Saturday, December 28, 2013

Writing Resolutions for 2014

2013 proved to be a good, momentous year for this writer. A contract for the debut novel (YAY!!!), a second finished manuscript, a nearly finished manuscript for a prequel to the debut novel, and another YA novel mapped out and ready to start writing. And I’m getting better about identifying myself as a writer. But, as always, there is much more to accomplish in the new year, and so I have created my Writing New Year’s Resolutions for 2014. I'm sure some of it will look quite familiar to you.

  • Prepare the recently finished YA novel for submission: revise the query letter, write the synopsis, identify the publishers and/or agents to whom I will send the novel. Send it.
  • Pour my heart and soul into the next round of edits on the contracted book. Make it the absolute best it can be.
  • Set up promotions for the release of the novel. These may include blog tours, contests, launch party, etc.
  • Have my author website up and running before the book is released. The sooner the better.
  • Finish the prequel for the debut book. As I want to self-publish this book to allow it to be released close to the release date of the contracted book, I need to: have it professionally edited, contract a cover designer to create the cover, learn all the ins and outs of getting it out into the world and take those steps.
  • Set up the promotions for the prequel.
  • (I’m getting very tired just thinking about this list so far!)
  • Start the new YA novel. This is the book of my heart, the one I have thought of off and on for 15 years. As such, it terrifies me to start writing it. The fear of screwing up is massive. I will take the plunge! I will write it. Or at least a good portion of it.
  • Attend to all of the important things that support my writing: time management, exercise, relationships, reading. This list could go on and on, but right now these are the golden four.
As I read through my resolutions, it feels daunting. I’m sure that many of the items on my list are similar to the ones on your own list. However, I know we can do it. We just need to keep in mind all we accomplished in the past year and be resolute in our endeavors to tick off each of those boxes. 2014 will be a productive, rewarding year!

Happy New Year, and Happy Writing in 2014!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Coming Out of the [Writer's] Closet

During the many years of my teaching career, I was never free to attend the Christmas Coffee a dear friend always puts on each December. I was busy teaching. She never failed to send the invitation, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to join her and our mutual friends and acquaintances, but always wanting to make sure I felt welcome—not forgotten. This year, having left full-time teaching behind, I was able to attend. And of course this meant seeing people, many of whom I’d lost track of, for the first time in many years.

After the obligatory, “So, how are your kids?” the next question invariably is, “What are you doing these days?” My answer varied, depending on the person doing the asking. For two or three old friends the answer included my new venture—my writing. But I did NOT handle it the way I wish I had, nor how I know I SHOULD have.

I’m still acting apologetic, self-deprecating, and unwilling to own my passion for writing. One, typical revelation went as follows: “Oh, I’m pretending to be a writer. I sit at a computer, type in words, and hope they will arrange themselves into a compelling story.” REALLY, MONICA?? I actually heard myself say Really, Monica as I was giving my flippant answer. Is that the best you can do?

I have read and heard proclaimed time and time again, that I must own what I do. As I heard at the Willamette Writers conference, when you say, “I am a writer, (or author, or novelist)” you make it true. It becomes real—it becomes the truth. I have been writing steadily for over two years now, I have a contract for my first novel; I am past the point of someone thinking I might be a dilettante. I should have no fear telling the world, truthfully, what I do. Nor should you. Say it. Own it. You are a writer.

I am Monica. I am a writer. More specifically, I am a novelist.

Happy Writing.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Love/Hate Relationship With Technology

As I’ve been sitting here going through the delightful tutorial for Scrivener, (delightful because they keep telling me to take a break for tea), I find myself reflecting on a journey I’ve been on since I decided to finally begin writing. No, not the actual writing journey, with the craft learning curve, and the submitting learning curve, and the editing learning curve, et al, but a closely linked journey. My TECHNOLOGY JOURNEY. The journey that had me so frustrated at one point last week that I tweeted about my love/hate relationship with technology.

When I started writing in earnest, putting fingertips to keyboard, I was blissfully ignorant of all the technology I was going to have to learn to use. Lots. Of. Technology. Even as I type those words I can hear several people I know laughing loudly, with the loudest laugh coming from all the way across the country—my friend and I.T. savior. I’m not exactly a technology savant, to put it nicely. But when I decided to have a second career as a writer, I had to get smart—okay, not smart, but at least capable—fast.

Over the past two years I’ve had to learn to: set up a blog and keep it going, Tweet and exist in the Twittersphere, do my edits using Track Changes, move from the old PC to a MacBook, and figure out innumerable little fiddly problems with MS Word. This short list is just a sampling. The list could go on and on. Now I’m facing getting a true website/landing page set up, and because I guess I needed a new challenge I’m also learning how to use Scrivener.

So it came as a nice surprise when I recently met a writer who proclaimed she ‘hates technology.’ I quickly came to understand that she hates it enough that she does her first draft writing in longhand, rarely emails, and has a true aversion to social media. Love her!! But here’s the kicker: she’s young enough, that unlike me, she grew up with technology.

I’ve been assuming all along that everyone under the age of thirty-five is born with a tech gene, or a chip embedded in their brain, and that it all came naturally. I’m sure it does come naturally to this writer, but for whatever reason she has more or less turned her back on technology—for now. I say ‘for now’ because she will soon find out that she has almost no choice but to build that platform, a platform designed and constructed in the ether.

I’m sure I’ll continue to bitch and complain and wail about my love/hate relationship with technology. But the truth is, I cannot imagine doing this job without it. Literally having the world at my fingertips and the ability to manipulate written words with ease are things I could never give up at this point. I’m too spoiled. And aren’t we all? 

Happy Writing--Be it on a computer, pad of lined paper, papyrus, or stone tablet.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Working Through The Self Doubt

I was chatting with a writer friend of mine recently, and was sharing that as I have been going through what is hopefully a last rewrite of a manuscript, I’ve been at turns thinking to myself, HACK, BRILLIANT, HACK, HACK, BRILLIANT, HACK, HACK, HACK. As in, whom am I fooling?

I’m still pretty new to this writing thing. Yes, the title of this blog indicates that the writer is a FLEDGLING WRITER. It has been suggested that since I have a contract for a book coming out in the spring the word “fledgling” no longer applies. Au contraire. This hack, brilliant, hack, hack episode just proves my point that I am still a fledgling.  At least I think it does. Maybe.

As someone who is still learning the craft, I have my moments of self-doubt. Plenty of moments of self-doubt. Hence the whole hack, brilliant thing. But, do the more seasoned writers suffer from this affliction too? I’ve read that they do, but I cannot help but believe that it isn’t the kind of panicky, self-flagellation-inducing, uncertainty that those of us less seasoned writers tend to experience. 

Always one to look for the learning experience, I’ve asked myself “Monica, what can you learn from this?” I came up with the following:

  • Though you are still learning the writing craft, you have learned enough to recognize writing that needs work.

  • When you come to a scene or page or paragraph you think is brilliant, take a moment and celebrate. Then look at it again and see what you can do to make it even more brilliant.

  • Don’t forget that every writer, in fact every artist of any kind, has her/his moments of doubt. You aren’t special.

  • Remember when you were in high school drama and you learned that the best acting happens only after experiencing stage fright. Over confidence on the stage often leads to poor acting. Now apply that to writing. 

So I continue to learn and grow as a writer. I’m currently working on a prequel to the novel that comes out in the spring. Though I’m happy with the writing in the to-be-published book, I’m much happier with the writing in the new work. And I’m getting happier with the manuscript mentioned at the beginning of this post. Learning…still learning.

Happy writing!!!

Monday, October 7, 2013

On Meeting My Literary Idol

Two years ago this month I attended my first ever Wordstock convention. For those of you outside of the Portland area, it is a reading and writing extravaganza with scores of wonderful authors speaking and/or reading, and loads of great writing workshops to choose from. For me, that first Wordstock experience was especially momentous because that was where I discovered the multi-talented YA author/musician/composer/artist/race car driver/goat keeper, Maggie Stiefvater. If you haven’t read my post on my absolute adoration of Maggie you may want to read it/skim it/glance over it before reading further. (click here) Her talent simply blows me away.

Fast forward two years—Maggie is back at Wordstock, as a part of her book tour for her latest book, THE DREAM THIEVES. This year I took a family friend/former student, 13 year old G. (We’ll just call her G. here.) I couldn’t wait for her to hear the always humorous and delightful Maggie. I bought her a copy of SHIVER, which was where I began my reading of all things Stiefvater. We had time to attend several other presentations, because Maggie’s panel was the last one of the day. As the time approached G. and I switched roles: I became the 13 year old fangirl who was spazzing out, and she became the poised, responsible adult. About an hour before The Maggie Hour, we happened to see her walking around the convention and I just about lost it. G., however was a little surprised by the object of my adoration. G. knows me as the ever proper teacher, and when she saw Maggie in her usual high-top Doc Martens, ripped jeans, and short black leather jacket, she gave me a LOOK. It said, “Really, Mrs. K., YOU are crazy about an author who looks kind of edgy?” YES, G. I AM!!

The time finally arrived for the panel. Maggie worked her usual magic, and G. was entranced. Then Maggie told the story that is the reason I’m writing this blog post. She told about the time about a year ago or so, when she met her literary idol, Susan Cooper. Maggie had adored her since forever and the idea of meeting her idol made her a little crazy. She envisioned how it was going to work: she’d put out her hand and give Ms. Cooper a warm handshake, and proceed to tell her what an influence she’d been on her. The moment arrived—she was standing before her idol. But her hand didn’t reach out to give Susan Cooper that warm handshake—no she froze. Maggie’s hands were in fists, up by her chest and she was just GAH!! She ended the story there, but I’m quite sure the rest of the exchange went very well. She is Maggie Stiefvater, after all.

Twenty minutes later I had my own Susan Cooper moment when I got to meet Maggie. God bless G., she decided she had to get her new book signed, so she rushed to the line for Maggie. We waited patiently, while I began to feel increasingly ill at the prospect of actually speaking to my idol. It was our turn! And it was perfect. G. and Maggie and I chatted and laughed—I got to ask a question I’ve been dying to know the answer to—and Maggie was as warm and delightful as could be. I didn’t freeze up. I didn’t faint. I just had a fantastic, memorable moment with my literary idol. Thank you G for making sure that happened!!

Epilogue: It was quite the day for meeting authors you adore. Earlier in the day G. and I saw another favorite YA author of mine, Portlander Laini Taylor, walking through the exhibits. After politely asking if having hordes of people approach her disturbs her we had a lovely conversation during which I calmly and articulately told her how much I admire her work. She was adorable and very gracious.

A fabulous, memorable day at Wordstock. Thank you Maggie and Laini! And G.!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Letting Family and Friends Read Those Sex Scenes

Last year, in this space, an interesting discussion took place on the topic of writing sex scenes. (Fifty Shades of Red) It evolved out of an earlier discussion on the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Many readers agreed that we might be fifty shades of GREEN with envy at the success the author is enjoying, but we would be fifty shades of RED at the thought of our mothers, or sisters, etc. reading explicit sex scenes we might write. I had to admit I was on the side of embarrassment at the thought of one of my sisters reading anything sexually explicit that I had written.

Fast forward a year. Confession and full disclosure time. I wrote a book. It is the book formally known on this blog as ‘the practice novel.’ As a fledgling writer I had no illusions of it ever being published, so the fact that it contained some sex scenes didn’t worry me. But it is being published. (THE VAMPIRE’S PASSION, Soul Mate Publishing, Spring 2014) Of course I’m thrilled. Very thrilled. Of course all my friends and family want to read it. All of it. Even the sex scenes.

My oldest sister, Nancy, didn’t want to wait until it came out—she wanted to read it now. So, with the caveat that it hadn’t been professionally edited, I sent her a PDF copy. Now, Nancy holds a very special place in my heart and in my life, because she has dual roles: sister and godmother—she’s eighteen years older than me. When our mother passed away thirteen years ago Nancy also filled the space of ‘mother’ in many ways. So handing my manuscript over to her was like handing it to my mom, AND my sister.

What was she going to think? At first, all I was worried about was what she’d think of the book, my writing. Nancy is the perfect ‘beta family reader’ because, while she’ll be kind, she will also give it to you straight. I kind of forgot about the sex scenes when I hit the send button. As she lives 1,000 miles away we rarely get to see one another, but recently we were together and she had just finished the book. She gave me one of THOSE looks and said, “We need to talk about your book. Later. Not right now.” (There were a lot of other family members around at the time.) Oh my god—what was she going to say? About the book? About the sex? Yikes!

She was impressed! Not her genre, but thought it was good. She even told our cousin, who does read this genre, that she would LOVE it, and needs to read it! Yes, she was surprised that her ‘little’ sister had written about ‘such’ things, but she conceded that the sex scenes weren’t as graphic as some that are being written these days. Phew! All in all, an excellent outcome.

And a big step for the fledgling writer. I’m ready to let people who aren’t total strangers read my book, including the sex scenes. Well, most people. There may be two or three still on the Don’t Get to Read It list. But, maybe someday…

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Musing On Parenting Part II

When I posted my 'little rant' regarding my concern about the disappearance of imagination in today's children, it prompted many discussions both here and with friends and family. Today I'm posting the second half of my guest blogger's thoughts on parenting today. If you missed the first half please scroll down and catch up on Bridget's and her husband's common sense approach to parenting. I must tell you, I taught all of their children, and their parenting is producing wonderful young people who also happen to have imaginations. Today's post is all about the Family Rules. For more of Bridget's amusing anecdotes on family life you may visit her blog at:

Part II:
We made up the rules as we went along:

One sport a season once they were of age to play team sports.  We decided not to do year-round anything, both for our sanity and the kids.  They don’t know what they want and why do we, the adults, torture ourselves arguing and cajoling them to go to practice and play when they are tired, cranky and hungry?  They spend the whole day keeping it together at school and just when they are primed and ready for a colossal melt down between 4:30 and 6:00 we want them to go out and give their best effort at a sport.  Really?  How many of us are anxious to go out and run a 5 or 10K after 8 to 10 hours at work?  Any volunteers?

If you forget your lunch, you will be good and hungry for dinner.  The kids are mostly all right with this one.  It is a pretty direct cause and effect situation.  It is the adults at school that have a problem.  No one in this family is going to starve to death because they forgot their lunch. (They started making them for themselves in kindergarten, by the way.) I have had to have a serious discussion with our lunchroom people every year regarding this family rule.  The kids only forget once though.

If you forget your backpack at home with all your homework you have worked so hard on you will be handing it in late the next day.  After I drop you off at school, I have a full schedule and things to do to keep this house and family running smoothly and running back and forth bringing you things you have forgotten is not on the list any day.  Everyone gets one save a school year.  They choose wisely now.

If you are being taken to school and picked up from school by me, as well as every other activity you’re involved in, you do not need a phone of your own.  When you are in a situation where you will be arranging for your own transportation, taking a bus, or walking/riding your bike home you will have a phone to notify me when you’re leaving and when you get home if I am not there.

If you misplace, lose or forget your phone, you will have to purchase the next one.  When you get a phone, we have a contract that you will sign and abide by.  These are all leading up to the situations and consequences of the independent adult world.  We are allowing them to make these errors now when there is still some sort of safety net, but the gravity of the situation is not completely lost.

Electronic devices are fun and cool and a luxury item.  We have Amish days at our house.  Sometimes these come about as a punishment for misuse/overuse of electronic devices; sometimes they are scheduled so we can all remember what else we can do with our brains.  As you may have guessed Amish days are pretty simple.  The only electrical things that you can use are lights, stove, oven, toaster, dishwasher, curling iron, washing machine, dryer, vacuum and the land line in the kitchen.  All other electrical or battery operated devices will not be used.  They will be secured in Mom and Dad’s room.

Although there is always much grumbling on Amish days—sometimes from the kids’ friends who have to actually CALL and TALK to them on a land line- oh the horror—by the end of the day they have read, played board games, cleaned their rooms, walked the dog, gone for a bike ride, played at the park, and gotten along together.  During the long school breaks we plan one or two Amish days per week, just to keep everyone pleasant.  It does work.

We don’t take the kids out of school for vacations.  We take our trips when school is out.  That is your opportunity.  Not the week before, not during the middle of the year because that is the off-season at Disneyland.  This never made us real popular with our kids, but oh-well…

You get one all class birthday party.  These were usually bowling or one of those inflatable jumping places, where the money hungry teenager that works there corrals the children for you.  This occurs in kindergarten because you are going to be moving through the K-8 school together for the next 8 years.  It’s good to get to know people.  After that, birthdays are a one to three friend situation, and sometimes it’s just family.

We have made it very clear to all of our kids that school is their job. All other activities are extra and subject to cancellation at the discretion of their parents.  We also say that once you are on a team you are committed for the duration of that season.  It can be a fine line to instill the responsibility of being on a team, but also the impermanence of extracurriculars.  They are earned at our house and not to be expected.  We had our oldest boy call his basketball coach in 4th grade to let him know he would not be able to play in the tournament because he had gotten a C in some subject.  He did wear nice clothes and sat on the bench to support his team though.  It was a hard lesson, but I’d rather he learn it at the age of 9 than 19.

We received some praise for that consequence, but I know others thought it was harsh.  Again –Oh, well…  You may be noticing a theme here.  We repeatedly tell the kids, and have since they were 5 or so, we are trying to raise you to be kind, happy productive members of society.  We are not your friends. We are your parents.  It is our job to embarrass you, call attention to inappropriate behaviors, and remind you, sometimes repeatedly that you have chores/homework/responsibilities of all sorts.  We hope to be friends one day when you are independent adults with college educations, jobs and your own places to live.  Until then it doesn’t really matter if you think we are fair, or things don’t make sense or you think we are in the wrong.  It is not up for discussion.

If the kids sincerely think they have been misjudged or maligned in some way, they can come to us with facts and evidence to plead their case.  This supporting evidence may not include, ‘It’s not fair,’ ‘I didn’t do anything,’ ‘He/She started it!’ ‘I don’t know what happened,’ or ‘That just doesn’t make sense.’ To reiterate, we are the parents.  If these are the only things you can come up with you probably should just keep it to yourself.  When the young politicians have brought appropriate extenuating circumstances there have been reversal of judgments.  The moral of this situation is, if it’s worth fighting for you better bring your A game.  I believe this is a lifelong lesson and skill to be learned.

The fact of the matter is you are not alone out there, and almost everyone else has had some version of the experiences you are having.  All of these interactions with your kids, and all the advice you receive solicited or not are points on a spectrum. You are creating an environment that you want to live in with these individuals you have brought into the world.  It does not matter what anyone who is not a member of your family, meaning they do not live under your roof, has to say.  If they don’t live in the house, they don’t get a vote.  Hold tight to your convictions, and be sure of yourself.  We all have the power, the knowledge and the skill to raise people we will enjoy spending time with someday.

Thank you Bridget!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Musing On Parenting

My recent post on the disappearance of imagination in today’s children and the concern it gives me as an educator led to many interesting conversations both online and with friends and family. One conversation with a good friend whose parenting skills I admire led me to ask her to write a guest post on the joys and frustrations of parenthood in today’s demanding world. Always the trooper Bridget said ‘yes’ and today’s post is the first of two parts from her. The second half will run in a few days. Bridget writes about family life on her blog “Family Truths: you just can’t make this stuff up…”

Bridget always tells it how it is, and I’ve never gotten together with her when tears of laughter didn’t flow at some point.

Here is the first half of Bridget’s wisdom:

My husband and I both grew up in working middle class families.  We were always fed and clothed.  We went to school, church, the dentist, the doctor, and the eye doctor.  We sat in the car without the benefit of electronics when we ran errands with our parents. Sometimes we had a book to read, but mostly we sat and waited. We played sports, rode bikes, had roller skates, skate boards and BB guns.  We always had skinned knees, elbows, and palms. We were outside all day long in the summer and after school until dinner during the rest of the year.  There were no designer clothes or name brand shoes.  There wasn’t money for that.  My mom made a lot of my clothes.  We did not miss school unless we were sick.  There were no family vacations to Hawaii, Mexico or Disneyland.  We did drive, to visit family around the holidays, anywhere from 3 to 12 hours depending on whom we went to see.  If you have not experienced the 12-hour family trip in a car or station wagon you have not truly lived.  Birthdays were spent as a family.  There was no trampoline jumping, pizza eating, out of control birthday extravaganzas. Maybe there was a sleep over in the middle to high school years. 

I know it’s different now.  I’m not saying stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s 1975, but there are things you can do to live simply and maybe raise kids so that they grow up to have patience, imagination and kind hearts.

Parenting is a very nebulous endeavor.  It’s like The Coyote grasping at those few spindly weeds as he’s falling from the crumbling cliff.  I once found a pin at one of those funky little book stores that said, ‘raising children is like being pecked to death by chickens.’  I think maybe you’ll be getting the idea now that there is no rule book, no instruction manual, no operating instructions, they just let you strap those little creatures into their car seats and send you on your way.  All the while you are wondering, ‘Oh my gosh! What have we done?!’

And so it begins from the moment you bring them home to start your new little family.  There are billions of choices to be made everyday all day long and where ever you are getting your information from you have to make the best decision for you and this new family you have built.  Cloth or disposable? Breast or bottle or maybe both? Family bed or not.  When do you start solids? Should they have shoes?  Do they need a hat?  When to toilet train? TV? Computers? Do you need to have a schedule? Daycare or nanny?  Should I go back to work? When? No wonder new parents are sleep deprived, and confused wandering around like zombies.  Not only are they trying to figure out what this tiny person wants and needs, they are making a million decisions a minute and hoping that the next one does not irreversibly scar the child or become the subject of years of future therapy.

Fast forward one to three years. Not only are you approaching the whole preschool, sports, extra curricular activities dilemma, but you may have talked yourself into one or two more of these tiny, messy, germ ridden house mates.

I’d like to repeat that you are trying to make the best decisions for you and your family.  This is really where the hard part begins.  As they are growing you continue to get more and more input about what you are doing and how.  It’s not just books, blogs, playgroups and websites anymore.  It’s in the locker room at the pool for Mommy and me swimming, in the cry room at church, waiting in line at the grocery store.  Anyone who has had kids or currently has kids feels more than free to tell you exactly what they think you should do in any given situation.

I try to restrain myself when I get the urge to give advice to strangers unless they look completely desperate. Like when the 2 year old is having a screaming fit in the middle of Target or someone is trying to shop with 3 kids in tow.  These people need some encouragement.  I usually tell them it will only be a short time and they too will be able to shop alone.  Sometimes I see them take a deep breath and forge on, slightly fortified for the next round.  Occasionally I just say, ‘Stay strong, you’re doing a good job.’

When our first child started school it was game on.  All of a sudden our small still evolving family was assailed from all sides.  Will he play soccer, - it seemed like everyone did.  T-ball?  Flag football? Basketball? Lacrosse? Swimming lessons? I was big on the swimming lessons, more from a safety point of view than a sports point of view.  We tried to keep it simple. Swimming lessons twice a year, maybe a 6-week class at the rec center here or there.  None of my kids expressed any particular interest in any one sport. Thank goodness for me because I didn’t relish driving all over creation during the little free time I had to watch a bunch of 6 year olds running around like a pack of sheep dogs after the ball. (This analogy applies to all sports until around the age of 9.)

That was just the tip of the iceberg.  How do you survive as parents in the world today with all the STUFF you’re expected to do? But expected by whom?  That’s really the crux of the matter isn’t it? Why do we feel pressured by others to push and push and go and go driving around children with mountains of equipment and clothing that they will need for every activity under the sun?  Here’s were the fun begins.

We made up the rules as we went along.    

The second half of Bridget's wisdom will be posted in a few days. Thank you Bridget!!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Top Twelve Lessons I Learned at the Willamette Writers Conference

Inspiring. Educational. Challenging. These are the words I keep using when I tell friends about last weekend’s Willamette Writers Conference held here in Portland.

As a child might look forward to a trip to Disneyland, so I spent weeks looking forward to the conference. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an E-ticket ride. Over the course of the three days I attended eleven workshops that were taught by talented authors from all genres. I’ll confess I was occasionally a little star struck. Though most attendees were also pitching to editors and agents I didn’t feel ready for that quite yet. This was my first WW conference, and I wanted to get the lie of land this time, and soak up as much as possible at the workshops.

I’ve put together a list of a dozen things I either learned or had reiterated at the conference. I say reiterated because sometimes we need to hear things several times, in several different ways before it truly sinks in and becomes a permanent part of our writer’s toolbox. At least it’s that way for me! [Of the eleven workshops I attended, five were on YA writing, so several of the lessons learned are specific to that age group. Bracketed names are the presenters.]

1.     Your reader must vicariously experience what your characters are experiencing. They have to be in the story—feeling everything the characters are feeling. (This is especially true for YA.) Use sensory detail to bring the reader into the scene—the brain won’t know it isn’t really living it.  And for your reader to be in the body of the character first you, the writer, must experience it. The writer must be in that moment in time, right along with the character. [Jennifer Lauck and Pamela Smith Hill]

2.     A great story isn’t just about something—a great story is about something HAPPENING. [Larry Brooks]

3.     Your Big Dramatic Question must be COMPELLING and the reader’s need for the answer IRRESISTIBLE. Think: will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? [Larry Brooks]

4.     YA should be stripped down to the essentials: emotion and action. Also, you should be aiming to write like Hemingway, not Faulkner. [Christine Fletcher]

5.     In YA make sure your characters are acting like teens, NOT miniature adults. They should feel passionately about how things affect them. Teens feel passionately. [Christine Fletcher]

6.     Torture your character. Conflict conflict conflict. Raise the stakes. Make sure there’s tension on every page. Throw obstacles at your character…constantly. Throw your characters to the wolves! [Everyone, every workshop]

7.     YA shouldn’t contain heavy-handed messages, no Afternoon Special messages. Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  Remember you are telling a story, not indoctrinating. [Christine Fletcher]

8.     When writing dialogue, keep in mind that people rarely say what they are exactly thinking. We tend to talk around the topic—YA author Bill Konigsberg calls this Off Topic dialogue and using it in your writing can make it more realistic, reveal character, and keep the dialogue interesting for the reader. [Bill Konigsberg]

9.     Show Show Show Show. Don’t tell, or if you MUST do so sparingly. [Everyone-every workshop]

10.  Having trouble getting to know your YA character? (or any character, for that matter) Try this tip: Have the character send an email to a friend of yours telling your friend about themself. As the email is written, a lot of character can be revealed. [Bill Konigsberg]

11.  When writing YA first person, every word must come from the character, there is no room for the author! Stay true to the character’s voice. [Bill Konigsberg and Christine Fletcher]

12.  If you aspire to be an author, but don’t yet feel like you are an author try this manifestation trick from film maker Gordy Hoffman: When someone you are meeting for the first time asks you what you do, don’t hem and hah, just say “I am an author.” It will make it true. He did this, though he was telling people he was a screenwriter and director—before he was either of these things—and it became true. He believed it—it became true.

These are just 12 quick take-aways, from the pages and pages of notes I took. I hope you found one or two salient points that you can add to your writer’s toolbox.

Thank you to all the talented people who made the Willamette Writers Conference a wonderful experience!

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

J.K. Rowling: Father of Two and Unknown Author Who Receives Rejection Letters

The recent news of J.K. Rowling’s clever little deception with her latest book has readers and writers everywhere all abuzz. Her new book, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, a mystery, was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith to allow her to “publish without hype or expectation” as she told the Sunday Times of London. Rowling’s hope was to get truthful feedback on her novel, without her famous name swaying the reactions of reviewers and readers.

Even written by Robert Galbraith, unknown debut author, the book garnered excellent reviews and critics praised it. For a debut author ‘Mr. Galbraith’ should have been thrilled to be published by an imprint of one of the Big Six publishers, especially after being rejected by at least one other publisher. Yes, Ms. Rowling jumped through all the hoops. She WAS Robert Galbraith, former member of the Royal Military Police and married father of two sons, and unknown writer who gets rejection letters.

And yet all that changed for Mr. Galbraith on Saturday afternoon, July 13th. As a debut author, unknown but the recipient of the kind of reviews all first-time authors dream about, as well as those coveted five-star ratings on Amazon, Mr. Galbraith’s book had only sold 1,500 copies since its publication on April 30, 2013. Now, I would be thrilled to sell 1,500 copies of my debut novel! But, I’m not Robert Galbraith, and I’m sure not J.K. Rowling. Despite all the pieces of the puzzle being in place for him, Robert Galbraith was still unknown, and his book wasn’t topping any charts. Once the truth came out ‘his’ book sped up the best sellers lists and was number one on Amazon by the end of the day, at least here on the west coast of the U.S. In fact, I ordered it a mere two hours after the story broke, and was told I wouldn’t be getting it delivered until August…backordered.

Discoverability. We hear that word all the time as we learn how to promote our debut novels, or even second or third books. Robert Galbraith’s little mystery was chugging along nicely, but he wasn’t exactly a household name. He certainly had not been discovered. In time, he might have been, but the odds were against it. The odds are against any of us getting discovered, of being the author of that next big breakout book. This was the truth that hit me as I read about Rowling’s well-intentioned ruse. I found myself feeling sad for the fictional former member of the Royal Military Police.

So why do we write? Why does the richest woman in Great Britain, the woman who has sold almost as many books as God, continue to write, even going so far as to do so under a pen name? Why do we write when the odds are against any of us becoming the next J.K. Rowling? Because we love to. Because we can’t NOT write. Because to not write would kill us. Yes, we hope people will read what we write. We dream of discovery. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. We will write the books regardless of the outcome. 

I just hope that one day I can be a Robert Galbraith, with wonderful reviews for my book, and sales of 1,500 copies.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Research

It was a short column in a Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal that made me stop saying “Someday” and changed that to “Now.” As in, now I will begin to write. What was this life-altering article? Answer: A Word Craft column by Frederick Forsyth on doing research. I can hear you now, Reader, saying, “Wow! What a sexy topic! No wonder she was swept away.”

Ah, but obviously I was.

Mr. Forsyth’s column had the effect of someone handing me the keys to the kingdom. For years I had so many ideas for novels whirling around in my mind, but one in particular always floated to the top. It was a novel set in the Civil War. But how to write it? I had no idea where to start, or where to take it. But Forsyth’s keys unlocked the door that blocked my way.

I’ll return to that column in a moment.

I write Young Adult paranormal and historical novels, and Adult paranormal and historical romances. I have always loved history so it was a no-brainer that at least some of my writing would be historical. Even my paranormals include a generous dollop of history. So naturally, research is essential to make the stories ring true. Since reading that column I have discovered that each writer has her or his own way of approaching necessary research:

  1. What I call the Forsyth model. In this model the writer does all of the research up front, before a word of the novel is written. PROS: The story can grow organically from the research, going in directions the writer never imagined prior to the research. My little Civil War novel (sadly, sitting forlornly unfinished on this computer—but that’s another story) developed storylines from the research I did. The more I learned about the place and time the richer my storylines became. CONS: Doing research first is a great way to procrastinate and procrastinate, putting off the actual writing. “But I need to know more about the [fill in the blank] before I start writing!”

  1. The Wing-It and Research Later model. Here the writer just starts writing the novel and goes back later to research the information needed to make it authentic. PROS: The book gets started, there is no procrastinating. The writer isn’t bogged down by worrying about how facts might interfere with the storytelling. The writing flows, and the book gets written. CONS: Facts discovered late in the game could come back to undo the story, requiring massive rewrites. Missing some of the minutia of a place or time could mean a less layered, rich novel, assuming it wasn’t something the writer was specifically looking for during the research stage.

  1. The Hybrid model: Do enough front end research to guide the storytelling, but not enough to delay the writing. Then go back after the first draft is complete and fill in the parts that require further research. PROS: The best of models one and two. The writer has a feel for the time and place, adding an authentic voice throughout the writing. Early research can act as a map for the story. During the course of rewrites missing facts and information can be researched and added. If an unexpected storyline appeared during the first draft, the needed research can be done to fill in the blanks. CONS: I’m sorry, I can’t think of any. I’m sure there are some, but as this is the model I’ve come to follow and it works well for me I can’t be objective.

When I first read the Forsyth column I had never thought of research as guiding the story. Never having written a novel, I assumed a writer knew what he/she was going to write before a word was written, did the specific research that would allow that book to be written—no more, no less, and wrote the book. Immersing oneself in the research and feeling the time and place as a part of the writing process never occurred to me. So obvious now, but it wasn’t then.

Final Disclaimer: I’m currently working on a YA novel that takes place in four different historical time periods, all in a European country. I got stuck in Model 1, researching to procrastinate. I was so afraid to start writing the book, I found one thing after another that I “needed” to research before I could begin. I started thinking I had to know EVERYTHING before I could begin. But after hitting myself upside the head I remembered the Hybrid model, and I’ve been happily writing ever since.

How do you handle research?

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Imagination Headed For The Endangered Species List

Today’s post is going to be slightly off topic. Just slightly. But it is also going to be the most important post I’ve ever written. This rant has been forming for a few years now, but it took a little nudge from a column I read this past weekend to get me to finally commit my thoughts to the blogosphere.

Sunday’s New York Times ran a humorous opinion column by Jon Methven on the disappearing art of daydreaming and how we would all be much healthier in body and spirit if we occasionally indulged. As writers, you daydream. I know you do. Writers must daydream or nothing would ever be written. It is where we mine our imaginations and discover new characters and stories.

But, sadly, over the past five years or so I have met many, many people who have no imagination and cannot understand the meaning of imagination, what it is, why it is good, or what a person should do with it. And they rarely daydream, in the way you and I might daydream. These people have all been seven or eight years old. They have been my second grade students. And they are missing that integral piece of humanity and most importantly of childhood: imagination.

In his column Methven points to our plugged-in society, always connected to technology, as one reason for the current dearth of daydreaming. Think about it. When we stand in line at the store we don’t let our minds wander to places unknown, no, we take out our phones and check our email, or text someone, or try to kill little piggies with flying birds. And as sad as that is, with our adult, fully formed brains, it is much more frightening when it is our young children with their still-forming brains.

I know from listening to my students that playing outside is a rare occurrence. Playing a make-believe game more rare. Sitting and staring into space and wondering what is on the other side of the end of the universe? Never. They are too busy playing the latest video games. They are always plugged in. And when they aren’t plugged in they are being shuttled to soccer, dance lessons, scouts, Chinese lessons, karate class, piano lessons, baseball, art class, the list goes on. THEY HAVE NO DOWN TIME!

This lack of imagination started showing up during writing lessons, about five or six years ago. I’ve always prided myself with giving my students exciting, fun writing prompts. For years my students would write and write about the prompt, weaving together wonderful stories they were proud to share. But not today. Now I’m met with a chorus of “I don’t know what to write!” Or worse yet, children who simply sit and stare at the paper, utterly confused by the concept of using their imaginations to create a story.

So, I would sit with individual students and ask questions that I hoped would spark some creativity. I’d ask lots of What If questions. Or Have You Ever questions. But, no. Nothing would work.

While imagination is necessary for the creative arts like writing, it is also necessary for all of the sciences that improve our lives. Scientists of every type help save lives, improve lives, and protect lives by asking What If questions. By using their fertile imaginations. By daydreaming.

For today’s children to grow up and become the people who find the cure for cancer, or end global warming, or discover ways to feed our world’s growing population, or write the Great American Novel they must possess rich imaginations. They must learn to sit and wonder. To think. To play make-believe. And for that to happen the adults in their lives must provide the time to allow thinking, wondering, questioning. The adults must unplug their children and stop overscheduling them.

A few years back I started ending every Back To School Night speech with my talk about avoiding overscheduling children. I had seen plenty of stressed out little children who had a hard time focusing in school, and I simply had to tell the parents what their well-meaning super-scheduling was doing to their children.

But now I see it as reaching crisis level. I fear imagination is becoming endangered by our children’s overuse of technology, eg. video games, and by overscheduling their precious little free time.

If you made it to the end of this rant, you know I feel very strongly about this issue. Please send this link to parents you think may benefit from the message. Bring up the topic at dinner tonight. Mention it at Tommy’s baseball game tomorrow. Please just spread the word.

Thank you.