Sunday, December 28, 2008

The New Year's New Work

With the New Year just around the bend we've been talking about our writing of the past year and looking to the future and the New Year's work. I'm going to start with a clean, bare new sheet/screen and just let the type flow, like the oft-used writing exercise at workshops when you must keep the pen moving across the sheet for fifteen minutes, just pushing out the words... and frequently then the juices do flow. I'm going to dig up ideas from our last trip and let it all stream.

Then, I'm going back to my WIP.

I love the after-Christmas weeks - no more cards, wrapping , baking, visitors.... only ice and snow out there but us inside with pen, pad, screen and keyboard. After last week's storm I was walking in the park, and thought that down there buried under the ice on the pond was the subject of one of my easy-to-read stories. I went home and found the story buried in my computer and began to dig it out.

It didn't look bad but with the help of time I can now see where I can start to re-write and strengthen the story, enhance the plot and enlarge the characters. Then I'm moving on to more research on my revolutionary war period PB and a re-write there. I hope to need a spot in June along with Meg - or sooner !

The New Year's old and new work - it'll be fun.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Plethora of Ideas

Merry Christmas! I do not celebrate the holiday, but I do love Christmas. I love the decorations (provided they are taken down by New Year's Day), I love the attempt that most people make to be friendly and cordial, and I love the TV specials (particularly Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). But what I enjoy most about the holiday is that nothing is open (except for movie theaters and Chinese restaurants). That may sound cliche, but for those of us who don't celebrate, it's a great thing. My family is essentially forced to spend the day together. This year is different....

Our daughter and her boyfriend have invited us to DC for Christmas. It may sound like a strange thing for Jews to do, but as I said, it's great family time. What's different this year is that our son doesn't want to go. He hates the drive to DC (which can try one's nerves) and would rather sit at home alone with the cat, play PS3, sleep until 3 PM, and watch testosterone loaded movies with lots of explosion, scantily clad women, and gratuitous violence (he is 18). What's also different is that we'll be meeting the boyfriend's mother for the first time. My daughter speaks highly of this woman, so I'm not worried, but the whole thing does sound like a set up for a YA combination of Home Alone and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - There's a story in there somewhere. Which brings me to the main topic of this post....A Plethora of Ideas.

Where do we get our ideas from? How do we decide what to work on? I currently have too many ideas rumbling around in my head. I have been working on a new historical fiction set in 15th C England (again, but this time late 15th C rather than early), but then started getting ideas to fix the problems I had with an historical YA I abandoned a year ago. Then, after doing research for a magazine proposal, I came across a tid-bit of history not well known and thought it would make a great set up for yet another YA historical - this one following two different MCs in two different periods but with the same problems. I can't decide what to work on.

I know I need to work on something new as opposed to rewriting one of my old pieces - I've done enough of that in the last year and a half, I want something fresh. But I seem to be having a hard time sustaining my interest in my current WIPs. I get all excited at the start, do the research, map out a basic plot, write the first 50 pages or so and then....peter out. Then a new idea pops into my head and it starts all over again.

So I am making a New Year's resolution to FINISH a WIP. I haven't decided which one it will be yet (I still have a week to decide). It will be my own mini-version of NaNo. I'm pledging here in "public" to have a finished novel by June 1st. Six months in a deadline I can live with. Wish me luck!

Oh, and if anyone does by chance read this post on Christmas day, I won't be able to respond to comments right away. I'm in DC!

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Why Every Writer Needs a Good Drawer

Gale’s post on her 2008 submission stats did more than make me measure my own stats. It made me reboot my MG manuscript.

The backstory: I had submitted my manuscript to two dozen agents over the course of six months. While I had my share of form rejections, the majority of the rejections were personal. Some were outright complimentary, but “just didn’t fall in love.”

I also submitted the manuscript to three editors. I met two of the editors at different conferences, and both had requested the full. The third was an open call. After making it to editorial meetings with two of the three and coming up short (the third still has it), I took yet another hard look at my 34,000 words. What could I do to add that sparkle, that extra spice that makes an agent or editor want more, more, more?

I looked and looked. But I couldn’t figure it out. My writing was tight, my dialogue rang true, my plot held my interest, and I loved my characters. So I did what many writers do when faced with this situation. I put the manuscript in a drawer, where it sat untouched for eight months, and worked on something new.

When I took it out of the drawer on Saturday it was like seeing an old boyfriend—he may have broken your heart, but now you can finally see his flaws.

Oh sure, there was still a lot to like in my MG, but there was a lot that needed fixing: excessive dialogue tags, overuse of “as”, and not enough internal thought and emotion. Why couldn’t I see that eight months ago?

I’m back to being excited about this manuscript. My revision is going well and I’m finding that some of the problems are interrelated—lose a dialogue tag, add internal thought to clarify who is speaking.

So I’m taking a poll—how much time do you let a manuscript sit in a drawer before revising? And do you welcome your story back, warts and all?

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Summing Up 365 Writing Days

Since this in my last scheduled post of the year, I decided to put together an annual report on my writing life. So here goes . . .

TOTAL SUBMISSIONS FOR 2008: three picture books, eight magazine pieces (two stories, six poems), two manuscripts entered in contests: story in poetry, and short non-fiction.

What happened to these submissions?

Picture book A: one form rejection, three personal rejections, one request for revision. Revised manuscript. Goes to editorial team meeting. More revision suggestions. Revised manuscript. Goes to editorial team meeting again. Rejection. Submitted to three new publishers. Still out.

Picture book B: Goes to editorial team meeting. Rejection. Still revising.

Picture book C: July submission, still waiting to hear. Time to write a status query.

Magazine pieces: One story rejected. One story still out. Six poems: five rejected (with personal note). One accepted.

Contests: Story in poetry. Rejection. Short non-fiction, announcement of winners in 2009.

SUMMARY: 13 rejections. One acceptance. I've had better years!

INCOME: $250.00 for reprint rights to an older magazine story. $173.25 for sales of my copies of OP picture book.

THE GOOD NEWS: I had manuscripts reach editorial team meetings. I got a phone call from the editor who loved my first revision of picture book A. One poem has been accepted and scheduled for publication. One magazine piece, bought in Dec. 2006, is being held for publication. (Maybe this qualifies as bad news?)

THE BAD NEWS: I had manuscripts reach editorial team meetings. They were rejected. Can't help but get your hopes up, especially after two revisions.

OUTLOOK: Cloudy, with the assurance of more rejection, but this writing career will continue. Why? Writing is essential to me and I still have stories to tell. I also thrive on the friendships and the give and take of my two excellent critique groups.

Best writing wishes to all for 2009!

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Writing Contests: To Enter or Not to Enter?

On a whim, I entered agent Nathan Bransford’s First Paragraph Challenge contest last week. The rules sounded simple enough. Post the first paragraph of my W.I.P. in the comments box of the contest thread. Mr. B would be the sole judge. The grand prize? A partial critique, query critique, or 15-minute phone conversation.

Why not?

By the time I got around to posting, there were already 965 entries. Hmm. The odds of winning were pretty small. Should I still enter?

Why not?

Hundreds more entries followed. By the time the contest was officially closed, a whopping 1,364 entries has been posted. There was mine, sandwiched somewhere in the lower middle. Don’t blink, Mr. B, or you’ll miss it.

To keep a short story short, I didn’t win. Hmm. Didn’t win last year’s Highlights contest either (along with about 1,500 other losers.) And I didn’t win the handful of other contests I’ve entered over the years. (I did win a journalism writing contest once, but it wasn’t children’s fiction, so it doesn’t count.)

Which makes me wonder: With such small odds, why do I bother entering?

Here’s one reason: I need the dose of reality. With Mr. B’s contest, seeing the other entries reminded me that there are lots of damn good manuscripts out there, all vying for an editor or agent’s attention, so I’d better have a damn good one too if I’m going to compete. I also critiqued the winning entries, pondering why they might have won and I didn’t.

Writing contests force me to leave the happy bubble where I work and come face to face—virtually anyway—with the competition. So much talent. So many writers. Sigh. It shocks me into working even harder on my W.I.P. My book is better for it.

So I guess, in their own annoying way, contests help me grow as a writer. And who knows, one day I might even win one.

How about you? Do you enter contests too? Have you ever won one? What was that like? If not, why do you enter them? Note: Every commenter is a guaranteed winner.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Poetry Friday: My Dreidel's Dancing in Highlights!

Getting published in Highlights had long seemed one of the greatest possible achievements to me as a children's writer. So you probably heard the screams a few years ago when my SASE came back with a contract accepting three of my poems about the Jewish holidays.

Well, the first one is now out in this December's issue and I'm so pleased and excited I just had to share!

I can't type it here myself because I sold all rights to Highlights but I was thrilled to find a link to it online. Please check it out: The dreidel's dance.

And, as usual as a writer, as I'm celebrating my good news, I still get to aspire to how far I have to go as I read Eileen Spinelli's incredible Christmas poem in the same issue! Please check it out: The Christmas Story.

I'm honored to have an autographed poster of Eileen's beautiful poem, "The Joy of Reading," on my son's bedroom wall (the one thing I ever won bidding at an auction!). She is such an incredible poet!

Celebration and aspiration... two of the emotions that keep me going as a writer. Please let me know when I can celebrate (or aspire) with you!

P.S. Make sure to check out all this week's wonderful Poetry Friday posts at http://wildrosereader.blogspot.com/.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Foot in Front of the Other

I recently read a book by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING is a memoir about the twin forces in his life that matter most to him - writing and running. For Murakami, running and writing share much in common, and to do either, he feels, one needs the same qualities - endurance and focus. I agree. And although Murakami is a prize-winning, internationally acclaimed novelist, and a marathon runner who logs in over 60 miles a week, and I am not an internationally acclaimed author (yet) and I log in around 15 miles a week (and that will likely never go up), I found great inspiration from his book.

I love the idea that the very things that keep me going on a run - will, endurance, mind over matter - can and should keep me going at the computer. I tend to give up on my writing a little too easily, but if I were to treat writing as I do running - not giving up even when I feel like I can't breathe, or my stomach hurts, or I'm beating myself up about how weak I am - I'd get a lot more writing done. I'd log in the number of pages a week that I aspire to, instead of quitting early, when I don't like what I'm doing.

Murakami stresses that while good writing usually doesn't happen without a certain amount of talent, it's really these other qualities that get one to the finish line. I guess Woody Allen said it all a long time ago - success is 1% talent, 99% perspiration. Or was it 99% showing up? In any case, it was refreshing to hear Murakami discuss how hard it is for him to write, and run, despite his tremendous success.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

How Many Times Can I Revise 500 Words?

When many writers are starting out, they think that picture books look easy to write.

They're not!

I will attempt to show how challenging this process can be by following the trajectory of one of my current picture book manuscripts from the initial idea stage to its current state.

Step 1-- The Idea-- I make what I think is a joke about two oddly juxtaposed ideas and my husband (wonderfully supportive man that he is) says, "That sounds like it could be a picture book!" I laugh and store the idea in the back of my mind. At the time, I have no clue how to turn this interesting sounding idea into a story.

Step 2-- Weeks (or is it months?) later, inspiration strikes. I draft a few verses about some funny characters. Each verse is scribbled on a post it note. The post its end up buried in my nightstand.

Step 3-- The projects that have filled up the majority of my time now completed, I'm looking for something new to start on. I pull out my nightstand post its and attempt to cobble together a rough draft. But I quickly realize that my main character is entirely unsympathetic. (She eats people!) Time to go back to the drawing board.

Step 4-- I attempt to leave revealing my main character for the surprise ending, keeping the beginning and middle of my story for the fun of my very quirky idea.

Step 5-- With a complete draft finally in hand, I bring my manuscript to my wonderful critique group for feedback. They are incredibly positive about my ridiculously quirky idea. Unfortunately, one member points out that while it's cute, there's not much of a plot. She's right!

Step 6-- I add a mysterious subplot (and an alternating rhyme scheme) to my manuscript. I also cut out all but my best scanning verses from my earlier draft.

Step 7-- I hear a wonderfully inspirational editor at a conference, and she likes quirky! I polish up my manuscript and send it off into the world.

Step 8-- Five months later, I receive a kind note from said editor indicating that it is a "cute story" but "hampered by the rhyme", "Ever considered writing it in prose?" I'm considering it now!

Step 9-- How to change a rhyming picture book into prose? I struggle with this challenge, eventually deciding to write out the plot of my story without worrying about how it sounds.

Step 10-- I soon decide my new prose version needs a protagonist to follow my "mystery" from beginning to end. After several attempts, I invent a character who seems to fit the bill. Then I attempt to polish up my story yet again.

Step 11-- I bring my new prose draft back to my critique group. While they still like the idea, some of the charm of earlier drafts seems to be missing. And I need to plant some more clues and clarify some points that were clearer in the rhyming version.

Step 12-- Back to the drawing board once again... to be continued (hopefully with a happy ending!)

Whew! That took even longer to do than it did to write.

So, I'm curious... What wonderful (or crazy) revision stories do you have?

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Never Say Never

"Never, never never!" said my two and a half year old grandson when, at the Thanksgiving dinner table, his father suggested that flinging food might have to be treated with a time out. Well, time out it was, and the little boy returned to the table to eat a bit more in relative calm. But what struck me was his use of the word, "never." It is not the same as "no." To me "never" suggests possibility as well as the negation of that possibility. To me it is a very abstract concept for anyone under three.

Subsequently,for the past few days I have been considering language and all its wonderful nuances that we humans, thousands and thousands of years into the practice of it, are able to use. I have been thinking of the very poor use of language such as swearing and gutterspeak and of the exalted use of language heard in the soaring sentences of the prophet Isaiah, particularly at this time of year.

Writers are keepers of language, whether we publish or not. It is we who take words and craft them into lasting images. It is we who are responsible for recording the histories and hopes of mankind, whether it be in diaries, letters or manuscripts. This thought is what keeps me writing, and perhaps I will "never" give up.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Is The Movie Ever Better Than the Book? (or hot actors in wet clothes)

I've never read Pride and Prejudice. Blasphemy from someone who aspires to be a chick lit writer, right? Especially since I know the story inside and out.

My first introduction to Pride and Prejudice was in senior year of high school. It was the one book I didn't read, and yes, I was a goody-two shoes avid reader, so why not his one? Not sure. I think I was in a rebellious phase, complete with a know-it-all attitude and a college boyfriend. Whatever the reason, I didn't read it.


It wasn't until one January evening, long ago, that I stumbled upon the A&E mini-series and was captivated. So my first real introduction to Mr. Darcy was Colin Firth. Brooding, yummy and walking across the lawn of Pemberley, after just having taken a swim. Sigh. I mean, whoa. This was the book I didn't want to read? So I went out and bought it. I started to read it, honest. But...well...I put it down after the first chapter. I don't know why.

Fast forward to one December evening not too long ago (great, two flashbacks in one blog entry, there must be some rule about that), I found myself with some very unexpected alone time and ordered up On Demand the latest version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet. I didn't want to like it as much as the mini-series, but from the moment that haunting, dreamy, romantic score beckoned me into the movie, I was captivated once again. But someone other than Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? I just wasn't sure I could buy that.

Sigh. I was wrong. Very wrong.

Matthew Macfadyen, as Mr. Darcy, brooding, yummy and wet from being out in the rain, professing "I love you. Most ardently." to a royally pissed off Elizabeth Bennet, hmmmmmmm...well, they got me. And I tried to read the book. Again.

And didn't.

Does this mean I didn't experience Jane Austen's vision? The mini-series was more thorough than the movie I'm guessing, and I really can't compare the book...yet. All I know is that I continue to be captivated by this story. (and no, not just the hot actors in wet clothing who play the roles) The multitude of brilliant characters. The customs. The sweeping English countryside. What a delicious glimpse into this time period. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy were born on the page. This story came from Jane Austen's imagination. So movie or book, I'm not sure it matters.

Talk about a test of time.

Okay, fess up. Any book-to-film novels you didn't read before you saw the movie? And do you still feel compelled to read it?

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Scents and Flavors of Holidays

The warmth of holiday books that trigger children's interest and memories often waft delicious scents and flavors throughout the story. Simple plots become memorable to children when they can imagine a gingerbread man baking in the oven throwing out fragrances of ginger and cinnamon.

One story our family refers often to was of an old Granny Glikkens who always made mittens, but one year could only find white wool so she was forced to dye the wool by using peppermint for red, wintergreen for green, and chocolate for brown. And so the children, after wearing her mittens, could enjoy nibbling on the edges. Seems silly to adults but provides fun for small children. Of course the scratch books for Christmas hold wonderful odors of fir trees and favorite foods like the peppermint canes and apple pie.

One of the best Thanksgiving books written for children and by New Jersey's own Harry and Wende Devlin, CRANBERRY THANKSGIVING, offers up a feast of fragrances from the New England setting of salt marshes to the tart flavor of cranberries and an exuberant description of the entire feast including the turkey, "What a great full dinner that was - with everything cooked with crisp edges and tender centers."

A Christmas book for all readers young and old regales us with the glory of the goose. " ...as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast, but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all around the board... There was never such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were themes of universal admiration."

What are some of your favorite holiday stories that evoke childhood memories or that you consider are the new current books that will create the memories of the future?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Being Thankful

Since Thanksgiving is two days away, it seems appropriate, and perhaps corny, to reflect on all that we are thankful for.

I am thankful for my critique group. (I am thankful for a great many other things as well, but since this is a blog about writing and critiquing, I'll spare you my list.)

I recently had an online experience that made me appreciate the thoughtful, thorough, and honest critiques that come from the members of this group. Perhaps I went into the online experience with the wrong expectations. Perhaps I am spoiled in expecting fellow writers to give constructive criticism instead of comments like, "I don't think this is well written" or "This isn't my thing". What is an author supposed to take from a comment like that? I suppose one could just ignore them, but then what is the point of them being posted in the first place?

Like many experiences in life, I try to learn something good from the bad. I've learned to keep things in perspective and appreciate what I do have rather than what I don't.

Thank you, Linda, Gale, Judy, Janice, Brianna, Valerie, Eileen, and Robin for your constructive and supportive critiques. I hope I give as good as I get.

What are you thankful for?

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What I've Learned from NanoWriMo...So Far

The first thing I've learned is that I'm not going to "win" this time. The second thing I've learned is that it is quite possible to win -- just don't try Nanowrimo the same month your oldest kid has to finish his college applications. But all is not lost. The applications are done, my son and I are still speaking, and I have a freshly created main character whom I love, living in a setting I'm excited to write about. There is still one thing missing. Oh yeah. A plot.

I don't regret trying Nanowrimo. And I'm not done yet. I have another week stretching in front of me and can hopefully knock out another 5,000-10,000 words. I want to move beyond my opening pages, which are mainly character development that will never see the light of day, and into action. I'd like to finish this month with an inkling of where this project might go. Then I'll be happy to walk away from it, let it simmer for a while, and get back to my other WIP.

Nanowrimo showed me that I can write fast. Heck, I found out that I can even type fast. I have a real good idea of where my other WIP is going. I can't wait to pound away at it and finsh the draft. And when that is done, my new project will have simmered long enough. It will be time to bring it to a boil.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Locked Lips Torture

Critique groups endorse a form of torture not mentioned in any Geneva Convention. In my two critique groups, we try to abide by that all-important rule: when your work is being critiqued, your lips are to be locked until everyone has spoken. Hard? Torture hard!

When the critiques begin, you twitch, fiddle with a pencil, or shift in your chair. If someone mentions a small flaw and you don't agree, your brain explodes. You long to cry out, "You didn't read carefully enough! I did explain that! See, it's right there!"

Harder still, is keeping your lips locked when a fellow writer doesn't "get it" and demonstrates total ignorance about a basic premise of your manuscript!

I witnessed two writers accomplish this feat of self-control during the last month. They listened SILENTLY to a few clueless critiques (mine included) that missed an essential point of their manuscript. Kudos to both! One had written a picture book that experimented with the age of the main character. The other is writing a novel blending reality with exaggeration and magic.

Now comes the happy part: post torture, both authors were rewarded. The excellent group discussions following the critiques provided them with helpful fodder for revisions.

Moral of the story? If you belong to a good critique group, suffering through locked lips torture sometimes pays off.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Real Men Don't Critique?

Why are there so few men in critique groups? In our cozy critique group of eight, there are none. In my former group of five, none. There were two men in my 14-member group prior to that one--huzzah!--but they both eventually quit. Again, none.

My group gives wonderful critiques but I'd like to get a few from male readers too. Eventually, I want girls and boys to enjoy my books, so a little male perspective would be nice right about now. But men seem to avoid critique groups like they do quiche. Why is that?

I went to a soiree for children's book writers the other night and had a conversation with a clearly social, seemingly sane male children's book writer. When asked, he said he would never join a critique group, "because I just don't want to hear all the soft and fuzzy crap about my manuscript. I only want to hear what sucks about my book so I can fix it and that's all. The rest is a waste of time."

Oh, okay. When I asked, "But how will you know what to keep in your manuscript if you don't hear what's great about it too?" he just shrugged. End of conversation. Had I stumped him or was I just wasting his time too?

Okay, so he's not necessarily someone I'd want in my group. (No offense if you're reading this!) But I still wonder, why don't most men join critique groups? By the way, if there are any male lurkers out there who can satisfactorily answer this post, you win a prize: A free manuscript critique from our group! Like it or not.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday: A Kick in the Collection


I enjoy writing poetry, and, over the past several years I have been working on two themed poetry collections. Recently, I went back to an old collection and tried to figure out how to revise it. My wonderful critique group (Thanks guys!) pointed out that my poetry had grown a lot since then. But, since this was an older collection, every one of my poems had an ABAB rhyming pattern. They encouraged me to add variety in my poetic forms and rhyme schemes.

I immediately went to a wonderful poetry resource, Paul B. Janeczko's "A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms".

I knew the ideas I wanted to express in my collection, and since I had decided to greatly expand the number of poems, I was ready to begin experimenting. Of course, I had fun with some classics like Haiku. But I also have experimented with several triolets (what a neat form), an ode, some persona poems and a couple of riddles. I have also fallen in love with the idea of writing a pantoum (what a challenge!), but haven't managed to write one that pleases me yet.

If you're interested in trying to write any of these kinds of poems, I highly recommend you read Janeczko's book. Even if you just want to learn what some of these forms are, I highly advise you to check it out!

For me, it was wonderful to find a book that helped take me out of my "comfort zone" in such a fun and informative way. I would love to know what writing resources have helped you to stretch yourself as a writer. Thanks for sharing! :o)

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Paperless World?

Last week I read that the number of newspaper readers is diminishing. Newspapers are less profitable. Reporters are being layed off. Daily more people get their news on line. Soon, I suppose, newspapers will be considered financially and environmentally unsustainable. We'll take our morning coffee to our computers, boot up and scroll down.

What implication does this have for books? I sit with my year old granddaughter on my lap, turning the pages of a well-worn board book. "Horsie," I say, pointing to the picture. "Duck." "Cat." She grasps the pages with her little hands, her breath coming in short gasps. She flips the pages backward and forward. I am, I hope, creating aonther reader, one who can pick up a book and carry it almost anywhere, ready in seconds to escape into another world, if only for a few minutes or an hour.

In the future will books be too expensive to publish? Will the world revert to the situation where only the very rich can afford a printed book?

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Word Count

I began Nanowrimo today. It's my first, and to be honest, I've fallen short of the 1667 words a day which would help me reach my goal of 50,000 by the end of the month. Does that mean I've had a bad day? If I didn't have this number breathing down my neck, I'd be pretty darn happy at what I've accomplished today. I began a new novel, which only yesterday had been a few random thoughts and a sketchy outline. It's a good feeling to embark on a new adventure.

Then I think of that word count and my writing high comes crashing down.


I'm not sure why I signed up for Nano. I'm not good with deadlines. You know, lose 10 pounds in two weeks. Sounds easy, but show up at the scale and you'll find out the truth soon enough. Nothing is as easy as it sounds. There's work, sacrifice and lots of grilled chicken. 1667 words a day for me, I hate to admit, is a lot of grilled chicken.

I mull as I write. I stare off into space. I pillage the kids' Halloween bags for miniature peanut butter cups. It's not that I can't reach that number. I can, I have, but not every day for a month. So am I doomed to fail before I even get started? I can't look at it like that. What I'm trying to take away from this is a new way to work.

Writing without editing is next to impossible for me. Heck, it can take me fifteen minutes to compose a simple sick note for school. So a novel? I tend to work on my beginning until I feel I've gotten it just right, then I move on. This alone can take a month. Participating in Nano, I hope, will jolt me out of this practice.

Normally I don't pay that much attention to word count per day, but for the sake of shaking my writing habits up a little, I will. If at the end of November I have 50,000 words, awesome. If not, I know I'll have something. A launching pad. The raw material to play with. And a month of writing.

So what's a good writing day for you? A certain number of words, or something else?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Setting Setting and Story

"THEIR HOME WAS A BOAT WITH TWO WISE EYES ON THE YANGTZE RIVER."

Unique settings often create an enchanting place that engages young readers to visit a story again and again. Unique setting is essential to some of the childhood classics. Ping must linger on the banks of a Chinese river and Ferdinand must ponder the flowers in Spain. The children in Maine with a sense of wonder must live on the rock bound coast to experience such a northern hurricane.

Many classics can take place in any setting - say books about some of children's favorite pets...the cats. MILLIONS OF CATS exist just there on the black and white pages while THE CAT IN THE HAT could wreck havoc in any home. Kevin Henkes' kitten could marvel at the moon anywhere with a cloudless sky. And, of course, children all over the world can say good night to the moon.

But, setting does create uniqueness that is special and promotes memories. Ducks, those webbed footed favorites of children can and do enliven many stories, but the most famous ducks must live by the swan boats in Boston.

What enchanted place do you feel invites children in?

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Trying Something New

Trying something new is not easy. It's weird. It's fun. It's a little intimidating.

I'm trying something new, trying to write a magazine piece. The magazine dictates the topic, the age level, and the word count. Heck! It should be easy then, right?

Well, it's not. I am having fun with the research (something I usually have so much fun with it'd be easy to just keep on researching and forget the writing part). But I am getting ready to write an outline. (I hate outlines. I've hated them since I was in Junior High and had to write one for a History paper.) But the magazine wants me to submit an outline, not a completed article. So, not only is it new that I'm writing a magazine piece, but I'm also writing an outline. How much new do I have to suffer through??

In truth, I've been doing a lot new lately. Not only am I challenging my writing-self, I've been challenging my computer-self. I've been learning a lot about blogging and commenting, and trying to become an active member of some of our favorite sites, versus being a "lurker". And, on a personal level, I'm learning how to be a retired stay-at-home-mother. New things/changes in our lives can be difficult and scary, but they can be rewarding and enriching.

So, I'm wondering...
When was the last time you tried something new?
How much did it scare you?
Were you good at it?
How long did it take before the newness wore off?

Read more!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Kick in the Pants Like No Other

I did it. I signed up for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) this November. I have a user name and a password. I actually agreed to write 50,000 words -- a first draft of a book -- in one month. I need a kick in the pants to get me out of my writing rut. And I have a plan.

First, I must admit that I am a terrible typist. I have to look at the keyboard and I still make a ton of mistakes. I virtually always type teh instead of the. And I cannot stop myself from correcting mistakes as I go. Coupled with a background on business writing on deadline -- it's got to sound good very quickly -- I find myself unable to move forward until each sentence is right. This leads to some ferociously slow fiction.

So how can I break free of my long-nurtured writing habits and spill out 50,000 words in one month? I'll sketch out a few main characters and a loosely-woven plot, and then break out the marble notebooks. When I write in longhand, I can let the words flow without instant editing. Maybe it's some deep-rooted inverse connection to nuns and Palmer Method, but in longhand I can free-write. In front of a keyboard, too much thinking clogs up the creativity.

I will not, however, totally deny my anal side for one month. I plan to free-write first thing in the morning, and then type it all out in the evening, when I will allow myself time to edit my longhanded muse.

So can I do it? I hope so. Anybody want to join me? Here's the link for more info:

http://www.nanowrimo.org/


Read more!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Lonely Writer... Not!

Writing is often thought of as a lonely profession. I know when I first started it certainly seemed that way. I eagerly read through my copy of CWIM (Children's Writers and Illustrators Market) and a few available books on how to write for children in an attempt to understand this crazy world of writing for children (and trying to get published doing it). But mostly, when I wrote a story or sent a manuscript out to a publisher, I just felt alone.

Thank goodness things have changed!

In recent years, I think the options for writers to connect to one another have expanded, and it's definitely up to us as writers to take advantage of the amazing opportunities that are out there.

From joining SCBWI to joining critique groups (both in-person and online), and from attending conferences (don't miss the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua!) to chatting about writing on the computer (don't miss Verla Kay's Blue Board and the childrens-writers yahoo group!), I have grown to be a part of many communities of writers.

Each of these communities is wonderfully supportive and has helped my knowledge and confidence as a writer to grow.

If anything, my problem is now the opposite of the lonely writer. I have to be careful not to spend so much time hopping from opportunity to opportunity without spending enough time doing my main job... writing!

I'm curious. How do you connect with other writers? And how do you balance between connecting and writing?

Read more!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Click "Hibernate" or "Send" . . . and Then

My writing brain has a perverse and irritating habit.

Let me set one scene: I'm writing a poem about a kid attempting a skateboard jump over and over before it's finally accomplished. Here's the third stanza:

Push off the millionth time
And balance on the deck,
I snap the tail and jump-
Another skateboard wreck?

The rhythm and meaning of the next line is driving me nuts. It's the important first line of the last stanza when the jump works:

Wow! It's not a ________,

Fill in the blank: disaster? (too many syllables), mistake? (wrong meaning, right number of syllables), accident? (too many syllables), etc., etc.,

Enough! It's lunchtime. Click "start," click "hibernate," and then . . .

Seconds later on the way down the stairs, a lightning zap of inspiration! WIPEOUT. It's a good kid-friendly word with the right number of syllables and it adds some alliteration. Worth a try?

But why couldn't I think of it before? Why did my brain hold out? It happens to me all the time. Answers strike the instant my computer is put to sleep. Maybe I should send it into hibernation every ten minutes!

Clicking "send" also triggers my brain. Send a manuscript out for critique and you can bet I'll instantly think of at least three improvements.

Is it only me?

Read more!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It Gives Me Goosebumps

I've read plenty of good "how to" books on writing for children. But nothing compares to what I'm learning from my eight-year-old son, Gabe. He has two favorite authors, R.L. Stine and Dav Pilkey. Hand him a classic boy book like Treasure Island and he'll read a chapter or two but that's usually it. But the Goosebumps and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are another matter. He can't put them down. He's turning pages at the breakfast table. He skips TV or computer games to finish them. (If you knew my kid, you'd know this is huge.)

Gabe's book choices used to bother me. Goosebumps is masterfully done, of course, but it's just a bunch of ghost stories. File under "fiction light." And all the poop, booger, and other potty talk in the Wimpy Kid books used to make me cringe

Not any more. As long as my kid's reading, I don't care if it's a joke on a gum wrapper. He is falling in love with fiction--one lovely, scatalogical word at a time. He'll discover the classics soon enough. Until then, creeps from the deep and lunch ladies from Mars will suffice.

I just watched a video interview with R.L. Stine. If you want to view it, here's the link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6SV8rgFa0g&feature=related

If not, here's a great quote from R.L.:

"Kids like my books because they’re like a roller-coaster ride. You know what you’re in for when you get on. There are lots of thrills. Lots of crazy twists and turns. And it lets you off safe at the end. The point of my career is getting kids to read. The whole point of my books is you can turn to reading and just be entertained."

R.L. Stine has sold over 300 million copies of Goosebumps. I can see why. And so can Gabe.

Read more!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Nobel Prize Goes To Who??

When I read today that the Nobel Prize for Literature had gone to a writer I'd never heard of (Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio), I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Is he that obscure, or am I that out of it? It turns out he is obscure (and I'm a bit out of it to boot), to readers of the English language, because, as well regarded as he is in Europe, few of his works have been translated into English. It's a shame. When I did a little research into who he is, and what he writes about, I came across this quote.

“My message will be very clear; it is that I think we have to continue to read novels. Because I think that the novel is a very good means to question the current world without having an answer that is too schematic, too automatic. The novelist, he’s not a philosopher, not a technician of spoken language. He’s someone who writes, above all, and through the novel asks questions.”

In this time of incredible uncertainty and fear, it rejuvenated me and inspired me to both read and write. Good writing matters, even, and especially, when the sky is falling.

Read more!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mission: Submission

I know I have to submit my manuscripts. I really do. But lately I seem to suffer from a malady I'll call "submission indecision".

Let me explain.

After I've completed a manuscript that I envision could eventually become a book, I revise it as much as I possibly can and then I send it out into the world. Or at least that's what I should do.

I think of the perfect publisher. And I'm all ready to send it there. I really am.

Until... I discover their 11 month average response time to unsolicited submissions. And I start to have my doubts.

Maybe I should try to get an agent so I can bypass the slush, I think to myself. So I start researching agents.

But then I think about the variety of genres I write in, and I start to have my doubts again. Which single manuscript would be best to showcase me to an agent?

Now, you might think it would be easier once I finally send a manuscript on its way. And, other than the waiting, it is.

But then it comes back. And I've got to decide what to do with it all over again.

If it comes back with a rejection that indicates it completely missed its mark, I worriedly put it aside, trying to figure out how to fix it.

And, if it comes back with a glowing rejection indicating it came "oh so close" to making it. Believe it or not, sometimes that's even worse. Then I worry about using up all my best publishing options with a bunch of "close calls". (It's especially tough when the manuscript is aimed at a niche market with few possible option for unsolicited submissions... like poetry or easy readers.)

So the poor lonely manuscript sits on my hard drive. Waiting.

Does anyone else suffer from this malady? How do the rest of you get your manuscripts out in the world where they belong?

Read more!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Written Word

I just returned from a mini conference on religion, where the point was made that the world's great religions have succeeded because of the written word. In studying ancient cultures, one is struck by the exclusivity of early religions. Many were only for males, others only for people from a certain social class; little if anything from them survives in writing. This fact led me to consider how very precious is the written word, whatever the level of content, whether it is the work of a monk in a 8th C scriptorum, the diary of an Italian immigrant from Sicily, or the latest post on a right-wing political blog. As writers we are privileged to take the letters of the alphabet and put them together to create scenes, conversations, tragedy, comedy; to create a few sentences that someone, some day might remember.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Raffle for a Worthy Cause

Just wanted to make sure that everyone gets the word about Editorial A**'s (aka Moonrat) new raffle. It's to help her friend who has stage IV lymphoma and no insurance.

Prizes of particular interest to children's writer's include a full picture book critique and a middle grade or YA first chapter critique from Tracy Marchini of the Curtis Brown agency.

Check it out at http://editorialass.blogspot.com

Thanks to Ello and LRM on Verla Kay's Blue Board for passing along this important announcement!

Read more!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cultivating a Practice

I recently began a yoga practice...again. There's something so primal about bare feet on the mat, breathing through the poses and being in the moment that really appeals to me. It also doesn't matter if you're any good or not, no judgement. Or should I say the only person judging yourself is you. As I sweat and struggle and my muscles scream the next day it brings to mind another practice I find equally as sweaty and painful - writing.

Maybe not the sweat part, unless it's the sweating it out after sending my work out into the universe. Struggling to find my balance and a regular practice, yes, definitely. I wish I could say I write every day, but for the most part, I don't. Unless I'm working on something, which at the moment I'm not. I'm in that painful in between projects phase. And it's here where I can easily be swayed by other demands or internet sites as opposed to what I should be doing...creating!

Sitting down and struggling with ideas is definitely as challenging as plank push ups for me. But I know, through raw determination and yes, practice, my ideas can come to life on the page. So here's my promise and a challenge. I will write every day of October for at least 20 minutes. I will put my butt down in my seat, forgo checking e-mail, ignore my hankering for a second cup of coffee and just write.

And I challenge you all to do the same. No judgement and no excuses. Morning, noon, night - whenever. Just do it. Turn the ringer off and find yourself on the page.

Then breathe.

Who knows what we'll come up with?

Read more!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Better Half


Illustration used with permission ©Josée Bisaillon

I got an email from my editor (boy, do I love "saying" that! My editor, my editor) telling me that they have picked an illustrator for my picture book! I confess to feeling a bit of panic. While I didn't have a specific idea of how I wanted the book to look, I did have some idea of what I thought it should look like. What if I didn't like the illustrations? What if I didn't think they would work well with my words? I know that as a picture book author, my words are only half of the book. The illustrations make the words and the words make the illustrations. My panic lasted only as long as it took me to visit the illustrator's website.

I loved what I saw on Josée Bisaillon's website. Her illustrations were not what I expected. They were better! It's obvious why professionals choose the illustrator and not the author. That's not to say that I'm not a professional, or that all authors are like me, but I am not an illustrator. I am, in fact, more limited in my knowledge of visual arts than I would like to admit. I am so happy that I didn't have a say in who would illustrate BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS.

Seeing Josée's work, I got excited all over again. It was as if I'd learned all over again that my work was going to be published. When it takes three years from acquisition to publication it's hard to sustain excitement. Sometimes it seems as if it's a dream. It's weird to tell people, "Oh, yes, I'm being published. But you can't buy the book for three years." No one (outside the world of children's publishing) understands why it takes so long.

I'm sure I'll be excited all over again when the book actually comes out. Being able to see how Josée brings my words to life is going to be thrilling!

Illustration used with permission ©Josée Bisaillon.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Wake Up and Smell the Pledge




It's eight o'clock in the morning. My coffee cup is placed on my desk at the perfect 45-degree angle from my right hand. The faint smell of Pledge hovers in the air. My office is spanking clean, my computer is fully connected to the internet, and I'm ready to work.

Did I mention that I love my office? And how much I've missed it for the better part of a year? I had mainly been using my laptop, due to router and repeater malfunctions that couldn't penetrate the metal studs of my basement walls. I ended up working anywhere else in the house and only entered my office to drop off another stack "to be filed." When I ran out of floor space, I knew it was time to change.

So I bought a toaster oven.

Lifting the repeater from the kitchen counter to the top of the toaster oven gave me a clear internet connection. Go figure.

So here I am, clicking and clacking away on my comfortably noisy keyboard, not a paper out of place, not a cobweb or crumb in sight.

My mind is as clear as my desk. Let the creativity flow...

m

Read more!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kiddie Lit Quiz Time!

A quiz based on some of the fun facts I gathered from Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature, by Leonard S. Marcus.

Are you ready?

1. What was the first children's book of American origin? When was it published?

2. By 1830 that book had gone through 450 editions. How many copies had been sold?

3. In 1865, two books published in America qualified as the top best sellers. One was Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The other was which children's book?

4. Which publisher created the first department devoted to children's books? When?

5. Which 1940 children's title was advertised with the slogan: "For Whom the Bell Tolls is magnificent - but it hasn't any bunny in it." ?

6. Which of the first twelve Little Golden Books was the most successful?

7. Who was the first editor to have an eponymous imprint?

8. Which children's book had such a large crossover college audience that it was advertised on "Late Night with David Letterman" ?

9. Which famous children's author wrote a classic "in a mere forty minutes on a rainy Sunday afternoon" to give his artist friend something fun to illustrate?

10. What was Curious George's name in the original H. A. and Margret Rey manuscript before editors changed it?


Ta-da! And now for the answers:

1. The New England Primer. 1690.

2. Estimated to have sold 6 to 8 million copies by 1830.

3. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. Mary Mapes Dodge.

4. Macmillan. 1919.

5. Pat the Bunny. Dorothy Kunhardt.

6. The Poky Little Puppy. Janette Sebring Lowrey.

7. Margaret McElderry in 1970.

8. The Stinky Cheese Man. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

9. Munro Leaf wrote Ferdinand for Robert Lawson.

10. Fifi.

If you answered even three correctly, you win a signed copy of the first Harry Potter.

Yeah, right!


Read more!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Logophiles unite!

There is a disease which consists in loving words too much. Logophilia first manifests itself in childhood and is, alas, incurable.
—Peter Ackroyd, "Visions from an addiction to fiction," The Times (London), March 20, 2002

We’re all writers, which means we're all logophiles. This summer, I particularly enjoyed discovering the new portmanteau words like “staycation” and “glamping” (glammed-up camping) in print and elsewhere, then hearing them become part of my friends’ everyday travel-speak.

When I’m writing, however, being a logophile can also be problematic. The reason: I seem to love certain words and phrases so much I overuse them, without even realizing it. I’m not talking about million-dollar babies like “manky” (The Bartimaeus Trilogy) that send me straight to Webster’s. I’m talking about all those dime-store variety words that tend to self-replicate in my manuscript like lexical bunnies.

My stealth words include “practically,” “just then,” and “cocked” (as in, a head or an eyebrow). I’m already in self-imposed rehab for prior overuse of “suddenly.” Never again! I suppose I should add “particularly” and “seem to” to the list, since I also overused them in this post.

Fellow logophiles, am I the only one suffering from obsessive logophilic disorder (O.L.D.)? Are you too afflicted with the disease? If so, take the first step. Tell me which words tempt, no, torment you, manuscript after manuscript, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. If we share, perhaps we can overcome O.L.D. together.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When to keep my mouth shut

Recently I started reading a book to my six year old daughter that I thought was atrocious. She agreed, so we stopped. We even had a good conversation about why it wasn't so good - the story didn't make sense, the characters felt hollow. But there have been many times when we've been in the middle of a book which she loves, but I find lacking. And I will admit a few times I've even said something, unable to bit my tongue. So, the question is, should I keep my mouth shut and read on? Or should I express my opinion, and risk influencing hers, thus censoring what she's exposed to on some small level? I love that already she is forming ideas about what makes a story work, but I concede this may come at a cost.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Milestones: Not Just for Toddlers

As "Mommy" to a just turned two year old, I have spent a lot of time recently celebrating milestones. First smile and first laugh. First words and first steps.

But toddlers aren't the only ones who reach milestones.

Recently I received a wonderful letter in the mail from Highlights. One of the three poems they accepted from me will be published in their upcoming December issue.

That's when I realized that writers reach milestones too!

Just like my son went from helpless infant to walking, talking (and ever so independent) toddler, I went from no writing credits to my beautiful first acceptance from Wee Ones. Other small and online publications followed.

Then Cobblestone accepted a query. Finally something I wrote would be in a national publication in the library. And now Highlights is actually going to publish one of my poems.

Looking back at each of these milestones, I realize how many similarities there are between my journey and my toddler's. With my toddler, each milestone is the cause for great celebration. So it is with my writing. (I'm sure that, no matter where you live, you could hear my screams when Cobblestone accepted that query and when Highlights accepted those three poems!)

But even though I remind myself that "writing (just like childhood) is a journey and not a race", the time in between milestones can be long and stressful. Would I ever get a poem accepted? Would I ever be published in a national magazine? Those questions have now been answered with a yes, but, at the time, I was anything but sure.

And then there's the biggest milestone still on the horizon: Will I ever get a book accepted by a publisher?

But somehow, just like I believed my little boy would take those first steps, I believe that first book contract will come. It's just a bit hard to keep the faith some time. Don't you think? How do you do it?

Read more!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Character Narrative

During the past week we've been hearing about the "narratives" of political figures. This led me to think about the "narratives" of the characters about whom we write. Of course, the main character's narrative is easy. That's what our story is about. But I think we often neglect the narratives of other characters in the story. They appear, interact with the main character and disappear from the scene or chapter. Often we are told that there are too many of these secondary or minor characters. The reader has trouble remembering them. I think perhaps the problem is that we neglect the "narratives" of these secondary characters. As good writers, we must give them a "bio" as well, so that they are memorable, even if their presence serves only to move the story along.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

Whose Characters Are They Anyway?

I have a confession. I am a fan of Twilight. I know there are many fans well out of their teen years, but it still feels wildly inappropriate crushing on a fictional teenage vampire at my age. Although technically Edward is older than I am, and maybe with a little Botox on my part...but this post isn't about my personal hang-ups, it's about the latest book in the Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn.

While I didn't attend any 'countdown to midnight' bookstore parties, I couldn't wait to read Breaking Dawn and finally find out how the story would evolve and ultimately end. Would Bella pick Jacob over Edward? Would Edward and Bella really get married? And the biggie - would Bella get her dearest wish to become a vampire and be with Edward forever? As a fan, I had formulated my own future for all involved, which is the very best part of fiction and why books are usually better than movies. So I was more than a bit disappointed when my most pressing questions were answered within the first few chapters of the book.

This post is also not a review of the book, and I wouldn't want to be a spoiler (although anyone who really wanted to read Breaking Dawn was probably finished by August 3rd) but suffice to say, for me, it went from being a human story with supernatural aspects, to a completely supernatural story that I wasn't prepared to read. In other words, it didn't go the way I imagined and I had to put the book down and digest it before I could read on. This is when my writer's mind took over and asked the question - whose characters are they anyway?

Of course, they are Stephenie Meyer's, and this is her vision, so why couldn't I just go along for the ride? I know I'm not the only person who wasn't dazzled by the plot but what right do any of us have to feel this way? As a writer, it's difficult enough to let characters take their natural course without forcing our own desires onto them, but imagine having to please a legion of fans? (I know, from my lips to God's ears)

The writer in me wanted to give it a fair chance in spite of my inner fan stomping around saying "But it wasn't supposed to happen this way." Once I got over my own ideas, Breaking Dawn didn't disappoint. While it may not have been as captivating for me as some of the other books, in the end, the characters kept calling me to hear their story.

And isn't that what it's all about?


Read more!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Inspiration !

Inspiration -

Children, teachers, parents, friends and critics - often ask, where do you get ideas for your books? Where do you get your inspiration? Isn't it hard to find ideas for books?

Actually, no.

Ideas are pelting authors from all sides every day. Watching and listening to children, listening to your memories from childhood, seeing people of all ages navigate through life, analysing the twists of people and fate, reviewing interesting and important persons in history, visiting the beauties of nature throughout our beautiful land...many ideas... and much inspiration. Then the author sits and does the hard work of molding inspiration into a book that tells a story that excites, entertains and holds spellbond the reader.

Today we were driving on a four wheel road in the mountains above the Snake River as it winds and crashes through Hell's Canyon in western Idaho. What a magnificient place - the only living creatures we came upon in four hours were one lumberman cutting timber, a covey of grouse and one large elk with a big rack. The mountain ridges spread before us and deep below we could see the Snake River running through its gorge, the deepest in North America.

What inspiration!

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Monday, August 25, 2008

To Read or Not to Read - Part 2

In an earlier post I confessed that I don't read much historical YA out of fear and frustration - fear that I'd subconsciously incorporate something into my own writing and frustration with the quality of some of what is published. In the comments that you all wrote, you explained how you read childrens' literature as writers, studying plot development, characters' voices, structure, and what makes a successful setting. I took your words to heart and I've been reading!

I just finished BLUE by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. It is an historical novel set in 1944 with a 13-year-old protagonist. (It was recommended to me by Carolyn Yoder when I was working on that project I recently gave up because I found it so frustrating.) I'd tried reading it two years ago and I couldn't get past the first chapter. The character's voice was so strong and real, I was terrified that she would creep into my character's voice. This time when I picked it up the character's voice was still strong and real, but I was able to look beyond that to the structure, the plot, the way the author moved the story forward, how every chapter took me closer to the story's end. I noticed that the author made jumps in time, a month or two at a time, she finished a scene and moved on without then describing something unnecessary to the story - which is something I KNOW I am guilty of, as if I have to explain, for example, that the character washed their face and brushed their teeth before going to bed when NONE OF THAT MATTERS. There was nothing unnecessary in the story. It was wonderful.

So, thank you fellow writers, critiquers and friends for your words of wisdom. This is yet another example of why critique groups are valuable. I now understand the value of reading in my genre. It's about time!

Read more!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Clean and Tidy...Not

I have a confession. My office is a mess. It looks like someone shook it. I have stacks of papers to be filed--out with the old health insurance, in with the new--a box of papers to be shredded, files and drafts waiting to become orderly. It has never been this bad. And it's keeping me from writing. I blame it on the internet.

Unbeknown to me, when we first went wireless, I poached my neighbor's connection. When my neighbor moved her office to the other side of the house, I lost my office cyber-connection. No booster could reliably reach from the top floor front of my house to my rear basement hide-away. So I took to my laptop and worked wherever. And instead of filing daily as I always had, I brought stuff in there to deal with later. And I found out that later just gets later...and later. And now I hate going in there.

So I am taking this opportunity to publicly declare that by this time next month I will have a clean, sleek, totally functioning office space. Including an internet connection. I'm going vertical, putting up shelves and buying every kind of container I can find to house every loose item in that room.

So as I tackle this challenge I ask you all for your best tips for setting up your writer's space. I need your help!

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Clues in Your Clothes?

A friend who teaches flower arranging told me the first time she meets a class, she can guess how a person will arrange flowers by how they're dressed. According to her theory, a student in subdued, classic clothes will produce a tighter, more controlled flower arrangement. A student wearing lively, funky clothes will design a looser, more casual arrangement.

I laughed when my teacher/friend critiqued my first flower arrangement. She had me pegged! I had traditional Talbots on my back and a tight flower design on my table. I had proved her right.

Hm-m-m. Could her clothing theory ever apply to what writers produce?


Bet your thesaurus it can! Predictable me. Yes, I write tight prose. LOVE to ax unnecessary words. Rambling sentences? Never been mentioned in ten years of critiques.

Like all generalities, this can't be carried too far, but how we dress does have to do with personality. And our personality has something to do with what we choose for subject matter and how we write. Traditional vs. trendy? Concise vs. wordy?

Take Paula Danziger as another example. Her wacky, inventive clothes matched her written (and spoken) words.

So what's your writing style? Are there clues in your clothes? Do you prove or disprove this amusing theory?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

To Kindle or not to Kindle?


Are you following the book world buzz? The Kindle, Amazon’s wireless reading device, is on fire. Analysts are predicting that 380,000 units will sell this year and sales of $1 billion by 2010. As one said, “Turns out the Kindle is becoming the iPod of the book world.” Picture it. Only two years from now. Commuters, beachgoers, you, me, staring at our little white boxes, reading our wireless words. No page-turning necessary.

Well, I’m not going to be one of them.

Yes, it's more convenient. Order a book and it’s immediately downloaded to your Kindle. Yes, it's cheaper (once you amortize the $395 cost of the gadget). Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga: Book 1, for example, has a current print price of $10.99, but the Kindle price is only $6.03, almost half off. When you buy as many kids’ books as I do, the savings can add up.

What bugs me is Amazon’s claim that you’ll “experience a display that looks and reads like paper, even in sunlight.”

Oh puhlease. If it doesn’t smell like a book or feel like a book or have pages that you can turn or dog-ear or write on, is it really a book? Not to me. I love the tactile part of reading; feeling the paper, the cover, cracking the spine. I love the sound of pages turning, seeing the thickness of pages I’ve read versus what’s left to read. I love using bookmarks. I love my library. More importantly, I read printed words differently than wireless words. They affect me more. I retain them better. Printed books have soul.

So, no Kindle for me. How about you? Are you a future Kindler or not?

Read more!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Through My Readers' Eyes

Have you ever written and re-written a manuscript so many times that you don't think there can possibly be any substantive changes left to make? I know I have.

At that point, the manuscript must be as good as I can possibly make it. Right?

Well maybe not.

I recently hit one of those "writing walls" with my new middle grade. I had worked tremendously hard on my narrator's voice, struggling over getting each and every word just right.

I knew there had to be changes left to make. But what were they?

I had no idea. Time to bring the manuscript to my amazing critique group.

What would they think? I had no idea. But I knew they would be able to see it with a fresh set of eyes. And a fresh set of eyes was exactly what I needed.

By the end of listening to the critiques around the table (and the ones that came in via email from the writers who couldn't attend the meeting), I had a whole new perspective on my manuscript. (Thanks guys!) I realized that while I thought I was being perfectly clear about what I intended my central conflict to be, my readers felt differently.

Actually, they thought they knew what the main conflict was. It's just that what they thought was the main conflict... wasn't. Their comments and questions showed me that I need to do some major re-writing of my opening to let my readers quickly and easily determine the main plot and the subplot of my story.

Critiques like this used to frustrate me. Why couldn't the story just be done already? But that's not the way I feel now.

No. Now critiques like this get my mind whirling with possibilities. It won't be easy to make the revisions I have in mind. But by the time I'm done with them, I should have a much better manuscript. And that's the most exciting possibility of all.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

So Many Stories, So Few Words

In traveling across the country this summer, I was more aware than ever about the millions of stories of the people who settled this amazing land, from the sad stories of the little babies who never made it to their first year to the stories of those who lived to a ripe old toothless age still hauling water and fighting to protect whatever property they were able to scrape together. I want to get some of these stories down on paper but am often stymied by the challenge of making the material attractive to today's young readers. Again and again I go back and work on "action" verbs and active situations, cutting out descriptive passages in favor of what will "draw in" the reader. And yet...I personally love good descriptive writing.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Critique Groups

Love them or hate them, where there are writers, you will surely find critique groups. Some large, some intimate, some virtual. Ask a writer if they belong to one and you may hear strong reactions. "No way!" to "I wouldn't be where I am today without my critique group."

I am of the second opinion.

To an outsider, putting together a critique group might seem like easy business. As a founding member of a group that's been together for ten years, I can say it's daunting to find the right fit. Over the years people have come and gone for various reasons. Personalities clash, people decide it's not for them, or worse yet, the group as a whole feels a member is not living up to her/his end of the membership commitment. The group I belong to is finally at a point where all the members mesh well, coming together like the perfect writing stew.

Then I had to go buy a house in another state.

Yes. I'm physically leaving my critique group and it feels rotten. When I began this journey of writing, I never thought it would lead to friendship. Let's face it, most of the time we are alone in this. Toiling away at computer or notebook...gazing off into the distance...talking to ourselves...struggling to find the perfect word or phrase. And when we come up to take a breath, that loneliness can swallow you whole. If you understand that feeling, then you know how wonderful it is to find someone who relates to it. I am lucky enough to have found NINE other women who get it.

We meet two days a month from 10:00AM - 12:00PM, give or take a few minutes. For those four hours I'm my most undiluted self. My group knows a side of me even my closest friends don't. It's always blown me away when I really stop and think about it. We don't always share the details of our outer worlds, but our inner worlds? We are kindred spirits. Dream nurturers.

Each of us has our own talents we bring to the group. Enthusiasm, humor, wit, romance, sarcasm. I know whom I can count on for spot on grammar issues. And who will give me comments so honest it hurts (but in a good way). We help, cheer and console each other. In the brutal world of publishing, my group has been my secret tree house society. A place to retreat to. My group is always there to talk me off the ledge of "I Quit". Always there to remind me that writing for the sake of writing is also kind of fun too.

They have also given me something else. Courage. In myself and my writing. It's with this courage that I'm able to dream a new chapter for myself for a change. (Why should my characters have all the fun?) And it's with this courage, that when the time feels right, I'll be able to reach out again to other writers who might be looking for an addition to their group. I can only hope I'll be twice blessed.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Journey

Writing is a journey down many different roads.

The process of writing is itself a journey. The story, book or article may begin with a quick idea when hiking in the hills or waking from a dream or during a concentrated search for inspiration or information when siting at a desk. The story takes form and changes over time, following a hard journey to completion and its end.


Training to become a writer is a journey - on the long route from the first earnestly written lines of a child to a complete novel of an adult, from learning basic grammatical and writing skills, reading and reading, keeping journals, writing and writing, polishing language, working at the craft, to mastering plot, and setting, and breathing life into voice.

The character, brought into being by the author, takes his own life journey through the pathways of the story. Through trials and tension, strength of character, or lack of it, he is propelled along the road of plot to the climax of the story and to journey's end.

During the journey of actual writing frequently the author's trail is arduous and difficult. But at other times, the immersion in the creative process is joyous and the road turns exciting when a satisfying story end is reached.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Eureka!

There is an article in this week's NEW YORKER magazine entitled "The Eureka Hunt, Why do good ideas come to us when they do?" about the science of the "insight experience", discovering exactly what goes on in the brain when people have "Aha!" moments. It is a long, complicated article referencing medical studies involving fMRI brain scanners, EEGs, and anterior superior temporal gyrus. Most of it I didn't understand. But what I did understand was the "Aha!" moment itself.

As I've confessed, I've been lazy this summer -- unambitious, unmotivated, uninspired. Until Monday. On Monday I began to write. I was inspired by the post by J.L. Finnell and particularly by Robin's comment about the glass being half full. Was it an Aha! moment or simply a swift kick in the pants? Whatever it was it worked. I parked myself at the computer Monday morning and started writing. My character started talking to me, slowly at first, but steadily. And then a new character popped into my head (he'd been there before but not fully formed) and now he won't shut up!

I wonder what was going on in my brain when I read Robin's comment. Was my right anterior superior temporal gyrus stimulated, or was it my left? Why did her comment strike me as so inspiring? Why would such a simple statement (no offense, Robin), makes such a huge impression? It's made me think about my writing, and what inspires me. What makes me want/need to write despite the disappointments, rejections, and frustrations? I don't know. All I know is that the Aha! moments happen. They are real and glorious. And as long as that happens, the glass will always be half full.

Thank you J.L. and Robin!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Quiet Down--I'm Trying to Read

Yep. We all know it's true. A strong voice is vital to a strong manuscript. Many notable editors believe voice is the one important writing element that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And nowhere is the voice stronger than in two formats currently enjoying success in YA: the first person "monologue" and the diary. When I read a book written in either of these formats the voice is often as loud as a leaf blower on a Saturday morning. I may want to know what happens next, but sometimes I wish someone else could tell me. Does anyone else agree that sometimes the voice is just too loud?

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

How High Would You Go?

This question popped up on my AOL screen the other day in a quiz about “famous losers”: Which thriller novelist had his first book rejected 28 times? To see the answer, take the jump.

It’s John Grisham. AOL went on to say, “Grisham has been coined by the media as one of the best novel authors alive in the 21st century. However, his first manuscript, A Time To Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishing houses before an unknown publisher agreed to publish it.”

I once read that Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected 26 times. She said she almost quit writing at age 40 because her writing career was going so badly. If you search the net, you’ll find plenty of other rejection stats for books that ultimately went on to become best-sellers.

On Verla Kay’s website, there’s a thread called “So ready to concede failure” where writers talk about how many rejections they had on a project before it was accepted by an agent. One writer had a whopping 101 rejections over 15 months before landing an agent. Another, 99 rejections before getting one.

Personally, so far I’ve received nine rejections on my manuscript--four were on queries alone, five were on requested fulls or partials based on reading the first three chapters. At the time it seemed like a lot. After reading about the triple-digit kiss-offs on Verla Kay, however, it feels like I’m just getting started.

I recently got a request from an agent to cut 50 mspp., so I stopped submitting to cut and revise. I’m almost ready to go back into submission mode. Of course, I’m optimistic the agent will want it. And if not, the one after that. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be putting myself through all of this angst. Still, I can’t help wondering: if this agent passes, and then the next, how much longer do I give this project before I give up? Twenty-six rejections? Or do I go all the way to 101?

My question to all of you is, does anyone have a magic number for this? What’s the maximum number of rejections you’d endure before you tabled a project for good? When is it time to stop telling yourself, “Who knows, maybe the next submission will land me Agent X or a sweet deal at Publishing House Y?”

Your numbers, please.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lazy Days of Summer

"Summertime....and the living is easy" Life is easy in the summer. It's laid back, less hectic, relaxed, and yes, less productive. Summer has always been a slow time for me, writing-wise. Maybe because the kids were home, in and out, always needing something, and we had no schedule. I can't use that as an excuse anymore - one of my kids doesn't live at home anymore and the second one sleeps until noon and doesn't need me when he wakes up anyhow! So, what's my excuse??

I think it's a mind set left over from my own school days when summer was pure innocence and laziness. We slept late and played hard, and the family rules were loosened. We didn't have to be home by the time the street lights went on. We were free. Summertime was sacrosanct. The problem is, I'm not a kid anymore. It goes against my grain to sleep past 7 AM. The laundry, grocery shopping, household chores still need to be done and, surprisingly, my family still expects food on the table at dinnertime.

So it seems, the only area of my life where I can still be lazy and free is in my writing. I haven't done much since mid-May. Now, in my defense, May, June, and the first part of July were crazy hectic in my life. But all is calm now. I should be writing. I should be smoking up the computer, and spending hours with my new character. I an going to make a schedule, a specific time of day when I write. No laundry, family chores, or spider solitaire! I am committed. Writing is now sacrosanct.

I'll let you know how it goes in September.....

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Sometimes Short & Simple Is Harder

Recently I had a thirteen-word poem accepted by Babybug magazine. This four liner about building a snowman had as many drafts as the myriad seeds in a milkweed pod. The rhythm and rhyme had to be perfect. The plot had to appeal to an active two-year old. No uneven meter, slant rhymes, or description sans action. Tall order. Where did I go for inspiration?

Mother Goose. Confession time! I cribbed from the concept and cadence of "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man." Rhythm? Rhyme? Action? Most of Mother Goose excels in all three - the reason for her lasting appeal.

I'm working on a new poem about bathtub boats. Perhaps I'll call upon the Mother Goose Muse again. This time the action might be splashing to make waves. Or pushing a boat down to sink it. Let go and pop, it rises to float again. Physical principles for two-year olds?

I already have pages of revisions. Short and simple ain't easy - or fast.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What is your book about??.....

For years I worked in the film industry, both as a producer and screenwriter, and I quickly learned how to summarize a film project in industry parlance, what I'll call the "A meets B" method. If I was working on a project about a woman going through a divorce with a man who may or may not be a serial killer, let's say, I would pitch it as KRAMER VS. KRAMER meets CAPE FEAR. A film about baseball and friendship became BULL DURHAM meets BEACHES, and so on. The "A meets B" trope became so ubiquitous in Hollywood that often people conceived of projects based on these crazy combinations - SCHINDLER'S LIST meets CADDYSHACK, or BIG meets COLD MOUNTAIN. The combinations are so ridiculously wacky they become high concept by virtue of their incompatibility, and everybody loves a high concept. But as much as this tool is overused in Hollywood, it remains a punchy and effective way to get the essential idea of a project across in as little time as possible.

Now that I am a writer for children, when someone asks me what my book is about I stumble, and I generally ramble on, trying to impart the full plot and all of the complex themes of my work, all the while boring the person to death no doubt. So, my question is, should the publishing industry, should we writers for children, take a page from the film industry playbook, and describe our stories in this facile and often reductive A meets B way? Since publishers love high concept ideas, should we be conceiving of our stories by mashing together wildly different ideas to create something never before written?

GOODNIGHT MOON meets LEMONY SNICKET?? I think I'd like to read that one.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Characters Speak

One of the topics that fascinates me most about writing is when an author talks about how their characters "speak" to them. I've heard countless stories of writers waking up in the middle of the night to have their stories dictated to them by their main character. Most of the time, I'm in awe when I hear this and dream of the day (or night) it will happen to me that way.

I'm still waiting. Truth is I usually have to buy my characters a few milkshakes before they open up to me.

They do eventually open up, sometimes to the point where I have to tell them "not now" but I have yet to experience that thunderbolt moment of a character saying "Hey, wake up and listen to this!" Sometimes it takes a few weeks for a character to speak to me. Other times, a few months. In my experience I've had to really live with a character for awhile to differentiate which voice is which. It's hard for me to allow the story to evolve from that raw, organic place. My mind gets in the way and I begin to ask questions like "How is this relevant to the plot?" OR "What will - fill in the blank - think if they read this?"

Recently we did a character exercise in my writing group and my first thought was "Oh...crap." Writing on demand is not one of my specialties. Instead of pulling a character out of thin air, I dialed up an old friend from a story I'd struggled with a few years ago. I was pleasantly surprised when he spoke to me. I was equally astonished at how strong his voice was. Had he been sitting in my subconscious with duct tape over his mouth? Or had I just decided to listen?"

So my question is this - how does it happen for you? Do your characters speak to you or does it work better when you get to know them a little more? When do you feel you need to step in and lead, or should you ever do that?

I'm listening.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Anybody Can Do It...

“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mixing Mothering and Writing

Sara Dessen has an interesting take on the writer's life and the pitfalls of having too much time on your hands.



http://www.powells.com/essays/sarahdessen.html

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

Super Similes

I recently read Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes. He, as usual, provided an excellent read with interesting, quirky characters and a quiet plot. I was also struck by his masterful similes:

A house "neglected for quite a while, so that all its lines, angles, and corners were softened like the edges of a well-used bar of soap." pg. 2.

" . . . a twitch of excitement spread over him like a stain." pg.25.

A dog that "circled and circled, then settled down, curling up like a cashew." pg. 30.

Lilacs "long past their prime, brown, like clusters of scorched popcorn." pg. 46.

Before a storm, "the low clouds moved fast, like rolling clumps of steel wool." pg. 121.

Laura Backes, writing about similes and metaphors in the June 13th issue of the CBI e-mail newsletter, makes the point that metaphors and similes should fit naturally with the characters in the story. I agree. So thinking of the steel wool scrubbing pads in my kitchen, I wondered about using this last simile in a book with two boys as main characters. Then I remembered that "clumps of steel wool" could also be used in a woodworking class to sand and finish a project. So it fits after all.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Bitching About Pitching




I went to the NJSCBCI Conference last weekend too (see post below). Like J.A., I loved Cheryl Klein’s workshop on how to create characters. She basically had everyone in the room working together to create a character, by filling in a list of 20 or so character traits divided into two categories—who the character is (his/her essence) and what the character does (action). I’d like to try this exercise with my critique group on Friday, if everyone’s game.

Also great was a slide show presentation given by an editor (Robin Tordini) and creative director (Patrick Collins) from Henry Holt, showing interior and cover designs through each stage of the approval process from initial sketches through bound books. Even though the workshop had a design bent, it reminded me of how many people would have to approve my manuscript if it’s going to be accepted. Not that I needed or wanted reminding.

I opted out of the group speed-pitching session, but I stayed in the room and watched it happen (and took pictures, above). I must say, it scared the writerly pants off me. I don’t mean the pitching part. No, I mean seeing the large room, filled wall-to-wall with writers and illustrators, the noisy sound of simultaneous pitching, everyone clamoring to make a lasting impression on an editor. A writer had only two minutes to do this before the heartless whistle blew and he or she moved on to the next two editors. When the whistle blew a third time, it was game over. Time to leave the pitching mound. Buh-bye.

Sure, plenty of lovely requests for manuscripts came out of it, so why was it so scary? Because it was a living, breathing, deafening microcosm of what I’m up against as a writer: The mind-boggling number of writers trying to sell books, some just like mine. Editors becoming glassy-eyed (despite their best efforts) as they listened to pitch after pitch. I mean, how different could this be from reading piles of manuscripts at the office? It was yet another not-so-gentle reminder of how frighteningly competitive the market is. Not that I needed reminding about this either. But there it was.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Catch 22 of Conferences

Last weekend I attended the New Jersey SCBWI Conference. I took the two-day option with a sleepover in the seminary. For real. The conference began with a lovely luncheon and discussion with Jerry and Eileen Spinelli and ended with the speed-pitch of death. I was dog-tired to start with. It had been a busy week, but I had cleared the decks and set aside Thursday night to put all my stuff together. Then my refrigerator died and my dog had a major poop-attack all over her bedding. I took the trip to Princeton on four hours sleep.

I got there in time to help set up and enjoyed the lunch chatter. Jerry and Eileen Spinelli were really terrific. Funny, encouraging and helpful. There is nothing like sitting opposite hugely successful writers who tell you their rejection stories. It makes you believe published writers are simply writers who didn't give up.

Cheryl Klein's workshop on character was really well done. And something I needed to hear. Coupled with the editor critique on my WIP, I realize my writing will be more effective if I create in-depth character sketches before plunging into drafts.

At the Saturday morning panel, all attending agents and managers introduced themselves and mentioned what they were looking for or what they generally liked. Following that, I had a first page session. I used that anonymous opportunity to hear comments on my PB.

Next up was a session with Regina Griffin from Egmont. There is real opportunity here for writers as it's a start-up, but with great support from the British parent company and Random House sales connection.

The afternoon workshops were okay. They offered comprehensive handouts that almost negated the need to hold them.

And finally--speed-pitching. What a riot. They had about eight rows of editors and agents, grouped three to a row. A chair faced each one. Writers were assigned a row and had two minutes with each editor to pitch a project. Not to blow my own horn here, but after years in PR, I know how to pitch. One editor already had my MG, but confirmed she's still looking at it, so we talked about my WIP. The other two editors invited me to send fulls.

But here's the rub. I want an agent. I most certainly lessen my chances with an agent if the book has already been seen by a number of editors. It's the great Catch-22 of conferences. You meet lots of editors but that doesn't necessarily help if you want to go the agent route. Which I do.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Writing Every Day

As a writer, I am supposed to write every day. But I don't. Even when I am "in the zone" I don't write every day. Sometimes life gets in the way. Right now, my regular life is busy and, if I am to be perfectly honest, I am still ticked off about the rejection from the agent, so I am not writing. That is not to say that I am not thinking. Personally, thinking about writing can be just as helpful as forcing myself to write. Sometimes, when I force myself to write, all I get is garbage. I know, I know that we all have to get through the garbage to get to the good stuff, but I find it unproductive to write what I KNOW is garbage just for the sake of writing. Lots of times I'll write whole chapters and then discover that it's garbage. That's part of the process. I know that. But writing what I know is bad just to say I wrote doesn't seem worth it. So, as I said, right now I'm not writing, I'm thinking.
My character is alive and well in my head. She's having conversations, adventures, and meeting other characters. Some of what's going on in my head is garbage and will never see the light of a computer screen, but some of it isn't half bad. It will get written down when life slows down....maybe next week.
Summer is always my slow season, my excuse used to be that the kids were home from school, but now only is one is home and he doesn't exactly need me to make his lunch and snacks (although he might like that). I am not sure why I find it difficult to write in the summer, maybe it's simply that there is more action in the house which I'm not use to. I usually write when no one is around. Maybe I still function on an academic calendar and now that it's summer my mind has gone on vacation. It might be that I'm feeling morose about the rejection and wondering what the point is. It might be all those things. But whatever the reason for my lack of productivity, I'm not feeling bad about it. I know I'll write again.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

book launch 2.0

So this is what we have to look forward to when we market our books?

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