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Last year on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I asked the question Will The Unit System Get Me Through The Holidays? The answer, at least for Thanksgiving, was, "No." Four days later, all the only work-related activity I'd done was an e-mail. The next day I was still writing about oozing back into a writing practice.
Things went a lot better this past Thanksgiving weekend. This year I used a smaller unit of time to keep me at work--a twenty minute sprint. With that I was able to squeeze in a little writing every day except Thanksgiving, itself.
Why Was I Able To Work More On Thanksgiving Weekend This Year?
I think sprinting worked for a number of reasons:
- Yes, twenty minutes is less time than the forty-five minute blocks I usually work in, so it's easier to find that short a chunk of time and stick with it.
- I'd been sprinting once a day on workdays for a month or two in addition to my other work, so I had some practice with it.
- I'd been trying to sprint on weekends for a month or two, so I had some practice with it.
- I use a laptop now, which means I'm not tied to one spot in the house for work. My laptop is often wandering around the house with me, so grabbing it for a twenty-minute sprint on the couch or at the dining room table or even the kitchen counter is incredibly easy. There is no thinking about when I can force myself to the office.
What A Twenty-Minute Sprint Does For An Organic Writer
I am not wracking up a big word count with sprints, especially since I'm revising right now. But what sprinting during periods when you wouldn't normally work at all does is keep writers in their projects. For organic writers, that's a huge benefit. We can't plan out an entire book or even portions of it. Instead, writing generates more writing for us. Working on an idea generates the next idea. We depend on continuing to "work" with break-out experiences when we're not actually hammering out words to a greater extent than plotting writers probably do. Working for twenty minutes early Friday evening could mean that an hour or so later some ideas will suddenly spring into mind, ideas that will become part of our writing at some point, if not the very next day.
But without working on an idea, we're unlikely to generate the next one. The longer we go without working on the work in progress, the less likely it is new material will just break out of our minds relating to it. The longer we go without working on a project, the more difficult it is to get started on working again when we finally can.
Yesterday was the Monday after a holiday weekend. Getting back into work was incredibly easy. I suspect I can thank the sprinting I did on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for that.
By: Elizabeth Moore,
Blog: TWO WRITING TEACHERS
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There's a reason for second and third editions of really great books--a writer's work is never done, and is certainly never, ever perfect.
I have made two attempts at writing a picture book. The first time, the editor I submitted it to said the humor was more appropriate for middle grade students, suggested I rewrite and resubmit it. That became my first book, My Life Among the Aliens. When I tried again, a writing group partner suggested that effort would work better as a chapter book. My editor agreed with her. That evolved into A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat.
My take away from these two experiences is that not every idea is appropriate for a picture book. Unfortunately, I've got nothing on what exactly is a workable picture book idea.
I have another take away on picture books from a teacher's conference I attended in 1999. Cecilia Yung explained that the pictures in picture books don't just illustrate text. They actually carry part of the story themselves. Things like setting, characters' emotions, some action don't appear in the text. They appear in the illustration. A reader takes in the whole story at once through text and image. The illustrations in a picture book can even have their own storyline.
This was kind of mind boggling to me. It's one thing for author/illustrators to create a picture because they can work both aspects of the story at the same time. But how do writers working on their own create a story that doesn't include large amounts of the information that goes into the illustrations but isn't so bare bones that agents and editors don't find it uninteresting?
Clearly, I've never been able to work that out.
Last week, I wrote a post about author websites and decided this week that I and better take my own advice! First, I updated the theme of this blog and added a homepage and a homepage for the blog. There are other behind-the-scenes improvements, mostly improving the way the site displays on mobile devices. (If you notice any problems with the website update, I’d appreciate an email!)
Second, last week, I quoted a study that said fans come looking for certain things on an author’s website. I am working on a draft of my new story this week and that study keeps haunting me. Am I providing any of these things on a regular basis? Is there any reason for a fan of my writing to keep coming back to my website?
These thoughts are starting to change how I write. Now, I also have open a second file that is a list of things to put on the website to go with this book.
Specifically, let’s go through the list of what fans want on an author website and see how you might plan for this as you write.
- Exclusive, unpublished writing. 43% of book fans surveyed said they return regularly for exclusive content. While I am writing, I am keep a radar out for writing ideas that take off on a tangent. It may be a topic that doesn’t belong in the book because it would destroy the pacing. But it might work perfectly on the website as Exclusive Content. Maybe a short vignette, a short story, an episode. Maybe it’s a letter that the character might write to another character. For my current WIP, it’s recipes. One character refuses to eat eggs of any kind, so we have eggless cakes and such.
- Author Schedules. 36% of book fans surveyed want to know the author’s schedule of tours, book signings, and area appearances. I couldn’t figure out how to plan for this one while I wrote. I did, however, add a News page to my blog, where I plan to regularly post the small successes that come my way.
- Author’s Literary Tastes. Readers want lists of the author’s favorite writers and recommended books. Younger fans are also more interested in knowing about their favorite authors’ book, music, and movie recommendations. This one is a bit harder, too, because it doesn’t relate directly to the current WIP. For me, it will probably take the form of a focus on Pinterest. I need to spend an evening creating a couple boards of Recommended Books, Favorite Music, Movie Recommendations. And to complement my current WIP, I need to do something related to it. Maybe eggless recipes again. Or the story has aliens, so maybe a board of Alien Pics, UFOs, etc. I’ve always liked it when authors post a playlist of music for a book. I shouldn’t be surprised when kids like this, too.
- Insider Information. 36% of readers (especially men) want “insider” tidbits. This is one of the main changes I am trying to make as I write. I am trying to notice where I do research and capture the URLs of interesting websites. Later, I’ll write about the inspiration I found from these sites. For example, one setting in the current WIP is a City Hall and I needed something interesting to happen there. What could be weirder than the truth?
- Freebies. 33% want downloadable extras like icons and sample chapters. I am sorta lumping this in with the exclusive, umpublished writing above. I hope to have a couple side stories and/or recipes as freebies. But I am also paying attention to ideas for free wallpapers and such. I’ll look for easy ways to add things like that. Any suggestions?
- Regular contact. 33% of readers want weekly e-mail news bulletins with updates on tours, reviews, and books in progress. I already have this covered. See the signup in the sidebar to get on my mailing list.
- Fans under the age of 35: these fans like contests, puzzles, and games, with prizes like autographed copies of books. Well, this is hard, too, to plan for as I write. I am keeping a radar out, though, for contest, puzzle and game ideas. And I’ll certainly offer book giveaways when it’s appropriate. But overall, I’m not sure this one really affects my writing process much.
Overall, then, it is the extra writing and the insider information that needs to run parallel to my writing process. By the time this next book is written, I’ll have plenty of material for the website. Only time will tell if the fans come.
My May Days buddies like to make another month-long group binge-writing effort in the fall. This year I'm working with them during the month of October. The plan, once again, is to write two pages a day, and report how we're doing each Monday.
I have probably discussed the issue of whether or not two pages is all that difficult a daily task. It's not. The issue is that writing has become something writers do less of than in days of old. That bugaboo marketing, in all its many, many manifestations, takes up a lot of time, but so does teaching for many writers, workshop planning, public appearances, and submissions. Finding time for the real creative work involved with writing can be an effort, even if you don't have problems with staying on task. It's particularly difficult if you're trying to get started on a new, book-length project.
My plan for my own personal Octoberfest, as I'm calling this month's unit of time, is to:
- Sprint at least five days a week
- Generate two pages of material as many days of the week as possible
- Allow the two pages of new material to include new scene planning, if need be
- Learn to do what I'm going to call skim writing, meaning I'm going to try not to stop to get obsessive about perfecting factual bits, names, etc. I want to leave ______ or bold placeholders, which I hope will help me move ahead generating material that will provide the solutions for those blank spaces and placeholders that I can then go back and correct. I get bogged down much, much too often with those types of things for my taste.
And, of course, I hope to be able to wring another blog post or two from this experience.
I have already done today's two pages. Now I need to go off to do some marketing/networking types of things.
I have a book-length work-in-progress that is actually in progress. This is the first time since the eBook publication effort for Saving the Planet & Stuff. Huzzah.
I got started on this in April, prepping for May Days, a unit of time I used to plan scenes for this project. Planning scenes is like plotting but different. Perhaps it could replace plotting for those who struggle with that.
I actually got started writing sometime this summer (maybe August?), working from that scene list. I was two and a half chapters and thirty-nine pages in, when I realized I still had a ways to go to get to the big disturbance to my protagonist's world. If you've been following my plotting posts for The Weekend Writer, you know that I'm very interested in the initial disturbance that starts a story. I had a secondary disturbance in the very first sentence, but the big one was taking a while to get to.
So for a little more than two weeks, I've been revising those two and a half chapters, changing the structure of the first chapter dramatically so that readers move back and forth between the day of the big reveal and how the protagonist got there. Instead of two and a half chapters and thirty-nine pages without reaching what I wanted to reach, I now have one twenty-eight page chapter, and I'm where I want to be to get the story going. In fact, the story is going.
I am an organic writer, as I said earlier this month, which makes it difficult for me to talk about plotting. What is an organic writer, you ask? I've seen references to us for a long time, but usually the references aren't very involved, as if many people aren't clear on what we are. ("I may not know organic writers, but I recognize one when I see one!") We are said to write by the seat of our pants. Thus you sometimes hear us referred to by the mildly vulgar term "pantsers." We are said not to plot. I once saw a blogger describe us as using our first drafts to find our stories, meaning we sit down to write before we know what our story will be.
Plotters, on the other hand, presumably plot out their stories before they start to write. My understanding is that they know what they're going to write, they just have to sit down and do it. I once read a plotter describe spending three months working out his plot before he started actually writing. I don't know if most plotting writers do that, or if plots spring from their heads fully formed, or how they work at all. I can only guess what they do.
My last Weekend Writer post dealt with The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. Alderson provides some of the best writing on organic writers that I've ever seen.
Organic writers, she says, tend to think in pictures, as in "the big picture," rather than language, while plotters go the other way. They are more analytical and detail oriented. Organic writers tend to prefer writing about characters while plotters prefer dramatic action. Organic writers tend to see a story as a whole and are short on details. Plotters tend to see the story in its parts. Organic writers may concentrate on character and end up being weak on the action that drives readers to stick with a story. Plotters may concentrate on action scenes and lose readers who need human interest.
I agree with a lot of what Alderson has to say about organic writers. Our interest in the big picture tends to leave us going, Okay, how do I get to that big picture? This is why formulaic plotting plans often aren't very useful for us. They involve coming up with details. A problem to solve and roadblocks to solving said problem or, heaven help me, metaphorical doors to go through or not are more mystifying than not for us. If I have problems coming up with details, telling me to come up with details isn't going to provide me with a lot of help.
Plotters are like engineers who design every element of a project so that it can be built into a completed whole. Plotters supposedly know what's going to happen in their story after they have their plot worked out, just as engineers know how their project will turn out once they've finished their, though both may have to make some changes before the job is done. Organic writers are also like engineers, engineers who have to "fast track" a project, meaning construction begins before they've finished the design. Organic writers frequently begin writing before they even are clear on what the basic story is going to be. Their process is all about design changes.
In future posts, I'll have more to say about writing process for organic writers.
I am excited to introduce you to Shermie Rayne, who won second place in the Spring 2013 Flash Fiction contest with her haunting, vivid, and amazing story, "Revolution." This is one of my favorite flash fiction pieces I've ever read--first because I love the genre, historical fiction, and don't read it much in flash fiction. But most of all, Shermie was able to take a terrifying event and show us less than 750 words how it affected the rest of the main character's life, as well as share the character's emotions and fears. If you haven't read "Revolution" yet, please take the time to do so now right here.
Shermie, a native of Kentucky, currently resides in Virginia with her husband and four children. Other than a futile attempt at penning a True Confessions
inspired story at the age of eleven, she is a recent newcomer to the wondrous world of writing. A graduate of Bellarmine University, and a former registered nurse, when Rayne was confronted with the angst of middle age, she decided to try her hand at writing, instead of returning to hospital scrubs.
Although she still reads more than she writes, Rayne has completed a couple short stories and has several novels in various stages of development brewing, including her current project, Faye
, a young-adult fantasy novel. If you’d like to follow Rayne along on her writing journey, please visit her blog: http://shermierayne.wordpress.com/
.WOW: Welcome, Shermie! What gave you the inspiration for "Revolution"?Shermie:
I believe the story seed for "Revolution" was planted when I became aware of certain events that occurred to some of the colonial women and girls during the Revolutionary War. Just prior to writing "Revolution," I had recently heard/read of a famous British Army quote from that time period: “The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation…” ~Francis, Lord Rawdon.
It bothered me, or more precisely the history behind the quote’s meaning…well, it angered me. Not because atrocities of that nature didn’t happen, or don’t still happen, but because it had occurred so ostentatiously, with such blatant disregard, here in America. I envisioned being a mother with a young daughter to protect, and from that place of desperation, "Revolution" was born. WOW: I had never heard that quote before, and really, there are no words when you hear something like that. You responded to it like many writers would--pouring out your heart in a beautiful story. Do you write historical fiction often? Why or why not?Shermie:
While I do enjoy reading historical fiction, I’ve never written it. Because I have a tendency to be thorough and sometimes get “hung up” on the details, I have/had this conception that to write in this genre would be extremely time consuming and tedious because of the absoluteness it requires in authenticity. With that said, I’m a firm believer in the “never say never” motto. In fact, I couldn’t help myself and have a loose outline sketched and plan to continue with "Revolution" and see it through to novel length (someday).
My ultimate hope for my writing is not to be boxed into a genre or category—I want to allow the stories to define themselves and their own placement. The short story I worked on prior to "Revolution" was straight up horror. My current novel-in-progress is fantasy based, while the other stories in waiting range from dystopian to family drama.WOW: I would love to read a novel version of "Revolution." So, was it hard to pack all that emotion & history into one less-than-750-word story? Why or why not?Shermie:
In all honesty: no, it was not hard. I believe when a writer feels emotion(s) with a piece, the reader will, too. I had an incredibly moving vision with this story and knew it was meant to be shared. I was affected by the unfairness of the circumstance and wanted to give the mother power--and her own form of revolution (which was to hide and protect her daughter). All stories need the element of hope, even in dire circumstances-- and its character(s) need the ability, or the possibility, to remain resolute.
So, I quickly scribbled what I had seen onto legal paper, and from there, added the historical details and what I call “senses layering”, followed by editing (and cutting my word count). I purposely wrote this piece in first person, present tense to accentuate that forward feel of urgency and distraught dismay. WOW: Thank you so much for sharing your writing process with us. I bet that will help some of our writers out there! According to your bio, you switched from a career in nursing to a career in writing. What made you switch?Shermie:
I was actually in a hiatus from the nursing profession. I had spent the last decade producing and growing a nice, little crop of children. But alas, the time flew by until I had a horrific consternation of realization: my kids were not so little anymore, and they wouldn’t always be so needy. I racked my brain thinking of different avenues to pursue for myself. With my three youngest children, at that time, heading off to jr. kindergarten, third and fifth grades, respectively, I knew I still needed a super flexible schedule, and I just couldn’t see how returning to nursing could work in our busy family life. So, I considered making and selling crafts(I’m not really crafty), working at Lowe's, decluttering other people’s homes, and/or maybe picking out their next paint colors--and then painting their newly decluttered spaces. My list of crazy ideas was boundless! My then eight-year-old daughter had spent that summer continuously writing stories, really excellent and creative stuff—I was so impressed and enamored with her abilities. I became her reader and editor, cooing and gushing over her while also guiding her with pointers and corrections. And, then the big idea hit me: you could write, too! So, I did.WOW: That is awesome--I love your list of things you could do AND how your daughter inspired you to write. Your bio also mentions you have novels in various stages. So, what's your writing process like?Shermie:
My writing process is ever evolving, But basically boils down to: imagining, writing, and editing. I have been blessed in that the material that I actually want to write comes to me quite easily (so far-- knock on wood). So naturally, this is the best part of the writing process for me, and the aspect that I love the most—there’s nothing like being sucked into a little scene that plays out in your head. So my process begins there and continues in this thinking/imagining mode until I have a loose, but solid, outline.
Inspiration often hits me at very inconvenient times (e.g., the shower or driving), so that by the time that I’m ready to start writing, I have a file folder full of a gazillion hand-written scraps of paper, napkins, Post-its, and sketchy outlines to integrate into the story. I don’t start typing until I have a decent understanding of key characters, and I’ve seen the story’s ending, beginning, and several important scenes (usually in that order). From there, it’s all about imputing the story into the computer. I’m always amazed that there are a lot of details and extra material that spontaneously adds itself to the story along the way. My least favorite aspect of writing would have to be editing (and typing)!
One new tool that I started using with my current novel-in-progress is to keep a novel journal. I read of Sue Grafton using this technique with her novels, so I gave it a try. And it has made all the difference to me. I can flip back to the earliest entries that were written well before I even considered typing, and I can really get a feel for my characters and the story’s needs and wants. WOW: That sounds a lot like a "novel bible." It is so important to keep notes! It sounds like you are also an avid reader. Can you tell us one or two titles you've read recently that you've really enjoyed?Shermie:
I’d say I’m rather an odd reader, I suppose. Between audiobooks, my Kindle, and actual “real” books, I have to have at least five to seven different books going at once, perhaps this reminds me of my college days, but I enjoy the variety and a wide array of genres.
I was very reluctant to embrace audiobooks at first, believing that I was a visual leaner and I’d not enjoy it; I was completely wrong (thanks, Amy). Audiobooks account for roughly half of my total “reading” time, which allows me to increase the number of books that I’m exposed to. But the greatest benefit: I believe it helps me greatly in my own writing. While visually reading books, one can absorb structure and story flow (which is awesome, too); however, when listening to the cadence of the human voice through storytelling, you can gain the feel for the rhythm and rhyme of words—which definitely can help writers. I love this quote by Virginia Woolf, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words.”
I just completed my summer-reading log through my local library system. (You know, trying to set a good example for my kiddos.) From that list of twenty-four books, if I had to choose just two books, I’d say, The Color Purple
by Alice Walker and Bird by Bird
by Anne Lamott. The former not only because it’s written in epistolary-letter form (which I love), but because the voice of the story rings true; the latter book is actually a wonderfully encouraging and poignant book on writing, which I highly recommend to any writer.WOW: I love Bird by Bird, too! Thanks for a wonderful interview, Shermie. We wish you the best of luck! Interview by Margo L. Dill. To find out about Margo and her books, visit www.margodill.com.
Last Thursday, September 5 marked two important anniversaries: it was the two-year anniversary of Rookie Magazine, which I've had the honor of writing for since the beginning (in case you want to revisit it, here's my excited post about Rookie's launch) and the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Seattle.
Actually scratch that. It marked three important anniversaries. It was also the two-day anniversary of me feeling that happiest I've been since 2009.
I haven't been wholly and completely miserable since 2009. Some really wonderful things have happened. Like this:
And even this:
But that last thing was kind of where the trouble began. About three weeks before Ballads was to be released, during a horrible week when I'm guessing but can't be bothered to check that Mercury was in retrograde because we were having the kind of killer heat wave that made me hate Chicago, my air conditioner was broken, and I was having so many problems with my home internet that I'm surprised I didn't bomb Comcast, my then-agent called to tell me to STOP EVERYTHING and promote Ballads
because the publisher wasn't really doing anything for it and the print run and sell-through numbers were half of what they'd been for I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.
Since they are sorta like children, I don't think you are supposed to love one book more than another, but I did love Ballads
more. It was the book I felt like I was born to write--or that I'd survived my teenage years to write. I'd poured so much of myself into it that the ulcer problems that I'd had at sixteen resurfaced and were worse than they'd ever been.
And with the way my agent was talking it sounded like that book had failed before it even hit stores because my publisher had already written it off. I don't know how much of that is true and how much of that was my emotional response. What I do know is that I did everything I could. I was actually already
doing everything I could. I mean, if high school had majors, mine would have been "Punk Rock D.I.Y." I'd taken everything I knew to support both of my books. With Ballads,
I'd even hired a publicist.
But, to this day, it's sold only a third of what I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
sold. I don't know why. It's the better book. Up until I finished The Grief Book in May, I was pretty sure it was always going to be the best thing I'd ever written. I think that it is always harder for second books, even when the publisher is giving them a big a push, and when the publisher isn't, well... But I don't want to play any sort of blame game. I still have nothing but love for my editor and the people I worked with at MTV Books. I honestly don't really know what happened. All I do know is this:
It was out of my control.
But it has taken me four long years to come to grips with that.
I'm a perfectionist. An overachiever. Even when I was a stoner fuck-up, I was a straight-A student (aside from gym which doesn't count toward your G.P.A., so um, it doesn't count). I couldn't shake the idea that I had failed somehow. I had this big dream of "making it" as a writer, but instead I was (barely) supporting myself on bartending income, which was not at all where I envisioned myself with my fancy MFA degree at the age of 30. I beat myself up for months, for years
thinking I wasn't good enough, my writing wasn't good enough.
My writing suffered as a result. There was the whole saga of The Bartender Book. I spent two years on that book, going through paralyzing periods of writer's block, ignoring so many people's gentle advice to just let it go--advice that maybe I should have taken because it hasn't sold--because I felt like I needed to prove that I could finish a book. I thought things would get easier after that, but then there was The Modern Myth YA that I couldn't finished and my biggest crisis of faith
about my writing, which came in the middle of writing The Grief Book.
Other Hard Things were happening too. I had friends who were going through Terrible Awful Things. I was still reeling from the death of my friend Marcel in 2008. My house kept flooding because the weather in Chicago was pretty much constantly wretched. My beloved cat, Sid, who'd been my best friend and companion since my awful junior year of high school got really sick and then last November, he passed away.
Out of his death came the decision to move, though. I felt like he was setting me free. Like he knew I wouldn't go anywhere with him sick because it was too risky to be away from our trusted caregivers. But when we were saying goodbye, I felt like he was telling me to make myself happy.
My therapist definitely was. I went back to therapy in July of last year because I knew my depression was the worst it had been in fifteen years. I was thinking about cutting. I was even sometimes thinking about suicide. I felt very much like I had at sixteen, but I knew more. I knew I didn't want to hurt the people I loved and that I
didn't want to keep hurting. I knew that I could help myself. So I did.
In therapy I quickly had a bunch of revelations, especially about control--what I could control, what I couldn't and why I was so obsessed with it (the still-lingering effects of the controlling/abusive relationship I was in as a teenager).
There are many things about my writing career that I can't control, namely who buys my books, meaning both publishers and then how many people buy them after they come out. I can only write the very best book I can, promote it in the ways I know how, and hope for the best. I can't base my happiness on this. So I needed to be proactive and do the things I knew would make me happy. That thing was moving to Seattle and starting fresh in a city that I love.
It was absolutely petrifying because it meant relinquishing a lot of control, which I wrote about in part two of my series on making the move for Ms. Fit Magazine here
. I came out here without a job aside from the work I do for Rookie and Ms. Fit and an online teaching gig, which all together would pay maybe a month's worth of bills. I had savings and a credit card with a high limit. I have a very supportive mother. I had to trust that this would be enough and that finding my own happiness would be worth the gamble.
My friend Marcel wrote his Instructions for Life on a paper towel and after his death, another friend had them printed on paper towels for a bunch of us. I keep mine in a shadow box above my desk. This is his first instruction:
"Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk." My friend, the one who had the paper towels printed for us, reminded me of this before I set off. I insisted that the shadow box with the paper towel accompany us in the car, that it be the first thing in my new home because I believed that knowing me as well as he did, Marcel would know that for me, a person who has struggled with depression for most of her life, a greater achievement than publishing a book would be learning how to make myself happy. In fact, I'm sure if I'd been able to call or write him during my struggles in the past four years, he would have said something like that. I know that he would have been proud that I finally figured it out on my own.
My third piece for Ms. Fit, which I hope will be published soon, was written a month after we arrived in Seattle. When I was mostly happy because,um, well, I live in a place where I regularly see views like these:
But I was also freaked because I still hadn't found a job and/or sold a book, which I thought would click right into place if this whole moving thing was meant to be.Deep breaths.Great Risk.It'll be worth it.You can do it.
Job hunting is a slow process, especially in this economy. But much like when my husband and I found the right apartment, when I found the right job, everything sped up and it happened fast. I started last Tuesday as the administrative assistant in the English Department of a local university, one that is only a 15 minute bus ride or a a half an hour walk from my house. It's a gorgeous campus in one of my favorite parts of the city. Yes, it's office work. Yes it's full-time. Yes, this is a huge change from the past four years or so of my life. But it is an English Department and the people I've met so far are inspiring and amazing. For the first time in a long time, I feel stable, secure, hopeful, happy.
I know there will still be challenges, the biggest being how to fit writing into my life. I know for sure that I will keep writing for Rookie because that is writing that has brought me nothing but joy for the past two years. I've always written fiction, but I've been writing essays and rants and zines since high school and I take just as much pleasure from that. Also, the Rookie staff has become my best support network. Even though it is an online publication and we work from all over the world, we take good care of each other. It really is one of the best parts of my life.
Of the two projects I mentioned in my last blog
, I'll probably focus on the essay collection/zine thing because Rookie has given me the most joy as of late and because it will be the easiest to piece together while I'm learning to juggle writing and a full-time job. However, The Grief Book is
the best thing I've written. It's better than Ballads.
It's what I survived my teens and twenties and early thirties to write. I believe in it with all of my heart and soul. I'm finally ready to set free all of the old guilt and pain and stress I've felt about my writing career for the past four years and I hope that will unlock the universe somehow and the right editor will read it and want it and you all will get to read it soon. That would definitely take my happiness to the next level, but right now I'm just happy being here, in my heart city with the love of my life, the support of incredible friends all over the place, and knowing that I've done some damn fine work for the coolest magazine on the planet and I've written books both published and unpublished that I'm very proud of.
I love to read writers' autobiographies, for many reasons: the differences between their lives and their books, the experiences they've had, the descriptions of their writing processes. But I don't think I've ever picked up any advice that I followed until Diana Wynne Jones's Reflections -- not an autobiography, but a collection of essays and talks and interviews.
These are the things that helped or inspired me or just really interested me.
She thinks about her books for a long time before she writes them, but doesn't plan them out. Usually when she begins she knows only the beginning, the end, and something in the middle -- until she can see this scene in vivid detail, she doesn't start writing. Part of the fun of writing is learning how the characters got from the beginning to the middle.
She knows ALL her characters -- even the minor ones -- really well before she starts. She says that if you do, you'll rarely get stuck: when you need a character to be somewhere doing something you will remember that someone else, say, owns a grocery store and...You don't tell the reader NEARLY everything you know -- she, for example, knows exactly what all her characters look like, but rarely describes them: if you know, she says, their looks will come through to the reader.
She writes her first drafts in what she describes as a "white heat" -- just pours them out. Then in the second draft she gets very analytical and critical.
This was especially helpful to me -- I often get bogged down in being critical, and it really hampers the flow of ideas. The more the two processes can be separated, the better.
She advises modeling villians on people we know; there is no need to worry that they will recognize themselves, she says, because few people think of themselves as bad...unfortunately I was unable to do this -- none of the people I wanted to use were quite right for the things they had to do -- but it's a good idea.
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
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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!
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
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.
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?
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
“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.
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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.