Desert Writing

I came across this article today: http://www.startribune.com/nation/104120468.html 

A hiker got lost in the desert for 6 days and survived on NO food and NO water. He stayed still…and wrote on his hat. This is the last paragraph of the article:

Rosenthal is known around Los Angeles for writing short, humorous poems and reading them aloud at public events. So he naturally had a pen with him, Kaplan said. But he had no paper, so he used the hat. It got crowded and he used a lot of abbreviations, but it was legible, and the pen never ran out of ink, Kaplan said.

I wasn’t sure how deeply the article affected me until I started writing this post.

I haven’t been lost in a real desert, but when it comes to writing, it feels like I’ve been in death valley for the majority of the last few months. And I feel like I’ve been at a stand still, just waiting for rain.

Writing is a huge part of my life. But other parts  of my life have needed my attention even more. Marriage and family, homeschool, housework, church and Write2ignite…all important. All with different needs.

And since the other parts of my life needed so much of me, for a time, it felt like the “writing part” of me dried up.

But to to my joyful astonisment, I’m finding that I can survive…EVEN in the desert.

When I’m snuggling with my teenager and listening as she shares what’s on her heart, I’m reminded of why I write. When she asks me to help her with the story she’s writing, the seed of an idea starts to take root. 

When I’m listening to my first grader read her favorite new early reader book for the upteenth time, I can feel the seed breaking through the dirt.

And when I’m reading about undersea creatures with my third grader, the idea is being watered. And when I’m helping her learn how to write poetry, the idea is growing leaves.

The idea is now blossoming…even though I feel like I’m still standing still. I am pushing forward and putting it to paper. Digging deeper and deeper, I pull out weeds of doubt that are sucking life away from the new growth. 

There is life, even in a desert. And just like Mr. Rosenthal, I pray my pen never truly runs dry.

Are you in a desert? If so, where is your pen?

Donna Earnhardt is a wife, homeschooling mom and wordwrangler. You can see her ramblings on life, writing and relationships at http://www.wordwranglernc.wordpress.com
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The Measure of Success

 by

Niki Masse Schoenfeldt 

Being a writer is not all glitz and glam. In fact, I have yet to experience either. With one published work out there and another due on shelves next year, I can attest to the fact that I am still very much struggling to make it in this business. As writers, we all think, “If I can just get my foot in the door. . .” But I have found it takes much more than your foot to get a leg up in the publishing world. Very few writers these days can make it as full-time authors. Most I know keep their day jobs. Very often writing is a part-time gig and is usually done on a volunteer basis. This means plenty of hours, but little or no pay. At least not until the contract is signed and even then, the hourly wage is only a pittance compared to today’s standards.

So why do we do it? The answer is simple; we can’t help ourselves. For true writers, there is always a story to be told. Something itching to get out in the form of words on paper. Most of us couldn’t stop if we tried. As rejection slips pile on my desk the urge to throw up my hands in defeat and quit this madness is overwhelming. But once the anger and disappointment wane, I find myself back at the keyboard, working furiously on a new idea. As the story materializes I become convinced that this is “the one”. The one publisher’s will scramble for. The one everyone will want to read. The one that is pure genius and destined for the NYT Bestseller list. And then, when “the one” is finished, it takes all the restraint I have to keep from sending it to my favorite editor right away. Even though this is my masterpiece, I know sending a first draft is like the kiss of death. Instead, I wait. I revise. I show it to my critique partners and eventually my rose colored glasses fall off and I’m able to see it for what it is. A manuscript. No more. No less. But if I’ve done my work to the best of my ability, and the timing is right, and I have a bit of luck on my side, an agent or editor will take notice. And I’ll have another notch on my belt.

As the old adage says, slow and steady wins the race. So this is how I plan to forge my career; one step at a time. One book here. One book there. Until one day, I will have an arsenal full of wonderful children’s books that I can be proud of. I may never be famous, like J.K. Rowling or the queen diva of kid’s books like Jane Yolen, but I will steadily make my mark. After all, I’m not in this for the money. I’m not in this for the fame. I’m in it to touch the lives of little ones.  For me, this is the true measure of success. Care to join me?

Conference or No Conference? Why I Went, Why I Quit Going, Why I’m Going Again

Megan Hoyt gazes zombie-like at the computer screen.

It’s been several years since I’ve attended the regional SCBWI conference. That’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in case you’re new to the organization. I stopped going to conferences when the economy dipped, but more than that, I felt that my time would be better spent learning the craft of writing. I was showing up at these writing conferences with a smug, “I know I can write because I majored in English” look on my face and beyond rotten manuscripts in my hand. Ewww, the stink! They were truly awful!

I know I’m not alone — the majority of slush piles on every editor’s assistant’s assistant’s desk is chock full of manuscripts just as ooky as mine were. Characters lacking motivation for the things they do, stories that lack tension and rising action, mushy overused adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, stories that have already been done a million and one times by those more adept at writing for children than I. The conferences were invaluable at first in that I met people, put faces with names of people I’d met online, and learned various aspects of the publishing business that would prove invaluable over time. But something wasn’t right. It was my writing!

In all the excitement of learning about the “biz,” I had stopped writing and stopped revising what I had already written. In some cases, I lost the manuscripts altogether when my elderly computer up and died. I forgot to back up my work on an external hard drive. What a crazy thing to do! So now, as I reflect on the years lost to just plain stupidity, I’m realizing a few things — tough lessons learned the hard way.

First, follow your dreams, and follow your heart, but do NOT follow authors and editors into the elevator at the conference, wagging your manuscript in their faces. Do follow the authors, editors, and agents you like on Twitter and connect with them through Facebook. Don’t harass them! But do check in occasionally and watch and learn. They will begin to recognize your name as time goes on, and if nothing else, your commitment to getting published and to writing for children will show through. When you have a manuscript ready to submit, you will have already made a “name” for yourself.

The second thing I’ve learned is there is no set path or easy way to get published. Every author’s story is slightly different, but each one follows a similar pattern: Work hard at the craft of writing, join a critique group, revise, submit, and wait for a publisher to say yes! If you have been working steadily, learning consistently, and you are still not published, give it some time. You still have to be at the right place at the right time, and your story must fit the needs of a busy publishing house in a highly competitive market.

I began writing this blog entry thinking I was writing about when it’s time to submit and whether it’s the right time to go to a conference, but I think the process will probably look a little different for each new writer. Backing away from conferences for a season was the right thing to do — for me. My writing ability needed to grow, my manuscripts needed to percolate on the back burner for a while as I learned the skill of writing fiction and picture books for children. Even though I was connecting with people at conferences, I was not improving. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, basking in the kidlit “vibe,” but that was getting in the way of the very hard work I needed to do — practicing writing with skill, taking what I’ve learned from various writing classes and books on writing and putting it all to good use, coming up with a dynamic concept and actually turning idea into topnotch manuscript.

My fellow Mudskippers were a tremendous help. Having a critique group keeps you accountable to write. After all, you have to have something to submit to them month after month. If you submit total garbage, they’ll be the ones to gently smack you upside the head and tell you to focus your attention, get back at revision, and keep moving forward. They will also tell you straight up that your manuscript is not going to work as it stands, and whether it needs major revision or just a mild tweak here and there.

Next week, I’m going to the Carolinas SCBWI conference again — after four or five years of not going. This time I’m going prepared to soak in all I can about the writing process, meet up with friends, and when all is said and done, submit several manuscripts to different publishers. Yes, I’m submitting. I think I may finally have several viable manuscripts ready after working on them for the past ten or so years. It’s about time!

Let Your Characters Plot Their Own Course

Kelly Dyksterhouse

So how many times have we writers heard the question, “Is your work plot-driven or character-driven?” There’s clearly a preference for character-driven work out there; it has a repuatation for being a more intellectual, high-minded, literary kind of writing. Agents and editors alike post their desire to find “quality, character-driven writing.” And haven’t we all heard writers comment that they thought they knew what was going to happen in their book, but that their character surprised them and took them on an unplanned journey? I’ve had this happen occasionally, and it produces an amazing writers-high. It’s been my typical experience, though, that it’s MY fingers on the keys filling the blank page each day, with MY brain directing them. It’s not always a love-affair with words. More often than not, writing is hard work. Work that requires planning and thought.

When I sit down to write a book, I have in mind a character I want to write about. I have a pretty good sense of what I want to happen and how the book will end. My characters are usually pretty clear in my head. I’m a dutiful author. I do my leg-work. Despite the fact that I’m in love with the newness of the project and all I want to do is get typing, I make myself take the time to fill out character sketches. You know –  all that background material to help you get to know your character: her name, her family history, her wants, her fears, her likes and dislikes, talents, weaknesses, yada, yada, yada . . .

But no matter how well I know my character, no matter how confident I am in what’s going to happen to her throughout my book, there is always a lurking fear, a constantly nagging awareness of a deep-dark, black hole that can suck the life out of my precious book: the sagging middle.

And that’s it, folks. That’s what we all have to face on those days when Our Dear Protagonist refuses to whisper sweet words of inspiration onto the page before us and take on a life of her own. And that’s when we have to turn to plot.

Plot is not something that comes easily to me as a writer. I think this is primarily because I’m lazy. I also think it’s because I love my characters. And plot requires that I hurt them, make them look bad, bring out their faults to an excess. It’s hard enough to look honestly at the faults of real people I care about, much less the dear ones I’ve created. But it’s absolutely necessary if I want to ratchet up the tension, keep the pace moving, ensure that my reader is invested my book.

Well, then. How?

I’m not going to insult your intelligence. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably a writer, and I’m guessing you know enough to have heard the #1 rule of plotting: make your character suffer. Throw your character into the worse possible situations that he/she could endure. Then make it worse.

But there’s another rule, one that’s not discussed quite as often, but that is absolutely essential to moving a plot forward and upping that tension. You know that horrible situation your character has to face? Well, she has to create it herself. Her trouble needs to be a direct result of her own actions. Otherwise, the tension will fall flat and the reader just won’t care. Think about it. Go back through your favorite books. Examine the protagonist’s decisions and actions. Look at what’s at stake. Then look at your own work. Is your protagonist in a tight situation? How did he get there? Was it a direct result of something he did (or didn’t do)?

What I find interesting about this facet of plotting is that it requires the writer know their character deeply. I was caught in the mire of the sagging middle for a long time in my current WIP. I kept thinking of bad situations, things that she could do that would get her introuble, but they kept running into dead-ends. And then I had my my protagonist take a Myers-Briggs personality test. Not only was this incredibly fun, but I found out more about her than I ever knew before, and ways to to torture her were suddenly abundant. For instance, I found out she is an ISTJ (Introvert, Sensor, Thinker, Judger). As an ISTJ, honesty and loyalty are key to her moral compass. I knew that about her intrinsically, but hadn’t thought of it in those terms. How helpful this was as an instrument of torture! What happens if she is thrust into a situation where she alone can save her closest friend, but to do so requires that she lie? Well, she lies, of course. And that lie sets in motion both internal and external conflict that she has to deal with the entire book. Another thing: she’s a thinker, not a feeler. What happens if she starts to love? What if that love conflicts with the order of her rational world (because she’s a judger, not a perceiver)? What happens to her when there’s not a Rule to follow to tell her what is right and wrong? More internal conflict. Oh, the agony I can inflict! What was once so tedious is suddenly so much fun!

It just goes to show that in good writing, there isn’t such a dichotomy between plot- and character-driven work. Delve deep into your character, and plot options will abound. But make sure your charcters plot their own course through their actions and decisions – otherwise you may risk floundering in the sagging middle of your work.

(I found personality typing extremely enlightening and helpful when I struggled with my own sagging middle. If you think it could be helpful to you, one of the tests I took was on-line, and can be found here: http://keirsey.com.)

Here’s To Commitment

By Jean Matthew Hall

Have you ever heard someone singing at a wedding or a party, perhaps at church, and thought, “He’s so talented! He should be on the road singing professionally, selling CDs, and signing autographs.” But the truth is that it takes a lot more than talent to be a professional musician.

It takes commitment—total stay-up-late-get-up-early-commitment. To become rich and famous as a musician, or even to earn a livelihood as a musician, it takes hard-line dedication not only to music, but to several critical things.

And guess what. The same is true of becoming a professional author.

  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to achieving goals. The first step toward achieving those goals is setting them. Integral to setting goals is making sure they are measurable and achievable. They can be measured in dollars; hours, weeks, months or years; pages or word counts; “followers” and “friends”; the number of submissions or contracts…   you get the idea.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to craft. To learning how to accomplish hundreds of specific skills related to professional writing. It means dedication to improving everything I do as relatedto writing.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to promotion. I HATE this part. Don’t you? But success in publishing depends on it.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to sacrifice. Yep. We have to sacrifice some good things to accomplish great things. And succeeding in an industry as competitive as publishing means devoting time that we could spend on other activities (or people) to writing, research, education, submission and promotion.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to vulnerability. These scratchings we put to paper and screen come out of our minds, our hearts, our souls. We make ourselves vulnerable each time  we put up a blog post, send an email submission or plaster a stamp to a big brown envelope.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to writing. What we learn about craft we must put into practice.  Writing–that’s what professional writers do.

When I compare what I do as a writer to these standards I see how really far I am from becoming a professional. But…I also see that I’m inching my way closer with each year, each conference, each page, and each big brown envelope.

Here’s to success for each of us as writers and authors!

Here’s to commitment!

Jean

Finding Your Inner Child

Posted by Jennifer Hudson

My husband was my first critic when I began writing for children.  I used him for his grammatical assistance and his proximity to me.  He was convenient and free.  I’d read aloud my newest creation and he’d smile his painted-on smile and reply, “Nice, honey,” out of marital duty.  Finally, after around the 20th read-aloud session, he said, “I guess you are just more in touch with your inner child than I am.”  

We have to figure out how to connect with children as we embark on a career (or passionate hobby) of writing children’s literature.  Yes, we have to connect with the editors to get to the point of connecting with children.  But how do we find that childlike voice inside ourselves to entertain and excite a child?
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For many of us, we remember important pieces of how our minds worked as children.  I first began writing years ago with a journal of funny stories from my childhood.  For me, it keeps memories alive as my memory fades the details of youth.
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But I also remember what it felt like to be a child.  I vividly remember being at the counter at the bank standing on tippy-toes, trying to see what exciting transaction was occurring over that countertop.  I also recall the thrill when the banker noticed me and handed me a lollipop.  My memories of Sunday church as being torture are quite clear.  To me, the priest sounded just like the adults in those old Peanuts cartoons.  “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”  I counted ceiling tiles and studied nearby parishioners’ funny outfits, until finally it was time for the children’s sermon.  Then they spoke my language!
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I have three children and I work with children every day.  It is not just the interaction with children that helps me write for children.  It is taking these interactions and interpreting them through the eyes of a child.   Once I am able to do this, I can truly find that connection to the children through literature.
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The biggest reward for me is to watch a child react to my story.  When I see their face light up from my writing, I feel that sense of communication that occurred when the banker spoke or the priest during the children’s sermon.
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As you challenge yourself to write children’s literature, find your inner child, embrace your inner child, and express your inner child. And have fun! 

Tooting, Beating, Patting

“Not to toot my own horn, but…”

“Don’t like to beat my own drum, but…”

“I’m not patting myself on the back, but…”

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It just so happens that my turn to post this month comes five days before my very first picture book officially releases, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks promoting heavily. So much, in fact, that my inner introvert nearly gags every time I have something new to share…and my sarcastic alter ego whispers jabs, arrogant comments such as the three listed above. 

What’s a very private, reformed loner, debut author to do?

Answer:  Suck it up and promote.

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But it’s not just the debut author, or the established author that has to suck it up and “do”. It’s anyone who wants to transform a dream into a goal, then into reality. On the journey to achievement, there will be roads that are too difficult to cross without courage and agility; peaks far too high to reach without persistence and long-suffering; obstacles too big and too broad to surmount,  without equally heavy doses of self-confidence and self-consciousness. 

If you’re inclined to think to yourself, “I’m not a person who has those traits,”  I challenge you blindly follow this just-do-it method.  I bet you’ll find you have each of these traits, and then some.

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Practical applications of the Suck It Up Theorem:

*You’ve written a story. You think it’s really good. But you’re worried it’s not good enough.  Suck it up and submit it!

*You submit your story…and it’s rejected. You’re so disappointed.  Suck it up and get it back out there or suck it up and get a professional critique or suck it up and join a critique group so you can get some feedback on how you might make it more marketable.

*You’ve received insightful advice, polished, and resubmitted your story. You’re getting positive feedback from editors/agents (maybe even some revision requests), but still no sale. It’s all starting to seem pointless. Suck it up and get real with yourself. Is this still a goal you really want? No? Then find a new goal. Yes? Then full steam ahead! Revise (again and again and again and again,  if necessary) and resubmit (again and again) until…

*YOU FINALLY GET A YES! You sell your book. And it gets published. And the economy is bad. And the marketing budget for your book is minimal…

SUCK IT UP! Self-promote, market outside-the-box, do the things that are necessary to make sure people know that you and your book exists.

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Ummm…not to beat my own drum, but…

AROUND OUR WAY ON NEIGHBORS’ DAY officially releases on August 1, 2010!  You can order your copy now at your local bookstore, or online:

IndieBound.org

Amazon.com

BarnesandNoble.com

Borders.com

Target.com

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Also, if you’re in or around the Charlotte, NC area, my first local booksigning will be held on August 7 at Author Squad. For more information, click here.

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Lastly, I’m one of this month’s guest authors in the Writers Against Racism (W.A.R.) Series at Bowllan’s Blog. Click here to read my interview.

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About AROUND OUR WAY ON NEIGHBORS’ DAY

From Booklist (July 2010):  As an African American girl bounces around her urban neighborhood celebrating Neighbors’ Day, when everyone comes together for celebration and community bonding, she shares her energetic and enthusiastic observations: “Blue sky, no clouds, / Summer heat, side street, / Whirling, whizzing feet. / Everyone is out to play / Today, around our way.” She is happily surrounded by a multicultural crowd playing double Dutch and basketball, eating ice cream and drinking sour lemonade, debating in the barber shop, and playing chess in the park; and as the day and the block party progress, there is more food, music, laughter, and friendship. The acrylic art is saturated with rich color, energetic movement, and abstract figures and shapes, all reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence’s art. Most scenes are double-page spreads that, together with the words, demonstrate the size and diversity of a joyful world.

From Kirkus (July 2010):  ‎”Blue sky, no clouds, / Summer heat, side street, / Whirling, whizzing feet. / Everyone is out to play / Today, around our way.” It’s a sunny, summer day—perfect for a block party. A pig-tailed protagonist heads home after double Dutch and dancing to help Momma cook. On her way she encounters some familiar sights: Grandpop at the barber’s, Raven painting a mural, a ball game at the center. In this lively and accessible poem, a multicultural community brings food, music and laughter to the streets to celebrate their neighborhood.

😀