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I was waiting a long time to get my first “yes” on a novel. Now, a little more that a year past it’s release into the world, here are the top five things I’ve learned in my first year as … Continue reading
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I’m feeling a little Olympic today, as yesterday it was announced that Leaving Kent State has won a 2017 Moonbeam Children’s Award Gold Medal in the Young Adult Historical Fiction category. Independent Publisher magazine runs the awards, which are “intended to … Continue reading
When I entered my MFA program in 2014, I had no idea what a cathartic process writing is to most people who write. Sure, there had been times as a preteen or teen where I’d thrown some anger down on … Continue reading
Our celebrations of January 1 as our New Year has a somewhat murky history. According to the History Channel, we have Julius Caesar to thank for determining this date as our marker, when he followed the advice of an Alexandrian astronomer who told him to replace the lunar year with the more accurate solar year followed by the Egyptians. They incorrectly calculated the solar year to be 365 and 1/4 days (yes, Caesar is to blame for the original concept of leap year, too), and chose January 1st to begin the year.
By the middle ages, though, this miscalculation was messing with people’s calendars, so celebrating the new year on January 1st had fallen out of fashion. This led to our current Gregorian calendar.
The website Earthsky adds that January was also a natural choice based on the Roman feast of Janus, God of beginnings and doorways. Janus was depicted as having two faces, one that looked back into the past and one that looked ahead to the future. A god we can all relate to.
And so we choose this day of all days to celebrate Janus, to look behind us one last time before we start refreshed and reinvigorated. The question then becomes, how do we maintain this enthusiasm, particularly where our writing and reading are concerned? Here are my favorite tips for staying strong in the new year:
5. Build your community. Social media makes it easier than ever to find like minded people who share your love of reading and writing. Whatever your favorite platform is, twitter, instagram, Goodreads, or some other one I don’t even know exists, there are book lovers waiting to connect with other book lovers. Find them, they are your people.
4. Even when you don’t have time to read all the books, stay up to date on the latest releases, make wish lists even if they are only in your head, and when you are able to commit to a book, you will have a vast selection collected from which to choose. Some great resources for finding books are Bookriot, Litpick, and NPR.
3. Steal time. Steal time to write and to read. Don’t wait for permission from anyone. Forge your own path toward your writing and your reading.
2. Be fearless. Write fearlessly. Read fearlessly. If you hate the book you’ve chosen, give it to charity. Make paper sculptures from its pages. Leave an honest review. But don’t blame yourself for not liking a book, even if its been hyped to the sky. Not every book is for every reader. Don’t try to write for every reader. Write the story you believe in and only that story.
1. If you truly love books and truly want to be a writer, don’t give up. No matter what. If there are days you don’t write or don’t read, that’s okay. Just don’t ever give up. It’s wrong, it will trespass on your soul and leave you feeling empty. Remind yourself that tomorrow you will write. Tomorrow you will read. For as many tomorrows as it takes.
These are my favorite truths to stay inspired. What are yours?
The only thing I am sure of is that it’s long gone. It’s been a kind of whirl wind month for me. My first young adult novel has been accepted at Harvard Square Editions and will be forthcoming sometime next year. Last Friday, I went “cover” shopping with a writer friend of mine. We met for coffee at my local Barnes & Noble and then looked at covers from various YA genres to get ideas for what mine might look like. It felt a lot like Christmas shopping, in a very good way. I’ll definitely update on what the publishing experience is like as I go along.
Also last month, I attended my Western Pennsylvania Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference. There were some amazing and inspiring presentations by editors and agents, and it reminded me a little of being at my MFA residency, that kind of immersion in craft and ideas that makes you feel like anything is possible if you just open yourself up to your creativity. You can learn more about the SCBWI and the WPA region here. Also, be sure to check out our Assistant Regional Adviser’s blog for additional information. Her name is Kate Dopirak, and you can find her here. She’s an awesome author, too, by the way.
And, finally, my young adult short story, Honor’s Justice, came out today in Lunch Ticket, the MFA journal of Antioch University Los Angeles. You can check that out here. I’m very proud to be associated with this edition and it’s emphasis on the human condition.
I love Halloween. The rustle of the leaves, the cool of the night, the damp shine of a rain-slicked street, the quiet of fog. I love the flicker of candles in jack-o-lanterns and black cats (I’m very partial to black cats), the caramel apples and chocolate everything. The only part of Halloween I’m not crazy about is the scary part. I’m much more of a Disney scary movie girl than a Freddie Krueger kind of girl. I like my monsters on the light side, like mayo.
The thing about monsters, for me, is that nothing is scarier to me than what human beings can do to one another and animals. I can’t make myself believe in ghosts or sasquatches or werewolves. Even if those things do exist, how many times do they actually attack human beings? How many documented cases of murder by ghost are reported each year? Human beings, well, that’s another story completely. They scare the daylights out of me.
But monsters, the really scary kind, whether they are human or otherworldly, make for great stories. As writers, we have to seek out the monsters in our stories to create tension. Every protagonist needs an obstacle. Even if that obstacle isn’t, technically speaking, a monster, it needs to act as a monster. It needs to knock the protagonist to his knees and make him fight for his life, whether that’s literally or figuratively. Monsters are the stakes in the story, the obstacle that wants to take away the protagonist’s dreams. And every story deserves a monster as scary as Samuel Whiskers, an obstacle that can materially alter the course of the protagonist’s life for the worse. It can be hard to unleash monsters on our protagonists. We love our protagonists, because, after all, we create them. They are like our children, so we don’t really want to put them through the darkness that a true test will. Our instinct is to shelter and protect them. But just like our real children, our protagonists must face the world with all its darkness, and we can only hope we’ve given them the strength and tools they need to succeed. Okay, with our protagonists, we get to choose if they do, so it’s a lot better than when we have to watch our kids struggle through life. So bring on the monsters in your stories not just at Halloween, but all year. Your readers will thank you for it.
I am always fascinated by the flurry of activity surrounding the writing challenges of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), and PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). It seems funny that it’s theoretically easier to write a poem every day than it is to write a picture book. I confess, however, that if I had to choose between writing a full picture book every day for a month or a complete poem, I would take writing the poems as the easy way out. Not that picture books or poetry are my strengths, but getting a “complete” (albeit bad) poem down on paper would be easier than a complete (very) bad picture book.
But PiBoIdMo is all about ideas. That should be easy enough, yes?
The person who says that it should be easy is also the person who thinks that writing books for kids is a cute thing to do in your spare time. The truth is, good picture books are difficult to write. Incredible picture books are, well, incredible to write. Within 300 to 1000 words, you must create a compelling protagonist who faces a significant challenge or challenges to achieve a meaningful goal. Your story should be funny, surprising, clever, and, most of all, meaningful (at least to the 2-6 year-old crowd) (and did I mention it needs to be meaningful?) And don’t forget that you want to make it multidimensional so that parents and other adult readers won’t throw the book into the nearest bonfire when they are asked to read it for the fiftieth time in three days.
Try coming up with an fresh idea to support all that for thirty days in a row. Now you are doing PiBoIdMo. So, I confess, I am not. It seemed too far beyond me as I struggle to keep up with my teaching job, a presentation I had on writing at a local college this month, and my own writing.
But every day I get my email from the blog of Tara Lazar, who concocted this whole crazy thirty-ideas-in-thirty-days thing, and I get to enjoy all of the motivation that goes with this amazing challenge. I haven’t come up with any new ideas myself, but I have dusted off a picture book manuscript that had come back with a personal rejection from a slush pile last month. It’s a story I’ve worked on for many years (more off than on) and that has seen many variations. After getting some critique feedback this summer, I had sent it out with high hopes. When it came back with the rejection, I felt really discouraged. The editor told me it was sweet and funny, and that one image was hilarious, but she hadn’t told me what she didn’t like. So I went back to my summer comments and thought about them some more. Had I fully addressed the concerns of the critique comments? I realized that I hadn’t. There was still work to be done. So now, with a little inspiration from PiBoIdMo, I am sitting down once again and making sure I work a little harder, a little better, and maybe just a little faster.
So, if you are struggling with your picture book manuscript, or you have one (or more) sitting on your hard drive that you know you could do something with if you just had the right inspiration, or if you think you could come up with some fresh ideas but need a little kick start, then check out Tara’s blog at Writing for Kids While Raising Them. It’s too late to register for the official challenge for this year, but it’s never to late to write great books for great kids.
Last week, one of my fellow Lesley University Alums, Audrey Camp (have I mentioned that I love the community that is Lesley?) tagged me to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. Audrey is an American expat and freelance writer living in Oslo, Norway, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley in 2012. Her essays have appeared in Forge and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. You can check out her take on her writing process at Audrey Camp, The Girl Behind the Red Door .
1. What am I working on?
One of the most difficult and fun aspects of my writing process is that my writing life reflects my personality. I like to call it eclectic. Some might call it scatter-brained, unfocused, or just plain weird. My husband tells me I’m the only person he knows who has the classical station jammed between the oldies rock and the country station on my car radio pre-set channels. I came to Lesley’s MFA program with several projects in various stages of completion. I also began one new project, a YA fantasy novel that became my thesis. Following graduation in January, I revised a completed draft of an historical fiction YA, a picture book, and one poem. Now I am trying to settle back down to complete my fantasy novel, but I admit that other projects, new and old, are clamoring for my attention as well. Just like my children, each of them shouts “Look at me! Look at me! No, REALLY look at me!” So I have begun to set monthly goals to try to corral the unwieldy herd into submission for submission’s sake.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I think this question could probably be answered in the same way by every writer: my work differs from others of its genre because of that elusive thing we call voice, which is made up, in part, of those aspects of our experience which inform us and drive us forward. We imbibe a character’s voice with aspects of that character’s personality, gender, ethnicity, sense of place. Similarly, my work as a writer is imbued with my voice-my experience as a person, my world-view, my sense of justice, worth, and import. These are the pieces of the world that influence and inform my writing, which is what sets it apart from other work in the same genre.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Audrey said “When it comes to writing stories, I have no choice.” This is true for me as well. When I was a kid, I read voraciously and I created my own stories with equal enthusiasm. It was my way of creating a utopian world, one that made sense and functioned as I knew the real world should. Now, story is for me the same kind of safe harbor, creating worlds that seek to make sense of the inconsistencies and injustices of life. When we write, we get to play God, and it is as close to understanding how difficult a job that might really be as we can probably come.
4. How does my writing process work?
Well, most days I would have to admit it doesn’t. Instead, I covet success to feed my guilty pleasure. It would be a luxury to be able to say “I’m a financial success as a writer, therefore I’m justified in spending time on my writing as if it were a real job.” I admit I have pangs of envy for writers who can treat themselves to whole days of writing, researching, and networking while knowing there will be a paycheck at the end to justify this time.
I have three kids, one husband, and four cats. My schedule shifts and morphs on a minute by minute basis at times. I try to plan my week, but usually there will be some event that changes all my plans. Last week, it was a cat in sudden renal failure, a child with a fractured thumb, and the list goes on from there.
I try to maximize time by networking (twitter, facebook, etc.) while I have time that is otherwise difficult to use (waiting at doctor’s appointments, drum lessons, etc.) I try to write a little each day, but there are often days where that doesn’t happen. I do think about my writing every day, planning my plot lines and getting to know my characters in my head, so I count that as writing, even if it’s happening while I’m driving, or walking, or doing laundry. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you must write every day to be successful. You just have to be dedicated to finishing projects on whatever schedule is feasible for you.
I like when I have deadlines to meet (whether for submission periods or self imposed) as it helps me to focus and stay on track. And, recently, I have begun to make use of two alumni groups where we check in with goals at the beginning of the month. Finally, I try to use my weekly writing group session as a deadline to the next chapter.
With respect to projects, my process is varied. Wherever the idea strikes me, at whatever point in the story that is, I begin. Sometimes it’s a scene in the middle. Sometimes it’s the climax, sometimes the first page. The seed that starts the story is my jumping off point. If it’s not the beginning, I get the crux of the seed down, then go back to the beginning and work toward the idea that started it all. From there, I usually continue in chronological order. I never start with endings, as it’s hard to know what will be needed in them, even if I know what the ending will be (I’m a happy ending person. There’s enough misery in the world that I don’t feel the need to add to it with my endings. I know some people will criticize me for this, but I haven’t yet found a legitimate reason in my work to veer from this philosophy, and I hope I never will.
So that is my working process. Next up, you can check out the writing processes of some of my completely awesome Lesley friends:
I hope you’ll check them out. A writer friend of mine, Patricia Easton, likes to quote the legendary children’s editor, Dinah Stevenson, with the following words of wisdom (and one of my favorite nuggets of writing advice): Your process is your process. Honor your process.
While researching the topic of my third semester craft essay at Lesley last year, I came across the term “functional shift” used by cognitive scientists to describe a slow down in brain processing when we encounter language in fiction that makes us hesitate to understand it. Authors are universally taught that clarity is one of our main goals in writing. So while it doesn’t sound like making your reader work to understand what you are saying would be a good idea, it is, in fact, a trick used by many highly successful authors. From Shakespeare to Dr. Suess, authors who can successfully manipulate the functional shift engage their readers more significantly than those who do not use this technique.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fmri) technology, scientists have gained new insight into how our brains react to the language of fiction. By studying subjects reading Shakespeare, cognitive scientists have isolated this principle of a functional shift.
Shakespeare used 17,677 words in his works, making up approximately 1700 of them, or 10 per cent. He did this by changing the parts of speech, integrating foreign words, adding prefixes and suffixes, inventing words, and connecting separate words together. These intentional syntactic errors shift mental pathways in the reader, which causes the brain to become stimulated. By comparing the language of Shakespeare to the same meaning rewritten in simple prose, scientists were able to discover that the challenge of Shakespeare’s word usage engages the reader, making the subject excited rather than confused. Among examples of Shakespeare’s intentional syntactic mistakes are “thick my blood” from The Winter’s Tale (an adjective made into a verb); “the cruelest she alive” from Twelfth Night (a pronoun made into a noun); “He childed as I fathered” from King Lear (a noun made into a verb); and “him have you madded” from King Lear (an adverb made into a verb). As we read these sentences, our brains hesitate to understand the new use of the word encountered, yet that use is familiar enough to us that we do not discard it as nonsense. We experience a slight delay to process the word and the functional shift is created.
On the other pole of this spectrum, Dr. Suess often used the same type of error to engage young readers, such as when he substituted the word “chimbley” for “chimney” in How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Although “chimney” could have worked as an imperfect rhyme for “nimbly” in the previous line, Dr. Suess’ invention of a word so close to chimney, and yet acting as a perfect rhyme, works in the same manner as the inventions that Shakespeare used. The reader accepts the word as something that can be understood after a slight hesitation.
As writers, understanding how and why this functional shift occurs allows us to manipulate it in our own writing. As with all rules, we must understand the rule in order to break it. If the attempted shift is recognized by the brain as nonsense, the brain will hesitate and reject it, and the shift will not be effective, the brain will not be stimulated. A writer must be in control of the technique when he or she uses it for it to produce the intended result.
If you’d like to learn more about the functional shift, this article by Daniel Honan is a great place to start:
What are some examples of an effective functional shift that you have read or used in your own writing?