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Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”
She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.
But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.
An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.
The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.
Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.
But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.
What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.
This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.
What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.
Since tomorrow is thanksgiving, I thought I'd share what I'm thankful for this year. These are in no particular order, and I'm sure I'm forgetting people so I'll apologize in advance for that.
This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for:
my family who is so supportive of the crazy author/editor lifestyle I've chosen
my friends who accept that I ignore them when I'm in my writing or editing bubble
my writer friends who truly know how tough this business is and endure it alongside me
my amazing street team, Kelly's Coven, who shares every step of this journey and helps me make decisions about author logos, book settings, and so much more
my agent who keeps me sane when I just want to scream and cry, which has been more than I'd like to admit
my social media manager, Amber, who always has brilliant ideas about how to spread the word about my books
my readers, whether they've been with me from the start or have just discovered my books
my newsletter subscribers for actually wanting to hear from me every month to see what I'm up to
the schools who have invited me to speak and share what I do for a living
my editing clients who allow me to make some money to pay bills and allow me to work on some really amazing books
bookstores who invite me to sign and who also carry my books on the shelves so I can take pictures of them out in the wild
my social media followers who put up with my posts about my crazy Shep-hound dog, my adorable daughter, all my books, The Walking Dead, my love of Jensen Ackles, and my Jamberry nail obsession
Limitless books for being so amazing to work with and for putting out Our Little Secret and the entire Into the Fire trilogy
my editors and beta readers for making me a better writer
bloggers and book reviewers who take the time to review and share my books with others...
I could keep going, but this is getting kind of long. And the really nice thing is that amidst all the struggles I encounter in this industry, seeing all these great people I have to be thankful for makes me really grateful that I decided to pursue this career.
*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.
A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.
I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).
Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." So it goes. There are, though, lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also really find no joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown. I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.
But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and occasionally, for all my fumbling, seem to have succeeded at being.
It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.
There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.
Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.
If you're struggling to teach writing, have no support from your institution, but don't want to quit, there are resources that can help you. (Though really, you should consider quitting, especially if they're not paying you well. Schools exploit people who they provide little support to because those people feel some sort of obligation to work for crappy wages and in crappy conditions. Say no! Or at least help organize a union.)
Don't just be a writer who shows up in a classroom. You've been hired to be a teacher who also knows something about writing. You need to see yourself in that role, or else you're just grossly stroking your ego in public. Develop a vision of yourself as a teacher, and read the works of writing teachers who inspire — Peter Elbow is my go-to guy whenever I'm feeling bad about my teaching, with Everyone Can Write as the key text (though I'm fond, too, of Writing with Power and Writing Without Teachers). Read Lynda Barry. Read. Talk. Listen. Plenty of people have had all the challenges and disappointments and frustrations that you've had. Learn from them.
And yes, of course there are lots of frustrations along the way. Even the best classes will have bad days, and sometimes you'll have an entire bad term. That's the world of teaching. Analyze what isn't working and try to figure out ways to fix it; seek out other people's ideas when you're stuck. I hate the feeling of having been a bad teacher, but it also invigorates me, because it makes me determined to fix the problems the next time around. (It's when the problems seem utterly unfixable that you know you're the wrong person for the job. If nothing seems like it will get better and again and again you find yourself dreading the next class, the next term, then quit if you can. It's okay. You don't need to spend your entire life as a bad teacher. Create an exit plan before you kill yourself or one of your students. Seriously.)
I've been meaning to write about the most successful writing course I've taught, and so this gives me a bit of an excuse to do so. By "successful" I mean that the students' work and reflections on the course at the end of the term consistently met my goals for the course through multiple sets of students, both in face-to-face classes and online. The course is called Writing and the Creative Process, and I taught it at Plymouth State University. It's the lowest-level creative writing course the English department offers, and it fulfills a general education requirement, so typically it is taken by students will little background in writing and often not much interest in it. They arrive to the course because they need the credit, and many assume a creative writing class is an easy A or B.
My goals for the course are not for the students to become great writers. That's out of my control. Great writing is a mix of talent, practice, experience, circumstances. My goals are more about helping the students to overcome some assumptions about writing and creativity.
Most students arrive to my classes, whether writing classes or otherwise, with an idea that writing is about following rules and not making mistakes. They've lost all sense of play. I want them to be less afraid of playing with language. I want them to be less afraid of the unfamiliar. If I can do that, then a lot of what matters in writing will take care of itself. Of course, there are rules and conventions. Writing is (usually) a form of communication, and communication requires some rules and conventions. But they can be learned, and if learning them is still beyond you for whatever reason, you can probably find friends who will proofread your work for you. (Many excellent writers are rotten with commas. And plenty else. Proofreaders exist for a reason. Research the manuscripts of well-known writers and you'll be astonished.) I love the intricacies of grammar, usage, and style, so I pay a lot of attention to it myself, but for me it's part of the essential play that makes writing a worthwhile activity for me. I try to impart that to students, even in the Writing and the Creative Process class, but I also don't expect them all to be like me.
After teaching the class a few times in a way that didn't thrill me, I finally came upon this progression of material, which seems to work:
Unit 1: First Things Unit 2: Shaping Raw Material Unit 3: Images and Senses Unit 4: Words Unit 5: Sentences and lines Unit 6: Paragraphs and stanzas Unit 7: Revision Final Exam week: Portfolio
Lots of people teach the course by going through major genres, but I don't care for that approach because in my experience it's highly superficial to write essays for a week or two, poems for a week or two, stories for a week or two, etc. I sprinkle different genres throughout the term, but we never stick with any particular one. Learning different genres is not the goal. I want the students to play around, and I want them to think about similarities in different ways of writing rather than differences.
The First Things unit is focused on introductions, starting out, and beginning to forget the "rules" you think you know about writing. I think of it as the deprogramming unit. Especially given the mania for standardized testing in schools over the last 15 years, students arrive to my classroom with great anxiety about "proper" writing. They mostly think they're bad at it, and they're terrified of losing points. So I make a point of getting them to pay attention to themselves, to do things like stare at an object for 10 or more minutes and then write about the experience, to write a list of rules for good writing and then violate them all, etc. The basic theme might be able to be boiled down to, "Who are you? What do you know? How do you perceive things? And how might we expand/broaden/explode all that?"
The Shaping Raw Material unit is exactly what it says. The exercises have the students write 5 versions of a short piece of writing, try out different points of view, rewrite a folktale, rewrite a partner's piece of writing, etc. Some of it is similar to Kenneth Goldsmith's "Uncreative Writing" ideas, some of it isn't. The goal is to look at the different ways writing can be shaped, and the effects of different shapes. Again, it's about breaking out of a narrow way of thinking about writing, because narrow ways of thinking only lead to anxiety about "getting it right". Again and again, I say: There are no right answers, so stop looking for them.
The other units are exactly what they sound like: close attention to senses and images, to words, to sentences and lines, etc. It's good to be deliberate about these building blocks. Too often, we take them for granted. They're all fun to play with.
The Portfolio requirement at the end is this:
What your portfolio must include, at a minimum:
Your own artist's statement / portfolio intro. Length: 114-119 words. (Yes, this number is arbitrary. Most rules are.)
Examples of 3 different types/genres of writing, each with at least one revision included. (You will have done a lot of this work for previous units. Now you’re collecting it and polishing it.) Include all drafts along with a final, polished, proofread draft.
A reflection of at least 500 words. This should be the last thing you write. After you've put the portfolio together, read it, then write this reflection.
You are welcome and encouraged to include more than this in your portfolio, but this is the absolute minimum.
All grading before the portfolio is purely on whether the students follow the guidelines or not. For instance, here's an assignment:
1. Go to the index at the website Worldwidewords.org. 2. Read around on the page. Click on words that grab your attention. Look for weird words. 3. Once you are familiar with the site and how it works, write a piece and use as many unfamiliar/weird words from the Worldwidewords.org list as you can -- at least 20.
(Each exercise is worth a certain amount of points, and I just add them up for their exercises grade, so 95 points = a 95 (A), 84 points = 84% (B), etc. They have a number of exercises to choose from in each unit. All of the exercises together add up to more than 100 points, but I've rarely had students try to go beyond 100 points because I don't count anything above 100 and, in any case, most of the exercises are more complex and take more work than the one above, so if you do them all at the highest level, it's quite a lot of work.)
I don't evaluate their writing until the portfolio, and even then it's light evaluation of their progress more than anything. This has been crucial. The point of this course is discovery and play. That's what I want to encourage. I don't much care if their writing is great or terrible. I want them to improve, though, so we spend time at the end of the course working on revision, but only after we've spent the majority of the course playing around. I want the students to become more flexible thinkers and writers.
My paying no attention to whether they are writing well or badly is liberatory, and the effects are remarkable. The students discover skills and interests they never knew they had because they were so terrified of writing badly and getting low grades. They often struggle against the class in the first weeks because they think I'm going to trick them. They are conditioned to be graded and ranked and evaluated at every turn. They don't know what the freedom from grading, ranking, and evaluation feels like. It's terrifying at first. I must be a bad teacher, I must be a dishonest teacher, they must be doing something wrong. It isn't until a handful of exercises have been graded and they realize they really are just being graded on output that most students begin to really free themselves.
The exercises are not small or easy, and numerous students have told me they've written more for this class than for any other. If I were trying to grade evaluatively, it would be an awful paper burden on me, but I'm not grading evaluatively. I'm mostly just counting words.
The students don't need me to read their work in any depth until the revision stage, and even then mot of the work is on them, as the revision exercises are designed to get them to look at their work in new, different ways. It extends the freedom to experiment to the revision process. Then they sift through everything and begin to put order to it and show off the work they're most pleased with, most proud of. They write about how they got there, and that reflection is vital — students need to think about the processes that allowed them to write in ways they see as successful, and reflective writing is key to helping solidify what they've learned. They reflect on what they've done and what they would like to do in the future.
Their final grade is ultimately not about them being a good writer, but being a writer who has 1.) learned how to play around and experiment; 2.) learned how to look at their work with a new and critical eye toward revision; 3.) learned how to extend what they've discovered to other realms of thinking and writing. If they've been able to do that, they do well.
Grades for the course tend to average around a B, a bit higher than my usual B- average for courses. Sometimes, a group really takes to the material and I end up with an A- average. I don't feel bad about that. Because the grade is based on how much they've written, to get an A- average, the students have written an awful lot.
When teaching more advanced courses, I tend to add in a bit more evaluative grading, I tend to do fewer exercises based on playing around and more toward specific skills and goals, then finish the course with one complete and revised piece of writing. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not.
I don't much like the traditional writing workshop. Maybe it's fine in grad school, but I really dislike it for undergrads, as I think it wastes a lot of time and doesn't give them the tools they need. I've never much liked traditional writing workshops, myself, so maybe it's just a matter of my personality. I'm sure there are people who are great teachers within that structure at whatever level. Personally, as both a student and teacher, I prefer exercises, discussions of a wide variety of published writing (and by wide variety, I mean as wide as possible — true variety, not just Lishian stuff), a focus on sentences and paragraphs, etc. There are plenty of ways to meld some of the virtues of the workshop approach with other structures. I haven't hit on a perfect solution yet, but I keep experimenting when I get the chance to teach an advanced course (which hasn't happened recently, as I'm only teaching one course per term as part of the PhD program, and mostly what I teach is first-year composition).
My goal is not to create professional writers. One or two of my former students have gone off to publish things, but they're really the outliers. I want to help students gain more confidence in their ability to use the language, and I want them to become more enthusiastic, informed readers. The reading part is important to me — I want more students to be delighted by the weirdness of Gertrude Stein, to be willing to try out complex and difficult and alienating texts, to not just seek out what feels most immediately "relevant" to them. Teaching writing is one path to that goal, because it lets students begin to think about how texts are constructed, and what writers think about. Reading like a writer is a good way to read. Experiencing writing as both and art and a craft helps, I hope, to overcome some of the prejudices that lead to writers and artists being seen as people who don't actually labor.
I also don't want to blame students for the failures of institutions. I'm skeptical of the recent discourse about whiny, overprotected students. I don't think teachers should be against students. I think we should be against the neoliberal university that sees nothing but economic indicators. As teachers of writing, we have a special place in that struggle, I think. I take hope from Steve Shaviro's ideas about aesthetics and political economy, e.g.:
I think that aesthetics exists in a special relationship to political economy, precisely because aesthetics is the one thing that cannot be reduced to political economy. Politics, ethics, epistemology, and even ontology are all subject to “determination in the last instance” by the forces and relations of production. Or rather, if ontology is not entirely so determined, this is precisely to the extent that ontology is itself fundamentally aesthetic. If aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.
As teachers of writing, we can wield aesthetics as a weapon against the all-consuming power of neoliberalism — we can help and encourage students to revel in the inefficacy of our aesthetic projects.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.
You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”
That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having troublecaring.
First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:
There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.
If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:
Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.
Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.
Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!
This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.
One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.
If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.
Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.
Here's what's on my mind today:
Editing I'm editing for Leap this week. I'm forcing myself to take breaks to give my poor eyes a rest and hopefully cut down on the eye strain and headaches.
Into the Fire Trilogy I got my release schedule for the Into the Fire Trilogy and ALL 3 books will release in spring 2016! I couldn't be more excited about this. This means no waiting to read the next book. The entire trilogy will be in the readers' hands in a matter of weeks! Here's the official release schedule:
INTO THE FIRE February 16, 2016
OUT OF THE ASHES February 23, 2016
UP IN FLAMES March 22, 2016
Jamberry Facebook Party I'm hosting a Jamberry nail wrap party November 30th-December 7th. I fell in love with Jamberry last spring and now I'm addicted. If you'd like to party with me and possibly win free samples, let me know and I'll add you. No pressure to buy. Just come join the fun.
Drafting As part of my attempt to save my poor eyes, I've decided to reinstate my balanced schedule of writing and editing each day. When I write, I don't stare intently at the screen like I do while I'm editing. So I'm drafting a few thousand words a day now on my WIP, which happens to be an adult thriller.
Fright Before Christmas Have you pre-ordered your copy of Fright Before Christmas yet? It's only $1.99 right now on Kindle. It's a scary fun Christmas read for middle grade and up.
Happy Thanksgiving I hope you all have a very happy and safe Thanksgiving. Be careful traveling, and if you go out on Black Friday PLEASE stay safe. People get crazy when there are sales. I'll be waiting for the much safer Cyber Monday. ;)
Conferences are great places to network and pick up tips that can make the difference between being good and great at blogging (or any other kind of writing), especially when the speaker is someone who has it mastered like Lou Mongello and the conference is with TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange). Who is Lou Mongello? For [...] Continue reading...
Conferences are great places to network and pick up tips that can make the difference between being good and great at blogging (or any other kind of content creation), especially when the speaker is someone who has it mastered like Lou Mongello and the conference is with TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange). Who is Lou Mongello? [...] Continue reading...
Even though I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, I do love to fast draft so I figured I'd share some tips for anyone who needs a little push to get over that middle slump that sometimes creeps up when we're drafting.
Keep momentum I'm going to start with this one because we all know that the excitement of NaNo drives you in the beginning, but it's tough to keep that excitement up mid-month. The key is to keep going. Don't slack on those word count goals. Keep up the pace you've been maintaining.
Don't be afraid to jump around If you get stuck on a scene, skip it and go back to it later. Keep pushing ahead. Sometimes when the middle starts to get to me, I jump ahead to the climax because it's exciting and fast paced. That gets me into the groove again and keeps the words flowing.
Set small goals Daily word count goals can sometimes be overwhelming. Break them up into what you want to write in a twenty-minute span. Setting short goals, means you'll feel a sense of accomplishment sooner, and that can motivate you to keep going and write more.
Reward yourself You know that cookie you're dying to eat. How about after you reach 1,000 words? Give yourself a reason to want to get those words down and then reward yourself for a job well done.
Share your goals and progress When I ran competitively, one of the things I did before a race was tell everyone what time I wanted to run. If they knew my target time, I'd feel accountable because I knew they'd ask me if I met it. Tell people your goals and then check in with your progress. Don't let writing be a solitary experience.
Feed off the energy of others and inspire others just the same Feeling like you're in a slump? Don't post about that. Encourage others to keep going and let them do the same for you. Think positively. Cheering on others just may spark some creativity in yourself.
Good luck NaNoWriMo participants! You can do this. Keep those fingers flying across the keys.
*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.
I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!
There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.
But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.
In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.
My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.
So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.
If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.
What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:
First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.
Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.
If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.
Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.
In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.
It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.
Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.
And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.
Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.
How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning
My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked two days per week.
The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing, and was treated to snarky responses about how I should already know the answer.
Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.
Then, on a roll, I found a free site-blocker app and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.
Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.
I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.
So I stopped doing that. If I sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”
One week I felt stressed about all I had to do: I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach for tips, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.
So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.
And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.
You CAN Set Your Own Hours
Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time.
The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?
We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).
Granted, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.
But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?
Do MORE of What You Love
So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.
Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?
Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets.
Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.
This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.
Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.46.06 PMwalked around the room redirecting the writers back to writing. I shushed writers who were talking even after my redirection. I reminded the class I was helping them to find more writing time through quieter writing time. But still, our writing time didn't feel right, and I didn't like the teacher I was becoming. I wasn't conferring, I wasn't getting to know the writers, I was missing valuable teaching time, and it was still loud!
I had to do something because writing time was quickly becoming something I dreaded. (There I said it!) I shudder to think I felt this way; writing has always been my favorite part of the day! It's a time when we get to know each other as a classmate, student, and friend. Panic set in. Was I going to fail these students?
In The Story I’ll Tell a young child asks where he came from. His mother tells him fantastical tales with a kernel of truth that piece together his journey across a wide ocean to his new family. The Story I’ll Tell was released this month and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly which called it “an unabashed love letter. . . [that] many families will treasure.” In this guest post, author Nancy Tupper Ling discusses where the idea for The Story I’ll Tell came from.
I have binders that are two or three inches thick for many of my stories. They are picture book manuscripts, under 1000 words, and yet the binders are full of revision after revision of those few words. And then there are those rare stories that come to me like a gift. My poem, White Birch, was like that, and it became the winner of the Writer’s Digest Grand Prize out of 18,000 entries. Published this month by Lee & Low, The Story I’ll Tell had a similar beginning. It was a gift.
The story idea came to me in the form of a question as I was driving down the highway one day. If a baby landed on someone’s doorstep in the hills of Appalachia, what kind of story would the parents tell their child about how he/she came into their lives? The story sounded like a poem to me, as I wrote a number of far-fetched scenarios in my head. Still, there was one line that pivoted the story, and that’s my favorite line in the book today: “. . .there are times when I think I will tell you the truth, for the truth is a beautiful story too.”
With that line I came to a realization. There would be a nugget of truth in each of the fantastical stories that the parent would tell her child, and this patchwork of truths would be stitched together to reveal the most beautiful story in the end.
Somewhere along the way I began to think of The Story I’ll Tell as an adoption story. I am not an adoptive parent, but I am a parent who waited years for her first child. I know the ache and the longing that many parents experience while waiting for a child to enter their lives. My husband and I had filled out all the paperwork in order to adopt a child from Korea when we learned that I was pregnant with our first daughter, and this experience certainly influenced my story.
That said, I have several friends who had a tremendous influence on my story as well. One couple has ten children who came into their lives through domestic and international adoption. Another friend adopted her daughter through the foster care system. As The Story I’ll Tell was coming together I thought of their stories, all of which were unique, and how the parents would reveal them to their children in due time.
Certainly adoption stories include heartache as well. It was important for me to touch upon this sentiment, without making it overwhelming. One of the last lines in the story is “When we brought you home in dawn’s early light, you cried for things lost and new.” One mother’s loss is another mother’s gain. The child feels this, too. An adoption story has both longing and love. Hopefully this leads to a forever home where the child is treasured beyond compare.
In the end, it was Lee & Low who asked me to focus on a certain country of origin for the character, and since my husband is Chinese-American, I gravitated toward that heritage. As Eurasians, my own children know the push and pull of looking like one culture, and blending in as Americans. Jessica Lanan brought all these threads together with her gorgeous illustrations, so that the reader, like the child, feels the warmth of a new home and the reminder that she, too, has a story to tell.
Nancy Tupper Ling is the winner of the Writer’s Digest Grand Prize and the Pat Parnell Poetry Award, and is the founder of Fine Line Poets, a website for poets who live in New England. She was inspired to write The Story I’ll Tell by the multicultural background of her own family and the experiences of friends who have adopted children from all over the world. Ling resides in Walpole, Massachusetts, with her husband and their two young daughters.
It's no secret that I'm a huge proponent of authors supporting other authors, but today I want to take that one step further and talk about authors teaming up with other authors. This is such a great way to help each other promote and to reach a new audience. This week, I'm teaming up with 11 other YA authors to bring readers a huge giveaway. It's great for the readers, and it's great for the authors too because we are reaching new potential fans and sharing our fan bases with each other. If you haven't yet teamed up with other authors like this, I'd encourage you to try it. And before you go, check out the giveaway and be sure to enter. There are so many prizes to win!
First, here are the participating authors:
Now for the prizes. There will be a winner for each prize. Yes, that means there are a ton of chances to win!
2 $40 gift cards
eBook of PERFECT FOR YOU by Ashelyn Drake
eBook of FINE ART OF PRETENDING by Rachel Harris
eBook of SOMETHING ABOUT LOVE by Elana Johnson
eBook of ELEVATED by Elana Johnson
eBook of PLAYING WITH FIRE by Sherry Ficklin
One of the GUARDIANS OF GALAXY books by Ednah Walters
RITE OF REJECTION by Sarah Negovetich
4 copies of THE TROUBLE WITH DESTINY by Lauren Morrill
eBook set of THE DARK BETRAYAL Trilogy by Nichole Chase
eBook of TOUCHING SMOKE by Airicka Phoenix eBook of DAUGHTER OF CHAOS by Jen McConnel
You can enter on my Facebook page or on the Rafflecopter form below. The giveaway is international and will run from November 9th to November 15th. Good luck!
Ashelyn is a pen name for Kelly Hashway. Kelly grew up reading R.L. Stein’s Fear Street novels and writing stories of her own, so it was no surprise to her family when she majored in English and later obtained a masters degree in English Secondary Education from East Stroudsburg University. After teaching middle school language arts for seven years, Hashway went back to school and focused specifically on writing. She is now the author of three young adult series, one middle grade series, and several picture books. She also writes contemporary romance under the pen name Ashelyn Drake. When she isn’t writing, Hashway works as a freelance editor for small presses as well as for her own list of clients. In her spare time, she enjoys running, traveling, and volunteering with the PTO. Hashway currently resides in Pennsylvania with her husband, daughter, and two pets.
Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.
Here's what's on my mind today:
Leap News I've signed another author to Leap Books Seek. I'm so excited about this book and can't wait to share the news. I'm just waiting on the Publisher's Weekly announcement. :)
Editing This week I'll be editing the new book I acquired.
Drafting I'm a little jealous of all the people writing away for NaNoWriMo, so I may attempt to get some words in on my adult thriller this week. I had to put it aside to edit for clients. And yes, you read that correctly. I'm writing an adult thriller.
Review Opportunity I'm looking for a few more readers to review Our Little Secret. If you're willing to read the book and review it on Amazon, let me know in the comments, or email me at khashway(at)hotmail(dot)com and I'll send you a review copy.
Huge Multi-Author YA Giveaway I'm teaming up with a bunch of amazing YA authors to bring you a huge giveaway. There are tons of prizes and tons of chances to win! Here's what's up for grab:
2 $40 gift cards
eBook of PERFECT FOR YOU by Ashelyn Drake
eBook of FINE ART OF PRETENDING by Rachel Harris
eBook of SOMETHING ABOUT LOVE by Elana Johnson
eBook of ELAVATED by Elana Johnson
eBook of PLAYING WITH FIRE by Sherry Ficklin
One of the GUARDIANS OF GALAXY books by Ednah Walters
RITE OF REJECTION by Sarah Negovetich
4 copies of THE TROUBLE WITH DESTINY by Lauren Morrill
eBook set of THE DARK BETRAYAL Trilogy by Nichole Chase
eBook of TOUCHING SMOKE by Airicka Phoenix
The giveaway is international and will run from November 9th through November 15th. Enter on my Ashelyn FB page or on the rafflecopter form below. Good luck!
Today, we're welcoming Lisa Maxwell to the blog, to talk about a very elusive concept that is so important to the way we create: self-confidence. Lisa's second novel, GATHERING DEEP was released on October 8th, and her third, THE STARS TURNED AWAY will be published in February.
On Self-Confidence in Writing by Lisa Maxwell
The thing that I struggle with more than anything else is self-confidence. Like a lot of other writers, I’m an introvert. Putting myself out there is probably one of my least favorite things to do. Maybe there was a point, right when I was about to finish my PhD, where I actually felt sure of myself enough to be truly confident in the future I had ahead of me. I’d worked my behind off for six long years, went above and beyond doing all the things a good grad student who wanted a job could do, and thought for sure that I’d finally done enough. I was so sure of myself and my prospects, I bought two suits and a plane ticket to California (where the interviews were going to be that year). And then… the economy tanked, there were no jobs, and I had a non-refundable ticket to California that I didn’t need. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more of a failure, more unworthy in my entire life.
Strangely enough, that failure led to me to writing, maybe it was because that failure freed me in a way. I’d always thought, for whatever reason, that if I just did enough, worked hard enough, I could prove myself. I could eventually be as successful as I wanted to be. Not getting a job after my degree was a huge disappointment, but it was also a huge revelation. There I was, jobless, without any real career prospects in the industry I’d spent almost a decade training myself for. I’d done everything right, and it didn’t work. All the hard work in the world wasn’t enough to counteract a pitiful economy and constricting education sector I found myself in a completely novel position (for me, at least)— and the thing was, it wasn’t really about me.
From the time I declared my major as English, I spent years telling people that I didn’t want to write books. I just wanted to read them. To be honest, I never thought I did. I never thought I could. Writers were people way more talented than I could ever possibly be.
Looking back, I realize now that I was just afraid. I was afraid of not being able to write as well as the authors I so admired. I was afraid of being a failure, of not being good enough. But over-educated and underemployed,aAll those fears I’d had for so many years about writing didn’t matter at that point—I was already at the bottom, career-wise. I was in a place where I had nothing left to lose.
There was a strange kind of freedom in that.
I wrote my first book, because I needed to. I needed stories in my life, even though I wasn’t taking or teaching classes. I needed beautiful words and the escape that literature had always provided me, so I decided to try making it. And then to my utter surprise, it worked. I found out that I loved writing stories even more than I loved reading. I discovered that I was pretty decent at writing them, and that I wanted to keep writing them.
When I first started writing, I was writing with the kind of desperation that comes from having your dreams dashed. Maybe it’s because when I first started, I didn’t really think the whole publishing a book thing would work. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t believe getting published would happen as quickly as it did for me. I expected to fail…a lot. I expected to finish books, only to box them up and store them away because they weren’t ready yet. I wrote with an almost complete lack of expectations for myself or the work, but not without hope. Something about that combination did work, though. Maybe it was because for the first time I wasn’t worried about being good enough. I was just concerned with the work itself.
Then, all of a sudden, I had a 2-book contract. All of a sudden, I was an author.
Right about then, I think the fears about being good enough started to rear their ugly heads again: was the book good enough? Was I doing enough to promote it? Could the next book be better? Did I deserve to be considered an author? Was I really enough to be a “real” author?
Those fears never really go away, it seems. There’s always someone writing better, getting a bigger deal, doing a better job of promoting. There are always multiple somebodies who look like they have this author thing down, that they are in control. And the more I see that, the more I struggle with my own self-doubt.
Four books later, I’m not sure I feel like a “real” author, whatever that means. Writing—and especially being paid for my writing—still seems like this miracle I fell into when things were at their worst—a complete surprise and an amazing gift. But when it comes to the business side, it’s so easy for self doubt to creep in. Those old fears of being enough—especially now that I know that, sometimes, all the hard work in the world won’t be enough.
I’m working on my fourth contracted book now, a book that I’ve outlined and am so excited about. A book that my publisher has approved and is also excited about. And even with all that excitement, the old fears come creeping back. Can I make this what I want it to be? Will what I do with the book be enough to make it popular? To make others like it? Am I good enough to write this story? Who am I to think I could write this story?
No surprise, the fear of not being enough has done a number on me. The writing is going excruciatingly slow right now. I know these characters, and I love their story, but all of those doubts are back, creeping in again and making writing harder than its been in a while. I’ve been letting my struggles with self-confidence get in my way, and I have to keep reminding myself to go back to the page, back to the words. I have to make myself try to remember that time when I was writing with nothing left to lose, a time when all that mattered was the work, because whatever happens—I have the work itself, and that always is enough. Even when it’s at its hardest.
About the Book
When Chloe Sabourin wakes in a dark, New Orleans cemetery with no memory of the previous days, she can hardly believe the story her friends tell her. They say Chloe was possessed by a witch named Thisbe, who had used the darkest magic to keep herself alive for over a century. They tell her that the witch is the one responsible for the unspeakable murders that nearly claimed the life of Chloe's friend, Lucy. Most unbelievable of all, they say that Thisbe is Chloe’s own mother. As she struggles with this devastating revelation and tries to rebuilt her life, Chloe wants nothing to do with the magic that corrupted her mother…especially since she feels drawn to it.
Now, a new series of ritualistic killings suggests that Thisbe is plotting again, and Chloe is drawn unwillingly back into the mystical underworld of the French Quarter. To stop Thisbe before she kills again, Chloe and her friends must learn what they can from the mysterious Mama Legba. But when her boyfriend Piers vanishes, Chloe will have to risk everything and embrace her own power to save the one person she has left… even if that means bringing down her mother.
Lisa Maxwell is the author of Sweet Unrest (Flux), Gathering Deep (Flux, 2015) and The Stars Turned Away (Simon Pulse, 2016). When she's not writing books, she teaches English at a local college. She lives near DC with her very patient husband and two not-so patient boys.
Over 20 million passengers around the world take a cruise every year! That may sound like a lot of people until you find out it's only half the number of people who visit Las Vegas annually. And yes, Las Vegas is a must-do, but I also believe that everyone should take a cruise at least [...] Continue reading...
A long time ago, before I was telling my stories with illustrations and words, I was a telling them through the use of moving pictures, I was an aspiring filmmaker.
It all started when a friend and I decided we would be the next Tarantino; break out filmmakers, creating cutting edge film. But instead of spending thousands of dollars on film school, we took what little money we had and we were going to do it guerilla style, the indie way.
In the next few months, we drafted a screenplay, auditioned actors, scouted locations, purchased equipment and started filming. We even came up with a hollywood sounding name for our troupe, “The Yuzzi Brothers.” And since we couldn’t take a few months out of our day jobs to make the movie, we wrote a story that took place at night. It would be one of the most intense times of my life. We typically filmed from 8pm to 3am, with just enough sleep to go to work that same morning. Caffeine had become my best friend. A year later, we finally finished our movie and showed it in theaters, in all its flawed glory.
Looking back at the romanticized version of those events, I could honestly say that it was one of the best experiences of my life. We learned a lot about ourselves and about the industry, yet it was not without its challenges. We had actors & crew members who dropped out, our equipment was stolen, myriad of technical issues, schedule conflicts and even injuries. And when you’re on the 8th month of a production, you start to question yourself and your project (or your spouse would). We could have easily given up at any point, but we did not. We kept telling ourselves that we needed to finish.
Starting something new is exciting & fun. And let’s be honest, it’s probably the easiest part. The endless daydreaming of a new project gives us a sense of euphoria. But once the tire hits the pavement and the daily grind of our life gets in the way, that’s when we’re really tested. Self-doubt begins to manifest and we start looking for the off-ramp. We question our ideas, we procrastinate, we revise endlessly. We’re stuck in a never ending loop between unlived expectations and our limited abilities to meet them.
It’s only natural we should strive for perfection. But perfection is that golden goose that if you look at it long enough, it turns into an ugly duckling. That is, in fact, an important part of what makes us creatives. And as we grow and get better, we look back at our work and see the flaws. Yet it’s also important not to get stuck, to keep moving forward, to finish. That is how we grow. I know artists who actually don’t start anything, fearing that the end result will never live up to their expectations. It’s quite unfortunate.
When I feel dismayed, I go back to the reasons why I started. It’s much like reminiscing about my carefree childhood days. Everything seemed possible. I look for that seed of inspiration and use it to re-ignite my inner locomotive.
Sometimes, I realize that I am at that moment in my life incapable of telling the story or drawing that picture. I simply lack the life experience or skills to do so. This doesn’t mean that my idea is lost in the woods, never to be seen. It just means that I can put it in my back pocket and come back to it later. And trust me, I have many of those.
When we were working on our movie, there were so many variables that was ultimately out of our control. We relied on so many people, and to be able to keep it going for a year, and to finish was quite a miraculous thing.
Contrasting that to my current endeavor of writing and illustrating, where everything is really on my shoulders, gives me a unique perspective and set of expectations. I really have no excuse not to finish. It’s all on me. And If I have to spend time away from my family to work on my craft, then I better make it count.
Finishing is important. Once you’ve experienced completing a project that you’ve poured your life into, you stand among the few who have “made it.” You can tip your fedora to the naysayers and show them that you’ve done what you’ve set out to do. You’ve kept your word, your promise; even if it’s just to yourself.
Those who finish are the ones who inspire me the most, because I know how hard it is to get to that point. Not everyone can be a breakout overnight success, but we can sure break out of our walls and create something amazing, and it all starts with mastering the art of finishing.
So put on that thinking cap, adjust your monocle, get a jug of coffee, and dust off that manuscript or picture book. It’s calling your name.
At a recent training on fluency, I found myself discussing strategies about how to help the “racing reader” — the reader who, when asked to read aloud, whips through the text on a page as fast as possible. One of the key strategies that I discussed with the tutors that I coach was building awareness of the purpose of punctuation with all young readers. This suggestion sparked a conversation about how punctuation, and grammar more broadly, gets taught in schools.
Far too often, punctuation instruction is delivered through grammar worksheets or exercises that ask students to choose the correct ending punctuation for a sentence, to put commas in appropriate places, or to correct incorrect punctuation usage in a given passage. When discussing punctuation in the context of fluency, we often teach readers to raise their voices when they encounter a question mark, but less frequently discuss why the author chose to use a question mark there in the first place. Rarely are students clued into the real reason they should give a hoot about punctuation: those symbols on the page are a road map given by a writer to help a reader understand how to read their words.
Luckily, a number of books exist that can be used with writers of all ages to highlight the essential role that punctuation plays in written communication and to foster this deeper understanding of punctuation.
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss
This highly entertaining book shows how miscommunication can abound when commas don’t send the right signals to readers. As she writes in the introduction: “You might want to eat a huge hot dog, but a huge, hot dog would run away pretty quickly if you tried to take a bite out of him.” Truss also has two other titles The Girl’s Like Spaghetti (apostrophes) and Twenty-Odd Ducks (mixed punctuation) that employ the same humorous approach to punctuation.
Punctuation Takes a Vacation by Robin Pulver, illustrated by Lynn Rowe Reed
What will happen when punctuation decides to take a break? As the punctuation marks go on strike because they feel underappreciated, Pulver’s book illustrates the challenges in communicating clearly when punctuation isn’t an option. The book lends itself to a number of follow-up activities where students could attempt to communicate a message without the use of punctuation.
Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka
While not specifically focused on punctuation, Yo! Yes? explores the ways in which meaning can be conveyed or altered through the inflections in our voices that punctuation signals us to make and could serve as a great jumping off point for discussions about why authors choose a specific punctuation symbol at a certain time.
By using children’s literature as an entry point into grammar lessons, students can develop a richer understanding of the why behind punctuation, an understanding they can then use to hone their own skills as writers and fluent readers.
According to legend, Ernest Hemingway once accepted a challenge to tell a story using just six words. He wrote: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn."
For the next GurneyJourney challenge, I invite you to invent a six word story and combine it with a drawing or painting.
Chance meeting. Awkward silence. The weather.
In just six carefully-chosen words, you can introduce characters and add the hint of backstory, foreshadowing, surprise, mystery, revelation, or resolution. The illustration can give context to your story or expand it in a new direction. You'll know if it works if fireworks go off in your head.
Here are a few more six-word stories that Jeanette and I came up with:
He dug until he fell through.
"Let's see what we ran over."
"Why are they selling my stuff?"
"Oops. It was a bearing wall."
"One gallon and a can, please."
Guidelines: 1. Free to enter. Deadline is midnight, December 31. 2. The story must be original and the words must be hand-lettered within the image. 3. The image may be created with any handmade medium, such as pencil, pen, marker, watercolor, oil or gouache. 4. The image can be created either from observation or imagination. 5. You can collaborate with a writer, but enter it under one of your names. 6. Upload your entry to this special Facebook event page. If you don't have a Facebook account, ask a friend to use theirs. 7. If you want, you can also also upload to Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #sixwordstorychallenge 8. You can write your story in a language other than English, but please give the best translation you can (the translation doesn't have to be exactly six words). 9. Submit only one example. If you have submitted one and then come up with a better one later, delete all but your best. 10. I'll pick my five favorites. Each of the five winners gets a free video download, a Department of Art patch, and the work posted on GurneyJourney. ----- Inspiration: There's a book of examples called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure There's also a website SixWordStories.net The urban legend of the Hemingway story.
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I received a package from my publisher just the other day, with some very exciting contents...
It was the colour proofs of my Sketching People book.
I seem to be juggling lots of different projects at the same time right now, but the urban sketching book is at least one which is very nearly finished.
The colour proofs are when you finally get to see what it's going to look like. Even though I've been very hands-on throughout the progress, I've been dealing with it in batches, so never had the chance to look at it as a complete project. Plus I'd never seen the final design of many of the spreads, so I couldn't wait to get a look.
By this stage, all the design has been finalised, all the text is in place, exactly as it will look, and all the images, whether photos or sketches, are in their final positions on the spreads. It was lovely to see everything looking gorgeous!
But I wasn't just sent them to admire: my job was to go through the whole thing with a fine tooth-comb, checking it over and making any final notes about alterations that needed making, or errors I noticed. That meant reading the entire book, which took a while, as you can imagine.
There were actually lots of little things I picked up, both to do with images and text: I made two pages of notes!
One slight complication was that this was the US version - the text has been Americanised throughout, which does not just involve changes to words, but also some big changes to punctuation. I was surprised to discover for example, that in the US, a colon is followed by a capital letter! There were also many differences over where comas are used.
The text will be re-Anglicised after the proofs have been approved, which means Quarto employing someone to make all the changes: apparently less complex than trying to re-instate my original text. All a bit odd, but everything is, as usual, very US-led. That's where the biggest market for the book will be, despite it originating in the UK.
The biggest single issue I picked up, was the placement of annotation arrows: used to point to where I am making specific comments about particular elements of a sketch. Many of them were not quite pointing to the right place, because my designer didn't always quite understand where I was referring to.
All sorted now though. I am very pleased with how it looks. The quality of the colour is great and the design really sets everything off beautifully (thanks Moira!).
I'm told that it should be ready for publication sometimes around the end of February. You can pre-order already, but don't worry - I will definitely be letting you know when it's ready.