Can’t Write in a Vacuum

Though writing is essentially a solitary sport, one of the requirements for bettering your book is honest critique to help in the revision process.  If you plan on traditionally publishing, you want to have a polished manuscript to query to agents.  But how do you polish?

I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  I live in South Florida, and the Florida chapter of SCBWI is awesome.  We have a big conference in Miami each January and a workshop in Orlando each June.  There are also smaller workshops offered in several cities throughout the state.  So this has given me a great opportunity to meet other writers on all levels – newbies, veteran but still unpublished, published, veteran published.  So there are plenty of opportunities to find critique groups or beta-reading partners.

It’s important to have other sets of eyes on your book before you submit it for representation (or to self-publish, whatever your road is).  Fresh eyes can find plot holes, see flaws in characterizations, and make recommendations to help strengthen your manuscript.  I just had my mentor/bestie read my unrevised first draft of a YA novel, and she gave me so many good notes for revision that I almost can’t wait to dig in to it. (I hate revising.)

So when you write, to paraphrase Stephen King, write with the door closed.  But throw that baby open and invite other writers or really strong beta readers to give you feedback as you head into the revision mode!

Making the Time to Write

I am guilty of not following my own advice.  I’m a high school English teacher.  After a day of wrangling recalcitrant teenagers, I have little energy for much else.  My health is not optimal as a result, and I don’t write.  I need to write.

So I guess I’m writing today’s blog to myself, as well as to anyone who finds his or her way across it.  There are as many different ways to write as there are writers.  One of my writing friends gets up at 4am to make sure she gets her writing in.  I am so NOT a morning person.  It takes everything I have to drag my butt out of bed just to make it to school on time.  So that’s not something that works for me.  That’s important too – to know if you’re at your best in the morning, afternoon, or nighttime.  I’ve had friends who wrote after their families went to bed and the house was quiet.  My furry daughter gets bent out of shape when I leave her in bed and go to my computer.  She suddenly wants to leave the room.

Clearly, something has to give in my world for writing time to happen.  I miss the year I taught creative writing – once the kids were working on their assignments, I’d write with them.  As education fixates more heavily on standardized test prep, I don’t have the luxury of creative writing time with my kiddos so often.  It’s not tested.

The way I see it, I’m going to have to make some evening time to get some writing done.  As soon as I figure out, of course, which project is next in my queue.  I have over 40 ideas right now, and not a clue which one will actually become my next book.

Ah, the challenges of a writing life bent into a teaching life!

On Reading and Writing

I sent my latest revision to my agent a few weeks ago, and am still letting my NaNo manuscript simmer on the back burner – revision is NOT my favorite tool in the box, so I’m putting that off.  Though I am participating in #StoryStorm2018, I’m not currently developing or writing.  Just brainstorming.

And since my Master’s Thesis is completed and my degree conferred, I’m grateful to have time after school for something I really miss when I don’t have time to do it – PLEASURE READING!

The key to becoming a good writer is to be a good reader.  Obviously, reading in your field is optimal to see what’s already been done and how to really fit the genre of your choosing.  But I like reading widely.  When I was visiting my parents earlier this month, I devoured some Sandra Brown, Michael Connelly, and James Patterson from my mom’s bookshelves.  I read a bunch of adult and new adult romances because I’m on a mailing list that sends me titles that are available for free that day through my Kindle.  And last week, I rediscovered my best friend – the local library.

Can you believe it’s been THREE YEARS since my library card expired?  I didn’t believe it!  I used to practically live in the YA section of my neighborhood library (as a YA writer and teacher – it was TOTALLY research!).  Plus I took advantage of the e-book app to borrow electronic books as well.  So I was shocked to realize how far I’d strayed.  Not that I stopped reading – I was buying books instead of borrowing them.  But since I’m an underpaid educator, that’s not the best option anymore.

Reading is the foundation for a strong writing career.  If you don’t read, you don’t know what good writing looks like, and, for that matter, what BAD writing looks like.  Writers can’t live in a vacuum.  We have to know the literary world around us.

So go get a book, and make some time to READ today. 🙂

Words from the Wise at SCBWI Miami

So last weekend, I attended the workshop day at the SCBWI-Florida Miami conference.  I’ve attended the conference pretty much every year since joining SCBWI, though over the past few years I’ve whittled down to attending on Sunday only, the day the presenters give actual workshops.  So one of the workshops I attended was with Amy Fitzgerald, an editor with Carolrhoda books.  She spoke on the topic of “Building Flesh and Blood Novel Characters.”

You would think that, as a veteran writer with an agent, I wouldn’t be interested in what seems like a beginner’s workshop.  But the truth is, growth comes from learning.  And if nothing Amy said was new to me, it was still worth hearing and being reminded that yes, you always have to remember certain things about character building that make characters real for readers.  So I’m sharing a couple of my takeaways from Amy’s session.

First – you have to know the ROOTS of your character.  She said, “A lot of what you know won’t make it into your manuscript. Figure it out anyway, write it down somewhere.”

In the past, I’ve used various methods for developing the roots of a character.  I’ve done character “interviews.”  I’ve written scenes that never appeared in my book – some of which were workshop exercises that helped deepen my knowledge of my characters.  Either of these methods can help you know your characters well.

One of the last things Amy talked about Sunday resonated with me, and that was “Be willing to reinvent your character.”

We can’t stay married to a character that just doesn’t work.  If, in the course of your storytelling, you realize the character should be a different kind of person, let that happen.  I wrote a novel once in the wrong character’s voice.  I could never make the book feel right.  It was finally my mentor who told me the real story was not my MC’s story, but instead, her twin brother’s.  And since I’m not comfortable enough in boy head for a male MC, I shelved the story (at least for now).

So there are a couple of points to ponder from my SCBWI weekend experience.

Write on!

Tuesday Tip

I put up a quick post on my Facebook author page today that advocated Finding Your Tribe.  I feel this is important in many aspects of life, but especially for writers.  Why?  Read on, Macduff, and I shall elaborate.

I’ve always written.  Writing is, by its very nature, a pretty solitary activity.  I can say, however, that my writing skills escalated wildly when I did two things.  Thing one, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  I had met author Alexandra Flinn at an educator event – a discussion on Why Boys Don’t Read attended by Alex and other YA authors Joyce Sweeney, Dorian Cirrone, and Joanne Hyppolite.  While getting my copy of Breathing Underwater signed by Alex, I mentioned that someday, I hoped to be on her side of the table.  She gave me her business card and wrote the SCBWI web address on the back.  She told me if I was serious about writing for teens, SCBWI was the best organization to join.  So I did, the very next day, and I’ve been attending the SCBWI Florida conferences and workshops regularly ever since, which led me to Thing two.

Thing two was receiving a coveted invitation to a private critique group run by Joyce Sweeney.  Joyce had gotten on my radar years earlier, when I took a YA Literature class at FAU and she was a guest speaker.  She had mentioned running the invitation-only critique groups, and I remember thinking that someday, I wanted to be a good enough writer to earn an invitation.  Through many SCBWI events and local classes, I got on her radar, and after taking a class with her through my local library, Joyce invited me to her Thursday group.

So those two things helped me really find my tribe.  Through SCBWI, I attended conferences and workshops, working on my craft as I learned what agents and editors looked for.  Through Joyce’s critique group, I honed my story-writing skills.  And through both, I found my tribe – the storytellers like me.

Find your tribe.  It really helps kickstart your creative soul.

The “What Ifs” of Writing

My favorite way to generate a story is to start with a “what if.”  My current novel, Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll, started germinating with, “what if a teenage girl wanted to be in a band, but her musician father says no?”  Previous works came from questions like, “what if a hypochondriac fell in love with a boy dying from leukemia?” and “what if a mother’s boyfriend sexually abused her daughter but Mom doesn’t believe her?”

As I said in the last blog, I’m doing StoryStorm 2018, and this morning, reading this amazing piece by Matt de la Pena – Darkness – I suddenly had another “what if.”  The author mentioned thinking about something as he sat in the airport on a flight delay, and those words triggered a what if for me (I’m not sharing it, because we’re not supposed to!).  I grabbed my mini StoryStorm notebook, which I try to keep close by for when the muse speaks, and jotted down my “what if.”

As writers, we should cherish the “what if” moments.  Be open to them.  No matter how crazy they are, the chances of generating a story from a “what if” are monumental.

What if you listened to all the what ifs that drifted through your mind each day?

STORYSTORMing in January

So I don’t remember which of my friends posted about this on Facebook, but a week or so ago I learned about Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm 2018.  It is a renamed version of PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) and though I’m not a picture book author by ANY stretch of the imagination, I figured why not?

storystorm18participantThe idea is to generate 30 new book ideas in 31 days (the month of January). So I grabbed a mini notebook to keep on hand just for that purpose, and have managed to come up with one idea a day so far.  Some of them I like, some of them may never see light of day, but it’s a really cool concept to force your creative mind to do something even when it may not be inclined to do so.


Official registration for StoryStorm ends today if you want to get in on Tara’s action – there are prizes to be had if you achieve your goal of 30 ideas in 31 days.  Of course, there’s no reason you couldn’t do it on your own, too, if you wanted.  Check out Tara’s blog for more info or to sign up today (January 9).

The more ideas you can generate, the more books you can write, whether they are picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, new adult, or plain old adult.   Don’t wait for inspiration to miraculously strike – get your creativity juiced and generate ideas, ideas, ideas!

For example – this morning, as I was driving to work, the car in front of me had a license plate that read CAL A and a couple of numbers.  Within a few minutes, a new character named Calla Lily Burkhart was tapping on my shoulder and whispering her general story in my ear. (I’m not sharing the idea itself, but just how it came to be).  What will your daily drive give you by way of story ideas?

Write the Wave! 🙂

Gear does not equal “Better”

In addition to being a YA novelist, I am also a photographer.  I have been shooting fairly regularly for about 28 years, having started with film cameras and eventually making the jump to DSLR and now to Mirrorless.  I belong to multiple groups on Facebook for photography and one of the things I see a lot from newbie togs is this:

“I’m getting a new camera!  What should I charge customers?”

Most of the time, this question comes from photographers whose skill sets are not elevated enough to be considered “professional” – their photos are inconsistent, they don’t understand lighting or posing, etc.  They have craft to learn before they should be soliciting paying clients.

And today, I thought to myself, as writers, do we ever say, “I’m getting a new word processor for my laptop! Should I sub my book to agents?”

It’s a little laughable, isn’t it?  Writing and Photography have a lot in common.  They are creative fields that require technical skill – you could have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t express them on the page . . . well, we all know how that goes.  And photography is similar – you can have a great eye for composing, but if you don’t understand how the exposure triangle works, you may not get decent images despite “seeing” them in your mind’s eye.

Yet, photographers think better gear translates to better photography.  I’ve yet to meet a writer who thinks a better computer or better writing program (Word vs Scrivener, for example) will translate to better writing.  Better writing comes from practice.  Better writing comes from taking workshops on craft, and learning how craft and structure work together, and how dialogue, narrative, and action interact.  Better writing comes from being involved with critique groups, and getting feedback, and revising for improvement.  Better writing comes from being open to that feedback, and allowing yourself to look for imperfections in that “perfect” baby.

I know of writers who, after participating in NaNoWriMo, are so pleased with their rough draft that they immediately start sending out queries to agents.  Anne Lamott called the first draft the “shitty first draft.”  I believe her.  Even if you get a completed rough from a month of frantic writing, you still need to mold it, shape it, and better it before trying to send it out in the world.

So when you’re writing, always remember it’s great to get the first draft down on paper.  But the first draft is just that.  Revise, rewrite, review, repeat.  Because as clichéd as it is, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”  Don’t try to skip steps in the process. The process results in a sellable product, and isn’t that what we all want?

New computer or not. 😊