Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Story Whisperer

Sometimes you are writing a story and you come to a place where it doesn't work.

Or the plot that you thought you were writing, doesn't make sense anymore. Or it has a bunch of plot holes that you didn't foresee and you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and you SEE them-- all huge and dark and glaringly obvious.

Or the characters sound too much like each other. Or you're not sure who they really are or what they want (or don't want). Or they do things for the sake of the plot--because you WANT them to do those things, but one day you're walking your dog and suddenly it hits you that your characters would never do that or say that and OH MY GOD how the hell are you going to fix this?? 

Or your characters do something totally unexpected that you did not see coming and now you know it's the right thing for them to do, but that would mean ripping apart half the book to make it work and the thought of doing that freaks you out.




You've reached a wall, is what I am trying to say. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO NEXT.

So, if this is You--stumbling, spinning, whirring, questioning, struggling, freaking the hell out over a story-writing problem, I am here to give you the solution...

The Story Whisperer

Ha ha. There is no such person. 

But wouldn't it be awesome, if there were? I picture her as a kindly, somewhat older lady-- not the vixen-like young Muse of the Greeks. The Story Whisperer wears an over-sized comfy sweater and pajama bottoms and furry slippers. She rarely combs her hair. She can be a little crotchety. Sometimes you'll catch a glimpse of her putzing around in the background. Like a shadow. 

The Story Whisperer knows how stories are put together. Every plot variation, every knotted twisted story arc, the dead ends and false starts, the duds, the clich├ęs. She's seen it all. She's got story strands woven into her over-sized comfy sweater and in the poofs of her poofy slippers. 

For a small fee (Pride) you bow down before her and pray for a whisper of her wisdom. 

Please, dear Story Whisperer, is what you say. I need your help. 

The next steps are guaranteed to work. Shhhh. Listen, and I will whisper them to you:

*Write out your question, your problem, all  of your story-writing tangles. (You must hand write this. In pencil.) 

*Now, go for a walk. Or take a shower. Or wash the dishes. Or if it's an extremely difficult problem, take a nap...

*Here's the tricky part: let the problem go. It's not yours anymore. It's the Story Whisperer's. Don't fear. She's got ya' covered. 

*Later that day (or next week--for the extremely difficult problem listed above) OPEN YOUR MANUSCRIPT.

And watch, as the answer, in whispery bits and pieces comes to you, like magic it was there all along.  

Advice from the Story Whisperer

Friday, September 25, 2015

Retreat Retreating Retreated. Why I Love Writing Retreats

This retreat felt different.

It is a place I know--"The Barn" at Boyd's Mill, a retreat facility run by the Highlights Foundation. This was my fourth time retreating with them, and let me tell you, these people are experts.

I am something of an expert now myself on what makes a perfect retreat, and I think what it comes down to is a blend of

  • setting (remote countryside/woods in Eastern Pennsylvania) 
  • characters (writers)
  • plot (extended, unstructured time to write)

Oh, and

  • food. In this case, chef-prepared meals, three times a day. Appetizers and wine at night. All you can eat snacks. (I am a sucker for Twizzlers and somehow, they know that.) 

Woods. OMG Do you see a bear?
For this retreat, I'd signed up for what they call an "unworkshop." You get to use the facilities, eat the food, and chat it up with whatever writers happen to be hanging out at the same time.

I was looking forward to the quiet. The walks in the woods. Making real progress on a new manuscript.

I didn't get as much quiet as I'd planned.

There happened to be tons of other writers unworkshopping, as well as a more formal novel writing workshop going on. I know a lot of these people, some in real life (I carpooled to Boyd's Mill with my writer friend Natalie D. Richards) and some from online. The YA book world isn't very large and many of us have bumped into each other at a conference or book signing or virtually bumped into each other on social media. These people are my friends, and I wanted to chat with them-- instead of holing myself up in a quiet cabin and writing.

Someone saw a bear when she was walking in the woods!! So, uh, that put a slight damper on  my wanting to take walks alone goal. I did, one day, take the risk and hiked out into the woods, live tweeting that "event" in case a bear happened to attack me... and I guess a twitter follower might notify the authorities of my death by bear mauling?

And I took lots of walks with other writers. We had conversations that ranged from, oh my God did you hear that? Is that a bear? To working out plot holes in our stories. To freezing and pointing into the dark underbrush at--oh my GOD--do you think that was a bear?

I ate too much food.

It's an issue I have. Throw food at me, particularly gourmet food, food that I do not have to prepare myself, and I will eat it. Also, if you throw wine at me, I will drink it. Luckily, Highlights had purchased lots of wine for me.

I mean, for us.

One day I did the 7 AM yoga. Lately, I get up extremely early. Boom. Six AM and I am snapping awake for no good reason and often I will ponder about that. WHY am I waking up so damn early?? I will think. And why did I not have this particular skill in years past when my kids were young and I was cursing the dawn (and them) and blearily waking to feed them and praying that I could lie back down while they were engrossed in Scooby Doo episodes?

But I digress.

Yoga. It was fun. Just me and one other early riser.

I felt very virtuous that morning and rewarded myself by eating several extra slices of bacon.

The talks we retreat-goers had a dinner were illuminating. Stuff about the writing process and what we are working on and struggling with and excited about. But also stuff about finding balance between writing and life. Spouses. Kids. Book promotion. The Publishing Business.

I don't know how I would've felt about conversations like this on my first retreat. Back then, I was just trying to break in. Publishing was an impenetrable wall and I had no idea how to scale it. Now I'm on the other side.

First lesson: there are more walls.

Most of the people on this retreat have at least one book out. Some have many. One morning the topic veered to money. Specifically: How Do You Make a Living Writing Books When the Reality Is That It's Nearly Impossible To Make a Living Writing Books?

The answer? You do what you can. Teach (like the writers who were facilitating the novel writing workshop). Critique manuscripts. Write in other genres (a popular moneymaking venture, apparently, is writing erotica under a pen name).

Most of the writers have non-writing jobs.

When I wasn't chatting or trekking through bear country or eating, I was writing. The Barn has a loft--a place I'd discovered the last time I was there--and I claimed it for myself again, spreading out my papers and laptop and Twizzlers and tapping away during the afternoons.

My big goal was to input a first draft into a new Scrivener document, but I wasn't quite sure how to set that up and in a moment of pure serendipity, I discovered that one of the other writers teaches classes on using Scrivener, and she got me all squared away. So, HA!

That alone was worth the price of admission.

That and the bacon. And the never-seen-by-me bear.

I am thinking that bear may have been made up. It was a writer, after all, who claimed to have seen it.

portrait of a writer on retreat

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sucking the Marrow Out of Life. Sorta.

Last week I rode a bike for the first time in twelve years. My husband had been trying to talk me into it for a while but I was kinda meh about it.
Sample Convo:

Husband: I'm thinking about fixing up the bikes.

Me: Why?

Husband: So we can ride them.

Me: Why?

Then I went back to reading or writing or sweating it out in the garden-- my usual activities--and my husband drifted away, and unbeknownst to me, began fixing up the bikes. 

His plan was to cart the bikes--and the two of us-- down to the river at the edge of our town and try out the bike trail that winds along the shore. He was hefting the bikes into the back of our truck when he told me this plan. 

I thought it might be a good idea if I got onto one of the bikes first and maybe, um, see if I remembered how to actually ride. I felt like a doofball climbing on. Pedaling. Clutching the handle bars. I rode up the street and back, tentatively, and a little wobbily at first, but then a little faster. I came to the end of the street and wondered if I could handle the turn. 

Yes! I could. 

I could handle the car coming at me too. And the slight hill of the driveway. 

Apparently, the saying: "You never forget how to ride a bike" is true.

Still, I felt a little anxious biking along the river trail. There were actual legit-looking bike-riders down there. Also, joggers and speedwalkers. People fishing. Boaters... 

Huh. Who knew so many people hung out by that river?

The hills were more hilly than I'd realized. It was blindingly sunny by the water. My bike is low tech with only one speed so I wasn't prepared for how much serious leg-pumping I'd have to do. Also, my wrists hurt from gripping the handle bars. At one point I came up alongside a jogger and found too late that I should've been pushing myself harder. I was never going to make it past her up the hill. I burst out laughing as we--the jogger, and me, the jittery novice biker-- moved along for a while at the same speed. 

Downhill was better. I know I should've been wearing a helmet, but I loved the feeling of the wind whooshing through my hair and against my sweaty face. 

By then I was feeling comfortable enough that I could take in the sights. The college crew team skimming by. Water spilling off a dam. 

I had weird random thoughts. Ideas for potential stories. The realization that both of my kids are now away at school. The thudding sense of time ticking ticking ticking. This is IT. My husband and me from now on. Just the two of us. Would we settle into a quiet (boring?) groove, all of our adventures behind us? OR could this biking thing be the first chapter of a new adventure? 

Because I am a nerdy former English teacher I started thinking about Henry David Thoreau and how he jolted himself out of his routine by moving into the woods. Maybe you remember him, the guy who built a small cabin near a pond and wrote a book called Walden. 

Mostly Thoreau recorded his thoughts about the cabin and the beans he was growing in his garden and the ants skittering up and down a tree. But he also wrote about how it's a good idea every now and then to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Throw yourself off your normal track. Live your life deliberately. 

Thoreau lived his life deliberately in his cabin for two years and two months until one morning when he woke up and saw that he'd worn a path from his door to the pond. He'd done it again. Fallen into another groove. Which meant it was time for him to pack up and leave.

Go suck the marrow out of life someplace else. 

My husband and I biked for only four miles, but my legs were shaky when I climbed off the bike. We drove home and I went back to reading and writing and sweating it out in the garden.

Next week we are selling our house, giving away all of our possessions, and moving into a remote forest to build our own small cabin. 

Ha ha. I'm just joking with you. 

But we are thinking about possibly renting a canoe.  


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Interview with Natasha Sinel, Author of THE FIX

I'm thrilled to have snagged an interview with fellow YA Outside the Lines writer Natasha Sinel--this week--as her debut novel The Fix debuts. The official release date is Sept. 1, but the book is already making quite a splash.

Here's a snippet of the glowing Kirkus review:

"A friendship with a troubled classmate helps Macy confront the childhood sexual trauma she's kept secret for years. . . A powerful story of healing."

And from award-winning novelist Carrie Mesrobian: "A bewitching, beautiful, and brave debut. Readers will marvel at Macy's resilience. Natasha Sinel's writing devastates and uplifts, by turns. An important story of one girl's journey to rewrite the blueprint of her own life by facing the truth inside herself."

This book sounds like a must-read and I can't wait to dig into it.

Jody: Quick, I've got to ask you before you tire of being asked this question five million times: Where do you get your ideas?

Natasha: Who knows? I start with a germ of an idea—e.g., a girl has a conversation with a guy at a party and it shakes up her world, but the next day he’s in a psych institute—what happens next? I usually start by knowing my characters’ voices pretty well and then sometimes I have to figure out why they are the way they are. Like, why is Macy so tough? What happened to her? Why does she hate her mother?

Jody: Hmm. Why does she hate her mother? But you're right, of course. It's often those questions that plague us, the ones we keep coming back to, that spur us on to writing a story. Once you've got one of those questions--or several--plaguing you, what's your next step? Are you a make-stuff-up-as-you-go type of writer or an outline ahead/planning person?

Natasha: I hyperventilate when I hear the word outline. But I think that’s because I picture those structured outlines we used in high school--

Jody: OMG I hated those too. Roman numerals. All of that indenting. *shudder*  Does anyone actually outline like that?

Natasha: I know, right? I tend to use a very loose road map, so I basically know where I’m going but not necessarily how I’ll get there. So I guess it’s both—some planning and lots of making stuff up along the way.

Jody: I like that method. It's pretty close to what I do myself these days. But then, I've had years and years to work out my process. How about you? Have you been at this a long time? Or, heck, I'm just going to come right out and be nosy: how many books did you write before you got your first book deal?

Natasha: My first manuscript got representation after only about eight queries, so I was feeling pretty confident when we finally went on submission after about a thousand revisions! But that book wasn’t acquired, and I wrote another, The Fix.

Jody: That's not a bad track record. One book. (FYI to readers who are trying to keep score at home-- the average is, apparently, 3.5) (Actually, I just made that up. I have no idea what the average is, but that sounds about right and it makes me feel better about my own 5-unpublished-book track record.) (Back to the interview)

What kind of work schedule do you have every day, Natasha?

Natasha: I’m not totally consistent with that, but my “ideal” schedule is to exercise after the kids get on the bus--

Jody: Can I stop you there to say that I love that you have an ideal. Also, I will kindly not ask you how many times you reach that ideal...

Natasha: Thanks! So, after, um, exercising, I draft or edit (whichever stage I’m in). If I’m drafting, I set a timer for 30-45 minutes and try to get as many words as I can. If I’m on a roll, I’ll set the timer again. If I’m editing, I usually work for a couple of hours. Then I’ll work on the more business-type stuff like blog posts, interviews, etc. And of course, sprinkled into all of that is life management stuff like paying bills, dealing with kids’ schedules, grocery shopping, etc. I usually skip TV and read before bed.

Jody: Ah, yes. All of the stuff that is so hard to balance with the writing life.

Natasha: That's the truth. I’m not sure I’m doing the best job at balancing right now. Some days, particularly when I’m on deadline for copy edits or something, dishes stay in the sink and beds unmade all day. Sometimes, I say hi to my kids when they come home from school and then disappear into my office for the rest of the night (thankfully, I have an amazing babysitter who helps with homework!).

Jody: And we haven't even touched on promotion and social media. How does that fit in?

Natasha: Well, I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and I write for a few group blogs. I know it sounds crazy, but I really have made friends that way.

Jody: That doesn't sound crazy. How else are we going to meet other writers and book lovers?

Natasha: I know. Twitter in particular, I love, because everyone I follow talks about books and publishing and diversity and all of the things I’m most interested in. For me, these places are actually social, and not places to promote my book. I do tweet and post news about The Fix—I want people to be aware of it—but I limit the amount of talk about my book. I don’t want to be obnoxious. One thing I’m excited about that I will promote, is partnering with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to fund-raise for survivors of sexual abuse. I have a page set up here:

Jody: I've heard of RAINN. It's an amazing organization. (RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. It operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE and in partnership with more than 1,100 local sexual assault service providers across the country.

What are you working on now?

Natasha: I’m really excited about the manuscript I’m working on. It’s a YA contemporary with a touch of the magical (is that how you’d describe Thin Space too?).

Jody: I always say reality-based fantasy--but I think I like your description better.

Natasha: My book is set during the off-season on Cape Cod, one of my favorite places in the world. There are quirky characters and complex relationships—the mother-daughter, the friend to more-than-friend, the soul mate who disappeared. Oh, and there’s also lightning.

Jody: You've totally got my attention!
Natasha, thank you so much for chatting with me today. And readers, if you'd like to know more about Natasha and how you can purchase a copy of The Fix, see below: 


Natasha Sinel lives in Northern Westchester, NY with her husband, three young sons and some fresh-water fish. She would like to have a dog and a cat, but she knows her limits, and can’t take care of another living thing. For now.


Buy The Fix at Barnes & Noble 
at your local indie
on Amazon