the problems she’s going through. And I want to make a good enough living at my writing. And I want to always, always make a positive difference in the world through my books, even as they entertain. But I also have to remember that I am already doing that. I still get reader letters every week telling me how much Scars moved them, or helped them. And that’s something I need to hold on to. Not the doubt or insecurity or negative messages from the past.
I don’t write half-heartedly. I throw myself into my writing, I draw on my emotion and trauma to write, I make myself the character as I write. I pull up what I know and what I care about and weave it into the story. I always edit and re-edit until it sounds and feels right to me. So I have to trust myself. Know that I am speaking my voice through my writing, and am being heard and responded to. Know that I am putting my heart and soul into my writing. Know that I am doing what I can to make positive change into the world, while telling as good and as moving a story as I can.
So. I am going to try to trust in myself and my writing, and the many people that have told me my writing moves them–and I hope you will, too. Trust yourself, trust your writing, and believe in yourself as much as you can.
Sarah Lamstein grew up in a house surrounded by books.
"Writing was in the air," says Lamstein, the winner of the 2008 Sydney Taylor Honor Award for her picture book, Letter on the Wind.
Her father loved writing stories, and Lamstein took great delight in reading them aloud to the family whenever he finished one. "Those times were as exciting to us," she says, "as opening night at a Broadway
By: Stephanie Kuehnert
Blog: Life, Words, & Rock 'n' Roll
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It's that time of year when we take a hard look at what we've done and assess how we want to improve and move forward. This is something I'm doing constantly, but it does seem important to take a moment to write it all down, especially since I feel like I have learned a lot about myself this year, and especially this past month or two.
I started out 2012 miserable and full of self-doubt. It was a long-time coming. These feelings had been building for a couple of years, so I declared 2012, the year of re-evaluation. I had to figure out what made me happy. More specifically, I had to figure out if writing still made me happy or if I was done, ready for a complete change of career and life focus.
I went back and forth, up and down about this. I'd spend a month deeply in love with storytelling and then three months hating every word I wrote or hating myself for writing. I felt like I'd finally gotten on the right track again in September and then had an absolute breakdown, my biggest crisis of faith yet in November, which I documented in this piece for Rookie--possibly the best, most honest, real and in-the-moment piece I've written for Rookie.
In July, I decided to go back to therapy for the first time in roughly nine or ten years. I was deeply depressed and anxious, especially about writing, and I couldn't do the re-evaluation thing on my own. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Not only did I benefit personally, I figured out a lot about my own writing. I put all the writing tips I gleaned from my therapist in this YA Outside the Lines post.
Perhaps the most important of those tips was be grateful for and recognize my accomplishments, big and small. So here's what I've done in 2012
- Knitted one hat and one scarf for my mother, and one hooded baby blanket for my friend's first child. Started my first knitting project for myself, a skirt.
- Taught 16 students in a Young Adult Fiction class at Columbia College and read well over 1000 pages of their work.
- Grew lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, many varieties of peppers, many types of herbs, quite a few flowers.
- Made countless vegan meals, tried and even invented several new recipes.
- Got my eleventh tattoo. (It's Latin for "breathe.")
- Joined my local library board.
- Tended bar three nights a week and briefly made a tumblr about my adventures.
- Visited my favorite place on earth, Seattle.
- Saw (and met!) Mark Lanegan (whose music inspires my writing big-time), as well Garbage, Social Distortion, and several amazing bands (and legends like Iggy Pop!) at Riot Fest.
- Hosted a college friend for about half the year and went on adventures with her like to my first Renaissance Faire.
- Visited with several other friends from out of town, reconnected with my childhood best friend/sister after she moved back, spent as much time as I could with my amazing teenage niece who is my heroine, and made the ultimate birthday package for my BFF to celebrate eighteen years of friendship.
- Went to my first Comic Con where I met people like the stars of one of my all-time favorite shows, Twin Peaks.
- Went to my first RT convention, participated in a panel about boundaries in YA and in Teen Day. Met Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley series that ruled my childhood.
- Watched the last five seasons of Buffy for the first time, all five seasons of Angel for the first time, and most recently, watched all of the first season of Game of Thrones in 3 days.
- Turned old t-shirts into new shirts, and in one case, a dress.
- Celebrated my third wedding anniversary in Portland, Oregon. We also visited the gorgeous Oregon coast and met up with one of my best writing buds, Tara Kelly, who took this photo of us.
- Nursed my elderly cat/best friend of 17 years, Sid, for several months and then said a sad but beautiful farewell to him the weekend after Thanksgiving and wrote him a tribute.
- Wrote 17 columns for my local newspaper, the Forest Park Review.
- Wrote 20 essays, some deeply personal, others pure fun, for Rookie as well as countless reviews of books, movies, TV shows, music, hot chocolate, candy, and electronic items that do and should exist.
- Wrote my first essay for Ms. Fit Magazine, a real world feminist fitness magazine that will debut in January of 2013.
- Made zines with my niece and her BFF at a Rookie Road Trip event.
- Took part in an amazing reading to celebrate the release of ROOKIE YEARBOOK ONE.
- Did a vlog to celebrate the release of the DEAR TEEN ME anthology, which features my letter to my teenage self about an abusive relationship.
- Researched (both by visiting the library and sneaking into a cemetery after hours) and wrote my first short story in umm... eight years? It's a ghost story--my personal twist on a local urban legend about a hitchhiking phantom flapper--which will come out next October in an anthology called VERY SUPERSTITIOUS published by Month9Books.
- Went on a writing retreat in Arizona.
- Wrote about 50,000 words of one YA novel (ie. the Modern Myth YA)
- Wrote about 60,000 words of another YA novel (ie. the Contemporary YA)
Yeah, looking back, even though I often beat myself up for not doing enough... that's a lot of stuff! Sure, I wish that total of 110,000 words could have been on one novel so I could feel like I finished a big project this year. And of course what I really wish is that "sold a book" could be one of the bullet points, but I worked hard and I have to be proud of what I have accomplished and the difficulties like losing Sid that I got through.
I guess the biggest question is what came of my self/life evaluation in the year of evaluation?
Ultimately, I've decided that while writing doesn't always make me happy and the current state of my career (or more specifically the way I've had to cobble together way too much work that pays way too little to support my writing habit), writing will always be a part of my life. I'm hoping that 2013 will bring adjustments and changes that will make me happier. The biggest one is that my husband and I are hoping...or at this point PLANNING to move to Seattle in summer of 2013. I need a fresh start in a place that I actually like. I grew up in Chicago and came back for school, but then got stuck here. It's not where I feel like I belong. I'm hoping that going where I feel like I do belong will shake things up a bit. It will definitely mean a job change. Bartending has its moments and it did inspire an entire (though as of yet unsold) book, but like all service industry jobs it can be really draining and demeaning. I have discovered a love of teaching this year and especially a love of writing for and connecting with teenage girls via Rookie. I'm hoping to find a job that incorporate both of those things--maybe some sort of after school arts program for young people that I can teach in. I'm not sure what is out there, but I'nm hoping to find something, and it may be a full-time something meaning novel writing will have to fit in other places in my life. I want to have nights to read and spend time with my husband, weekends to go on adventures with him. That will be the priority once we move out west.
Writing for Rookie is my other big priority. It doesn't pay much, but every piece I craft for them, I put my heart and soul into the same as I have my novels. I'm able to write incredibly personal things and I feel like I'm a part of the type of publication I'd been dreaming of since I was thirteen years old. Rookie readers are my audience, always have been, and I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to share my words and stories with them.
As for my fictional stories, my novels, my career as Stephanie Kuehnert, YA author (or just author in general), I still hope and dream and work my ass off in hopes that 2013 will be the year it relaunches. (13 is my lucky number after all.) I'm taking much needed time off until after the New Year, but then I will get back back the Contemporary YA and I hope to finish it in a month or three. After that, I will return to and reevaluate the Modern Myth YA. Maybe I'll press on with it as it is, maybe I'll re-write it again, or maybe I'll decided it needs a different form--a TV pilot instead of a book, perhaps.
I'm not setting deadlines or making specific goals. I just want to keep doing what I've been doing--finding the faith and the drive to keep writing and enjoy writing each day that I sit down to do it. To treasure life's sweet moments, to find something to be grateful for every day.
Oh and I think I might sign up for a spinning class....
What about you? What were your accomplishments big and small in 2012 and what are you hoping to do in 2013?
I have a family member who subscribes to More Magazine. A few times a year, she sends me a stack of back issues. That means I'm seeing an awful lot of articles and advertising relating to wrinkled and sagging skin all at once. However, you find some gems (like the mag's book coverage) in these things, too.
A case in point, Lose the Clutter, Find Your Style in the October issue. Most clean-your-closet articles (which is what this was) focus on the same thing--If you haven't worn something in some specific length of time, out it goes. This article, by Jennifer Braunschweiger, takes a different approach. Braunschweiger suggests actually wearing those items for a day because many people keep things they still aren't going to make much use of. She made a vow to wear every item in her close. A day at work with all this stuff gave her a better idea of what no longer fit comfortably, what made her feel dowdy, what made her feel that she was presenting herself the way she now wants to present herself.
Where am I going with this?
Well, I've recently been working on overhauling my filing cabinets. (You can look forward to a Time Management Tuesday post on that, once I'm done.) I have files going back...ah, well, I have files going back a long time. I probably have more writing projects I've begun than I have items of clothing. I have bits and pieces of stories I started and never finished. I have things I finished that are dated. I have lots of things that need work. For a fleeting moment a week or so ago, I wondered if I should keep all these things. Then I refiled it all with my new system.
After reading Braunschweiger's article, I'm wondering if I should "wear" those story attempts for a day or two. Meaning maybe I should try rewriting them soon. The projects that feel comfortable, that make me feel that this is what I want to be writing now, I would keep, even if I didn't finish any of them. The projects that makes me feel dowdy and uncomfortable could go.
It's not actually a plan yet. Just something I'm thinking about.
One of the lines from the Voices Strong class mantra, taught by Christy Rush-Levine is Write Unapologetically. I love these two words side-by-side standing for genuine marks on the page. Today, I planned… Read More
You can listen to Roald's Dahls' answers here. The interview was given in 1988, two years before his death, in the gypsy caravan (or shepherd's hut?)
in his garden. The interviewer was Todd McCormack.
WHAT IS IT LIKE WRITING A BOOK?
When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe you up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it’s got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process.
HOW DO YOU GET THE IDEAS FOR YOUR STORIES?
It starts always with a tiny little seed of an idea, a little germ, and that even doesn’t come very easily. You can be mooching around for a year or so before you get a good one. When I do get a good one, mind you, I quickly write it down so that I won’t forget it, because it disappears otherwise rather like a dream. But when I get it, I don’t dash up here and start to write it. I’m very careful. I walk around it and look at it and sniff it and then see if I think it will go. Because once you start, you’re embarked on a year’s work and so it’s a big decision.
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?
I had a kind of fascination with the thought that an apple-there’re a lot of apple trees around here, and fruit trees, and you can watch them through the summer getting bigger and bigger from a tiny little apple to bigger and bigger ones, and it seemed to me an obvious thought-what would happen if it didn’t stop growing? Why should it stop growing at a certain size? And this appealed to me and I thought this was quite a nice little idea and [then I had to think] of which fruit I should take for my story. I thought apple, pear, plum, peach. Peach is rather nice, a lovely fruit. It’s pretty and it’s big and it’s squishy and you can go into it and it’s got a big seen in the middle that you can play with. And so the story started.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ROUTINE?
My work routine is very simple and it’s always been so for the last 45 years. The great thing, of course, is never to work too long at a stretch, because after about two hours you are not at your highest peak of concentration, so you have to stop. Some writers choose certain times to write, others [choose] other times, and it suits me to start rather late. I start at 10 o’clock and I stop at 12. Always. However well I’m going, I will stay there until 12, even if I’m a bit stuck. You have to keep your bottom on the chair and stick it out. Otherwise, if you start getting in the habit of walking away, you’ll never get it done.
HOW DO YOU KEEP THAT MOMENTUM GOING WHEN YOU ARE WRITING A NOVEL?
One of the vital things for a writer who’s writing a book, which is a lengthy project and is going to take about a year, is how to keep the momentum going. It is the same with a young person writing an essay. They have got to write four or five or six pages. But when you are writing it for a year, you go away and you have to come back. I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way through the year. If you stop when you are stuck, the you are in trouble!
WHAT IS THE SECRET TO KEEPING YOUR READERS ENTERTAINED?
My lucky thing is I laugh at exactly the same jokes that children laugh at and that’s one reason I’m able to do it. I don’t sit out here roaring with laughter, but you have wonderful inside jokes all the time and it’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be fast, it’s got to have a good plot, but it’s got to be funny. It’s got to be funny. And each book I do is a different level of that. Oh, The Witches is quite different from The BFG or James [and the Giant Peach] or Danny [the Champion of the World]. The line between roaring with laughter and crying because it’s a disaster is a very, very fine one. You see a chap slip on a banana skin in the street and you roar with laughter when he falls slap on his backside. If in doing so you suddenly see he’s broken a leg, you very quickly stop laughing and it’s not a joke anymore. I don’t know, there’s a fine line and you just have to try to find it.
HOW DO YOU CREATE INTERESTING CHARACTERS?
When you’re writing a book, with people in it as opposed to animals, it is no good have people who are ordinary, because they are not going to interest your readers at all. Every writer in the world has to use the characters that have something interesting about them, and this is even more true in children’s books. I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel. If they are ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That, I think, is fun and makes an impact.
HOW DO YOU INCLUDE HORRIFIC EVENTS WITHOUT SCARING YOUR READERS?
You never describe any horrors happening, you just say that they do happen. Children who got crunched up in Willy Wonka’s chocolate machine were carries away and that was the end of it. When the parents screamed, “Where has he gone?” and Wonka said, “Well, he’s gone to be made into fudge,” that’s where you laugh, because you don’t see it happening, you don’t hear the child screaming or anything like that ever, ever, ever.
HOW MUCH HAS LIVING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE INFLUENCED YOU?
I wouldn’t live anywhere else except in the country, here. And, of course, if you live in the country, your work is bound to be influenced by it in a lot of ways, not pure fantasy like Charlie with chocolate factories, witches, and BFG’s, but the others that are influenced by everything around you. I suppose the one [book] that is most dependent purely on this countryside around here is Danny the Champion of the World, and I rather love that book. And when I was planning it, wondering where I was going to let Danny and his father live, all I had to do, I didn’t realize it, all I had to do was look around my own garden and there it was.
ROALD DAHL ON THE SUBJECT OF CHOCOLATE:
In the seven years of this glorious and golden decade [the 1930s], all the great classic chocolates were invented: the Crunchie, the Whole Nut bar, the Mars bar, the Black Magic assortment, Tiffin, Caramello, Aero, Malteser, the Quality Street assortment, Kit Kat, Rolo, and Smarties. In music the equivalent would be the golden age when compositions by Bach and Mozart and Beethoven were given to us. In painting it was the equivalent of the Renaissance in Italian art and the advent of the Impressionsists toward the end of the nineteenth century. In literature it was Tolstoy and Balzac and Dickens. I tell you, there has been nothing like it in the history of chocolate and there never will be.
I find what he said about writing being like a long, long walk through a landscape and not seeing the whole book until you're standing on a high hill at the end very encouraging. As I write things often I don't know what I'm doing -- or where I'm going -- only now at the end (I am ALMOST done with my last chapter!) do I see what is important (to me, anyhow!) in what I've written.
To Roald Dahl, "everything fit" (but maybe that was after rewriting?). I will have to take out some things and rewrite others in order for the whole landscape to work -- but that, as a friend said, is what revisions are for!
The idea of stopping for the day when you know what is going to happen next is one I had read before (in some Hemingway essay or biography). But Hemingway didn't explain it or admit the part about being stuck if you don't do it -- so I GET IT when Roald Dahl says it.
Hurray for Roald Dahl and children's books!
Well, you probably can, because if you listen to enough of that stuff, you'll find that a lot of it conflicts. However, I'm including links to a couple of Top Ten Writing Lists from writers with connections to children's literature because they both include some interesting thoughts.
Sherman Alexie's list included "Don’t have any writing ceremonies. They’re just a way to stop you from writing." That is probably all too true. Also, he says "Subscribe to as many literary journals as you can afford." This is not something I ever hear in children's lit circles. However, I have read in nonchildren's lit articles that writers should make an attempt to support journals by subscribing to them. And I actually did subscribe to one for a couple of years. What happened, though, is that the two journals I received each year were as hefty as books of short stories. I believe I still have a couple of them on one of my To Be Read shelves. But, still, seeking out a journal you like and supporting it is certainly a good idea.
Margaret Atwood's "writerly advice" includes something that is both useful and somewhat profound. "Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page." If I still embroidered, I might try to put that on a pillow.
Guest post by Carrie A. Pearson
To research this post, I Googled “revision in writing” which generated about 50,600,000 results in 0.36 seconds.
Really? 50,600,000 results on this topic in less than a second?
Why is everyone interested in revision?
I have an answer: because it is so darn hard.
But why? Is it because we believe we’ve already (painstakingly) chosen the best words that could possibly exist? Because we can’t imagine it differently? Because we don’t want to do the work? (I doubt that; writers are some of the most diligent people I know.)
One theory on why revision is difficult is really deep so hang in there with me. . .
Every piece we write is generated from the emotional core of who we are, what we feel, and how we operate in the world. The words come from the center of us. It’s a place we can’t touch but we can feel — a network that neuroscientists call our “emotional system.” My smarty-pants friend, Phyllis Stien, MS in psychiatric nursing and co-author of a recognized neuroscience textbook, says this about our emotional system and writing:
“Authors may not recognize that their emotional systems organize and direct their thinking. Who they really are at their core is reflected in their writing. That’s why there are emotional themes or connections in finished books the author may not know existed until the book is dissected.”
(Isn’t that cool?)
But when we are asked to change our writing, to revise, it is unsettling to our emotional system, to say the least. We feel a discord and because of this, we resist.
The problem is revision is a necessity for writers, and like teeth cleanings, we really should learn to appreciate it or at least not hate it.
What can we do to revise better?
Picture a puppy resisting a forward tug on a leash. Sometimes it takes reframing (or treats!) to change how we view the new direction. When I’m feeling off kilter and resistant, I go back to my intention for the piece and remind myself what I hoped to communicate. It wasn’t wrong the way it was originally – it just began from a different point in my emotional center. Stepping back in there allows me to reframe it and find my footing again — even if I have to take 50,600,000 tiny baby steps to get there.
More from Carrie A Pearson
Carrie is currently on a blog tour for her new book, A Warm Winter Tail. Make the rounds for her blog tour and comment on each blog–and you could be the lucky winner of an autographed book and plush animal.
Carrie A. Pearson is the author of A Warm Winter Tail, a lyrical picture book about animal adaptations illustrated by Christina Wald and published by Sylvan Dell Publishing debuting this fall. She recently completed a MG historical novel, Chasing Home, requiring a lot of revisions, which she is querying now. www.carriepearsonbooks.com
When students move from their notebook to draft, I encourage them to write their best first draft. (Click here to see other posts I’ve written about best first drafts.) Something that I’m always… Read More
A secret that is. Everyone’s got a secret. What were you thinking?
One of my favorite filmmaking tips is as the director, to give each actor a secret about their character. One they can’t share with anyone, but will inform everything they do in every scene.
Secrets can add depth and subtext to a scene that might otherwise be merely functional, or ordinary. For (a poor) example: A character who is hiding a fear of heights, might try to convince his crush not to hike up to a popular make out spot on a cliff despite wanting desperately to make out with her.
While it works really well in film where we can both see an actor’s face, and hear their change in tone when responding to an innocuous request, I think it can also work well in a novel.
You probably already know your main characters darkest secrets, and maybe even some of their love interest’s or antagonist’s, but what about everyone else? This ties in with my previous post “Why Are You Here?” about every character having a reason to be where they are in every scene.
In this case, having a secret can help give conversations between characters more depth and realism. If you know a character’s secret, it will color everything they do and say. It will make the world feel more real, because the people in it are real. It might even change your main character’s or the reader’s opinion of the character, and that can be used to your advantage when working on stories with mysteries. (And I believe every story should have a mystery, even if it’s not a mystery story, but that’s a whole ‘nother post!)
I would bet that if you’ve gotten pretty far into writing the book, that most of your characters already have a secret, you just haven’t picked up on it because you’ve been too busy forwarding the story. If you’re just starting your book, or you haven’t seen your characters dropping any hints, try giving them one and see if it perks up one of your lackluster scenes, or changes the way your characters view each other. You might just make a discovery or two!
What about you, do you give your characters secrets? What are some of the ways you add subtext and depth?
A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about how I'd been backsliding into writer's slump territory again. I felt totally unfocused and unmotivated to work on my current project, A.K.A. The Modern Myth YA. Through some writer friends on Twitter, I heard about this method to increase your word count. Though I don't really see myself writing 10K words a day, I'd love to write 2 or 3K and just be able to focus again. I was most impressed by the "knowledge" part of Rachel Aaron's "triangle of writing metrics," thinking that might be just what I needed.
The past couple weeks have been a bit busy with freelance work and visits from friends, one of whom has been staying at my house long term, so while I didn't produce as much as I would have liked, I still produced which is a miracle because generally I would have used all that as an excuse not to focus.
In the three weeks leading up to the method, I was averaging about 500 words a day. If I was lucky. I had a lot of days where I wrote more like 250 or 300 or I didn't write at all. And though I wasn't keeping track of my stretches of writing time (because I was only keeping track of words as part of this summer writing club made up of people from my college on Facebook), generally speaking I'm at my desk from 10:30 or 11 til 3 or 4 Monday through Thursday, *trying* to work on novel stuff (as opposed to freelance stuff or surfing the internet, which was mostly what I was doing). So yeah, not pleased. And the days I had higher word counts weren't satisfying either because I was just forcing myself to write really fast and shitty to account for the time I'd wasted.
Since starting the new method on June 5, I've had 10 days of writing. I had between an hour-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours of writing time on those days, usually averaging around three. I wrote a total of 11,758 words. My highest point was last Monday when I wrote 2686 words in 3 hours and 10 minutes. My low point was last Thursday when I wrote 206. My average right now is around 1200 a day. This Monday, I wrote 1053 words in an hour-and-a-half. They were also quality words that I felt good about. The day that I wrote 2686 words (also a Monday), the words weren't really quality and I was pushing myself HOWEVER unlike forcing myself to write fast and shitty, I was writing fast and mediocre because I was excited to get through the scene, wanted to get my ideas down as quickly possible and felt confident that I could fix them later. I would definitely like to be in that mindset more of the time. It seems like a happy medium between being productive and my perfectionist tendencies. If I have a mixture of those days with days like this Monday, where I produced a respectable amount of words that I felt good about, I think I'll be in a good place.
So what made those two days happen? Not surprisingly, my focus on the "knowledge" part of the triangle. Really thinking about and planning my scene comes naturally to me in a way because that's what I did all throughout my writing classes at Columbia College Chicago. In all of our workshops, we would play word games to exercise those seeing-in-the-mind muscles and then we would "take a place" and really let the scene formulate in our mind before writing it. On Sunday afternoons, I have a writing "group" that is really just me and my friend Jenny from grad school writing together (followed by cooking and watching Supernatural) and we go through those word games and really take the time to visualize our stories. The past two Sundays I've spent between 20 and 40 mi
By: Justine Larbalestier
Blog: Justine Larbalestier
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1930s NYC novel
, How To Ditch Your Fairy
, Magic or Madness trilogy
, New York City/USA
, Sekrit Project
, What to write next
, Writing goals & milestones
, Writing life
, Writing process
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I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.
I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.
Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.
For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.
And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.
The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.
The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.
By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.
It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.
I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.
Procrastination is good
The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.
Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.
Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.
Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.
Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.
Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.
Many books at once
I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.
The first words I wrote of Liar are:
I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.
That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.
At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.
Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.
Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.
If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.
If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.
In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you. Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.
As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I recently finished the first draft of my Sekrit Project novel. And, yay verily, I was full of joy. There was dancing. Bouncing. Happiness and even more joy.
After the joy I spent a few days tinkering with it, fixing the egregiously rubbishy bits, adding things that needed adding, moving chapters around. As you do.
Then I sent it off to my wondrous, fabulous, worth-more-than-their-weight-in-mangosteens-and-other-precious-things first readers.
Then I kicked back and watched loads of Olympics and blogged and did many things that have nothing to do with Sekrit Project. And there was more joy.
After a week there was still some joy on account of OLYMPICS OH HOW I LOVE THE OLYMPICS but there was also creeping OMG THEY ALL HATE IT WHY HASN’T ANYONE GOTTEN BACK TO ME ABOUT IT NOT EVEN MY OWN HUSBAND IS IT REALLY THAT BAD thoughts.
Then yesterday one of my readers got back to me. She liked it! PHEW.
But more importantly Meg had really smart, useful notes for me. And I got to talk with someone who was not me about Sekrit Project and most especially about the second half of the book and the ending.
I think I got a little giddy. It was such a pleasure to finally talk about it. Poor Meg. I plied her with a million and one questions. And she answered them all for me in really useful ways. I have a much better idea of what is and isn’t working and how to fix it. Scott also came through with notes on the first half of the book. There was bouncing and dancing.
Both Meg and Scott’s notes were full of questions about character’s motivations, aspects of the worldbuilding that didn’t make sense to them, why certain things happen when they do and so on. Questions that make me realise that I had not achieved what I thought I had. All too often the book was too subtle, too opaque, too confusing. All of which I am now brimming with ideas for how to fix.
This world and people I have created changes once other people have seen them. Meg and Scott’s comments and questions have changed how I see them too. I love this part. I love how it gives me a million and one ideas for making the book better.
Have I mentioned that rewriting is my favourite part of the writing process? This is why.
I know there are lots of writers who can figure out all this stuff for themselves. But I really depend on feedback. I need to know how readers respond to what I’ve written because all too often what I think is there is not there. And I can’t discover that by reading and rewriting my book over and over again. I can’t do it alone.
So now I can rewrite to deal with all those problems and work towards the general embetterment of the book. And once that’s done I send it off to my agent. Then when both she and I are happy it gets sent out to editors. Who will in turn send me their own notes.
At least that is how I do it.
Trust me, every writer has their own methods. Some never show anyone anything other than their agent and editor. Some talk constantly about their book and what happens in it as they write and have several people read it as they go along. Some, like me, only let people read it once they have a complete draft. Some have everyone in the world read it and comment. Others none.
Whatever works for you is how to do it.
I don’t know who first called it process porn but me and many of my friends like, Gwenda Bond, call talking about how we write “process porn” and have done so for ages. There’s something delicious about getting together with a bunch of writer friends and talking about how we dealt with this or that problem. “Once I realised the mc hates water the whole book opened up!” “The switch from third to first person was what nailed it.” “Wrong pov. 30,000 words in and I realised it should be from the sister’s not the brother’s pov. Aargh!”
It feels wicked and indulgent but also practical and comraderly. Like we are a bunch of carpenters comparing our joinery and carving tools. It’s fun.
Gwenda received this wonderful piece of advice from Tim Wynne-Jones: “The most important thing every writer learns is her process.”
That is so true. When I started trying to write novels for the first time I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never read a single word about how other writers did it. I just started typing.
And I didn’t finish.
So I started typing something else.
And didn’t finish that either.
And so it went.
I didn’t finish my first novel until many, many, many years after my first attempt at writing a novel. The first draft of that first novel took eleven years to write. And I was only able to finish it after I had written my PhD thesis and discovered that, yes, I was capable of finishing a really long document.
That is I had to learn how to finish. I had to discover my process for finishing novels.
I didn’t sell my first novel until more than a decade after that and it was not that first book I wrote. Or the second one. It was, in fact, a proposal for three books that I hadn’t written yet, the Magic or Madness trilogy.
In the meantime I started to learn to rewrite. A long and agonising process that I’m still undergoing only I really enjoy it these days. Both the rewriting and the learning how to do it better.
And the way I did that was to read what writers I admired wrote about writing. Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Jean Bedford all guided my learning how to write before I ever met them. And, eventually, when I met other writers, I was privileged enough to have those delicious process porn conversations and ask those other writers about how they rewrote.
But mostly I learned to rewrite from, you know, rewriting. And I discovered that for me a key part of that is having other people read over what I’d written and tell me what they didn’t understand, which bits were boring, etc. etc. See yesterday’s post.
So what Tim Wynne-Jones said a million times. Learning how to write is learning how you, in particular, write. What your process is. For most of us writers it is incredibly useful to know how other people write. It shows you that there is no One True Way. And exposes you to other ways that you can try. They may not work for you but they may help you discover something else about your process.
One hugely reassuring discovery for me was that I do not write every book the same way. That I cannot write every book the same way. With the novel I just wrote I got stuck and found myself having to outline to figure out how to move on. Me, who hates outlining. But, whatever, it worked.
In conclusion: we writers talk process because it is delicious and fun and because it helps us become better writers. There are a million and one ways to write a book. You do not have to stick to the one way. Unless that is what works for you.
P.S. I wrote “point” and “porn” in the title of this post. Tee hee. I really hope my spam filters are working.
Imagine a scrapbook of questions about writing, as well as inspiring quotes about writing, and prompts to serve as catalysts for writing, and you have Lynda Barry’s What It Is, a remarkable writer’s resource to help you explore your imagination and get your words on the page.
The format and design of the book, which is filled with 200 pages of drawings, post-it-like notes, cartoons,
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Today YA writer Nelsa Roberto (author of Illegally Blonde and The Break) talks to us about doubting our own writing. Having self-doubt is something that a lot of writers struggle with, myself included. I go through doubt and worry for every manuscript I write–is it good enough, will it move people? So it was great to read Nelsa’s wise words on the subject, and to be reminded that I’m not alone.
Why Doubting Your Writing Can Be a Good Thing
by Nelsa Roberto
First of all, thank you to the lovely, amazing Cheryl Rainfield for inviting me to do a guest blog post here. I’ve known Cheryl for a few years now through the Torkidlit group of writers and I thank the heavens every day I met them and her. They have been a support beyond measure to this writer in so many ways I couldn’t possibly list them all. Especially when I’ve been doubting myself.
I agonized over what I should write about in this post because I don’t really do a lot of planning for blog posts. I write about things I’m thinking of at the time or that are bothering me in some way. So what’s been bugging me lately? Well, what’s been stressing me out is the age old question all writers go through at some point in their writing life: is my writing good enough?
Yeah, yeah, I know. I hear you. Writers are just insecure, angsty, self-obsessed artists who need their egos stroked, right? We just need someone to tell us that we don’t suck, that our writing is super awesome, wonderful, out of this world!
Sigh. That is so not the way it is, people.
Really, the more writers I’ve met and the more experience I’ve gained as a writer, the more I’ve come to understand that doubting yourself and your writing is, in writer land, PERFECTLY NORMAL behaviour. It might actually mean that you care about writing so much that you will never take it for granted. I honestly believe that most writers (the ones who are serious about this game) at some point truly think they can not string together a set of words that won’t come out looking to a reader like a jumbled alphabet put together by a five-year old. That doubt, that belief that what you’ve written should be lining a garbage can and not bound (digitized) into a book form, has hit every writer I’ve spoken to at some point in their writing life (if not on a daily basis).
But why do we doubt so much? Why don’t we have more confidence?
I think it comes down to a couple of things.
1. The Need to Connect
Writers create stories so we can connect with other people. The whole point of writing stories is to share our ideas/imagination/creativity with others so we can share an experience together. It is, in a way, our form of social interaction with the world. For many writers who are introverted, this is a big risk. It is putting yourself out there in the world that can be very cruel. Who wants to risk being shot down? Who wants to risk being rejected and told they’re not good enough? No one. And yet, we write and those doubt demons come along and whisper in our ears and tell us “Your writing’s not good enough. Never will be. Who do you think you ARE?”
That’s what I think about when I read a book or review a contest entry now – those whispering doubt demons might have plagued that writer at some point. Then I think, this person was BRAVE enough to put themselves out there. They shoved the doubts aside (for an hour or two or longer) and wrote and shared their work. Bravo, writer. Bravo. So many keep their stories – themselves – hidden from others. How sad for the rest of us who will never get to read what you’ve been thinking about.
2. The Need to Improve
There is no writer I have yet met who has said, “Yup. I’m at the top of my game. I can’t get any better. No need to read writing craft books. No need to take courses or workshops. No need to revise my stuff. I’m there.”
A true doubtful writer is never ‘there’. They are always looking to get better, to be able to write a story in the best possible way to serve that story. The serious writer sees the flaws or, if he/she can no longer see the work objectively, asks others to point the flaws out. A doubtful writer seeks out critique and welcomes the suggestions. There is no greater feeling than getting comments back on a manuscript from an honest critiquer and saying to yourself “Yes!!! Of course! That totally doesn’t work. I can make that scene so much better…” (after we first cringe and say “Argh. I’m horrible. Why didn’t I see that the first time? J )
So, for me, having doubts is a good thing. It means if I want to connect enough I must be brave enough to hold those doubt demons down and push through and write anyway. It means I will be critical of my writing so that I hopefully improve and grow and make the story better. I know that many times the doubts win out. I know they can be stronger than the will to connect and improve sometimes. It is then that you reach out to fellow writers and ask, “Can you look at this please? Can you tell me where things are going wrong? Can you tell me whether this is worthwhile enough to pursue?”
Because a fellow writer will never belittle those doubts. We respect them. And then … we beat those suckers to the ground.
Nelsa Roberto is a mild-mannered civil servant by day and a ferocious teen-fiction writer/hockey mom/van driver by night.
Her debut young adult novel Illegally Blonde was published by Great Plains Teen Fiction in 2010 and her second young adult novel, The Break, released in Spring 2012. Nelsa lives in Toronto, Ontario with her husband, three children and a slightly hyperactive Golden Retriever, and is busy writing – mostly on the subway and at hockey arenas – her next young adult novel.
You can visit her at Out of the Wordwork, or find her on Twitter.