Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Writer's New Year's Resolution

We are perched on the precipice of a new year, not just a new year, but a new decade. 2010! Think back to where we were a decade ago. We were worried our computers would crash with a Y2K virus. Facebook, My Space, and Twitter did not exist. None of us had web sites and none of us blogged. Now in 2009 many of us cannot make it through the day without connecting on the internet. Personally, when my internet goes down, I feel lost, out of touch, alone.

As many of you know, I am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to social networking. My critique mates dragged me, not quite kicking and screaming, but at least hesitantly, into the world of blogging. With the publication of my book, I was compelled to launch my personal web page, which you can visit at I have been resistant to committing to anything more. But now, when Friday morning dawns and I am faced with a new decade, I am resolved to take on at least one new form of social networking. How many of you will join me?

That's right. My New Year's Resolution for 2010 is to join either Twitter or Facebook. Yikes! I also need to learn how to use Power Point and Scriviner (which I think has the potential to be really, really cool and helpful, but with which I keep having difficulty).

I hope you all have a very Happy, Healthy, and Safe New Year. I hope you all make resolutions that mean something to you. And I hope you stick to your resolutions beyond February - which is about when I'll start asking myself, "why did I promise to do this?"

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

My First Semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts

Last week I sent off my last packet of work for the semester to my advisor Sharon Darrow. If anyone had told me how fast this semester would pass, I would never have believed them. If someone else had told me how much I would learn in a five month period, I wouldn't have believed them, either. If yet another person had told me (and I think people did tell me this) how much I would learn from writing critical essays and how I would come to enjoy them, I would have thought that person had drank too much Kool-Aide. But the truth is, the semester flew by, I learned more than I could have imagined, and yes, I do love writing critical essays!

People, VCFA alums, told me the program would change me, not only as a writer, but as a person. I know I have changed as a writer. So here is a brief summary of what I learned.

First, I'll get those nasty critical essays out of the way . . .
I am not lying when I say I came to love them. I really learned how to read as a writer. So much so, that it is now difficult for me to read anything without picking it apart. And you might ask how I, a lowly newbie in the published world, can have the chutzpah to criticize well-known, successfully published authors? I do it because not every book appeals to every reader. (Which is another thing I learned and I'll get to it later in the post.) For the books I loved, I picked them apart to find out what it was I loved about them, what did the writer do to pull me in, how did she create a main character that I cared about, worried about, and subsequently, went on a journey with? With books that I did not love so much, I look at what it was I didn't like? What worked, what didn't. This is the heart of a critical essay. Learning what works for you as a writer and a reader, examining that closely and then applying what has been learned to your own work.

A sub-lesson in all this reading (FYI - I read 52 books this semester) is that it is impossible for one book to appeal to all readers. Which is why there is currently a surge of vampire, wizard, faery, magical nether-world books. Some people LOVE Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT series (I didn't) while others love Cynthia Leitich Smith's YA gothic fantasies TANTALIZE and ETERNAL (I did). Both have love stories with immortals and humans, both have characters who must exert blood sucking restraint. But they are very different and beyond being in the same genre cannot be compared (unless it's in a critical essay, which maybe I will write next semester). So, the lesson I learned from this is that it doesn't matter if an idea has been done before. The trick is to make it your idea, with your emotions, characters, and situations. It doesn't matter that ghost stories have to done to death (no pun intended) my current wip is different.

I also learned this semester to plumb the depths of my soul for my characters' emotions. The story I am currently working on is more personal than most of my other works, but, the emotions of my character are not my emotions. Still I must feel them. Even with my historical works, while I have never watched a heretic burned to death, I can feel the revulsion my 15th century character, Rat, feels as he watches. I need to find my own emotions, turn them, twist them, and make them Rat's. Emotion pulls a reader into the story. Emotion makes the reader care.

But the greatest impact on me this semester was learning about POV. Simple. Basic. Everyone who thinks they are a writer should know about point of view. Yes, everyone should know, but it's much more complex than I originally thought. POV is more than through whose eyes the story is told. It sets the tone of the story and the limits in which the story can be told. If you're using first person, everything has to be through that character's eyes. Even with the more lenient third person, a writer must stay in one character's eyes at a time. Yes, in third person, you can shift from one character to another, but while in one character's pov everything is through their eyes - so all those words like "felt", "saw", "thought", "believed" are not necessary. If you're in your character's head the reader knows it's them seeing, thinking, believing, and feeling. And that gets into the whole notion of showing not telling!

I could go on about what I've learned about objective correlatives, psychic distance, and establishing rules for a magical world, but this post is getting long. So let me suffice it to say that I have learned more than I thought possible.

Yes, one semester at VCFA has changed me as a writer. I can't wait to see where I'll be after three more!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

How Do You Write and Still Enjoy the Holidays?

I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling a little Grinch-like this year. Usually, I’m a very Who-minded individual, merrily rolling along, singing holiday tunes, baking cookies and buying presents that I know people will love. One trip to Toys R’ Us and this disgruntled “bah humbug” feeling seeped into my pores. Even Starbucks peppermint hot chocolate can’t chase it away. Children laughing? People passing? Greeting smile after smile? Hardly. Tantrums, fighting over parking spots, and long, long, lines is much more my reality.

When you’re playing Santa to a six year old, it’s hard to feel this way. My daughter still very much believes in the magic of Christmas time. And I know somewhere deep in the recesses of my grown up fa├žade, I do too. There have been moments the malaise has lifted and I got caught up in the season. We’ve had tea with Mrs. Claus. Watched a delightful stage adaptation of “If You Take A Mouse to the Movies.” And filled a shopping bag full of holiday meal groceries for a family less fortunate than our own. In those moments, no matter what the activity, the underlying element was spending time together.

Being cruise director for the holidays can take its toll on even the most robust Christmas spirit. In my spare moments, when I’ve had time to ruminate over why I felt so unsettled one thing kept coming up. And as selfish as it sounds…I haven’t really given myself anything. A break. Time. A moment to feel and appreciate the reason for the season. I’ve been running, running, running and ignoring all the activities that usually keep me on course. And one of those activities is writing!

My writing has been boxed up until after the holidays. Particularly heinous since I caught fire in a new WIP and have editing to do on an almost there manuscript. I’ve had a rather lovely writing year and I’m inspired, but pissed off that I can’t dedicate more time to it at the moment. I have Christmas to enjoy, darn it! I think that, even above the ‘I can’t find a dang, toxic Zhu-Zhu pet under $100.00 anywhere’ craze, is what is making me unbearable to be around this holiday season.

Time management is not my strong point – something to work on, dare I say, maybe a resolution? In the meantime, my big question to all of you prolific, talented and wildly successful writers out there is how do you manage to work through the holiday season?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Invitation

Tired of the lonely writing life? If you're looking for a congenial, supportive, knowledgeable children's lit critique group and if you live within commuting distance of Madison, N.J., we may have your solution. The paperwait bloggers/critiquers are searching for new members. In the last year of so, we've lost some people due to changes in their lives. We'd like to welcome a couple of committed writers.

We meet on the first and third Fridays from 10:00 to 12:00 in the Madison Public Library. Our sessions have helped members produce prize-winning manuscripts, secure agents, and develop the published books pictured below on the right. Yes, we work hard, but our atmosphere is jovial and we love celebrating writing milestones.

If you email us at, we'll reply with more information.

Best wishes to all for successful writing in 2010!

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ally's the Next Stephenie. But Who Will Be the Next Ally?

Did you read the news in Publishers Weekly about Ally Condie, the YA author who just inked a seven-figure advance on a three-book deal with Dutton? Wow. She’s being heralded as the next Stephenie Meyer. Well, that’s what her agent, Jodi Reamer at Writers House, said anyway. According to Reamer, reading Condie’s first book in the deal, Matched, reminded her of the first time she read Meyer’s Twilight. Double wow.

But wait, that’s not all Condie has in common with Meyer. Did anyone else notice? Their backstories are surprisingly similar. To wit:

1. They both attended Brigham Young University in Utah.
2. They both have three sons.
3. They both wrote their big-ticket books as stay-at-home moms.
4. They’re both Mormons.
5. They both have Reamer as their agent.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that my fellow Paper Waiters have been dropping like flies lately; landing agents, selling books, and winning writing contests. And then there's me, still in the hunt for my first agent/book deal. So I'm sure you can understand why I’m willing to try anything at this point, including selling my soul to He Who Shall Not Be Named.

And now Condie and Meyer’s mega-deals have given me a stupendous new idea: I’m going to stop revising my manuscript ad nauseum and revise my personal backstory instead. It's radical, I know, but, it can't hurt. Here’s my plan:

1. Move my family out west and get a master’s at BYU. There’s great skiing in Utah, anyway, so that’s fine by me.
2. Have a third son. I already have two, so I’m already two-thirds of the way there. My older son even happens to be named Gabe, just like Meyer’s oldest son. Is it a sign?
3. Quit my job as a college writing instructor/freelance writer to become a stay-at-home mom. If we’re moving out west, I have to quit work anyway, so again, I'm halfway there.
4. Change my religion. I suppose this means that glass of wine with dinner has got to go. Grr.
5. Land Jodi Reamer as my agent.
6. Update my author's photo (shown). I suppose it couldn't hurt to look a little less simian, more simmering.

Wait. Is that the sound of cyber laughter I hear? Is that an agent, shaking his or her virtual head, saying, "Don’t be redonkulous, you nit, you can’t sell a manuscript based solely on a good backstory. You have to write a stellar manuscript too. I mean, duh."

Fine. Call me desperate. Call me whatever you like. Just call me. And don’t forget to use my new number. In Provo, Utah.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day

It’s Agent Appreciation Day! This tribute to hard-working, word-loving, plot-scrubbing, contract-scouring, career-building literary-matchmakers is the brainchild of writer Kody Keplinger. So today, I’m joining other writers in offering a great, big thank-you to my agent, who happens to be Steven Chudney. Here’s why:

1) He loves my work, and his input makes it even better. His encouragement to dig deeper and pull the heart out of each character shaped my submission and now influences my WIPs.

2) He makes me “Blink.” Every conversation leads to an ah-ha moment. Steven just makes sense – about my writing, about submissions, and about the state of the industry.

3) He is amazingly quick, responsive and decisive.

4) He’s also calm, patient and understanding.

5) He loves his dogs and much as I love mine.

So, thanks for a great beginning, Steven. I look forward to a long and happy partnership navigating through this publishing maze!

If you would like to see other postings for Agent Appreciation Day, check out Lisa and Laura Write

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Jewish Kids Books-- My Top Four Conference Takeaways

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference at the 92nd Street Y. It was an incredibly jam packed day, and if you want a wonderfully detailed summary of the highlights of the day, be sure to check out Stacy Mozer's wonderful blog post!

Since Stacy did such a wonderful job of summarizing the day, I figured I would do something a little different. Below are four of my top takeaways from the day:

1. It is A LOT of fun to be in a room of people who truly "get" what you do. A room full of kidlit people is awesome! And a room full of Jewish kidlit people is definitely awesome! Everyone in the room really gets the unique excitement and challenges of this specialized genre. (Plus, it's just really fun to be at a conference where phrases like tikkun olam(repairing the world) and mishpacha(family)are casually bandied about!)

2. There are lots of great editors out there looking for books for the Jewish market. Some of them, like Scholastic's Dianne Hess are looking for "stealth Jewish books" and others, like Kar-Ben's Judye Groner, our own Meg Wiviott's awesome editor, suggested an "original approach to a traditional subject" mentioning upcoming books including "A Tale of Two Seders" about a child of divorce and a future Purim book written as a Reader's Theater version of the story. Margery Cuyler of Marshall Cavendish even got specific and noted a "big need for good Jewish mysteries and time travel" as well as a need for "contemporary Jewish stories". But, no matter what they're looking for exactly, the point is that they're looking! As writers of books for the Jewish market, that is definitely heartening to know!

3. There are as many ways to get a Jewish children's book published as there are Jewish authors. Each path-to-publication story told by a member of the new author panel showed the value of persistence and honing one's craft. (And, of course, this panel was incredibly inspirational. These were real people with real stories of how they got their Jewish book published! Wouldn't it be fun to join them up there some day? :o))

4. For me though, this final point was probably the most transformational one: What editors are looking for today isn't what the same as what they were looking for twenty years ago or even ten years ago. As Judye Groner said, "The Yiddish speaking, stay at home Bubbe is not the grandma of today's kids" and "the appetizer they serve may be sushi and not gefilte fish". Similarly, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media challenged us as writers to create Jewish fiction in the age of Twilight. I left the day inspired to go in fun new directions in my Jewish writing just like I do in my secular writing!

And, on top of these more "official lessons", there were all the other wonderful benefits of attending the conference:

*getting a chance to meet and talk with wonderful writers from Verla Kay's Blue Board who were previously only screen names-- (Hi HollyB and SMozer!)

*meeting up with a mother of one of my former Kitah Alef first graders and saying to each other, "YOU write for children?" (Looking forward to some fun writing conversations next time I see her at synagogue!)

*casually chatting with wonderful authors and illustrators and remembering, once again, that they are real people too. Sitting at a table with Judye Groner and author Norman Finkelstein was such a pleasure! I was lucky enough to sit right next to Norman and he was so modest, funny and encouraging! Plus I chatted with Carolyn Yoder and Andrew Gutelle (both of whom I had met years ago at Chautauqua) while on line for lunch. What lovely, friendly people! (Hopefully I'll have an appropriate manuscript ready for critique by one of these many insightful authors or editors next year!)

So, I'm curious, how have the conferences you've gone to shaped you as a writer?

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Friday, December 4, 2009

A Work of Art

Who would walk up to a work of art by Cezanne or a Rembrandt say, "Well, if he'd just added a little more white here, or turned the figure in the other direction, it would be a much better picture." I just finished critiquing the manuscript of one of our group members. She's an excellent writer, and except for noting the occasional typo, I think very carefully before making a suggestion, because like a Cezanne or Rembrandt oil painting, a good writer's work is indeed a work of art.

But the challenge for writers is different than for artists. One or two words in the wrong place can confuse or lose the meaning of a sentence. And if the sentence doesn't work, neither does the paragraph. If a character rages on every page, the reader stops caring, and if nothing much has happened in three chapters, the reader may may not bother to read the next three. Yes, artists can paint over their work, but at some point the picture cannot be changed. Luckily for writers, words can be added, dropped and moved.

I was facinated by the picture in today's New York Times showing the many, many revisions Dickens made to "A Christmas Carol." I read Dickens with great pleasure, never finding him dated or tiresome. Only today did it strike me that this is because he understood revision.

So my present to myself this December is to take the time with my own writing that I take with the work of others. Revision itself is a work of art, and thank goodness, I'm not writing with oil paint.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

To NaNo or Not to NaNo -- That is the Question

So I didn’t “win” NaNowriMo. I finished the month just shy of 20,000 words, which is not significantly more than I would have in a normal month of solid writing.

The difference is, I completed those 20,000 words in two weeks, not four. And most of those words bore me to tears.

Let me be honest. I was a NaNo cheater. I didn’t care if I wrote 50,000 words. I wanted to complete a novel that was already a third of the way into a first draft; I had 25,000 words under my belt before the month began. But when November rolled onto my calendar, I needed to finish revisions for my middle grade novel. I couldn’t start NaNo until week two. And a freelance load kept me away during week three.

So, how did I like this frantic writing pace? Not much.

I got a lot of words onto paper, but I didn't feel very good about them. With the focus on output, there was no time to think things though. My plot completely stalled. My characters talked about everything and nothing. They bored me.

All was not bad. Writing quickly did make me connect more with my main character’s internal thought. He told me how he felt about everything. And I mean everything. It’s important information, but information I’d rather gather through journaling.

So would I do it again? Maybe. But only under the right conditions. I would have to begin with a tight, chapter-by-chapter outline and completed character sketches. I would spend a significant amount of time journaling as my main characters (and that counts toward NaNo totals). And I would spend a few minutes thinking through what I wanted to accomplish with each writing session before my fingers hit the keyboard.

But one thing about NaNo that has changed me forever! Scrivener. If you write on a Mac, buy this program today. It makes writing and revising so much easier.

So tell me, fellow NaNo-ers. Did you "win?" Did you like it? Do you use Scrivener?

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