Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Book Shopping for a Teen? Look no further:

I read a ton of YA books this year and in case anyone’s on the lookout for a good read for the 11 to 16 year old girl in your life, here are some of the best:
(note: most of these are not NEW books. I just happened to read them this year.)

In no particular order

1. Feed by M.T. Anderson. This is a must-read for a teen (or anyone) living in our consumeristic/plugged in society—the characters walk around with computers literally attached to their brains. Buy this for the teen boy in your life as well. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. And contains one of the best first lines ever: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

2. Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han. The trend in teen fiction lately seems to be love triangles, as in, teen girl torn between two cute boys. In this book, they’re brothers—the funny, cool friend and the older, brooding guy—who is of course the one the girl longs for. Well-written and funny. There’s also a sequel.

3. Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I’m embarrassed to say why I picked this book up (okay. I’ll tell you. When my book(s) get published, they will be shelved beside Cashore's). Not too shabby placement, because this book is great. It’s fantasy (not usually what I’m drawn to) but so absorbing. Page turner. Great girl character. She’s got the gift of being able to kill people. And there’s a boy. Will she kill him? hmm. Read to find out.

4. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Not too often do you get a well-written page turner. This one’s a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Part Surviver. Part Fahrenheit 451. Two boys and a girl. (again) Strong, resourceful main character figures out how to win a game that’s rigged against her. Everyone in my family read this book. Husband. Teen boy. Teen girl. None of us could put it down. (And there are two sequels that are just as riveting)

5. Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson. Main character is a cross country runner, perfect child, daughter of a minister, trying to run the household while obsessing over getting into MIT (where her mother went). Very cool contrast between her ordinary world and the "catalyst" that blows it all apart. Also want to put in a plug for Twisted and Prom by the same author. Anderson knows and understands teens better than pretty much any YA writer around.

6. Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Starts with a kind of flaky 16 year old girl and then an asteroid hits the moon and all hell breaks loose. Very interesting how the family copes. This book will seriously make you consider stocking up on canned goods.

7. Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. The only zombie book on the list. Totally could not put this one down. My heart was pounding as I read it. Also has a love triangle. (told you this was a trend) Just so happens that one of the guys ends up turning into a zombie. Drat.

8. Thirteen Plus One by Lauren Myracle. This is the fourth book in a great middle grade series. Other books are Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen and all follow the life of the sweet main character and the ups and downs of her middle school years. If you have a middle school aged child, it’s a must-read for both of you. She’ll get a how-to guide to surviving, and you’ll have a nice flashback to your own middle school years.

9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I’ve already blogged about this book. Not sure how to categorize it. Fantasy. Post-apocalyptic war story. Love story. Brilliant writing. Won the Printz Award for best YA several years ago, deservedly so.

10. Fallen by Lauren Kate. Pure fun read for the Twilight-obsessed teen who’s sick of Twilight and needs another obsession. This time: fallen angels, another new trend. Bonus: it also includes a love triangle. Strange girl and the competing fallen angels who love her. I read this in one sitting and was relieved to learn there’s a sequel: Torment. (LOVE that title, by the way)

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crossing the New Mexico Border (Metaphorically)

If writing a novel is like driving through Texas, then finishing a novel, it stands to reason, is like crossing the border into New Mexico. I don’t know why I always picture myself driving west. I could just as well imagine the finish line as Arkansas. It doesn’t really matter. The point is I’ve driven hundreds of miles. I’ve written a book, for crying out loud, one that didn’t exist in this world just a few months ago. New Mexico. Arkansas. I’ll take either one.

I’m tired. Exhilarated. My fingers are literally bleeding. Funny story (or sad one, depending on your point of view): the stupid backspace/delete button on my laptop broke off. Apparently I tap it a lot with my middle finger. I couldn’t figure out how to put the thing back on. Even my handyman husband couldn’t do it. So I ended up with a little knobby button and for the past few weeks I’ve been tapping the heck out of that. The problem is there are a bunch of poky wires sticking up around it. Yesterday one of those wires stabbed my fingertip. I was writing like a manic, speeding down the last leg of tumbleweed-strewn highway. New Mexico was in sight. No way was a minor injury going to stop me. Anyway, it seemed appropriate. Bleeding on my keyboard. Smudges of blood around the broken delete button. And apparently my middle finger taps the letter K a lot.

It’s great fun to finish a book. It’s also kind of anti-climactic. For a few months, you live with the characters spinning in your head. You hear snippets of dialogue in the shower. You wake up dreaming what will happen next. Then suddenly it’s over. You’ve written the last word. In this case: night. Then you close up your bloody laptop and realize your house is a disaster area. You haven’t scrubbed toilets in weeks. Your kids are really really tired of eating chocolate chip pancakes. And that used to be their favorite food. It’s time to rejoin the world of the living. The world of people who do not hear voices in their heads or scribble like maniacs on the back of grocery receipts because they just thought of a good line.

But first you must do something to celebrate. My all-time favorite finishing a book day happened last summer. I sat sniffling at my kitchen counter because I’d just written this majorly touching final scene. Oh. I was finished. My beautiful book and my sweet little characters were going off to a better place. The end. And I was home alone. With no one to tell. My husband was out of town. The kids had escaped the house and their distracted manic mother for the day. I called my neighbor. She’s a non-writer but seems to find me amusing. She came right over and she let me tell her all about it. She didn’t even seem bored. Maybe it helped that we drank a bottle of champagne.

My second favorite finishing a book day started on an airplane. I was going out of town for a writers conference. My plan was to finish the book I was working on before I left. But life intervened. I had a marathon week of writing—crazy 3000 word days and lots of chocolate chip pancakes for the kids. Still, I couldn’t finish before I left. I came to the second to last chapter and ran out of time. A non-writer may not understand how hard it is to take a break when you’re at this point in a novel. Imagine closing a book you’re reading when you’ve got ten pages left. It’s something like that, except add to it the fact that your head’s about to explode with the final scene you want to write. I took a notebook with me on the plane. I hadn’t hand-written anything in years, but as the plane took off I began to write furiously. I could feel myself nearing the end as the plane started its descent. I don’t know what my face looked like when I wrote the final word. (Yes. In case anyone is wondering) But I know what I was thinking. I was flying. I was caught between crying and laughing. I wanted to jump out of my seat and yell: Guess what, everyone on this plane, I just finished writing a freaking book! Instead I just sat there clutching my notebook. When I looked up I noticed the woman across the aisle staring at me. Her expression said it all: what the hell was that lady writing in her notebook?

A book. I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I just smiled. My best writing friend picked me up at the airport and we celebrated with champagne.

It’s a big deal to finish a book. It also, on many levels, I’m sad to say, means nothing. Especially when you’re plugging away as an unpublished writer. So you’ve got to take your joy where you can get it.

Here’s what I’m about to do: Clean off my bloody keyboard. And crack open a bottle of champagne. Throw out the pancake batter and broil up some steaks.

Cheers. Until January. When I have to revise this giant mess.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Reflection on Rejection

Some rejections are harder to get than others. Or maybe they’re all equally hard. I should be able to judge this. I’ve gotten all kinds of rejections. I just got one a few hours ago so it’s nice and fresh and pulsing in my mind. So take whatever I write next with a grain of salt. (I don’t even know what that expression really means. But I digress.)


I used to think the worst kind of all was the No-Response Rejection. That’s when you send your manuscript off to a publishing house that tells you up front they’ll only respond if they want it. So, chances are, you get nothing. Maybe the editor lost it. Maybe they hated it so much they set it on fire. Maybe they thought it was a hilarious mess and tacked it up on the wall so people in the office could practice throwing darts at it. Or maybe they thought it was okay but just not right for them, blah blah blah, but simply had no time to tell you. It doesn’t matter. You’ll never know.

The form rejection ranks up there too. I imagine a nice stack of these on the editorial assistant’s desk. She wades through a few pathetic lines of a particular manuscript, pitches the rest in the recycle bin, grabs a form rejection and sticks it in the aspiring author’s self-addressed stamped envelope. Done. Sorry. On to the next manuscript in the slush pile. Yes, getting a form rejection is depressing. Although I have read some very sweet let-the-poor-writer-down-easy versions. At least someone cared to write that once upon a time. It beats the No-Response by a hair. At least you get something. Or maybe not. With the No-response you’ve still got a slim chance…

Next up—the form rejection with a nice personal note tacked on the end. This used to be my favorite kind of rejection letter. It meant there was a real live editor on the other end who liked my manuscript enough to uncap a pen. I used to live for those sweet scrawled: Not right, but try us again notes, and I hate to admit that sometimes I would pull them out of the drawer and look at them again in moments of despair.

Once I got two rejections for the same story. That was kind of sad. Not sure how it happened. I sent a story to a magazine, got their form rejection, then a few months later got another form rejection. I guess they really really didn’t want it. Or somehow it missed the recycle bin and some other suffering assistant had to read it again. Oh well.

Now I get letters from editors explaining why they’re rejecting my manuscripts. This seems like it would be a big step up but somehow it almost makes me yearn for the form letter/no response days. Do I really want to know that there is no market for my manuscript, that reading it was frustrating, that the structure was confusing, or that they liked it but didn’t quite love it?

Gah. I don’t know. All I know is I hate getting rejections. Who doesn’t? I also know that in the end getting one (no matter what kind) is just a silly little wall thrown up in my way. It does nothing to keep me from writing. Oddly enough. And my first order of business is to write the kindly editor a thank you note. For taking her time reading my manuscripts. (she read two. And two others over the years. Which must be some kind of sad record. But I digress again) For taking the time to explain what she liked and (gulp) what she didn’t like about them.

Long sigh.
I feel better already.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

I hesitate to share this little bit of advice. If too many people followed it, it might dilute some of what makes it so great. But in the spirit of giving thanks it seems almost criminal to keep this idea to myself. So here it is: Charming Notes.

This comes straight from the always inspirational Carolyn See in her book Making a Literary Life and I’m not sure I can do it justice, so if you’re still doubting at the end of this blog that writing charming notes will make you feel wonderful, cause others great joy, and generally increase the power of love in the world, then read Carolyn’s chapter about it. Because I’ve failed.

A charming note is nothing more than a handwritten thank you note. And oh, wow, have those gone out of style these days. I’ve even given up hounding my kids about them lately, instead urging them to facebook or email a gift giver. Which is sad. But I digress.

The main idea underlying the charming note is that writing is such a solitary activity--you toil alone at your keyboard or holed up in your attic ala Emily Dickinson, and unless you’re published, you rarely get a response to what you’re creating. I suppose even published writers feel this way. How nice it would be to get a little note in the mail one day, a few words about how much a story you’ve written meant to someone else. The next time you finish reading a book that moves you, TELL the writer how you felt. And no cheating—emailing a writer on his webpage. Carolyn See says to go out and buy the most beautiful stationery you can afford and have it engraved with your name. Write your note of thanks on that. Send it c/o of the admired author’s publishing company. You’ll be surprised how many will write you a charming note back. I’ve received nice thank-yous to my thank-yous from Sara Zarr, Kate DiCamillo, and Rebecca Stead. Each one mentioned that they rarely received handwritten notes anymore.

In addition to sending out the love to your favorite writers, you’ll also want to thank your favorite editors. Now, you might be thinking, but I don’t have a favorite editor. I’m an unpublished writer. The only response I get from editors is curt little form rejections with an occasional “nice story” tacked on at the end.

Now follow me here: you’re going to get out your lovely engraved stationery and thank these people for taking the time to send you a rejection. This is a bizarre idea on the surface, but I promise you, the next time you get a rejection and feel your insides churn and your heart clamp up with despair, writing a thank you is the only thing that is going to help. (That and gorging yourself on chocolate and/or drinking a bottle of wine. But I digress again)

Every rejection is a little stab at your dream that makes you question your decision to keep writing, and believe me, you do not want this dark cloud of bad karma hovering over your head for the next few days as you try to create. Thank that editor, and be sincere. No snarky, thanks so much for rejecting the novel I spent three years laboring over that you merely read the first ten pages of and pronounced unworthy of your time. It was sooooo freaking kind of you.

NO. You’re going to really mean it. This editor is a person (albeit a very young one) who DID in fact take the time when many other editors simply tossed your manuscript in the recycle bin. Who knows what she’ll think when she gets your note. It really doesn’t matter because you’ve taken the bundle of negative rejection energy, changed it into something gracious and kind, and sent it hurtling right back.

Try it. You’ll be surprised how good it feels to reach out to other writers, to connect with editors—to forge a tiny bond in this world of writers and readers—one that you are a part of too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Million Ways to Tell a Story

Some people think that Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken is about the benefits of choosing the less traveled, more difficult road in life. The speaker comes to a fork in the woods and has to make a decision about which path to take. From where he’s standing he can only see so far ahead. Maybe he could stand there all day. Or go back in the direction he came from. But time’s ticking and he’s got to move on, so he picks a path and goes with it. Later he says that he chose the path less traveled by and “that has made all the difference.”

What I always liked about this poem is that there really is no way the speaker can know he took the road less traveled. He didn’t go down both roads, so he can’t compare. He can only guess. From where he was standing they looked the same. He’s right, though, that the path he did end up taking made all the difference. Whenever you make a choice in life (or in writing) it’s going to make a difference in the end.

I’ve been thinking about this poem because it’s hit me that whenever I write a story, I’m making choices about which path to take. Is my character going to do this or that? (Or more accurately, if I let my characters lead, which way will they choose to go?) I suppose I could freeze them where they are, let nothing happen to them. Or I could chuck out everything I have and not write the book. That’s a choice too. But if I do want to finish a story, at a certain point I just have to go with it—see where it’s going, and follow along until the end.

There are probably multiple wrong ways to tell a story. But now I’m wondering if there are multiple right ways to tell one too. The cool thing about writing is that I can conceivably go back (unlike the speaker in the Robert Frost poem—and unlike in real life) and try both paths (or more).

I read two great Young Adult book recently that perfectly illustrate this point: Dark Water by Laura McNeal, which was up for the National Book Award, and When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. The authors made totally different decisions about how to tell their stories. I need to say here that when I read books my greatest hope is to get lost in a page-turning good story, but the writer in me is always in the background thinking about how the story’s put together and what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it can be distracting, but there you go.

Dark Water is a love story about a fifteen year old girl and an illegal Mexican immigrant boy who works on her uncle’s farm. I don’t think I can do this complicated and moving story justice.

There’s lots going on between the girl and her parents who have recently divorced. The mom is quirky and depressed, working two jobs and trying to start a silkworm farm (which is weird but interesting). The dad is kind of a jerk who keeps popping in to disrupt their lives. There’s a subplot between the girl and her cousin and a strange love triangle in that family. And over all of this is the unfolding relationship between the girl and the mysterious migrant boy who can’t talk and who makes his home in a camp down by the river. What made the story more interesting to me was the point of view and structure of the book. It’s clear from the beginning that the events in the story have already happened—several years before. And that something terrible occurred that led to at least one main character's death. Usually, I don’t like books that are so clearly reminiscences, but this one works. The reader knows the book is building toward the terrible climax and will have a hard time putting it down.

When the Whistle Blows
on the surface is about a boy growing up in a dying West Virginia town in the 1940’s.

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but I loved this book. The premise is clever and one that I haven’t seen done much at all. Each chapter is a different story that takes place on one night—Halloween—in the main character’s life. At first it seems like separate unrelated stories, but read them all and you get caught up in this boy’s life as he grows up. You get to know his friends, his family, particularly his complicated relationship with his father, and his town, which is all tied to the train, the industry the town is built around. Even though it’s what people call a “quiet” book, there was a page turning quality to it as well. I wanted to know what was going to happen to this boy each Halloween night and wondered what he was going to choose as it became clear that his childhood dream of working on the train was probably not going to come true.

So, different stories; different ways to tell them. I’m trying to keep that in mind as I plunge back into my own story. I need to remember to follow it through to the end, and if that path turns out to be the wrong one, oh well. I can always go back to the fork in the road and try again.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Life Intervenes

I have a feeling that Stephen King doesn’t clean toilets or drive carpool or host Thanksgiving dinner for 14 people. Maybe I’m wrong. Before he had his big breakthrough with his novel Carrie, he was a high school teacher and the father of young children. I’m sure there were days when he had a hard time getting his 2000 words written. In his book On Writing he says empathically that he writes 2000 words a day every day—whether it takes him two hours to do it. Or ten.

People who don’t write probably think that’s crazy. No one is going to know, after all, whether or not you get your writing done. If you’re making millions of dollars a year, of course, it probably seems worth it, but when you’re just starting out and not getting paid for your efforts, it’s kind of hard to justify the amount of time and work involved in writing a book. At some point you recognize, though, that you feel better when you write and you feel cruddy when you don’t. And that’s that.

I didn’t write much at all when I was teaching and when my kids were little. I know there are writers who do this (ie. Stephen King) but apparently I’m not one of them. Teaching sapped the life out of me and now that I think about it, my young kids did too. I don’t regret this, by the way, even though it meant I had a late start with my writing career. I’m glad I was able to give my job and later my family my undivided attention. There was a nice bonus for them too, in that I had all this untapped creativity that pretty much had nowhere to go. For example, my four year old son and I made a to-scale model of a Viking ship complete with 50 toothpick oars poking out of the sides. When my daughter turned eight I threw her the coolest (if I do say so myself) Harry Potter birthday party. The guests had a potions lesson and drank homemade butter beer and ran around in the backyard on brooms playing a game of quidditch while I pelted them with water balloons (which were supposed to be the bludgers).

When I quit work to write full time my biggest hurdle was figuring out how to manage my time. It was easy to start the day off with the best of intentions and slowly slip off course. Once I started recording how many words I wrote, it got easier. Well, not exactly easier, but I found that I had something concrete to measure. Using this method I’ve been able to write two novels a year and still have time left over to revise. Now my biggest hurdle is figuring out how to take time off. I’ve developed such strict work habits over the years I’m afraid that if I cut myself too much slack next thing I know I’ll be sacked out in front of the TV watching a Jersey Shore marathon. Not that I’ve ever done this, but…

What I need to remember is that I’m not Stephen King (Haha, in case anyone was wondering) and some days I’m not going to be able to write my words. Sometimes life is going to intervene. I’m a writer. But I’m also a person. And people have lives to live which include doing mundane tasks like laundry but also important valuable things like reading a book to your daughter’s class or baking someone’s birthday cake. Or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for 14.

I’m not worried. Really. November 29 I’ll be at my desk (or at my assigned comfy chair in the library) plugging away on my words. I can’t promise you my house will be clean though. Some things you really have to let slide.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Mushy Middle. Otherwise known as Driving through Texas

Ah, the mushy dark sprawling space that is the middle of a novel. If you’re plodding along writing your certain number of words a day, you’ll inevitably reach the point where you are halfway to somewhere. The problem is you still might not know where you’re going. You may not remember where you’ve been. You’re wondering if you should stop, turn around, forget this trip. Maybe go someplace else.

Writer Laraine Herring says that writing a novel is a lot like driving through Texas. You’ve got a long way to go to reach the border, but if you keep driving, you’ll eventually get there. I’ve never driven through Texas. I’ve never even been to Texas, but I have driven from one corner of Tennessee to the other corner and I know that takes a long time, so I trust Laraine’s metaphor.

One of the nice things about signing up to do National Novel Writing Month is they send you these cool inspirational emails from authors who’ve been there in the trenches. Today’s was from one of my favorite young adult novelists, John Green. He was trying to be inspirational, but he started by lamenting about how hard it is to keep writing when you’ve reached the middle of your book:

“Why do I quit halfway in? I get tired. It's not fun anymore. The story kind of sucks, and it's hard to sit down every day and spend several hours eating from a giant bowl of suck. And most of all, like the kid who spends hours preparing plastic armies for war, I enjoy setting things up more than I enjoy the battle itself. To finish something is to be disappointed. By definition, abandoned novels are more promising than completed ones.”

I hear you, John. The story in my head is always a million times better than the one that gets put on paper. Unfortunately, the story in my head doesn’t exist. And it never will exist if I don’t keep writing it. John Green’s pep talk does eventually get peppier and he ends by reminding us that Robert Frost once said: “The only way out is through.” Now that I think about it, Robert Frost was brilliant. He wrote poems. Which would be more like driving through Rhode Island.

But I’m still driving through Texas. Tumbleweeds are blowing around in the desert alongside my car. (This is me, imagining Texas, because I’ve never actually been there.) I see a lot of cactuses (cacti? too). The road stretches off into the horizon. There’s one gas station ahead and it’s only got one fuel pump working. But that’s really all need. And maybe some snack food and coffee.

I’ve made it this far. No way am I turning back.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

When you’re writing a novel you inevitably find yourself at a certain point where the story takes off. You’ve set up your world and you’ve created your characters. You’ve thrown a few cool conflicts at your hero. He wants something and he can’t have it. He’s going to have to leave the safety of the world he knows and strike out after it. Maybe he has a few false starts. Maybe he turns back a couple times or some other character shows up to shoot him down. But somewhere around page fifty or so of your 200-page novel, your hero is going to make a choice. He’s going to cross the threshold and begin his journey. Woo hoo! It's about time!

I’ve been thinking about crossing the threshold this week because I have just crossed it myself in the book I’m working on for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a cool feeling when you reach this point. It means you’re officially entering the section known as: The Middle of the Book. The place where all the action happens and where the strands you’ve set up in the first part of the book begin to come together.

Starting a book is tricky. There are so many decisions to make. Most of the real work of the first draft is just trying to figure out what’s going on. You’re introducing characters that you, as the writer, don’t really know yet. You’re describing a world that you’re still trying to imagine. It’s possible that you won’t understand it all completely until you reach the end. I heard someone speak at a writers’ conference once about how an editor read her 200-page manuscript and told her that the story didn’t really start until page 100. “Lop that first part off,” the editor said. “And start there.” The writer was horrified, (and I, in the audience, was horrified for her, imagining all the work she must’ve done and thinking about how it was all apparently for nothing). But the writer surprised me by saying that it wasn’t a waste—those 100 pages—they were a necessary part of figuring out that story. It was how she found her way in.

Sometimes you discover that you’re writing a different story from the one you thought. You’ve got a conflict set up and halfway through the conflict morphs into something else. Or maybe you realize the wrong character’s telling your story. This happened to me. I wrote a book from the point of view of a particular girl. I saw it all very clearly in my mind—her conflict, her journey. Then twenty or so pages in this boy showed up out of nowhere and basically took over the story. I kept going with my girl, plodding along, trying to wrest the story back to her. I finished the draft, patted myself on the back, put the manuscript away for a while then read it with a fresh eye. But I couldn’t deny it. This story wasn’t the girl’s at all. It was the boy’s. Never mind 100 pages. I wrote a whole book so I could find my way into the book I was supposed to be writing.

No big deal. It’s all part of the process. Maybe you change your mind about the plot and your narrative takes off in a completely different direction. Maybe you have no idea what the point is until you write the conclusion. Maybe you add characters or cut them. A writer friend of mine has this scene her first draft:

“Where’s Lindsay?”
“Oh, I think she’s not going to be in this book,” I said. “Kevin and Kristy are enough, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, probably.”

Sometimes you add plot strands. Or take strands away when you see they’re not really going anywhere. The point is you’re not going to see most of this until you’re well on your way.

So cross the threshold with your characters and keep moving forward on your journey. Do not go back. Find your way through the story, to the story. You’re going to have to redo a lot of this stuff anyway; you may as well keep going all the way to the end.

Up next: The Mushy Middle: otherwise known as Driving through Texas

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Journaling the Junk Out

Every morning for the past three years (give or take a handful of days when I was traveling or sick) I have written what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls Morning Pages. Julia says it best (and truthfully, I haven’t gone back to reread her description) but her basic point is that to free up your creative self, it’s essential to get the gunk out of your head each morning before going to work. By gunk, I mean whatever stuff is floating around in your mind—anxieties, snippets of dreams, a to-do list for the day ahead, stuff you’re upset or angry about, a dumb conversation you’re rehashing. Whatever. She suggests that you write three pages longhand. This is writing you’re never going to show anyone. You don’t even have to go back to read it yourself. I think she says you can seal it in an envelope if you want to. But once it’s down on paper—all that blather clogging up your brain—you can start to write, your creative juices truly flowing, nothing holding you back.

I’ll admit I was skeptical the first time I read this. But I tried it, because, what the hey. It’s writing. At first I treated my morning pages like a journal. The act brought me back to my teenage diary years and I found myself recording the stuff that had happened the day before. We had just moved to a new town. I didn’t know anyone. I had quit my day job. After a while there really wasn’t anything “happening” to write about. But I kept writing my morning pages. I took seriously what Julia said, and tried to empty out my head, not worrying about quality or even if I was making sense. Just warming up my fingers on the keyboard. (Here’s one rule I broke: I type my morning pages. Sorry, Julia, I’ve been typing forever—even when I was thirteen I used an old typewriter that dinged when it was time to slide the carriage back.)

A lot of what I wrote about that first year was how I didn’t think I could write. Or the worries I had about never being published. I think I’ve got pages and pages of boring conversations I had with our realtor (we had moved but still couldn’t sell our other house and it was killing me—this two-house ownership thing, and then the furnace broke in the other house and then it was spring and someone needed to mow the overgrown lawn three hours away—all silly and meaningless issues that at the time kept me up at night stressing). But here’s the thing: writing that stuff down did make a difference. Once it was out of my head and on the page, it really was gone. At least for that day. And I could focus on whatever project I was working on.

Lately my morning pages have become more of a book journal. I still start with the junk clogging up my brain, but most days I quickly move on to the scene I’m working on that day. What’s happening? What are the characters thinking? What problems am I having? This kind of journaling is how I discovered the worst plot hole of all time—one of those, what the heck was I thinking there?—kind of things. But writing it out, just putting the problem into words, must’ve helped my subconscious mind work on it. Within a few days I woke up with the answer blaring at me as if it had been there all along. And I wrote about that epiphany in my morning pages too.

I can’t ever imagine not writing them. First thing in the morning, before I read my emails and scroll through the inane news of the day, while I drink my coffee, I’m writing my morning pages. Today’s was a long rant about how every single one of the candidates I’d voted for yesterday lost. Except a bunch of judges who had no one running against them. But once I’d gotten that pathetic mess out of my head, I was able to jump into the latest scene of the novel I’m working on.

Looking for a way to get your creative juices going? Tomorrow morning, first thing, write your morning pages. And here’s another shout out for Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. A must read for the struggling writer-within

Monday, November 1, 2010

Write a Novel in 30 Days

Today is officially the first day of NaNoWriMo (for the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month). Participants from all over the world pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. I have “won” NaNo for the past three years and today I am vowing to do it again. There is no right way to do this. At the end of the month the NaNo people are not going to read your novel. They aren’t even going to look at it to see if you actually wrote something that makes sense. So theoretically you could write “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” 5000 times like the lunatic caretaker in Stephen King’s book The Shining.

But don’t do that. Also don’t stress so much about word count that you play tricks like loading up on adjectives or writing out your characters’ full names including middle names every time you mention them. Okay. If you want to do that, fine, do that too. There really is no right way to win this thing. What’s important, at least for me, is to get that first draft out and on paper so that I have something real and “finished” to work with in December. (Who am I kidding? In December, the last thing I’m going to want to look at is this mess of a first draft. I’ll leave that to January.)

My other rules (because in the end I really am a rule person) are as follows:

1. Write at least 1667 words per day (this is the minimum number to reach 50,000 by Nov. 30.) But I will need to write more some days to make up for the fact that I will not be working on Thanksgiving. Plus I just need a buffer for the days when real life—in the form of making meals, driving the kids places, and cleaning the toilets—intrudes.

2. Don’t bad-mouth what I write. This is a hard one for me. I am my own worst critic and there are many days when I read over what I’ve written and pronounce it all as crap. And maybe it is. But I don’t need to tell myself that. Would I treat a writer friend that way? Um, no. I would find something kind and encouraging to say about the crap that she's written.

3. As a corollary to number two, let my writing go where it wants. So if I go off on some weird tangent about where kids sit in the middle school cafeteria or get lost in a flashback within a flashback within flashback, that’s okay. I need to remember that sometimes those unplanned digressions lead to the real heart of a story.

4. And that’s it. Of course I also hope I come up with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. One that has characters and a setting and a plot that makes sense. And it would be nice if it had a point. But maybe some of this will have to come with the second draft.

Here are a few final words of wisdom:
Trust the process.—Mary Casanova
Jump off the cliff without building the bridge (or something like that)—Libba Bray
It’s not rocket science—Linda Su Park
Oh well, nothing to do but start.—Carolyn See

PS: anyone out there reading this blog who signs up to do NaNo this month, “friend” me on the NaNo site, and we can root for each other. My NaNo name is jodycasella.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breaking through Writer's Block

As far as writer’s block goes, this one wasn’t so terrible. I was only paralyzed for a week or so. But it was just enough for all the old self-doubts to come crashing back. Why am I doing this? What’s the point of writing these books that no one is ever going to read? What if I can’t write after all? Blah blah blah.

But I’m here to say that I pushed past it. At least for today. The answer, big shocker, was to write. Now I know that sounds counter-intuitive. Writer’s block implies that you can’t write. Like your fingers are in little casts or something or your brain has frozen up and no words will materialize out of the ether. But I had to learn the lesson once again that it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, it was this paralyzing sense that I couldn’t write right. I was so caught up in trying to work out my story that I lost sight of the fact that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be put down on paper.

Writer’s Block is really about perfectionism. Julie Cameron says in The Artist’s Way: "Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things…Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop… It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.”

But how do you let go of the crippling feeling that what you’re writing is crap? Answer: write anyway. Quantity not quality. I don’t know who said that. Probably Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way. (If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, go buy it. It’s THE manual for creative people.)

So that’s what I did the past few days. I wrote. Just a bunch of blather. Questions I had about my book. Worries I had about plot holes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. Pages of boring backstory. I wrote over 3000 words and kept going. And somehow, miraculously, the process took over and I felt better. It didn’t matter anymore what I was writing, just that I was. In Bird by Bird (another must- have writer manual) Anne Lamott says that whenever she’s stuck she writes about school lunches. She doesn’t know why this helps. It’s simply the act of getting something down on paper. You start talking about the smelly tuna fish sandwiches you ate when you were in second grade or the lukewarm chicken noodle soup spilling out of your thermos and the next thing you know you’re off on some weird tangent that turns out to be the kernel of your next story. Try it. Really. It’s cool. If nothing else you might get new lunch ideas for you kids.

Okay. The second key to my breakthrough is another big shocker: reading. I read a great book, a truly amazing, impossible to put down YA novel that reminded me what the point of it all really is. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff won the Printz Award in 2004.

Don’t know how I missed this. It’s about a fifteen-year-old troubled girl who goes to live with her cousins in England. While she’s there war breaks out and the kids get separated from each other. The book becomes a kind of post-apocalyptic journey as they try to get back together. But this explanation doesn’t do it justice. The girl’s voice is funny and snarky and thoroughly original. There’s a fantasy element too—because the cousins can read minds and understand animals. And it’s a love story. Which seems weird, because we’re talking about two cousins, but somehow it works and you want so much for these kids to find each other again. I literally could not put it down, and I read the whole thing marveling at how brilliantly it was put together while at the same time being caught up in the story and just loving these characters. I finished the book and instead of feeling despair that I will NEVER be able to write this well, I was inspired to write anyway.

Imagine what an awesome thing it is to be able to capture a story and put it out into the world so that even one reader has a life changing experience or even just a couple hours escape into another world.

Hey. It’s enough to keep me going for another day.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I’ve been feeling cocky lately. Writing this blog to my beginner self of fifteen years ago made me realize how much progress I’ve made since I started. I’ve been smug, thinking I had discovered the secrets to my creative process and confident that I had the tools to take my writing to the next level. And I’ve been feeling generous—eager to share with other struggling writers my wealth of knowledge about inspiration and motivation, perseverance and discipline.

Today, though, I feel like I’m back at square one. It’s 1:34 and I have done absolutely nothing toward my writing goals. I’m stalled. Stuck. Floundering with a first draft that’s really more like a tenth draft. The truth is I don’t know what to do next. My usual little tricks don’t seem to be working for this one—

I’ve put the manuscript away. I’ve read it with a fresh eye. I’ve charted out the whole thing, trying to figure out what I have and what’s still missing. In the process I discovered that what I thought I was writing about has changed. Now this realization doesn’t freak me out. It’s happened to me before. In fact it’s happened every time I’ve written a book. Somehow the point—what you think is the point anyway—sort of morphs into something else. The story takes off. The characters suddenly start acting like real people, doing what they want instead of what you planned for them to do. It’s a pretty cool moment in the process when the story becomes what it really is, and it’s probably the most fun part about being a writer—just letting it go and following along for the ride. Later, you can see what the over-arching story is and that knowledge helps you shape the second draft.

But here’s my problem. I’m not seeing it. I have glimmers here and there but that’s it. Stephen King in his book On Writing talks about how a story is always there somewhere, like a fossil underground, and our job as the writer is to discover it and dig up the pieces. The better writers are able to uncover the majority of the bones and put them all together. Beginning writers might only be able to get a few or maybe they stick the leg bone in the wrong socket. I’m feeling like a beginning writer this week. I’m not finding all my story pieces. Or maybe I have most of the pieces but I can’t figure out how to rearrange them correctly. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as correctly with this book anymore. I’ve written so many versions of it, I’m afraid I’ve damaged it or lost the heart of what it was meant to be somewhere along the way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve gone back and read some of the versions. I’ve kept a journal of all of my questions and problems and plot holes. I’ve taken walks. I’ve read books (a few great ones that made me feel overwhelming despair that I’ll never get this figured out. And a few mediocre ones that remind me that I can.) I’ve gone back and read old rejections/critiques on this manuscript. Here, I’ve been fortunate to have several editors give me some really good feedback on what’s working and not working with this story, one editor going so far as to ask for a revision and giving me specific points to consider. I’ve also talked to my generous, insightful, inspirational writing buddies, as well as to my long-suffering husband who listened to me rant and rave all weekend about my struggles with this book.

But I’m still stalled.

So what’s the answer here? I don’t know. There is a part of me that considered quitting on this book. Just saying, forget it. I gave it many years already. I certainly tried. But there is another part that refuses to let it go. I heard the great editor Patti Lee Gauch speak at a conference once. She said writers can be taught all of the elements of a story. We can learn about setting, characters, plot. We can study grammar and punctuation. We can have editors advise us on revision. But no one can help us with the heart of the story. Some stories have it and some stories don’t. I know this story has one. I can’t let it go. And I believe I’m the only one who can tell it. I have no deadline. No real pressure from anyone except myself. In all likelihood this book will never see a bookstore shelf.

I don’t care.

Time to get back to work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Trouble Writing? Leave the House

Some days it’s harder than others to open up the file and get started. Who am I kidding? Most days, it’s hard. I honestly don’t know why this is. I have been writing 1500 words per day, 6 days a week, for the last two years. You’d think it would be easier to just sit down and write. Maybe it’s all the distractions. Email. Stupid articles on Yahoo News and the accompanying inane comments. The giant waste of time known as Facebook. But even before Facebook existed, I was the queen of wasting time. In college I rearranged my room to put off studying for a test. In my younger and more vulnerable years I watched MTV. Okay. So that dates me.

The point is there’s always going to be something else you can do besides writing. Unless you have an editor breathing down your neck (which, I don’t, alas) than you’re going to have to motivate yourself. I’ve figured out that if I can just get started, the rest usually takes care of itself. Then I have a hard time stopping. But that’s an issue for another day.

So what have I learned over the years about getting started? Here’s my list in no particular order:

Leave the house. When my family first moved to Columbus I had no idea that it has cloudy gray weather to rival Seattle’s. A kindly neighbor with Seasonal Affective Disorder pointed this out the first week we were here. “November. Yep. It’s Cloud Season,” he said. “Won’t be sunny again til March. If we’re lucky.” I thought he was joking. He was. Turned out it was April. Our house was dark. Cold. Dreary. I could barely crawl out of bed, much less write. I had to get the heck out of there before I went crazy.

Most days in winter, I pack up my computer and haul my lazy butt out the door to the library. In our town it’s warm and well lit. It has nice comfy chairs. They’ve reserved one for me. (Not really, but it seems like it. I sit in the same one, back in the quiet reference section, near the big windows.) The library is a great place to write because it smells like books. Which is what I’m trying to write. Some days when I need an extra dose of inspiration, I meander over to the YA section and make a large space on the shelf where they’ll some day shelve my books. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

If I have $3.75 I head over to the Caribou Coffee shop. Our town has two, both within walking distance. (Not that I ever walk, haha.) A coffee shop is a good place to write because you can get a nice shot of caffeine to spur you on. They have electrical outlets where you can plug in your computer. And there are usually other people around working, writing, studying, so you’ll get a good motivational kick to go with your caffeine surge. (For the record, I also frequent Panera Bread and Starbucks.)

Make a date with a writer friend. It helps if you pencil this in on your calendar: Thursday—12 to 3 meet Jill to write. I used to think this method wouldn’t work. The person and I would get to talking and nothing would get done. But you’d be surprised. Throw two writers together and usually one of you will be in a productive mood. The other one will have no choice but to get cracking too.

Have a place in your house set up for writing. You know how articles about sleep issues always suggest that you make your bed a place for sleeping and nothing else? Well, I’ve learned this applies to writing too. Not the bed part. But having a place where all you do is write. An office. Or at least a desk. Last year my supportive handyman husband converted part of the guest bedroom into an office for me. It has a comfy chair. Shelves of children’s books for inspiration. A table for spreading out all my notes and research. And a wall-to-wall corkboard where I can pin up my ideas (typically scribbled on folded grocery receipts). When I walk into that room, I feel like writing is my job. Which I guess it is. Except for the getting paid part.

And my final suggestion: team up with an accountability partner—another writer like you who needs a nudge to get started every day. My writing partner lives in another state. We have only met in person a few times. Every morning we email each other our writing goals. At the end of the day we email what we’ve accomplished. Some days when we’re both lagging, we text each other, setting up mini races, such as write 100 words in the next ten minutes.

Let’s try that now and see if it works. Okay? 100 words. Ten minutes. Go.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Revision: It's Not Rocket Science

Revising has gotten easier over the years, but there’s always a part of me that resists changing what I’ve written. I’m not talking about fixing grammatical errors or cutting extraneous words. I mean major reworking: yanking out scenes, removing a plot strand, deleting the first ten chapters. Yes. I have done that before. It’s painful. And it seems wasteful too. Why did I bother with all of that? What was the point?

The point, apparently, was for me to find a way into that particular story. Once I did, I no longer needed those chapters. The story I’m telling no longer requires them. So, out they go. Ha ha. I've made it sound so easy. But anyone who's dealt with extensive revision knows how difficult it can be.

The best explanation I’ve heard about how to work through this potentially painful process came from Linda Su Park, Newbery author of the novel A Single Shard. Park spoke at a conference I went to a few years ago and perfectly captured the angst we writers go through when we approach a revision.

She started by describing the sick feeling you get when you first hear criticism of your manuscript. You think it’s finished, brilliant, moving, but your first reader will say something like: the beginning doesn’t work. Or: you don’t need that character. Just hearing her say this was revelatory to me. An award-winning author produces messed up first drafts too? Wow. She said she had an all-purpose response to this kind of criticism and I perked right up in my seat.

Okay. That’s her response. She says that inside she’s dying, nauseated, ready to kill the critic, imagining all of the work she’s going to have to do, but outside, she keeps a placid smile on her face and says: Okay. She listens to what the person has to say. And she gives herself some time to process the suggestions.

After a few days of stewing, she’s ready to prove the critic wrong. Okay, she tells herself, this person thinks that one of my main characters serves no purpose. Well, I’ll show her. And then she goes back to her manuscript and “plays.” It’s not rocket science, she says. I’m just playing around. She takes one chapter where that character features prominently, and pulls him out. She gives that character’s lines to someone else. She rewrites the whole scene to prove to her critic what a giant hole is left when that character is no longer present.

Next, to further illustrate her point about how wrong her critic is, she takes the same scene and continues to play, beefing up the role of that supposedly unnecessary character. See, she wants to point out, look how essential this character is to my story. Except nine times out of ten, she realizes that the critic is right. Once she’s played around with a scene or two, she can see it clearly. That character doesn’t need to be there after all. Darn it. And she never would’ve believed it if she hadn’t tried it. Thinking about it, arguing in your head about the merits of the criticism is not enough. You have to write it. Then she stressed once more that this process isn’t rocket science. We’re just playing.

Revision has a bad reputation. It’s hard! It means work, time, heavy thinking. All those years of hearing our English teachers telling us to revise have taken a toll.

Let that crippling mentality go. Next time you're faced with a daunting revision, take Linda Su Park’s advice and say: Okay, I’ll play.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To Outline or Not to Outline

The real question should be: when do you outline? Ask the average person, anyone who’s sat through a 7th grade Language Arts class, and the answer will likely be before writing. We’re taught to choose the main idea. Break it down into sub topics. Add details. The point is to organize your thoughts. Plan. See where your writing is going before you start. It makes sense. And if you’re writing an essay, it’s definitely a good idea.

If you’re writing a book, you’ll want to organize your ideas by chapters and/or scenes. A few weeks ago I heard a writer speaking at a conference about how he creates a detailed outline. He charts out his scenes in advance, logically arranging the sequence of events—introductions of characters, plot twists, action, etc. It takes him two or three months to do, but when he starts writing the book, it comes fairly easy. Each day he refers to his outline and sees what scene he needs to write. He stressed that his outlines are not written in stone. He even showed us a sample that included cross-outs and rearranged elements. But overall, he sticks to it. He’s written all of his books this way, and he’s been very successful using this method.

I’m sorry I can’t go into more detail about how to outline a book, because it’s not the way I write. I must confess that I was one of those students who wrote the outline after writing the paper. (Let me say here that I don’t believe that any particular method for writing is better than any other. Interview ten writers about their process and you’ll get ten different answers.) My suggestion is to experiment with a variety of ways, cobble together bits of what works for others until you find what works for you.

So how do I write a book if I don’t outline first? I begin with a vague idea of where the story is going. I know the end, or at least what seems like the logical end. And I simply write toward it. Maybe “simply” isn’t the right word. There are painful days when I feel like I’m slogging through each sentence. But there are also days when everything flows out. (Here’s something interesting: when I read back over what I’ve written, I can never tell which parts were hard to write and which parts were easy. It all blends together. Which is just weird, but I digress.)

If you've read my other posts, you know that I set a word count goal each day, usually 1500 words. I think in terms of scenes and I concentrate only on the scene I’m working on that day. Occasionally I worry about where it’s all going. Especially when something pops up unexpectedly. Why did my main character do that? for example. Or where the heck did that person come from? But I just keep going, having faith that when I’m ready to start the next scene I’ll know what to do. E.L Doctorow said once that writing a novel is "like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Writing like this is a little scary. But I just keep plugging away at my 1500 words. Usually around day twenty (I have no idea why this is) something happens. I know what’s going on and it all starts to come together. Suddenly the words are spilling out. The tension is building and I can see the final scenes rising up out of the foggy ether. Now I’m eager to start each day because I want to see how it’s all going to play out and the only way to know for sure is to write it.

So where does the outline come in? Here’s the strange part: it comes when I’m “finished.” I write the last word. Print out the big mess of the first draft. Then I put it away in a drawer to marinate. (That’s how Stephen King describes it in his book On Writing.) I don’t look at it for at least six weeks. Later, when I pick it up, I read it like a reader. No red pencil in hand. I just want to see what I have. Yes, it’s a mess. But there is a real book buried in there and now that I see it, I can begin my outlining process.

I write out my big questions—what are the main ideas driving my story? Who are the main characters? What are the internal and external conflicts? I have a general sense of this while I’m writing, but you’d be surprised how things change over the course of writing a book. Sometimes what you’re really writing about doesn’t hit you until page 100. I list out the scenes I have on index cards and I literally spread them out on the floor. Every scene must contribute to the overall story; otherwise it needs to go. Or maybe I need to add a scene (or fifteen) where essential elements are missing. Once I’ve done that, I make my outline.

Now I can start my revision.

Seems like a lot of work, I know. When I spoke to the writer at the conference who outlines first, he looked at me like I was crazy. But after talking we realized that he does his logical work on the front end and I do that work on the back end. We both have to revise. Both methods take roughly the same amount of time.

Whichever method you choose, here’s a final word from the inspirational folks on the NaNoWriMo site:

“All the books we've loved started out in a similarly imperfect form. They're called rough drafts for a reason. No one gets a novel totally right on the first pass. This is true whether you give yourself a month or a lifetime to write the first draft. There's an adage in noveling that you can revise a bad first draft into a great book. But you can't revise a blank page into anything but a blank page.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

Three years ago at the end of October my family moved to a new state. It was a big change for our all of us. New schools for the kids and new careers for my husband and me. It was the year I quit teaching and decided once and for all to focus on my writing. Only a few days after moving into our new home, before the pictures were even up on the walls, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. It changed my writing life.

For the uninitiated NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Participants pledge to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month of November. Sign up and you get helpful writing advice from published authors, a cool-looking page where you can chart your progress, daily inspirational emails, and the instant support and encouragement of a community of writers on the same journey.

That’s what I knew going into it. But here’s why it changed my writing life. My previous method for writing a book was this: I would come up with what I thought was an interesting idea or two, create a few characters, and begin writing. And revising. And reworking. And editing. And revising some more. I literally could not move onto the next sentence until I felt that the one before it was perfect. It took me two years to write a book this way and by the time I was finished, I hated the thing’s guts and couldn’t bear to look at it again. I also patted myself on the back for having what I believed was not a first draft. After all I had revised it to “perfection” as I wrote it. I submitted it to publishers. It got rejected.

But the moment I began a book NaNoWriMo-style, I realized my revise as I go method was not going to work. Take 50,000 words and divide by 30 days and you get 1666 words per day. Subtract out weekends (not going to happen. I had a family. We were adjusting to a new town) and Thanksgiving (jeez, why’d the Nano people pick November? Don’t they have to cook 20-pound turkeys for visiting relatives?) and I was left with more than 2500 words per day. Let me tell you something. You try writing 2500 words in a day and see how quickly you move past the revise as you go method. Perfect sentences—ha ha. Forget it.

So this is what happened. I did it. I wrote a big 50,000-word mess of a book. And I couldn’t kid myself—it was truly a first draft. It had digressions and a string of loosely strewn-together scenes. Strands that went nowhere. Characters that disappeared and characters that popped up in the final chapters. But it was a thing of beauty anyway. It was funny. It was heartbreaking. Yes, there were long passages of bad writing, but there were also nuggets of the best writing I’d ever produced. It was not perfect. But it was finished. And here’s a saying from one of those inspirational Nano emails and something I’ve clung to ever since: a first draft IS perfect simply because it is finished.

Now I don’t recommend this type of writing for everyone. There are many successful writers who swear by the revise as you go method. But I found that Nano-writing forced me to let go of my crippling perfectionism and silenced the negative editor in my head. Nano helped me embrace the free-spirited creative voice and follow it wherever it wanted to go. Usually to a place I hadn't planned. Writing a book this way is exhilarating.

When I read that first Nano draft in January, I found the bones of a pretty decent book. This time when I revised, I had the whole thing in front of me to work with. I could do real revision and not what I had been doing before, which I realized was actually line editing.

This November if you want to kick-start your writing career, join me on NaNoWriMo.
If you stick with it, in 30 days you’ll be toasting your own beautiful mess of a first draft.
(Tips for revising Coming Soon)

Thursday, October 7, 2010


I have always loved to read. From the moment I learned how, I was the dazed kid stumbling around with a book in my hands. Most writers will tell you the same. We’re readers. Which is probably why we’re drawn to creating our own books. It’s Writing 101 that you must love to read if you’d like to write. Even the Me of fifteen years ago knew that. But here’s what I didn’t know: you need to read the kinds of books you want to write. (in addition to everything else!)

Like many children’s writers I was drawn to the field because books meant so much to me as a child. When I first started writing, I went back to the books of my childhood for inspiration. A Wrinkle in Time. A little known, but excellent book called Charlotte Sometimes. The mystery series Trixie Belden. This was a start in the right direction, but it took me a while to catch on that I needed to read the latest children’s books too. This means reading beautifully written, critically acclaimed books as well as fluffy page-turners. Yes, I know you love Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables (and these are must-reads without a doubt) but if you’re a YA writer, you should also know who John Green and Sara Zarr are. You should know what Katniss is up to in the latest installment of Hunger Games and that the newest teen trend is fallen angels. And for some odd reason (or maybe it’s not odd, now that I think about it,) two gorgeous boys vying for the attention of the same girl is the In thing at the moment.

Writers must know what their contemporaries are writing and what kid readers of this generation are yanking off the shelves and passing around in school. Not so we can copy another writer or jump onto a trend—(Good luck, anyway, with that. Write a book starring a schoolboy wizard or a brooding vampire and see how fast the rejections roll in.)—but so we can find our own voice in today’s world of books.

True story: a beginning writer wrote a darling picture book about a child resisting bedtime. The kindly editor critiquing her mentioned that there are a ton of bedtime books already out there. To which the woman responded, “Really?”

Another true story: a YA adult writer tells me she would never read Twilight because she doesn’t like vampire books. Well, okay. Say what you want about this series—mediocre writing, stereotypical romance-novel characters—but it IS a page-turner and millions of girls and women have snapped it up. Like it or not, the phenomenon (along with Harry Potter) may have single handedly propped up the children’s book industry so that publishers can afford to publish quiet, lyrical, award-winning books too. Read it and get a taste of what all the fuss is about. It’s your job, for crying out loud. And really, as far as jobs go, I’d say it’s a pretty good one.

Here’s a plug for a brand-newish YA book that may restore your faith in the written word after you’ve read all of those vampire/fallen angel books I was just urging you to read:
Lips Touch by Laini Taylor. It’s actually three stories, all built around the premise of a kiss. The first story, which I read last night, is a take on an old poem by Christina Rossetti called “Goblin’s Market.” Yes, I am a former English major and high school English teacher, so I can appreciate a story inspired by a poem. Beyond that very cool idea, though, is Taylor’s amazing writing. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before. Part old-fashioned, descriptive and sensory. And part contemporary and slang-y. The story perfectly captures the longing and desire of teenage girls who want want want what is just out of reach and who simmer with impatient frustration as they wait for their real lives to begin. (prediction: you will root for the goblin.) This is one of those books that inspires both despair and joy in me. Despair—that I will never ever be able to write this well. And joy that someone can.

Read it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Every day I have the best of intentions. I’m going to sit right down at my computer, fortifying cup of coffee beside me, and begin. Open up my file (whatever project I happen to be working on) and GO. But first, I really should clean up the breakfast dishes. I can’t have them sitting out all over the counter. And I need to check my emails. That laundry piling up in the hallway—I should make a dent in it. Just throw in one load. Oh. And what are we having for dinner tonight? I should put something in the crockpot. Get THAT out of the way. Who’s on Facebook? Ha ha. That’s funny. Someone posted a clip of a guy singing about his sister getting attacked. Wait. That’s not funny. Is this a sign of the decline of Western Civilization? Jeez. Now the laundry’s finished. I need to throw it in the dryer.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. Next thing I know it’s nearly lunchtime, I’m still in my pajamas and I haven’t written a single word.

Ah, procrastination. It’s a pitfall most writers continually battle. How do I know? Because I have read dozens of books by writers about writing, and every single one says something about the challenge of motivating yourself to write. I used to wonder about all of this working-yourself-up-to-write business. What’s so hard about writing? It’s not like you’re painting houses, or grilling steaks at Ponderosa, or washing two hundred pizza pans at Papa Ginos (all jobs I’ve actually had, by the way). I don’t know why I put off writing. And I don’t know why there are days when I slog through each painful word. All I do know is that when I don’t write, I feel really horrible. Which is usually enough motivation to get myself going.

Here are a few other tricks of the trade (gleaned from all those writer books on writing) that I wish I had known 15 years ago:

1. BIC—Butt in Chair. As in, put your butt in the chair and write. Some people think you need to be inspired before you can start writing. I’ve learned that if you sit and write, the inspiration will come. It always does. I have no idea how this works. It’s magic.
2. Set a word count. Stephen King says he writes eight pages a day every day. I believe him. But (and correct me if I’m wrong here, Stephen,) I don’t think he has to make dinners or take forgotten lunches to school or clean toilets. Eight is too much for me. I write six. And I take one day off a week.
3. Find an accountability partner. I email my word count goal to my best writer friend every day. At the end of the day I check in with her and tell her if I’ve done it. It’s amazing how this simple thing keeps me on task. When I first started doing it I realized that it didn’t even matter if she read my emails. Just telling her what I was going to do, made a difference. I guess I’m one of those need-a-deadline people.
4. Finish each writing session in the middle of a thought/sentence. It’s cool how easy it is to get going when all you have to do is complete the last sentence from the day before. And you’re off!
5. Don’t blog. Ha ha. (Just realized blogging is THE perfect vehicle for further procrastination.)

Must sign off now. It is noon. I have not started on my writing goal for the day. But my laundry is finished. My counters are cleared off. I am out of the old pajamas and ready to put my BIC.

Monday, October 4, 2010


The other day a beginning writer on my writers’ list serve wrote that he’d just received two rejections. He explained that one agent and one editor had rejected his query for a middle grade novel. WHY!? he wondered. What was the problem? Was it the quality of the query? The idea of the novel? The sample pages he’d sent? Jeez, was this a sign that he should quit writing? The kind, generous, sensitive souls on the list serve chimed in. Rejections happen to the best of us, they said. Even the most successful writers have gotten rejections. Look at JK Rowling, they pointed out. Didn’t she get like 25 rejections before someone snapped up Harry Potter? The beginning writer was cheered up and presumably will continue to send his work out, and, (I sure hope he realizes this) get more rejections.

Rejections. There is nothing that bums a writer out more. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. You get that “unfortunately this story does not fit our editorial needs at this time…” letter and sometimes even the best of us can’t help spiraling into an existential pit of despair.

I got my first rejection over ten years ago. It was from Seventeen magazine when they were still publishing YA fiction. It was a form note, but scrawled on the bottom of it were two words: nice story. My first reaction was shock. They rejected ME? What were they thinking? Was it a mistake? I analyzed those two words “nice story” to the point of absurdity. If they thought it was a nice story, why didn’t they want it? What did they mean by “nice”? I cried. I questioned my decision to write. I questioned my reasons for existence. I had no list serve to buck me up. I knew no other writers. I suffered alone.

Then I sent the story out again. It was rejected once more (by Teen. Is that magazine even around anymore?) Then it was accepted by Cicada. Woo hoo. My first published story! After only TWO rejections. I was on my way, happy that the days of rejections were behind me. Ah. I was so deluded and naïve.

Looking back now, I realize this experience was the most gentle of introductions to the submission world. Because over the years I have amassed quite a collection of rejections. (I’m not one of those writers who papers the walls with them, so I can’t tell you how many). The very kindest rejections have those handwritten words on the bottom—nice story, or keep sending. (God, be thankful for those. They're truly little gifts to keep you going.) The worst rejections are not even the form notes, but the no notes. Lately, the policy of many editorial houses is to contact a writer only if they are interested, which means that most writers will receive nothing. No response. Your work simply disappears into a black hole—which I picture as some NYC editor’s desk and later her recycling bin.

Okay, this is starting to depress me. And my intent was to be uplifting to a suffering, frustrated writer soul like the Me of fifteen years ago. So here’s my advice: quit now if all you’re dreaming about is publication and awards and monetary success and movie deals and sitting on a set with Robert Pattinson who is playing your main character. BUT, if you truly love to write, keep writing. You don’t need me to tell you this or some editor either, by the way. If you’re looking for a sign from above, here it is: if after you receive your first rejection (or your 100th) you continue to write, then cheers! Writing is what you are meant to do.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Searching for a Mentor

Here's something I wish I knew fifteen years ago: how helpful it would be to have a mentor--a kindly, wizened writer to take me under her wing and guide my career. Okay. I never found that person, exactly. But in some ways, over the years, I have. My first few years, unfortunately, were spent floundering alone. I was the perfect mix of arrogance and ignorance. I thought I knew everything about writing (I had majored in it, after all! I had won awards! What could someone teach ME?)

A lot, as it turned out.

My first glimpse of a mentor came in the form of meeting other writers at conferences. No, none of these people ever took me on as a project, but just seeing real people, real women like me, living a writer's life, was important. They showed me that being a writer wasn't some unattainable, magical, crazy dream. These women were like me--they had husbands and children and went grocery shopping and ran errands. They weren't strange characters living in turrets ala Emily Dickinson.

I asked these writers how they worked--nuts and bolts about inspiration and revision and craft. They had different methods but I found that there were things that I could apply to myself and my own work.

Which led me to reading about writers. There are tons of books out there on writing, some more helpful than others. My favorites are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, (hilarious and God, I wish I had read this book 15 years ago); On Writing by Stephen King (even if you don't like his books, you will find helpful advice on the craft of writing); anything by Natalie Goldberg (very New-Agey but so inspirational); and The Artist's Way by Cameron (also New-Agey, but this book literally changed my life with its ideas about creativity and inspiration).

So I never found my in-the-flesh guru. But over the years I have learned so much from a community of other writers--those I know personally and those I know only through their books. And now I am extremely grateful to have found a writing partner--a woman who is roughly at the same stage I am who reads my drafts and give me much-needed advice. I met her in line at a Port-a-potty at a writers' conference. Which just goes to show--I don't know what. Be open to meeting writers. Be receptive to learning new things.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Never close yourself off from reaching out. You might find a mentor. Or maybe you'll just make a new friend.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the verge

First, let me say that I have been "on the verge" of publishing for fifteen years now. This is both sad and funny because when I look back at my feelings of on-the-vergeness fifteen years ago, it's clear that I wasn't very close at all. My writing life has been a journey, and like any journey, I had to start somewhere. Of course if I had known then how far away I really was--that I would still be unpublished fifteen years later--well, let's just say I might have gotten off that road. But I didn't. And now, (that I'm on the verge) I'm certainly not quitting. I am too stubborn and/or deluded to do so.

A quick recap of the journey so far:
1. wrote stories since I learned how to write.
2. won a few story contests in school
3. majored in creative writing in college and won a few more contests
4. started an MFA in poetry (of all things)
5. took a looooong break to have children and teach high school English
6. began attending children's writers' workshops
7. first story published in Cicada, magazine for young adults (my big breakthrough!!!! that didn't actually lead to publishing a book!!! yet!)
8. but it did lead to four more stories in Cicada
9. wrote eight books. And revised several of these numerous times
10. received some nice rejections by editors of these books
11. found an agent (yay!)
12. latest rejection (or what my agent calls a "pass"): the editor didn't "absolutely love" my manuscript.

So. I think I'm getting somewhere. I think, in fact, that I am on the verge. And I invite all you struggling writers out there who are on this same exhilarating and exhausting and enlightening journey to join me as I am poised to cross that threshold out of the ordinary world and into the world of book publishing.
Cue inspirational music.