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 TaraLazar.com 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! 🙂

More procrastination

Am I the only one who drags my feet on revision?

My agent wants to start subbing my manuscript in February.  I told her I could get her the polished revision she requested by the first of the year.  Which is Monday.  And while I’ve done a good portion of the necessary work, there are a few things left I keep putting off.  I know I’ll feel better once I get it done.  I know I’ll enjoy the rest of my winter break without the pressure over my head; I leave Wednesday to spend the rest of my vacation with my family in Arizona.  But something keeps holding me back from getting it done and moving on.

Could it be fear of success?  I think there is only one book in my history that got WORSE with revision, and that book was telling the wrong character’s story from the get go (only I didn’t see that).  This book is GOOD.  With the requested minor revisions (and they really are minor) it will be even BETTER.  And yet, instead of hauling out my binder and legal pad, I’m writing this instead.

Will someone please just smack me upside the head and make me go write my final revised scenes so I can put the manuscript to bed (until it sells and an editor wants changes, of course)?

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. 😊

The Journey, not the Destination

Yeah, that’s a total lie.  My destination of choice has always been “traditionally published YA author.”  I want my book on the shelves of the bookstores that remain, and to be available through Amazon. I want to go speak to classrooms on writing and do book tours.  I want teens to send me e-mails about how much they love my characters.

But the one thing I learned a little over a decade ago, through fellow writer and teacher and best friend Joyce Sweeney, is that rarely happens overnight.  I was in her Thursday night critique group for a long time before it disbanded, and the biggest takeaway I had was PERSEVERANCE.  This industry is HARD.  It can take, Joyce suggested, ten YEARS to get an agent/book deal/etc.  And a lot of people don’t want to hear that, nor accept it, and they quit trying or they decide to self-publish.  And while I have nothing against GOOD writing being self-published (sadly, a high percentage of self-publishing does NOT fall into that category), I was determined that if I didn’t traditionally pub my YA, I would not publish it at all.

So while Your Mileage May Vary, my journey to this point has taken about ten years.  Once upon a time, I went to a panel on why boys don’t read.  It was mostly aimed at librarians and teachers, and I fall into the second category.  Two of the speakers that day were Joyce Sweeney and Alexandra Flinn.  While getting my copy of Breathing Underwater signed by Alexandra, I mentioned that someday, I’d like to be on her side of the table.  She wrote a web address on her business card and handed it to me.  She said if I was serious, this was the best organization to be a part of.  So the next day, I joined SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

And I kept writing.  And I went to conferences, which scared me to death.  I’m an introvert recovering from low self-esteem, so it was really intimidating to be around and talk to published authors.  My first conference critique netted me a fan – author Gaby Triana – who offered to look at a revision and, if she liked it, pass on a recommendation to her agent.  I thought that was IT! Connection made, my book would be published!  Ultimately, her agent at the time passed on my book, but it didn’t stop me.

I kept writing.  I kept going to conferences, and workshops, and learning and writing and schmoozing and everything you do to try to break in to the business.  I actually became FRIENDS with Alexandra Flinn.  She critiqued one of my manuscripts at a conference and really liked it.  That manuscript got a revision request from an agent, who helped me realize the book was trying to go two different directions.  Shelved and moved on.

Rejections are a part of the business, and as much as they hurt, every no is one step closer to a yes.  My next foray into securing an agent was almost successful as well – except the book I was pitching had a character dying from leukemia, and John Green had just released The Fault in Our Stars – no one wanted “sick lit.”

Back to the drawing board.  More writing, more workshops, more conferences.

Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll is the book of my heart, more than any other I’ve written to date.  And I went through a couple of rounds with agents who liked it, but didn’t love it.  My current agent took over a year to offer representation.  She requested the full, suggested revisions, and offered to look at it again if I chose to revise.  I did, and resubmitted, and she’s now my agent.

It took about TEN YEARS.  Ten years, five books, countless workshops.  And I’m still not at the destination.  Getting the agent is one step on the path.  Now, I have to revise the book one more time, work with my agent on a business proposal to present to publishers, and wait.

But while I wait, I must keep writing.  Because writing, after all, is a journey.