Friday, August 28, 2009

Back to School

Those lazy, hazy days of summer are winding down and soon the yellow bus will take the children back to school. And that unique, mind-expanding, dreamy time with less structure, just playing in the back yard, taking trips to the beach, mountains and natural wonders like canyons, no homework and more freedom, will be over for another year and children will go back to their work of schooling.

Writers often catch a little summer down time too if they're lucky - watching waves wash endlessly on the shore, kayaking quietly on deep green lakes or watching fire flies flit through the dusk of evening, until they too return to the desk and screen.

But in the last days of this wonderful season...

...the writer, even with summer work hours, and the child, with structured learning pursuits of sports, science, art and music camps, have the luxury to see new things or old ideas anew, imagine different possibilities, and to dream.

I just returned from a short vacation to Cape Cod where I did watch waves lapping and gulls wheeling and let my thoughts wander. I watched children look through telescopes far out to sea to catch an adventure on the deep and saw them examine sea life up close at the Woods Hole Aquarium. What wondrous life there is on land and sea -- I just let the thoughts flow -- and then grabbed a pen and started jotting them down. And then began organizing new ideas and story lines. After all, we writers start back to our school of discipline too.

I want to be ready. Are you?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Internet Diet

I'm on a diet - an internet diet. I had to cut back the hours I spent surfing the web in search of insightful and creative blogs and sites for writers of children's literature. With my current work load, I don't have the time.

This is a picture of my desk. It's a mess. It's always been a mess. If I had taken a picture of my whole office you would have seen piles of books on the floor and chair, piles of papers on the piles of books, and a two nearly empty bookcases because of all the books piled on the floor and chair. Usually, when I start a new project, I clean my office. I start files, shred unwanted printouts, organize the mess that is my desk. But right now, I don't have time to clean my desk. I am working on revising two critical essays, writing two new critical essays, revising the first four chapters of my current wip, and reading at least 10 books every four weeks. AND this blog (which I don't care how many people claim it's supposed to be spontaneous and off the top of your head, I plan my blogs, give them considerable thought, and write them several days before they are due so I can obsessively re-write them).

This photo alone explains why I need an internet diet.

I need to get organized. I need to manage my time more efficiently.

I love the internet, though I am a bit of a Luddite. I don't facebook, twitter, and I am not linkedin to anything. I spend time, too much time, on a select few sites. I enjoy these sites, and I enjoy "meeting" people on them, chatting with them, commenting with them, exchanging support and ideas with them. But I've got to stop, or at least cut back.

Going on an internet diet is the same as going on any other kind of diet. You can't eliminate the carbs completely from your life, other wise you'll find yourself in the back of the closet eating a loaf of stale Italian bread (or at least I will). I have to limit my carbs and limit my internet time.

In the last month I've been successful on my diet. Every morning I boot up my computer, check emails, check this blog, and then allow myself a quick peek at the VCFA Student Forum site. If nothing new is posted, I leave it. Immediately. I do the same with Verla Kay's Blueboards (of course, there's always something new posted there, so I have to be VERY selective). I don't go searching for threads I haven't read filled with suggestions for MG books with protagonists who love dogs, or insights into extended metaphors, or details on response times for agents I haven't submitted to (all of which could be extremely helpful, IF I needed it. I don't. Right now). And that's the point. The internet is there when I need the information but as interesting as all of it can be, what I need right now is discipline - which I've never been good at.

So I apologize to those whose blogs I used to follow and comment on more regularly. It's not that I no longer enjoy the blogs, it's that I enjoy them too much. The flip side of this sad internet diet is that it's working. . . or should I say, I am working. I am meeting my deadlines, cranking out the critical essays, trying new techniques, and literally vibrating with creative ideas. Isn't that cool?

I don't know if you need an internet diet, maybe you're more disciplined than I am. . . I sure hope so.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009


One of the features that drew us to our new home was the beautiful backyard garden. Just the sight of it invoked visions of me sitting, feet up, sipping something delicious and writing longhand while inspiration poured into me from my natural surroundings. My own private oasis. A welcome retreat from the rest of the world.

No one told me I would have to take care of it.

I am a reluctant gardener. I’m not sure if it’s from sheer laziness or the fact that I’m a born and bred city gal. Whenever a gardening urge would hit me, I’d buy one of those window box kits – the kind you can grow herbs or wildflowers in – and it would end up collecting dust in my closet. I dreaded the Mother’s Day plant sale at school. I’d politely tell my kids that while I appreciated the thought they didn’t need to get me a plant. Inevitably, a kind hearted PTA member who thought they were doing a good deed would loan my kids some money to buy Mommy a pretty plant. Little did they know, the plant was doomed. I had a decidedly burnt umber thumb.

Then I bought a garden.

Over the last year, I’ve learned to enjoy the process of tending a garden. While there are times it is downright tedious, most of the time there’s a quiet bliss that comes with weeding and pruning. Of all the tasks in my garden that mystify me, pruning tops the list. You mean, I just CUT THIS? And it’s okay? The first time I pruned, it felt barbaric.

Okay Robin, that’s nice, but this is a writing blog…what’s the point? There are so many metaphors that can be drawn between gardening and writing, it could fill a month’s worth of blog posts. Pruning is what I identify with most. After pouring heart and soul into a novel, watching as your word count mounts and your story takes shape,cutting does seem barbaric. Some scenes are easy to cut. Cutting other scenes,those parts of a story that made you laugh or pat yourself on the back at your own cleverness, can bit a bit harder.

Cutting, like pruning, is necessary for new growth. It fosters air (or idea) circulation. And it can even lead to new discoveries about your work. Last fall when I cut back a particularly tenacious rose bush, I discovered a Tom Knudsen Camilla that had been hidden, not getting enough sunlight or attention. Likewise in my own work, when I cut scenes or characters, I’m continually amazed at how ideas seem to come into focus, rearrange themselves and pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It’s a part of the process I’ve learned to love.

So how do you feel when it comes to pruning your work?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hey, Kids, Let's Write A Novel Together!

In "Bologna Book Fair," by Susan Salzman Raab (2009 July/August SCBWI BULLETIN, pg. 17), a consultant to the Book Fair named Carla Poseio, "sees the blogosphere as a useful starting point for a book and as a mechanism that can serve the author by providing the chance to see if there's an audience for a given book and helping to establish a base before the book is published. At times the audience has the opportunity to play a larger role by helping influence the direction of the story and by providing feedback on what is and isn't working."

Marketing trumps professional craft?

Could be. So before you write your novel, you blog about your ideas and if they don't catch on, do you ditch it? Or do you try to keep your ideas afloat and work out problems by inviting suggestions from your young audience about what they like and don't like? These young bloggers aren't following a format as they do when playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero. They're helping create a new piece of work.

Maybe this collaborative idea appeals to those writing high-concept fiction, but I think authors forfeit their most valuable asset - unique creative vision.

What do you think?

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Meet Me at the Watercooler

I’m back in manuscript-submission mode, so wish me luck. To help me choose the best agents to query, I’m pouring over the forums on Verla Kay's "Blueboard", Absolute Write, and QueryTracker. If you’re launching a targeted agent search too, and you haven’t checked out these sites yet, you really should.

Verla Kay and Absolute Write are watercooler sites that are full of forums, with plenty of agent-related threads. Posters comment on agents’ likes, dislikes, and response times; agency openings and closings; new agents and what types of manuscripts they’re looking for; and a slew of other helpful topics. QueryTracker has a comments section where writers compare notes on particular agents. These forums are not only full of insider information, they’re also supportive, motivating, and easy to join. I find them essential when I’m querying and submitting.

Part of the fun of using these sites is stumbling on submission-story gems like the one below:

“Keep it up everyone, the bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, was rejected so many times that the author gave up and threw it in the trash. He told his wife not to take it out, so she snuck the whole trash can to one last publisher and he accepted it.”

Or this comment about a weird-but-good experience a writer had with an agent (I’m not revealing the agents’ names here but you can find them on QT):

“I sent an e-query to Agent X on 4/27. She rejected it on 5/17. Yesterday, I emailed Agent Y in the same agency since she now accept e-queries (according to AQ) and now lists YA as one of her genres. I got an email from Agent X today saying that Agent Y forwarded her my query thinking it would fit her list better. She said if I was okay with a switch, she'd like to see a partial. Agent X requested a full after I alerted her to an offer of representation from another agent.”

And I just love comments like the one below, where a writer revealed her query stats before finally landing an agent:

“9 Pending, 1 Partial, 1 full (and subsequent offer), 10 No Response, 12 Rejections, for a total of 33 queries. Keep submitting! Never give up!”

So tell me, what helps you when you’re in submission-mode? Websites? Books? Conferences? Red wine? All of the above?

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Top 10 Tips for a Great Critique Group

My fellow Paper Waiters and I put our heads together and came up with these top tips that have helped keep our critique group running smoothly for the past 12 years.

1. Go positive before going negative. Any critique should begin with positive words about what worked and what the critiquer especially liked. Present praise before you make revision suggestions or comment about what you think needs improvement.

2. Show respect for a person's work. Giving a critique is not supposed to be hurtful but helpful. Treat it as you would treat your own work.

3. The writer should stay silent during the critiques. Don't openly defend your work as it's being critiqued, wait until you've heard everything before responding and asking questions. It takes a lot of time to give a proper critique and whether you agree with it or not, you should at least give the critiquer the chance to get their point across.

4. Members should be expected to produce material to critique on a timely basis. This may mean submitting an earlier work or a short piece if a current, long manuscript is not critique-ready. There should be at least one piece per hour of the session, unless the piece is an entire or partial novel. Having material to critique keeps group members on their toes and producing.

5. Authors should ask for specific points to be mentioned in the critique. If they don't want specific feedback, critiquers should follow the basic points: Plot, character, setting and description, and point of view. Critiques should be limited to ten minutes per person, with time left for the author to ask questions or explain objectives and for critiquers to elaborate or disagree with other critiquers.

6. Critiques should be given to the writer in a timely fashion. It is expected that critique group members will occasionally miss meetings, but every effort should be made to get the critiques to the writer in a timely manner. Even if you have to pay to snail mail it, it's your responsibility to get it to the author.

7. Take the critiques of your work home and review them the same day, if possible. Rereading and rethinking all of the notes you've received will give you a clear idea of the ones that really stand out, and will crystallize for you what work needs to be done.

8. Make sure your fellow critique group members know the genre you're writing in well. It's no fun to be part of a group with people who write mostly for adults, who listen to your children's writing and say only, "How cute." Ugh! What an insult! Also, you need to be able to trust that your critique group members are leading you in a more publishable direction with their critiques.

9. If you have a bunch of critique group members who are always telling you that everything you write is perfect, RUN! While it may be possible that your first drafts are perfect, this is highly unlikely. You really want to surround yourself with critique group members who know how to give substantive critiques that let you know where your manuscript can be improved. This is a very good thing once you develop a tough enough skin to take it!

10. Make a master containing all of your critique group member’s comments before you start revising your manuscript. When you get ten critiqued copies of your work, some comments are bound to contradict each other. Or you could make a deletion or change based on reading one member’s critique, only to find a better suggestion for improvement from another member. To streamline the revision process—and keep your sanity!—make a master copy with everyone’s corrections, color-coded by member, before you revise, so you can see everyone’s comments at once when you dive into your next draft.

Paper Waiters, do any other top tips come to mind? Blogging buddies, what are your critique group's top tips? We'd love to hear about them.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

How Tweet It Is

It finally happened. I kept hearing talk about it. There was the column about it in Business Week. Then came the cover story in Time. And then my critique group buddy said that people came to our blog because of it.

It almost seemed like the universe was telling me to check it out. So check it out I did, and now I'm on...


I admit it. At first the world that is Twitter was pretty overwhelming. But, like the immersion approach in a new language, I quickly began to catch on. And, for a children's writer, Twitter has tons of exciting offerings.

So here's a quick list of some of the highlights of my first month on Twitter:

***As soon as I got brave and tweeted my first tweet (did I say that right?), @taralazar sent out a public greeting and invited her followers to give me a warm welcome. (Thanks Tara! :o))

***After that wonderful welcome, @CarinBerger started following me. When I checked out her bio, I saw that Carin was author of The Little Yellow Leaf, an amazing picture book that we have in our living room. I wrote to tell her what an amazing book it is and she wrote back!(Yes, I admit to hero worship when it comes to children's book authors.)

***I've been finding links to incredible kidlit blog posts. Like @ThruTheBooth and a wonderful series of posts on poetry and @halseanderson and her incredibly motivating, "Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge"!

***Unfortunately I can't be at the SCBWI LA conference right now. But with Twitter, I'm getting fun and detailed updates from everyone who includes #scbwi09 in their posts-- including the wonderful official posters like @PaulaYoo.

***I get insights from editors and agents when they read through their slush piles and tweet about things we writers shouldn't be doing.

***I get wonderful poetry tweets from @KidsPoetLaureat (Mary Ann Hoberman).

***I get cool posts from a chicken! Thanks @elvispoultry!

***And I get posts from John Quincy Adams! (Yes, you read that right. John Quincy Adams. The Massachusetts historical society is posting actual diary entries.)

So, as I tweeted to one of my critique group buddies, "I think I'm starting to get the hang of this Twitter thing". But I'm sure I've still got a lot more to learn.

What do you think of Twitter? Are you on it or staying away? If you're on, can you give me any great tips? If you're not, why?

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Autographed Copy of Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for the past ten months. This is a remarkable achievement on its own, but even more remarkable because the book was published almost two years ago. I devoured it in one sitting when it first came out. Now I have an autographed copy to reread at my leisure.

I went to see Jay speak at Borders in Bridgewater. I brought along a trusted connoisseur of YA literature—my fifteen-year-old son. He enjoyed the presentation as much as I did.

Jay’s journey to the best-seller list was full of bumps in the road, and he generously shared his story of twelve years of writing without a publishing offer. He also devoted time to the construction of Thirteen Reasons Why—from concept, through the writing process, his beta readers, his rejections, and finally, his multiple offers.

While all writers love good rejection stories, my big take-away was on concept and process. Jay explained his concept for Thirteen Reasons Why—a cassette tape tour—was born after taking a taped tour of the Luxor in Las Vegas a decade before he began to write the book. Also during that period, a young relative attempted suicide. But it was years before he merged concept with storyline and began to write.

This was an a-ha moment for me. I’ve had one particular concept rattling around my head for a few years that I absolutely love, but haven’t begun to write. Listening to Jay made it crystal clear why—I haven’t found its emotional arc.

He next talked about process—his dueling narrators and how he had to write one story first and then the other. He said as he read over Hannah’s story, he found himself naturally reacting to what she said, and a lot of those reactions became Clay’s reactions. This for me was an a-ha validation moment. I did the same thing in my final revision for my middle grade novel. I looked for places where I had an emotional reaction and made sure my MC noted his.

Jay’s critique process was very different from mine. Jay went to a series of beta readers for specific revision issues: plot, pacing, grammar, and finally to his mom, the ultimate feel-good reader.

My trusty critique group throws it all at me at once—full barrels. But everyone in our group does have different critique strengths and I do look to each for their area of expertise, be it plot, character, setting, pacing, grammar or tone. I will admit, however, I also have a feel-good reader—my fifteen-year-old son, who not only loves my writing, but also gives me some of the best suggestions for keeping it real.

I look forward to another read of Thirteen Reasons Why. I know as I read I’ll be even more amazed that it took twelve years for Jay Asher to be published. And I’ll be grateful to be part of a community of writers who so generously share their stories to help others reach their publishing goals.

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