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

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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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