Monday, October 30, 2017

Signs


Although I wanted to write a novel for as long as I could remember, I wrote my first one in November 2007. That year was special. My baby had just turned one-year old, and I was at the end of my twenties. I’ve always been a challenge driven person, and with the THIRTIES looming over my shoulder, I was searching for a sign of what to do with my life (because mothering 4 children under 6 and 2 dogs wasn’t enough?). You see? I believe in signs, that if we’re unsure of which way to go, and if we ask for guidance, we’ll get it.
And I did.
Reading my favorite blog, I came across a vague mention to NaNoWriMo, a writing competition that pushed you to write a novel in a month.
Competition?
Writing a novel?
Sign me up! It was November 6, and when I went to the NaNoWriMo website, I realized I’d lost six precious day to try to achieve this feat! But have I mentioned that I’m very driven, especially by competition (I’m a proud Slytherin after all)?
And then there was the sign… You see? I couldn’t just ask for a sign and then ignore it. Otherwise, how could I expect to get help when I needed it next? Because I knew there would be a next time. Have I mentioned I had four kids under the age of six?
So, with a pounding heart and starry eyes, I opened a new document and poured out my heart and years of assimilated clich├ęs on it. Day by day I wrote just enough to reach my word count. Each day, I was surprised by the words that flowed without effort, and other times, by the words that I wrenched out of my mind and heart after the kids were in bed and my eyes were heavy with exhaustion. When November 30th arrived, I typed the magical words, THE END, just with enough time to validate my word count and get my NaNoWriMo certificate.
Friends, I haven’t stopped writing since. But I wasn’t content only with writing, then I wanted to make my writing better. So I signed up for classes; I found a critique group. I read more voraciously than ever before. I went to conferences where I met amazing friends.
Now that the forties are welcoming me with open arms, I’m grateful for that sign, that little nudge to take the plunge and start writing already.
If you’re waiting for a sign to start writing, or doing the thing you’ve been wanting to do for a long time but you’re not sure if you can, consider these humble words your sign.
Write the story.
Do the thing.
Dare!
There’s never a perfect time when everything aligns to make things possible. We re-arrange responsibilities and obligations; we put fear and doubts aside, and make things possible even when all the odds are stacked against us.
Whether you’re doing a full NaNo (fifty thousand words) or a modified version, take advantage of the creative energy in the air. Believe me! It’s a real thing. I love the feeling of typing alone in my office in the early morning or the middle of the night, knowing that around the world, thousands of believers in the magic of words and story are doing the same thing.

Tell me in the comments if you’ll be participating, and what your goals are. If you want, find me on the NaNo website and add me as your “buddy;” we’ll cheer each other up. My user name is cheboricuas, and I have a good feeling about this November. Let’s end the year with a bang! 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Defining Success: Authors Weigh In by Caroline Starr Rose

Do shiny stickers mean success?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I personally measure success.

When I first was published, I figured if I could reupholster the couch and pay for my boys’ glasses and eventual braces, that was success. These markers sound goofy now, but at the time they represented visible ways my work contributed to my family. They were tangible. Evident.

I recovered the couch when my first book sold. I've been able to keep my boys in glasses and contacts, and earlier this year paid off the second set of braces (thank you, May B., for still selling strong, and thanks, Mom and Dad, for helping out along the way).

By that early definition, I've arrived.

But over the years my definition of success has morphed and changed. If a book of mine stayed in print, that was success (so far, so good). And the ultimate success was earning out — when a book makes back its advance and an author is paid royalties. (Never mind the fact that only 15-25% of all books published actually do this -- and as of this date, only one of my titles has.)

Is meeting readers a way to define success?

When Blue Birds published, my measure shifted: if I was pleased with my work and my editor was pleased with it, that was success. This feels more reasonable, more attainable through hard work, but in the end, is it enough? Perhaps for my own level of satisfaction, but the honest truth is if I want to sell more books, my prospects are much more likely if I've had earlier titles that have done well in the marketplace.

What's difficult -- and maybe even unrealistic -- about using publishing markers as signs of success is they're out of my control. That's where the tension comes in. Because, honestly, how can success be legitimate if sales aren't strong? But how is such a mindset sustainable throughout a (hopefully) long, probably varied career? Is it ridiculous to hope every project will be successful? Is success more of a general, over the course of a lifetime thing?

Is the day to day work the truest measure of success?

I asked some friends, from the newly to the broadly published, how they defined success (anonymously, so they could be candid). There is so much wisdom here.

  • Success is being comfortable with the reality that not everyone who reads your book will like it. In fact, some readers will hate it, despite how much others LOVE it. Realize and embrace that certainty early.
  • At first, I just wanted to get an agent. I felt that I wouldn't be successful unless I achieved that. But when I got an agent, my success meter moved. I just wanted to be published. Then when I got published, I just wanted to be published AGAIN. I have to remind myself not to forget where I've come from. Now, I like to imagine I feel success when I've protected my writing time and had fun getting some words down in a day. To me, that's the measure of success.
  • Success for me means feeling that I have put forth my best effort to tell a meaningful story. That effort may, and probably does, involve many rewrites before it's printed on pages for the public to read. And the stories that don't make it to press are still successful, in my eyes, if I've put forth my best effort.
  • For me, writing is what I want to do as my job, and I need to make a living. So success means making enough money from writing or writing-related activities (teaching, critiquing) to support myself. That often means seeing myself as an employee who has to do what the boss wants, even though I'm a freelancer. But I encourage other people to remember that making money, or even being published, does not have to be their goal. If you want to write for the joy of writing, that's fantastic. Just remember what your goal is, and don't get distracted by other people's definitions of success.
  • Success is meeting the little goals you set for yourself and feeling good about it whether or not anyone else ever notices what you have done.
  • I'd like to be noble and say success as a writer is simply about doing what you love and loving what you do, with no outside factors taken into account. Critics? Meh. Sales numbers? Who cares? This is art, by golly. It's unquantifiable. But if I'm being honest with myself, I do to some degree base my success on what other people think of my work and how well it sells. This is my career. I want to do well and I didn't write my books just for myself. Writing is about communicating and connecting to someone other than yourself, so outside opinion does matter to some extent. So I strive to create the very best for both myself and my audience and I feel successful when I've pleased both. I also really like it when my work can pay the bills.
This last is perhaps my favorite.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. It’s a hard one for me, mostly because it changes from day to day, and for all those years when I hadn’t sold a second book, I had some seriously disarranged notions on the subject. Mostly I think those years taught me that a certain powerful flavor of success is maintaining that particular brand of faith that kept me writing in those years before I had a contract at all. It’s easy to feel successful when you have a book coming out. It’s a lot harder when you feel like nothing is happening and you have to keep creating every day when nothing might come of it. That’s how success looks to me today. When you can find it in yourself to keep blowing that little ember deep down inside you, the one that keeps you putting words on the page when there’s no earthly reason but the making of them. Success is making something beautiful when there’s no one to see it but you.
How do you define success? Please share in the comments below!






Thursday, October 19, 2017

STEPPING OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE, by Hilda Eunice Burgos

This is the time of year when lists of recommended spooky titles appear.  I usually ignore them.  I hate to be scared.  I don’t watch horror movies or step into haunted houses.  But last month I was going for a train ride and I wanted — needed — a book to read on the way.  So I quickly grabbed one of my children’s old books, The Old Willis Place, a ghost story, by Mary Downing Hahn.  The title was definitely not my thing, but I was in a hurry.  Besides, if middle school kids could read this book, so could I, right?


Surprisingly, yes.

Of course, the book included some spine-tingling moments and themes.  But, all in all, it was actually not too different from the stories I like to read and write.  It was about love of family and friends.  It was about forgiveness and understanding.  And it got me thinking: what other good books am I missing out on by avoiding stories with supernatural themes?  So I read two more:  The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and Spirit Hunters, by Ellen Oh.  Again, a few edge-of-your-seat scenes, but, in the end, very well-written and satisfying stories that tugged at the heartstrings and addressed thought-provoking issues.



It felt good to venture out of my comfort zone and find myself pleasantly surprised at the result.  After all, books are meant to expand our minds and open our hearts to new ideas and feelings.  How can we keep growing if we park ourselves in one genre and never explore anything else?  The same could be said about our writing.  This summer I took an excellent on-line picture book writing class offered by the Children’s Book Academy.  I learned so much about the craft of writing picture books.  Specifically, I learned that writing picture books is very different from writing middle grade books.  I’m glad to have broadened my knowledge and skills, and I look forward to continuing my growth as a writer.  I might even take a stab at poetry next.

Nevertheless, it’s also important to know your limitations.  I will continue to read and enjoy middle grade ghost stories, but I probably won’t write any.  And I have no plans to ever visit a haunted house or watch a horror movie.  After all, a person can only grow so much.

Monday, October 16, 2017

HANDLING REJECTION by James Mihaley


You may believe that your chances of selling your MG novel to a publisher are contingent upon how well you tell a story.  You may be convinced that seeing your book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble will only come about if you create unforgettable characters.  You may have been told one hundred times that the originality of your voice will determine the destiny of your novel.  All this may indeed be true.  However, there is another factor that is just as important and is often overlooked.  That is your ability to handle rejection and not give up.

Nowhere is this more true than in the arduous process of finding an agent.
Every year, from Maine to California, thousands of writers give up the hope of finding an agent after receiving one or two rejections.  These writers have dedicated years of their lives and made innumerable sacrifices in order to complete a novel which they then  abandon after a couple of agents pass on the book. Please keep this in mind:

IF ONE OR TWO AGENTS REJECT YOUR NOVEL IT MEANS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

If twelve agents reject your manuscript, that's a different story.  If they all say the same thing, for example, that the story takes too long to get going, then it is your best interest to heed their advice and revise the book.


Tragically, many writers are so devastated by  rejection, they tuck the manuscript in the closet.  There it will sit for years or forever.
 Do not let this happen to you.
If you know in your heart that your book has merit and other people whose opinions you respect have told you the same thing, then keep on submitting it to agents.

If you have a manuscript in the closet, it is speaking to you right now.
Heed the muffled cries of a manuscript buried under three cardigans and a powder blue scarf.  Here is what your book is saying.  "Let me out.  Let me out.  I know I'm good enough.  Have faith in me.  I have the power to inspire children.  I'm ten times better than that other crap that's out there. I'm amazing.  Ok, Maybe I'm not perfect.  Maybe I run a bit long.  Maybe I'm overweight by twenty or thirty pages.  You can trim that flab around my tummy.
I'm not afraid to do literary sit-ups.  Come on.  Let's work together!"
Listen to your manuscript.  Have faith in the wisdom of the words.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Did I Make the List? by Linda Williams Jackson


I hope that third grade was not as horrible for anyone reading this post as it was for me. When I was in third grade, there was one girl who was considered “the boss.” I’m not sure how she came into this position, but the position was respected to the point that this one girl (one girl!) made a list every morning and the rest of the girls in our class adhered to it.

The title of the list was: “Who I’m Playing with Today.”

The list was passed around for EVERY girl to check for her name. And if your name wasn’t on that list, then P—, “the boss,” wasn’t playing with you (or even acknowledging your existence) that day.
 

Obviously, P— was the most popular girl in class, and she had a group of favorites who ALWAYS made the list. I, unfortunately, was not one of her favorites. As a matter of fact, I rarely made the list. Sadly, one day rather than an inclusion list, P— passed around an exclusion list. It read:

Who I’m Playing with Today:

Everybody except Linda Williams

Ouch! That stung! When the list got passed around, I noticed the look of shock on all the girls’ faces. They knew that I was not to be spoken to or even acknowledged that day. But there were two girls, Tammy and Yolanda, who were bold enough to ignore the list. And they both came to my desk and said, “We’ll play with you, Linda.”

I was happy to at least have two real friends, but it hurt, nonetheless, to be the sole exclusion from “The List” and to be the one girl who almost NEVER made “The List.”

What the heck am I trying to say with all this?

Before I became a published author, I didn’t pay much attention to all the “Best of” lists. But once my little book made a list, I started to notice these lists more. I started to click every time a link to a new list appeared. When I didn’t see my book listed, I would begin to feel a tad bit sad. That’s when memories of third grade came flooding back to me. Who are these people making the lists? Um, mostly our peers—peers who, at some point, have been deemed the experts in defining the “Best of” lists.

Sure, these lists have value, and it’s an honor for the author when his/her book makes one. But there are SO MANY GREAT BOOKS published each year that will never make the “Best of” lists. Remember Tammy and Yolanda, the two girls who played with me on Exclusion Day? They saw value in me even if P— didn’t. And those books that never make any “Best of” lists? Guess what VERY important list they made? A publisher’s list! Yep, that’s right. An editor saw value in that author’s words and said, “Hey, we’d like to publish this.” After which, they invested their own time and money into turning that author’s words into a bound book (or e-book) for others to read. Now, isn’t that the most wonderful of all lists? And if you are a published author who is reading this, please remember that your book did indeed make “The List.” It made your publisher’s list. It made your fans’ lists. So let’s all be like Tammy and Yolanda. Let’s try our darnedest to ignore the lists and celebrate the joy of writing and reading!

Can I get an amen?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Middle Grade Rewind: A Day in My Life at 9 by Donna Galanti


As middle grade writers, we find joy in putting ourselves into the young characters we write about. One way I love to do this is re-visit pictures of myself as a kid. 

I stare at them, sifting through specific memories connected to that photo. What was I excited about? What did I most want? What made me sad? What made me happy? What was my biggest worry?

Then I journal in that moment, bringing in all the details on the edge of that photo and just out of reach. Often the details outside the picture are the ones that tell the story of that photo.

I did this recently with this photo.


Bethel Woods Campground, Holderness, New Hampshire, 1978
Bethel Woods Campground, 1978

Every day I dream about getting my first dog. I imagine she is so real that when I come home from school I run to meet her (her name will be Beauty after Black Beauty). But not yet…so while I wait, I keep busy roaming the campground we own.

It’s fun to wear my strap-on roller skates and hunt the woods for dead butterflies and shotgun shells. They make cool noise makers when you put them in old coffee cans. 

I'm lucky because there are always kids here to play with and swim with at the pool (awesome for an only child like me!).

I especially love to hang out in the recreation hall and play pinball machines and records on the juke box. My favorite song is Escape by Rupert Holmes. I asked Dad what a Pina Colada is and he said it’s like a party in a glass for grownups.

Each morning as I pick rotten apples in the orchard to feed our fat hogs, I get to pretend I’m my favorite hero, Laura Ingalls from Little House in the Big Woods. Mom says we’ll even be butchering the hogs soon – just like Laura did!

Mom wants to make head cheese Like Mrs. Ingalls did (ewww!) but I want to blow up the pig’s bladder like a balloon and roast its tail over the fire, just like Laura did. Little House on the Prairie is my favorite show and sometimes I even pretend that Mr. Ingalls is my dad.

After hog feeding time, I get to gather the eggs in the chicken coop. Today I found a double yolk egg without a shell.  It was see-through and wobbly just like a Weeble. Although, I think it would fall down if I wobbled it.

Tomorrow is dump day. I get to collect the trash with Dad from all the campsites (we even saw a bear last week!). It’s a totally smelly chore but the best part is that I get to stand up in the back of our 1965 Ford truck and hang onto the wood sides as we cruise to the dump. Wheeee! It’s almost as fun as snowmobiling on the camp trails in winter.

If I help Dad out good, he even promised to take me fishing on Squam Lake this weekend to use my new tackle box. I caught my first pike there last month. Dad almost crashed the boat up on the rocks just so I could reel it in!

Heading out fishing with Dad and friends, in his Boston Whaler

Well, time to go practice my after-dinner show for Mom and Dad. I’m singing and dancing to The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers and On The Good Ship Lollipop on my record player. I even made my own sailor and Tigger costumes (I’m a blue fuzzy Tigger in my one-piece footed pj’s, Dad’s striped tie for a tail, and Mom's wig).

Oh, and there’s a big thunderstorm coming tonight so I plan to sleep on the screened-in porch and watch the lightning all night long (just don't tell Mom, okay?)

Being nine is the best. Getting a dog would make it even better.

Me and Beauty's son, Windsor. I got to pick him out from her litter. 


Monday, October 2, 2017

Going Bald in Public: A Story about our Stories and their Audiences, by Anne Nesbet

A few years ago a friend invited me to Lake Tahoe, and while I was swimming in that cold water, I learned a lesson about kindness and audiences that I've never forgotten. Here's the story:

I went up to Tahoe to lose my hair. Really! I had just started chemo, and it was the end of the summer, and the experienced oncology nurses had pointed at a date on the calendar and said, "Hair should start coming out about then." My attitude was a mixture of horror and curiosity. I had never had all my hair fall out before! My friend Linda (who had been through this sort of thing herself) said, "Anne, come stay with us up at Tahoe. It'll be a great place to lose your hair!"



And she was right. It was healing, after all the first-round-of-chemo nausea, to be up in a place where the air felt practically newborn, it was so crisp and clear. And to be able to go walking in mountains and under lovely trees! And to have someone around whose attitude was as crisp and refreshing as the air: "Okay, Anne!" she said every morning. "Making progress? How's that hair coming along?"

And every day I took my battle-scarred, strange-looking, hair-shedding self down to the dock to swim (euphemism for "jump in, paddle about for a second, and climb back out") in the cold, bracing, wonderful water of Lake Tahoe.  It was wonderful!

And then one afternoon, I went down to the dock, and there were other people on it. Not just "other people": a group of teenagers, all boys. For a moment I froze. Perhaps you can understand: I had had a lot of surgery, not that long before. My swimsuit fit very strangely, and there were scars showing, and there was that weird lump that was the chemo port, and--and of course I was losing my hair. My head looked like it had just lost several big fights with an angry cat.

Well, I saw all those boys on the dock, and part of me was suddenly in 7th grade all over again--just wanting to take this battered body and obviously balding head of mine and hide. But I also didn't want to miss my dip into the magic water! So I forced myself to be brave--to march down that dock like I belonged there--to whip off my fleece and step onto the ladder, ignoring what I assumed were the staring, possibly mocking eyes of my audience--

and then one of those very scary people spoke out, just as I reached for the ladder (he was older than the others--it turned out I hadn't looked at them very closely). And what he said was,

"You know what, my wife did this, what you're doing now. Their mother did this. Seven years ago now." He made a funny little sound in his throat and added, "I just wanted you to know--she's doing really well now. Their mother."

And I looked up at them, finally, and saw what I had missed by not really looking before: not judgment, but kindness. Not some scary imagined other ("teenage boys"!), but human beings. (Then of course I couldn't see much at all, because of tears followed promptly by lake water!)

I learned something on that dock, and it occurs to me now that what I learned can be phrased in terms of writers and readers, books and audiences.

Let me count the ways:

1. When a book goes out into the world, it is exciting and frightening, both at once. It can feel like all your secret scars are going out on parade. It is as scary as walking out onto a crowded dock when your hair is coming out in clumps.

2. Fear makes us bad readers--in particular, bad readers of our audience. Here's a bit of irony: I misjudged these people because I was so clamped up in my own anxiety that they might be judging me. When we write, it is our solemn duty to be less afraid. We have to open up for our audiences, whoever they may turn out to be. Almost certainly they are more complicated and more human than we may think at first.

3. Our readers carry many stories in them. That is amazing and something a writer can't forget. Our stories reach out to theirs. All of these things are wonderfully plural, too: the stories people carry inside them; the stories they are ready or need or long to hear.

4. And finally, that father did what a good writer does: he told me a story that touched my heart and opened the world to me so that I saw it in a different way. A good story tells us that life may be hard, but we are not alone. It must have taken courage to speak up, in the face of all my determined shyness. But what a gift his story was! Let's all be as brave in our story-telling as that father was that day.

I think of this man and his sons (and their mother!) often. I am so grateful to them. I hope they are doing well. Some part of everything I write will always have a bit of lake-water in it, to remind me to be more open, to be ready to meet people and their stories, wherever they may be.
Under this hat, progress toward baldness was being made!