Friday, April 30, 2010

Because we have stories to tell...

Why Write?

To use a curious javelina to teach kids about the southwestern U.S. (and prove that even the porcine can be huggable).

To create a new Christmas legend (and make sure everyone knows how termites get in and out of houses).

To tell a compelling love story by weaving together past and present, modern day Illinois and the Civil War South (and say it's OK to sleep a lot because dreams are powerful).

To prove there is at least one more terrific supernatural plot out there (and that there is a soggy ham sandwich-eating Harold Lovejoy in all of us).

To reveal what goes into a witches brew (or maybe that Burgoo in Peru).

And, to tell a tale of piracy and intrigue (and demonstrate that there's more to the Jersey Shore than MTV would have people believe).

Humor aside, I think while a book starts with an abstract idea or thesis, at some point the characters take on a life of their own. Kind of like Harry Potter and Edward Cullen. They're often talked about like they really exist. And my guess is that the reason that countless sequels to Pride and Prejudice have been written is because people can't bear to say goodbye to Mr. Darcy.

Writers write because even if millions of people haven't yet met our characters, they have become important to us. We want to know what happens to them.

Trager has said a couple of times that whole segments of dialogue come to her, and we've all talked about inspiration hitting us at random times of the day. How could we ignore it, especially once we've opened the door to a new world.

I'm not sure if I'm making sense, to be honest, but I will close by saying I continue to write because (like Ellen said) writing can be painstaking at times, but it is also fun. And I mean both the solitary work of putting words to paper and the social aspect of gathering with other writers. I have learned so much by hearing the stories others have to tell while they are still in the process of telling them.

(Hopefully, the other members of the Write 6 will forgive me for summarizing, as I did, their own terrific works in progress, which I greatly respect.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Can't Not

Why still write? The simplest answer is: because I can’t not. (That double negative was for you, Urania!)

It’s kind of funny how you might get involved in something in your life and some experiences stick with you, become part of you, while others fade away without much remorse. One of my examples is yoga. I never thought I would be a yoga person--I had always been into more concrete, competitive stuff like volleyball, interhall flag football, or taking a “real” workout class. The first yoga class I took was a yoga for fertility class. I think it may have saved my life or my sanity. That was only 6 weeks and then I moved into taking Vinyasa, yin/yang yoga, and experimenting with other kinds of workshops (gong bath anyone?) as well as therapeutic yoga (cannot recommend enough for people with chronic pains). I learned about breath as energy and how to control it to get your body to respond a certain way, a simple concept to which to easily return in daily life situations. I learned about meditation, chakras, and yoga of the mind. Plus there are ashtanga and forrest yoga if you really do want a hard workout! There was peace in learning to accept what your body can do at different times and in reconnecting mind to body. I know that even if I am away from an official yoga class for months at a time, its concepts have become a part of me and I will always find a way back to it.

An example to illustrate the “something that fades away” idea is crocheting, which I taught myself about 4 or 4 and 1/2 years ago, before parenthood. I think for Christmas that year I made something like 20 scarves and 16 hats for people, baby hats, and a stuffed pastel caterpillar for a baby. All different kinds of yarns, different kinds of stitches, different seams and finishes and embellishments (I crocheted different kinds of flowers to affix to hats and scarves). I frequented the fabric store, I even ordered yarn online. I was proud of how I could quickly work with smaller and smaller size hooks. It was fun and I took pictures of almost everything I made. My mother said I should sell stuff onine. Even the dog had his own homemade scarf. Then I just stopped. And I never picked it up again. I could not create one stitch now, not even the beginning chain row. I would truly have to teach myself all over again. While I think it would be possible and it might be a nice thing to do again someday, I really haven’t missed it, I really don’t care if I go back to it, and it didn’t become a part of me like the yoga did (and yes, my yoga teacher was one of the recipients of the hat/scarf sets). I still have bins of unused yarn in the basement.

The writing is much more like the yoga, except even stronger, because I did write for fun from a young age--elementary and junior high--but never really seriously considered it. After college I was away from creative writing for many many years, but, for whatever reason, it bubbled up from below the surface and burst into the forefront of my mind again. Once I started jotting scenes and background for a very long story, all sorts of ideas popped up. And then, as mentioned here before, when the Great Non-Backed-Up Hard Drive Crash of June 2008 happened and I lost almost everything I had written, I realized how I needed to re-create as much as I could or I would feel like part of me was missing. The writing was probably always a part of me, whereas I did not come to the crazy yoga concepts until my late 20s.

So to summarize, I guess when something becomes a part of you, you may walk away for a while but you can’t really escape it. Why continue to crochet? Myeh, maybe someday if I feel like it I will pick up the hook again. Or maybe I won’t. But why continue to write? I can’t not.

Why do I do it?

I write because I can. I write because I have always been fascinated by words and eloquence. I feel as though if one has the ability to do something fairly well that they should do it no matter what. Refine the talent, work at it, and success in whatever measure will follow.

I can't explain the high I felt after I wrote my first draft of my first novel. I rode that wave for months. I felt like I had struck oil. I was excited and petrified to share my work and that is when I realized that I wanted to write not for myself but for those I love and for people, not just kids, who have adventure in their hearts.

Come What May

Writing is fun! But why? How can anything this frustrating also be enjoyable? It's that feeling of creating something magical out of nothing. Blank canvas or blank paper,when you create and construct an idea you didn't think you could, there's always a feeling of elation and accomplishment. What you compose may turn out totally different than what you started with. It's a journey, and it's interesting (and sometimes frustrating) to see what you end up with. Characters have a tendency to surprise you, and a new idea may send the plot in a new direction.

For example, in my current project I have a male character any girl would love to hate, but I realized through my critique group that he needs to be more well-rounded. I was really reluctant to give him more depth because, when I write him it's amusing to see how bad he can get. To create some tension, and to keep the reader guessing he needs to be nice though, sometimes.

I like giving myself time to write, and being able to act on an idea that's coming to the surface. When you have a family, it's important to have some "me" time, and writing is mine. I feel the time spent is also purposeful. Okay lets face it, I could be working out instead, I just choose not to. I am indulging myself, but why not, who knows what may come of it?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why do we keep on writing?

I have been waiting all my life for this moment when I can give myself to writing.

When I was in Junior High (we rode on Stegosaurus both ways!) I wrote some Very Clean Romance stories and actually got the attention of some of the Cool Kids who wanted to see their thinly disguised lives penned with a happily ever after. But my father got hold of one, said it was a waste of time and told me not to write again unless it was quality stuff. He had strong opinions on how I wore my hair, too.

Flash forward 30 years (blah, blah, move away from home, blah, blah, therapy), and it was in library school that I teamed up with another librarian to publish our first resource books. And they were published! Still I saw myself as the one who could type quickly, not the creative one. Even after I had published children’s Bible story books I still sensed I was only retelling what someone else had already lived and not anything original. Add another two decades of master’s and doctoral writing and a sermon every week…It was writing – tons and mounds and endless streams of writing, but it was not the imaginative, creative writing I wanted to do. (The picture shows how I suspected my writing was really done.)

Until now! One of my clearly stated goals for (very early) retirement was TO WRITE!

Amazingly for about a year I could not think of anything to say. It was like I’d used up a life time of words on newsletters and bibliographies! Had I lost it or – my greater fear – never really had it?

Then I joined the critique group, first in the structured setting and now on our own. They critique just fine, but, more than that, they inspire with positive encouragement and by sharing their own struggles. I am energized to go to a couple of conferences this summer, have a NY editor look at my stuff, take part in NaPiBoWriWee! Turns out it is never too late: I am excited about writing!

A lesson in Adaptation

Finally, I'm writing the book I have wanted to write for sometime now. Have dusted it off the shelf where it has been percolating for several years now. What's frustrating is it's apparrent that I should have written it several years ago. Now instead of writing offensively I find myself doing defensive writing. I'm constantly changing details, characters personalities, abilities, because I realize that I am not the only one with my ideas. For example, my title has already been changed and it seems that I may be in search of a new one, since a new book will to hit the shelves in 2011 by the same name. I feel like a twin looking for her own identity. Hopefully, I will be able to find mine. There's something I've learned in this process. I know how to adapt.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fiber Optic Testing....What?

My writing project for the week is an article about fiber optic test equipment. How do I feel about it? My head hurts, to be honest. Yet, I've always found that any topic (yes, even this) can be interesting once you look into it. This one happens to be about the types of tools that allow cable operators and telecom companies to make sure all the you tube videos we watch, high-def shows we get on demand, and other types of bandwidth intensive applications we use make it to our computers, televisions and other devices intact.


So bottom line, I haven't actually added much to my YA novel this week. While this is sad in many ways, there is a silver lining: the tech work pays really well and wrestling with my manuscript seems a lot easier compared with figuring out the nuances of 100 Gigabit Ethernet transmissions. I am very ready, in fact unbelievably enthusiastic, about getting back to my characters and their dilemmas.

I mean it...WAKE UP!!!

I'm sorry that this post is so short this week, especially since my blog mates have been very thought provoking. My brain is just swimming and will be until Monday when I turn in my article. That said, I am optimistic about completing a draft of my next chapter to submit for our next critique group meeting.

(Don't worry, guys, my main character isn't going to suddenly want to repair a coherent optical transceiver or anything like that. If she does, please just red line it and pretend it never happened.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

which current project???

Wow! It has been so interesting to read my blogmates’ entries this week! All the frustration. I am afraid that is probably my overriding emotion as well.

How do I feel about my “current project?” My current project is trying to get the twins to the end of this pregnancy while caring for my four-year-old and living in absolute chaos since we just moved to a new house. I have been uncomfortable, exhausted, worried about 8 million things, and generally losing my mind every minute. “Oh, you’re on bedrest? What a perfect time to revise.” Except bedrest is an illusion when you have an older child. And when you were showing your house for buyers and renters 3-8 times a week and then when you were running around trying to find a new house that could close asap and then getting your child’s records transferred and registering him and trying to get him set up at his new preschool. And the time spent driving much further to get to all your doctor appointments (3 next monday alone) that are back near where you used to live but who is going to switch 32 weeks into it?

When I do have resting time, it is very difficult to have even 5 minutes uninterrupted to work on anything, with the following people in and out: the painter, the carpet installers, the hardwood installers, the radon guys, the mold guys, the direct tv guy, etc. on every level of the house. My son and the dog still need to be cared for (we don’t have any kind of nanny and husband still needs to go to work some days). And I would feel guilty using the computer to write for any length of time when i still haven’t ordered many things we need for these rapidly approaching babies or things for the new house. I can’t really read about the craft of writing or read books in my genres or for “fun” when I feel I need to read books about taking care of babies, getting twins on a sleep schedule, feeding them, or parenting preschoolers.

As far as actually writing, mixed emotions. The Write 6 keep me sane--reading the manuscripts they are working on and their emails and blogposts. But I do feel a sense of missing the meetings, not being able to attend the workshops/retreats they are planning, that they are all making much progress on their works and I am just stalled. The most I can do right now is maybe jot down any new ideas that come to me and explore those at a later date...and of course, make the effort to keep posting here on my day of the week!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Why do I like writing? My current project has me totally frustrated. I have been putting it off but, what keeps me going back? Stubbornness, and the fact that I've been working on it for so long, all my efforts would be in vain if I didn't make it work.

So, here I am still trying to figure it out. I have two main characters, in two different time periods ( one always dreaming) and I want to show both of their voices, feelings etc. But how do I do that with easy transitions and without confusing the reader? I like the intimacy of first person POV, but I want to have two first person POVs. I have a couple of ideas, but anything I think of now will drastically change the manuscript. That fact has me freaking out. I keep going one step forward and two steps back. I just want to move on to the next chapter, but to put the pieces together, I have to build the foundation first. Once I figure this problem out, I think everything else will fall into place and the writing will go faster. I just have to get over this hurdle. Although, the hurdle feels like it's Mt. Everest. Also know as; Ever rest?

I now know why Writers are portrayed as odd, reclusive, different. If I'm not certifiable now, I will be when this is all over.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Perils of Performance

Right now my current project is in a very rough stage. I have so many holes to fill, emotion to tie in, and adventure yet to be written! The third story in my trilogy is perhaps the most challenging. I have come up with the plot and where I want to end up and I have added so much and am enriching the story but alas problems arise! Perhaps this is due to my lack of time at the moment or perhaps a lack of focus but I think I actually intimidated myself.

By intimidating myself I mean I am pressuring my brain to create the most epic, pulse-pounding, heartfelt book yet. So my hype is actually freaking me out. I want it to be so good that I find myself scrutinizing every chapter, sentence, and word. I look to my other two stories for confidence and wish I could recapture the magic or at least think I recaptured the magic to finish the first draft.

Alas the way I have written this story is vastly different from the others because the others I finished during long binges that never lasted more than seventeen hours. This time I could not binge write as much. I think the disjointed writing is throwing me off. I will return to the binge soon. I must.

I also know way more about writing this time around which in a way is good but also bad because I find myself being more cautious not to screw up when I shouldn't be. I can fix it very easily. I rarely find myself mulling over how to fix something so perhaps now because I have not plowed through it like a juggernaut my brain actively picks on my writing. I worry more now than before.

Lastly, writing a series of books that all connect causes pressure because you want to feel like you topped yourself and made it the best sequel you can otherwise what is the point?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Javelina Evolution

We talk about craft and strategy so much, but we can’t write without feelings.

I have just gone through a year of Editorial Aversion. Except for my critique group, I have not shown anything to anybody. And in the meantime, something happened in publishing. The mounds of rejections slips are now replaced at many publishers by: silence. The usual phrasing is “NEW POLICY: “If you don’t hear from us in 4 weeks (6 months, a year), you can assume your manuscript does not meet our present needs.” So I was even less motivated to put myself out for ignoring than I was for rejecting!

But all that changed in 2010. Determination was renewed and I just sent a story to an editor, a proposal to an agent, and signed up for a serious online analysis with a well known NY editor. (It was very cool to see his name in my inbox!) And signed up for two conferences to be critiqued. This is my year!

The project most under the microscope for me at the moment is my Southwestern tale about a javelina. The editor’s first round response was: “the setting is great. Your assignment is to find a different story.” Yikes! But it was constructive feedback and he is looking at it again. I did “find the new story” in the time allotted. I salvaged the setting and the name of the javalina…

But he is not the fluffy little javelina I imagined in the beginning. (OK –they are not fluffy or cuddly and no one wants a stuffed one.) I know ultimately publishing is a joint venture between author, editor and illustrator and if everyone is willing to compromise, the end project is the best it can be. The new story is probably better, but I am feeling some distance from it now. After all, the little fella might have to morph again to “meet someone’s present needs.” Maybe he’ll have to sprout wings. Turn purple. Become a bunny.

Feelings? Self-protective. Determined. A little loss and lots of hope.

Hey - my story of the lemming is perfect as it is!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Production of a First Draft

-Have idea.

- Scratch notes on anything I find.

-Write scenes.

-Keep writing scenes.

- Stitch scenes together.

- Okay, I can use that.

-Can't use that.

I can't believe I wrote ten pages that I can't use. Don't use double negative when talking to oneself.

-Need to revise.

-Still revising.

- Still revising.

Why am I still revising it's only thirteen pages. Robin and Monta would be so proud.

-Leave it alone.

-I said leave it alone.

-Turn it in.

Ask group for forgivenes that it is late again. Deadlines are such motivators.

When in doubt, cut it out...

I like to mull over scenes, dialogue, whole chapters before I sit down at the computer--not on paper, just in my head. I find that my mind is the clearest and I tend to be the most creative right before I fall asleep at night. And, I can't believe I am admitting this, but if I am having writer's block sometimes I lie down like I am going to take a nap. I have no idea why this works for me, but it long as I don't actually fall asleep for real.

That said, here is my pattern for starting a new chapter and submitting to my critique group:

1. Try my best to write at least a half an hour to forty-five minutes each night. Also check Facebook, write emails, pay bills, read the news that pops up on Yahoo's home page, look at photos of celebrities I could care less about. End up staying on the computer for way longer than the half an hour to forty minutes because of this. Occasionally get on a roll. Still do the other stuff. Stay up too late.

2. Futz around with the first half of the chapter for most of the month. Cobwebs clear as our critique meeting approaches. Realize that the reason I keep rewriting certain passages is because they are not working or are irrelevant. Cut them out. Breathe a sigh of relief that they are gone and are no longer vexing me. Finally, get to the second half of the chapter, which for whatever reason, usually goes more quickly.

3. Print chapter out. Read, mark up, change. Print out. Read, mark up change. Print, read, mark up....well you get the picture. This usually occurs until I have reached my self-imposed deadline for emailing the manuscript to my fellow group members.

4. Wonder about how it will be received, particularly the humor and the dialogue. (Starting also to think about scene setting and whether I've included enough of it.)

5. Resist temptation to work more on my first chapter. Just, mostly.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

writing process (with or without caffeine)

I really like both Jim’s and Robin’s posts. I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the idea phase for me could be something funny my son said, something I heard in a song, a news story I read online, a whole scene that comes to me while walking the dog late at night. Most of the time I keep repeating it to myself over and over till I can dash to my computer and furiously type the idea. If it’s a scene of dialogue or paragraphs of backstory, I do allow myself to just type it all out without worrying about revising along the way, like Jim’s method. If I am going on a road trip of a few hours or more, I do keep a small notebook and pen with me in the passenger seat instead of dragging my laptop up there. And of course “you have a deadline for class, think of something quick!” can force ideas.

I would either write late at night when the house is quiet or follow the way of Robin to the local cafe (but if you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I may be distracted by conversations around me, which just spur more ideas!). Like Robin, I usually have several windows open--the document on which I am working, probably an online dictionary, possibly a rhyming dictionary, and some kind of research for whatever I am working on--the kitchen band picture book? I found lists of various instruments online. The Ghoulsbys? I had a list of “spooky” names I found online. While writing kitchen band, I also had my itunes open to listen to three or four songs that were about playing in the kitchen and made lots of sounds for me to try to find words to convey. I might have a window open so I can look on Amazon and see if there are similar books that have been written recently.

Even for picture books, I usually do some kind of outline first--if following the rule of three, what three obstacles or events is my main character going to face? Any funny phrases or words that I will be working in? With whom will my MC be interacting? What sentences or lines of verse will be repeated? What will be the ultimate resolution of the story? Even if I have those things sketched out, I very well might swerve into something else as I am writing.

Then there is the call to check email, of course. Then I edit and revise and move stuff around. Usually after I go home or wake up the next day, I open it up and find more things to tinker with. At some point, I have to say ok, leave as is and bring to group. Group has wonderful ideas for revision, except how to motivate me to actually do it. So I hang onto the comments they jotted down and their verbal feedback that I jotted down and know that at some point I will take a deep breath and pick one of the stories and hunker down. And hunker again and again and again until I end up submitting? Then if anything ever was picked up, oy, the number of revisions! And on a deadline, no less. In our group I think we all have felt comfortable bringing in really rough first versions of stories or chapters. Besides “writing is hard,” I have been known to say “please don’t be too hard, I just wrote this first draft last night.” (Writing is even harder when you are on a pregnancy-induced exile from caffeine.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stepping Stone

Well I need to keep this short...when inspiration strikes never neglect it.

When a pen isn't available, write it in your phone, when the phone dies, tell someone, if no one is around, repeat the inspiration. Repeat the inspiration. Repeat the inspiration.

Transform the inspiration into fuel for writing. Do it. Let the writing flow and do not stop to revise. Let it flow. No worries.

'Nuff said.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Initial Ity Bity Baby Steps

The Write 6 meet this week so we offer mini-entries on steps from idea to "ready to show the group" on our various projects.

From Robin

Original idea: 50/50 from “see a need” in the library and “learn something new on a trip.” My favorite, of course, is “have an assignment and deadline…”

Step 1: Go to coffee place, get a booth with a pad of yellow paper and a pen. Scribble very rough possibilities for a story frame. Lots of scratch outs and arrows until I can just barely see what I was thinking.

Step 2: Since I am working on quasi factual books now I research the settings, animals, weather, plants, etc, and build a glossary of fun new words. Even in real fiction I need to know if father geese actually stay near the nest during brooding.

Step 3: While I am on line play, some Chuzzle to rest my brain.

Step 4: Open 3 or 4 windows of story and research and flip around until there is a plot.

Step 5: Print out what I have a huddle over coffee again. More arrows, more notes, sometimes only the main character is salvaged.

Step 6: Go online and see if anyone else has written something like this recently because there is no reason to pursue it unless I get a really unique slant.

Step 7: Time for more brain rest with Chuzzle.

Step 8: Move paragraphs, tidy punctuation (only the really anal do it at this stage!), tweak.

Step 9: Oh, just send it! The Write 6 have been known to a plain wire hanger of a draft and encourage me to make a satin coated sachet filled story!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Admiration Abounds

For starters, I admire my fellow blogmates. I believe they all have the dedication, the creativity, and the talent to succeed.

I admire contemporary author Cynthea Liu. Don't laugh, but I haven't yet read her book, Paris Pan Takes the Dare. It's on my list. But, I've heard Cynthea speak and read her blog. She is an energetic, and seemingly tireless person, who knows a lot about promotion and appears willing to share.

Truth be told, it was Stephanie Meyer's success that finally convinced me to sit down and start writing after many years of dreaming about it. If she, in her mid-thirties with small children, could find the time to bang out a manuscript, than why couldn't I? I know that there are plenty of writing moms out there, but I guess it was simply the right time for me to be motivated.

I set out expecting to hate Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games due to its premise, but the plot is so deep, the characters so engaging, and the writing so terrific that I ended up loving it. I admire anyone who can wrap readers up so completely in a story that it is ridiculously easy to suspend disbelief.

I think that Sherman Alexie did a great job of crossing over from adult to young adult fiction with The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. By finely weaving grace and wit, humor and tragedy he conveyed not only what it is like to live on a reservation, but also why it's so difficult to break away even in today's society. And he did this through the voice of a pimply-faced adolescent with girl trouble.

While not comparing the subject matter or the styles of writing, I think Alexie's work will stick with me, much the same way Cry the Beloved Country and the Power of One have since I read them 20 years ago.

I guess you could say that I admire writers who use history or current events as a backdrop for an amazing story. Slaughterhouse Five is another that comes to mind. When I went backpacking in Europe, I dragged my friend to see the bombed out buildings in Dresden, not because of history class, but because of Vonnegut's book.

OK. I'll stop now because it seems I've created a tall order. Write a book with terrific characters that somehow brings history alive, suspends disbelief, is written to stand the test of time, and then figure out how to self-promote. Oh, and do it all after the kids go to bed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Too Many Authors, Too Little Time

I'm having a difficult time trying to think of an author that I aspire to in the Young Adult genre. I like different things about each book I feel is memorable. My favorite authors know how to use tension, weather through action or mystery to keep you wanting more. Usually I enjoy reading stories that have something supernatural or fantastical about the characters or location. I guess I've always been interested in things out of the ordinary. Also, I hate to admit it, but if a book doesn't capture me in the first few pages, I'll put it down. I'm a reader with an attention span of zero.

Lois Lowry is wonderful at telling you just enough to keep you reading right from the start, while using wonderfully vivid language. The Giver and Gossamer are two of my favorites, she really knows how to put you in the different worlds she creates.

I have to mention Stephenie Meyer, although I didn't totally connect with Bella. I didn't really believe some of her choices, but there sure was plenty of tension thanks to the love triangle and the action sequences. Meyer is a master at developing all of her characters and making the vampires/werewolves believable.

Another favorite author because of his use of tension and action in the Maximum Ride series is James Patterson. I admire authors who can keep track and fully develop all of those characters. I find it hard to concentrate on any beyond two. I guess I'll write my story first then add depth to the minor characters later.

I really need to be reading more, and I will aspire to find new favorites. I'd like to read some of the classics again, like Wuthering Heights; it's been way too long. Too many good authors to explore and too little time!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Write...oh right!

I don't know if I have one particular author in my genre that I can nail down and label as my author to aspire to. I have read everything from comic books to detailed histories. I remember reading the Hardy Boys as a kid and loving it. Always excited when the Scholastic order form would be delivered to my grammar school so I can go home and beg Mom to order me a new book. I loved the covers and the one sentence descriptions and would often buy a book based on its cover. I am not going to lie. I have judged books on their cover.

In short, I have read a lot of books. I don't know exactly how many I just know that with each one I have taken something valuable from each experience that I firmly believe helps me as a writer. I also feel that stories can be told in so many different ways today and that good writers can be found in so many different places and not exclusively in books. So I can name names of authors/screenwriters/playwrights but the list would be long. So I will say that I have found inspiration in various artistic mediums but one thing is for certain the written word fuels all of the mediums I draw from. Perhaps the most powerful force on the planet, the written word can be wielded by many but mastered by few. I don't know where I fit in on this vast spectrum but I hope to move people in some way through my written words and can only hope to empower others and be inspired as so many writers have inspired me.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Words as Pictures

Each day at work in the Children’s Room at the library I am surrounded by the most beautiful pictures books. Glorious full color, shiny new covers, flap book, pop-ups, award winners. How can I choose an author I admire most in my field to talk about this week?

Some I can rule out right away as I select books to share at story time. “How did THAT get published?” I find plenty of bad rhymes, too much text for each picture, stupid character names, morals that whack you on the head. (Luckily The Write 6 preserve me from every making any of those mistakes!)

Then the “classics” jump into my hands. It is a thrill to introduce a new to Marjorie Flack, Tomi DePaolo, and Pat Hutchins. Even over-video-ed kids respond to Marsha Brown and Sandra Boynton. But those authors all have something in common I can never emulate: there is only one name on the cover of each book. They are the author/illustrators.

If I draw a stick cow, I have to label it.

So my most admired author is Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny and pages-of-titles on Her words have been translated and adapted for board books and beginning readers. And she never drew a single picture!

How did she sell such wonderful simple texts to editors who in turn found illustrators to love and interpret the text in pictures worthy of them? There are a few clues on her web site The first answer may be that she wrote in a different time in the history of publishing. She worked with the illustrators directly and fought the publishing houses to get better royalties for them. The second answer may be “location, location, location.” She lived in the heart of New York where the editors were only a short walk away. She worked with six publishers at once!

As I read her personal story it seemed daunting until I found one tiny factoid. She once used a royalty check to buy a coat. Back when I first published Christian children’s books (via stone and chisel), I received an advance on a book. And bought a coat. The coat wore out long ago, but it will not leave the closet. Now it will remind me of Margaret Wise Brown and that words – the best words, each one thoughtfully chosen and rewritten until there is no more perfect one available – are the heart of the story. And words are what I do. I am an author.

The Peabodies, A.K.A The Write 6

Formally, my husband was my critiquer. I would ask him to read my stories, and he would give me the customary "This is good." I thought with his experience of reading hundreds of Picture Books, and children's literature to my children, he'd be able to give me some valuable insight to my writing. I was wrong.

My husband was a cheerleader "My wife is the best, writer in the land, If she can't write it, nobody can." Okay--okay, maybe he didn't say that, but hopefully I've made my point.
While it was important to have someone cheering me on, I needed someone that would look at my writing with a critical eye and provide me with criticisms. I'm not saying that I wanted someone to just negatively criticize my work, but I wanted someone to constructively analyze the merits and pitfalls of my writing. I needed to know what I was doing right, and how I could improve and strengthen the areas that needed revision.

To me, joining a critique group means that I can now see my work through other people's eyes. Sometimes, a writer becomes tone to deaf his or her own writing. It's great to have someone say "What did you mean by this?" or "What about doing it this way instead?" Sometimes, my group members are just confirming that nagging feeling in the back of my head that is saying something isn't right. Other times, they are telling me when they enjoy a sentence or passage that I've written. Then there are the times, they are pointing something out that I hadn't even considered when I was committing my ideas to paper. They are even apt to tell me when parts of my novel sound "cheesy" (Hehe, Monta's words not mine).

I count myself lucky to have found a group of hard dedicated writers to help keep me on track. Originally, it was difficult for me to open myself up to other people's judgements. This was probably the case for all of us. But when you know that the people who are evaluating your work have your best interest at heart (and want to see you succeed), that makes it easier to take their comments in stride; and learn from them.

A good critique group grows together, and I think our group has done some growing. Robin's writing has evolved until she has found her niche in writing educational-type picture books. Jim is hammering away at his third installment of TT. Monta has written her first chapter over fifty-two times and has finally settled on a awesome beginning (I think). Ellen has found her grove with the flow of her writing; and Michelle is chilling with a pen and paper in her hand furiously revising her stories while making the most of her bed rest. Okay I'm not sure about that last one. Anyway, my point is, that we know what each person in our group is capable of and we encourage each other to do our best.

I think that is the formula for a good critique group.

I am extremely lucky to be apart of The Peabodies A.K.A The Write 6. I always leave our meetings with a smile on my face (Well, they are a hilarious bunch), and a renewed sense of purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with Ellen that our group is therapeutic. Together, we are kind of like Chicken Soup To The Writer's Soul. I look forward to the day when we are a group of published writers, meeting at the Panera (maybe we will ditch this place when we get money), talking about the latest trends in publishing, and pouring laboriously over each other's newest hit manuscripts. I think that will be a really great day (regardless of whether we change our meeting place or not).

Friday, April 2, 2010

When I started writing my novel, I was on my own. I'd sit down at the computer after the kids went to bed, turn on some music, and just let the ideas flow. If my husband came in, I'd click to another screen. I was afraid if I shared and it was bad, my spirit would be squashed and it would cease being fun.

Then one day on the way out of music class with my sons, I saw an advertisement for a facilitated critique group, led by Carmela Martino. I picked up the flier and ultimately decided that if I was serious about not only writing fiction, but also getting published, I'd eventually have to let someone else read my work. I mean, that's kind of the point, no?

My husband served as the guinea pig. I felt I needed a buffer between me and strangers. So I let him read the first chapter. He was pretty terrified, knowing that he had to have the right reaction--not blasé, but not too overly enthusiastic either. God love him, he did a good initial job and had me convinced my efforts weren't awful. Then I saw what he had done to my first page. It had red all over it. After a minor freak out, I accepted that his suggested changes made sense, but asked him about 500 times before class if he had been truthful about the rest being OK.

Much like with my husband's loving (and brave) critique, during my first class review I had trouble focusing on the positive and zeroed in too much on the negative. One woman in particular didn't like my main character, and her harsh comments threw me for a loop. It caused me to completely change the tone of my first chapter, which I resubmitted during the course of the class.

Thankfully, my other classmates, most of whom are now beloved members of my critique group, set me straight and let me know that the personality of my main character had been one of the best things about my first draft. They made me listen to and really hear all the good things they'd said about her and about my writing.

The second round of the class was even better than the first because, for one, I knew and trusted my fellow classmates and I'd come to believe that they really had my best interest at heart. Criticism from them isn't an attempt to tear down, but to build up and improve.

I couldn't have asked for a better bunch of people to continue with in a critique group. Everyone is so knowledgeable about writing and so invested in each other's work. It is a pleasure to read all of the novels in progress and the new stories that my fellow members submit. I am humbled by their creativity. It is a joy to spend a couple hours a month meeting with people who love writing and are anxious to talk about it. And, they are funny! We laugh a lot. Like Ellen, I always leave energized.

I guess the point of this whole post is to say that while it can be difficult to let others into the imaginary worlds we create, it is invaluable to have friends who respect your work and you as a person. (And, who are willing to read your manuscript about a thousand times before you submit it for professional review.) I am so thrilled to be a part of the Write 6. (My husband is happy too, that he is not my sole reviewer.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Evolution of a Critique Group

I think the way a critique group evolves is important. When we first started our group, it was as a course. We had a great instructor. Carmela always brought suggestions--what to read on the craft of writing, helpful blogs to follow, conferences and writers’ societies, other workshops that met regularly, writing exercises for us to try. She is so knowledgeable (as I guess is the job of a “teaching author”). I also liked that she had us bring in recent books in the same genre of what we were writing ourselves. We had to explain what we learned from these other books. This was helpful for me but also quite interesting to hear what my classmates were doing. Finally, Carmela’s format was designed to produce as little as anxiety as possible when presenting our work--first people would say what they liked about it, then ask questions about it.

When the next session of that class met, again under Carmela, it was five of us from the first class and one “new” person who put up with us and fit in right away. I think we kept the culture of respect that Carmela had established, but felt a little more free to argue with each other--one person might have liked something the presenter did while another person didn’t. It was really good to hear the discussion of your work (though difficult to sit there quietly as the presenter) and then get your manuscripts back with everyone’s comments. I was always impressed by the resources and information my classmates brought about seminars and goings-on in the writing world, so grateful that they shared these. It was really fun to be able to continue to read the works in progress or revisions from classmates, and with a smaller class, we had more opportunities to share work.

Now we meet on our own or even just email if someone needs some quick feedback before a deadline. People in your group are familiar with your work if you are hammering away on a continuous story or bringing in a revision. It’s people who genuinely respect the effort made and are truly trying to help each other achieve better stories. It’s very constructive, so I feel that we got lucky that we can trust what others have to say when they make suggestions or ask if you could try something a different way. Instead of this massive anxiety-producing event, it becomes much more an opportunity--looking forward to bringing something to the group because you really value the input as you struggle through it. Even if it’s a really rough first draft, to not be scared to ask “what do you guys think? is it worth pursuing? what direction would you like to see it take?” I have heard some horror stories about people in critique groups where the goal seems to be to show off your own knowledge of writing while being as critical as possible. I have also heard that these tend to be more adult writers’ groups than children’s writers? Like Ellen said, it helps to have a “deadline” of when the group is scheduled to meet so it pushes you to get some work done (although much less work done by me than everyone else lately!!). And it helps get you over your fear of sharing your work with others--perhaps a professional critique at a conference or even submitting for publication--maybe not family/friends quite yet. It gives you confidence that yes, you do actually have some business writing (who do you think you are? what’s so special about you?) and that you have already put a lot of work into it.

To echo Ellen again, it is like getting a little present to open when you receive another 2000 words and are asked to critique. I feel so honored that others would trust me to read their work and hope that my feedback is valuable. Critique groups are interesting, too, because the people in them are likely at different stages of life and may be writing in different genres, but somehow everyone has this “writing thing” in common and it all clicks. So if I did end up in some snooty snotty critique group situation, hopefully it wouldn’t paralyze me or crush my spirit because I have been fortunate enough to know that truly good experiences with critique are possible!! I admit that i do think there is some luck involved, so if at first it doesn’t work for you, try again and find one that evolves!