Monday, December 31, 2012

Zooming Out to See Better

As the year draws to a close, it's natural to think about what you've accomplished in the past 12 months. If you've been plugging away every day, this can be a reassuring exercise. At the beginning of 2012, a computer virus ate everything on my computer. That was a pretty major hump I had to get over, but it got me on the right course because I needed to overhaul what I was writing anyway. Which I did, and now I have a first draft to fix. And that makes me really happy.
I got to thinking about where that draft came from. It's not pretty. Fifteen minutes here; twenty minutes there. Frustration all over the place. Self-doubt creeping in. And my pace: slow, slow, slow. I've learned to chuckle when I read about writers who set goals of 1,000 words per day. I'm lucky if I get 100. I'm lucky if I open my file for five minutes to see where I'm at in the story before my day kicks in.
If you've read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, you'll know that he has this whole theory of 10,000 hours. Jane Friedman mentions it in her excellent blog post titled How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published. You need to try long and hard at stuff before good things happen. If I'm being really generous, I'll give myself 365 hours for this year. Again, that's generous. Not very much when thinking about needing 10,000 hours. But then I think about the past few years, and, okay, that will bump me up to 1,000 or so. And then I think about those handful of years when I was really productive, creating things that not a lot of people saw or read, and I can get to 5,000, no problem. Then sprinkle in college and high school writing assignments. That all adds up. Oh, and the dozens of angst-ridden teenage diaries scrawled with passion underneath the covers late at night. God, please, let me never, ever read those again. But that was a lot of hours.
Zoom out. See what's really happening. And then keep going. Happy New Year!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Prairie Writer's Day 2012

I attended my second Prairie Writer's Day conference a couple weeks ago. It's the annual day-long conference hosted by the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. This year I was able to carpool with writing group friends, which made it even more fun (despite having a cold and needing to suck on cough drops for most of the day).
All of the editors and agents who were invited to speak at the conference this year were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They'd been living without power for nearly two weeks, yet they still made it to Chicago for the conference. Only one agent was not able to attend, so author Susan Campbell Bartoletti jumped in at the 11th hour to give the keynote address. She talked about what makes a children's book a children's book. It boils down to a story that reflects the physical and emotional landscape of a child. Children are trying (so hard, everyday, all the time) to gain control over a world they have yet to master. Children's books can help them to do that. What a powerful thing. I attended another breakout session later with Susan where she gave really good tips about editing your work. It inspired me to print mine out (yes, on paper) and do a line edit (yes, with a pen). I confess: I love the editing part. Kind of a comfort zone for me, and I'm pleased that I finally have a first draft to edit.
One of my favorite parts of the day was a give-and-take between editor and agent. The editor was Beverly Horowitz with Delacorte Press/Random House, and the agent was Marietta Zacker, with Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. Wow, these ladies were sharp. They told it like it is. Without apology. Which is great. For example, "No one is going to love your baby [your book] as much as you do, but they're going to love it a lot." I think this is something that a writer knows, or should know, but hearing the words out loud is helpful. Sometimes the guests at these conferences can seem a little bit edgy, maybe the difference between New York and Chicago, but they have writers shoving their babies at them all the time. I can't imagine my e-mail inbox being so full as theirs. It makes me crabby just thinking about it. So for them to be so generous with their professional advice and to care and want to help is refreshing. Someone made a point of how with so many people out of work right now, their inboxes are more full than ever. Because everyone can write, right?
I came away from the conference with some solid next steps for my writing and a nice little list of people to whom I can submit. If all goes well, they'll love my baby a lot.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Middle Grade Debate

No, I did not see the presidential candidates debate. Instead, I headed over to 57th Street Books, where Rebecca Stead and Blue Balliett talked books and writing. (They each have a really fancy website with terrific graphics that make noise when your cursor moves over the page. Maybe I will be fancy like them some day.) The bookstore was calling the night a "debate" between these two talented writers, but really, it was more like a chat with old friends. I love being in the basement of 57th Street Books. Everything feels at arm's reach, including visiting authors.
Blue commented about how both she and Rebecca had blogged about the same article in the New York Times. Great minds! It is a fantastic piece by Cal Newport called "Follow a Career Passion? Let It Follow You." Mr. Newport ends with, "Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world." His article resonated with both writers, as it probably would for anyone who has worked long and hard at something they love (or, as he points out, don't love). I see it as owning your choices, something that's important for a writer to do.
The discussion veered to choices Rebecca and Blue make as writers. Blue has learned to let go, that holding on to a story too tightly can strangle it. Rebecca uses memories and experiences and finds ways to use them in her writing. They both made a point of how special--even magical--a middle grade reader is. Kids at that age are very deep thinkers. Life has not yet gotten in the way and distracted them. They are not too busy yet. They think in abstractions. Everything is possible. These traits make for excellent readers! The evening was most fun because of all of the young people in the audience, unafraid to ask questions like "What is your favorite book that you've written?" or "If you were stuck on a desert island with only one of your books, which one would it be?"
The authors in the room weren't the only ones giving out tips. The kids also had some good ones. Like this: If you want to get out of doing chores, tell your parents you're in the middle of reading a really great book. I think I am going to steal that for myself the next time dishes in the kitchen sink are calling.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Go Research That

I recently visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I went for fun because it's a really cool place but also to do some research for my book.
 Grey Crowned Crane
Whooping Crane
Seeing these birds up close is always inspiring, whether you're writing a book about them or not. It takes me a long time to write a book, so I'm always looking for ways to keep going. Doing your research is something that will spur you on.
I've learned a lot about birds, but I can always learn more. Much more. And even though I'm writing fiction, I need to have my facts straight. Getting the facts down will bring depth and authenticity to my story. This is true for anything you're writing about. The character's passion has to be the writer's passion. A writer must know everything a character knows; it's even better if the writer knows more. It's really easy to spot if a writer doesn't know what she's talking about, and it can pull you out of the story. (I was just reading a novel in which a character describes roasting a chicken, and it was obvious that the writer had never actually roasted a chicken. So I started thinking about roasting chickens instead of thinking about the story I was reading.) If a writer doesn't know what she's talking about, it shows. The small details are so important. Research allows the writer to arm herself with those small details that make readers truly buy in to the story.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fresh Eyes

I have a whole new fresh set of eyes to read my latest work, and it's awesome. There is nothing like a writing group to get you motivated anew. My last group kind of faded away quietly. No good-byes. No "this is the end of our writing group." After a year and a half of not meeting, I figured it was time to get out there and find a new group. (It takes me a while.)
Once again, SCBWI pointed me in the right direction. Someone on the listserv was looking for a writing group in the city. So was I. And so were 7 or 8 other people. Voila! It was a done deal. The folks on the listserv are so supportive that they also gave a ton of tips for starting a group, how-to's, how-not-to's.
In case you're starting up a writing group or thinking of it, here is what we've done. It's working well so far!
At our first meeting, we got together to introduce ourselves and our work. We also discussed what we'd like from the group. We decided meeting once a month would be best, and we can meet online if necessary.
We created a Wiggio account that we use to upload everything and post meeting dates and writing deadlines. Since we're a kid lit group, for each meeting we can submit a picture book or one chapter for others to read. We have the materials one week in advance of the meeting so that we are prepared with feedback when we gather.
It's really important to read your work aloud, but it's especially helpful to have somebody else read your work aloud. So we did that. How fun. (I mean, really...writing for kids is so fun.) And then we went around the room and discussed the work. Of course this was done in a positive, constructive way. Everyone provided such great insight and suggestions. I learned a lot just being present.
One thing we found helped a lot was for the writer to come prepared with a question for the group about his or her writing. That focused the reading somewhat and anchored the discussion to follow. We would go off on non-related tangents, but it was a great way to get conversation up and running.
I'm nearing the end of one phase of my project, a critical time when as a writer, I might get too comfortable and relax a little bit, when what I really need to be doing is pushing through. This creative group of folks is giving me the push I need. I've been working for so long now all by my lonesome; it's invigorating to get my writing out there to fresh eyes.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who's Your Favorite

A person's favorite author can change over time, depending on what you're reading, your mood, your life circumstances. It's a good question to visit from time to time as a writer. Knowing who your favorite author is can influence your point of view. Rereading a favorite author can inspire you. Writing down and studying favorite sentences by that author will make you a better writer.
E.B. White is a favorite of mine. I'm fascinated by his life. I study his style guide. And I'm enchanted by his fiction. He's a writer to whom I circle back time and again.
The first sentence of Charlotte's Web is often used as an example of a great way to start a story:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?"

It not only tells us about the characters but also creates enough tension to last an entire book. Reading White's fiction is a study in the style rules first outlined by his Cornell professor, William Strunk Jr. One of my favorites from The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition) is number 14 (from chapter V, An Approach to Style), Avoid fancy words. Fancy words aren't needed to address the concerns every child has about death. White shows how to "talk up" to your audience using language they will understand. Not easy, but in his hands it feels natural. He treats his reader with great respect.
There is something to be said for this quiet kind of writing. It is powerful. It's a thoughtful reflection of the "little book" that sits on writers' bookshelves everywhere.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize

I didn't make it to the Printer's Row book fest this year because, keeping with tradition, it was too hot. I was sorry to miss seeing John Green. He was the recipient of the 2012 Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize. You can find his acceptance speech on YouTube. He starts off with this: "The middle man is essential to the creation of a good novel." Maybe that's controversial, but your best work can't happen in a vacuum. It just can't. Then he talks about the early days of his career. I was surprised that he was passing himself off as a slacker who wrote mediocre stuff and perpetually missed deadlines. This coming from a prolific writer whose age is mentioned in every article ever written about him. He was probably trying to make us feel better so we'd like him. He talks about stealing ideas from friends, which I call "living the writer's life." And he asserts that books are written by regular people, which of course is true. (Except for one qualifier: regular people with time.) (He touches on time too.) Literary prizes are important because they recognize authors we should be reading. They help the publishing industry. Maybe they can even be inspiring. And when you listen to these accomplished authors talk about writing, you hear a common refrain. Hard work. Gratitude. Without these, a good novel will never happen.