Monday, July 24, 2017

Beyond the Numbers: Finding My Path to Writing (Guest Post by Karen Pokras Toz)

I am not one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a writer. In fact, growing up, I probably wanted to be everything but a writer. I was a numbers person (still am, really). While others signed up for writing classes in college, I took advanced math classes … by choice … for fun … and they were.

I had always believed you were either a numbers person or a writing/creative person. Clearly I loved numbers, so I deducted (mathematically and statistically speaking, of course) that writing or any other form of creativity was not my thing.

But something happened on this crazy journey of life. An adult story popped into my head. It happened twenty years ago. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away. Then, I tried to write it, never getting through more than a paragraph or two. At each attempt, I would tell myself I had no business trying to write and would promptly put my notebook back on its shelf while returning to the comfort of my numbers.

For ten more years, my story sat, nestled in the back of my brain, but never far from my thoughts. In my heart, I felt I would be missing out on something huge if I let it go. The trouble was, I didn’t know what that something huge was or even how to try to find out. I decided to give it one more try. So I wrote – and I wrote – and I wrote. I couldn’t stop. Without any explanation, I had suddenly become the Forrest Gump of literature. Of course, I thought what I had written was pure brilliance. I would obviously become the next J.K. Rowling of the adult fiction world.

At a neighborhood party, I met a woman, who was a writing coach. She mostly worked with high school students on their college essays, but she offered to give my book a read. The results were worse than dismal. It seemed my masterpiece was not quite the best seller I had imagined. Not even a tiny bit close.

However, she found one redeeming factor. Buried within her many, many not so flattering, yet constructive comments, was a compliment about a flashback scene I wrote where my main character was seven years old.

“This voice is fabulous! I’m instantly brought back to my childhood. Have you ever considered writing for children?”

I hadn’t. And I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately on board with her idea. In my mind, this novel was to be a one and done, at which time I’d go back to my career in numbers. But when my two older children, who were nine and twelve at the time, expressed less and less interest in reading anything outside of their assigned schoolwork, (How could this be? I loved to read!) I heard my writing coach’s words again.

Going against my logical theory of numbers vs. creativity, I looked outside of my mathematical box and knew from that moment on I would be a children’s writer. I haven’t looked back since, although I still do love those numbers.

Did numbers play a factor in your writing? Share your story!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras writes middle grade fiction under the name Karen Pokras Toz. A self-proclaimed coffee-addict and lover of daisies, Karen spent fifteen years as a tax accountant, writing solely in numbers. 

When the voices in her head insisted she write in words, she discovered a passion for story telling. Since that fateful day, she’s published six middle grade titles, several of which have won awards. 

A native of Connecticut, Karen now lives outside of Philadelphia with her family. For more information, visit www.karentoz.com.



Thursday, July 20, 2017

HIGHLIGHTS WRITING RETREAT: OR, HOW I REGAINED THE JOY by Mary E. Cronin



 

Back in the short, dark days of January, I was notified that I was the recipient of the Eileen Spinelli Scholarship at the Highlights Foundation, allowing me to attend a Highlights writing workshop. I want to tell you about it.

I was delighted that Eileen Spinelli found promise in my middle-grade novel pages and chose me for the scholarship. But when it came time to choose a workshop, I veered off the predictable path. I’ve been working hard on writing and revising two middle-grade novels for the past few years, and I decided to work on some other writing muscles at Highlights: picture book writing.

By the time the June workshop rolled around, I knew I had made the right choice. The twists and turns of the writer's life had drained all the joy out of my writing practice. Part of my brain (the novel writing part) felt over-worked, stale, and burned out. I needed badly to play, to have fun with writing. Returning to picture books, which is what drew me into the world of children’s writing in the first place, was just what I needed.

With author Darcy Pattison

Picture Books and All That Jazz was led by three dynamic picture book authors: Darcy Pattison, Leslie Helakoski, and Kelly Bennett. We workshopped picture book manuscripts and soaked up information about illustrations, page turns, word count, drama, character quests, and more. It was a long weekend packed full of information and inspiration!  
Making picture book dummies

Special guest presenters included Scholastic editor Natalia Remis and Boyds Mills Press art director Tim Gillner. The workshop took me out of my comfort zone and got me back into a more playful mode.
with author Kelly Bennett

Now, about the Highlights retreat itself. It’s a writer’s dream.  It had always seemed financially out of reach for me, so the scholarship was a true gift. I got to stay in my own little writer’s cabin (something I’ve always wanted to do!). 



Three healthy, beautiful meals are served each day, with coffee/tea/water and snacks on hand all the time. 
Did I mention the snacks?

There are opportunities for quiet reflection and writing, for walks in the woods, or for looking up from your laptop to see a deer prance by your cabin. It’s heavenly.



The Highlights Foundation offered several scholarships this year, and they will again—watch this space!  I recently found out that the artists-in-residence who will each choose a scholarship recipient are Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathy Erskine, Matt de la Pena, Denise Fleming, and Varian Johnson. I recommend choosing a workshop that will feed your creative spirit, refresh your writer’s brain, and perhaps build new muscles. It made all the difference for me.


Monday, July 17, 2017

On Getting Ahead of Myself (& Downward Dog) by Joy McCullough



When I was still acting, I loved the rehearsal process. Everything about it, from first read-throughs all the way through tech. What I did NOT love was the performances. It wasn’t a stage fright thing. I just loved the process, and not so much the product.

It was one of the reasons I quit acting—there really weren’t any gigs where you got to keep rehearsing indefinitely.

Writing novels, I’ve been working through the process v. product thing. Because there’s definitely something extremely product-oriented about writing a novel. And even more so if it’s going to be published. I mean, it will be a literal product. On bookstore shelves. People will hold my book in a way they never held my performances.

But focusing on the product makes it really easy to get ahead of myself. And there’s so much to be learned and gained from where I’m at right now. The moment I got my book deal, publishing friends started asking me about my plans for swag, or my plans for a launch party, or what I wanted the cover to look like.

But for the first time ever in my publishing journey, I wanted to be where I was without leaping on to the next thing. (Not that I’m not excited about those things—I am. Mostly. But what if I have a launch party and no one comes???)

Maybe it comes from my current spot on the publishing journey being so long-fought and hard-won. Maybe it’s all the yoga I do, and my teacher’s insistence that it’s not about making the perfect yoga shape, but about your intention and honoring yourself where you’re at. (“My teacher” sounds like I go to a swanky studio, but if you’ve ever been curious about yoga, might I introduce you to Yoga with Adriene?)

If you’re at an earlier stage of the journey, it might seem easy for me to appreciate where I’m at. Part of my overdrive of the last few years was always headed exactly here—getting the next book ready to query, so I could get the agent, and get on sub, and get the book deal. But any published (or to-be-published) author will attest that the ways to get ahead of oneself only multiply with each step along the way.

I don’t have magical wisdom on how to appreciate where you’re at, how to let go of making the perfect shape. Here’s what I do know: 99 times out of a hundred, the stuff I get ahead of myself about is not the actual writing. The writing is the process, the intention, the downward dog that’s maybe totally wonky and I’ve been doing it for a few years and my heels still don’t touch the floor, but I breathe through it and honor myself for showing up.

So as I sit down to write today, I’m going to try to breathe through that moment too. I invite you to do the same.


Do you get ahead of yourself in your writing/publishing journey? What helps ground you in the moment?



Thursday, July 13, 2017

Cheers to the Copy Editors, the Unsung Heroes of Writing by Hilary Wagner




Definition: Copy editors begin the editing process by fixing any grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. They also double check that names, places and organizations are spelled properly and that facts, dates and statistics are accurate.

As writers, we are very lucky. We get to live in wonderful worlds we create, places that defy reality and bring our readers somewhere we hold dear. What makes us even luckier, is having editors who work with us to make our stories shine. They help us ferret out plot issues. They take out the unnecessary. They approach us with the utmost honesty and are straightforward about changes that will only make the story better. 

All that said, there's special folks in this process that take it a step further. They are the highest quality of researchers. They are grammatical wizards. They have supernatural x-ray eyes. In essence, they perfect the imperfect. They are copy editors. 



I was very lucky to have a chance to work with one such wizard by the name of George L. Newman, who copy edited books two and three of the Nightshade Chronicles. Not only is he the nicest person you'll ever work with, but he truly cares about getting things right. Whether it was something as mundane as a comma or as detrimental as a line that could potentially throw off the reader, George found it. I can honestly say a copy editor is a prized possession to any writer. They allow us to write our story in our voice, but they make sure we are following those wonderful rules (and there are so many) of the English language. If we compare a book to a fine dining restaurant, a talented copy editor gives it that gleaming polish to contend for a Michelin Star.


The wonderful George Newman
I'd love to know others experiences on working with a copy editor and of course, give a big thank you to George Newman and all you copy editors out there. For someone like me, copy editing would be a grueling task and I'm so very thankful as a writer and a reader that you take the time to make those many books we all treasure glow with perfection. 

Of note, this was copy edited by my own eyes only, so be gentle. :)

CHEERS TO THE COPY EDITOR! 

Thanks for reading,

Hilary Wagner

Monday, July 10, 2017

Fear of Missing Out, or from FOMO to YOLO by Jim Hill


The internet is great. The internet is terrible. One way that it's great is how it enables like-minded people, say people who write books for kids, for example, to share the daily events that make writing and publishing the ecstatic roller coaster ride that it is.

Then there's the way the internet is also terrible. That'd be the way it takes all those kidlit folks we love and shows us how they're all doing the cool things, or getting all the great book deals, or hanging out together the way we wish we were to the point that you think you're no longer in the club, you're permanently outside with your nose pressed up against the glass.

This past weekend was full of big FOMO feels. The SCBWI Summer Conference happened in Los Angeles, and the summer residency kicked off at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I've been to the LA SCBWI conference once and had an amazing time meeting friends I'd made online in person, digging into craft workshops, and soaking up the wisdom of keynotes. And summer rez at VCFA? Pure magic. Ten days over-stuffed with lectures, readings, and deep, passionate conversations with people that have become family. It's a bit like summer camp for adult nerds.

So, instead of wallowing in all the potentially negative emotions, I bought tickets for a whale watch with my family. Brilliant! How to go from FOMO to YOLO. I clapped myself on the back (I'm flexible), and even tweeted about it.

And then. And then.

And then I literally missed the boat. We arrived two minutes late, the bow lines had been cast, and we watched the ship sail.

Fortunately, my family is flexible, too. After a fair amount of mockery over my utter lack of planning skills, we rallied with ice cream and fried scallops (not in that order, gross) and set our alarms for the next morning's whale watch.

Which left me with some time to ruminate on the ways a whale watch is like writing.

1) You take a bit of a journey to put yourself in the right position
2) You never know when something will surface
3) Sometimes a bunch of things happen at once
4) If you're lucky, you might get caught in a feeding frenzy
5) The best parts are often a fluke

And with that, I'd better get myself to Barnstable Harbor and on board in time to see some cetacean sensations.