No, I am not advocating inappropriate touching. But on the heels of a fabulous SCBWI writing conference, I'm reminded that writing in a vacuum - something I tend to do more often than not - is a dangerous and unproductive thing. Sure, authors need a certain amount of solitude to execute the ten thousand ideas bouncing around in our heads, but without serious critiques, the stories just can't fly or at least we certainly can't become the best writers we can be.
I have a number of stellar author pals in my area, even a couple who are interested in swapping works, but the realities of daily house maintenance, a teaching job, a husband who travels, and two adorable little time leaches, makes connecting with others tricky. Not to mention I certainly don't feel right handing off my own work when I have little time to offer back thoughtful critiques.
Enter the lovely Princeton SCBWI conference that forced me to sit down and give careful consideration to a few other delightful YA pieces while handing off my own baby for review. And voila! A serious issue I've been fighting in the first two chapters was solved. Ok maybe not solved, but the lovely ladies in the group immediately identified a major problem that has helped me refocus and add much needed work. The piece feels stronger already and will be in the hands of two agents by the end of June. (And since I just typed the deadline into this blog, I am now held accountable to it. Yikes!)
It takes a little push and pull to find the right folks, but with the internet and professional organizations who will speed date you through finding critique partners (and chocolate covered espresso beans to keep you up late enough to read all the goodness flying your way), there's really no excuse. Step out of the vacuum and connect!
My personal plan is to hound my SCBWI critique group pals from time to time for more reading assistance while I work here in pretty old Central PA to build a network that suits me. In that spirit, I included a few helpful links below in the hopes of inspiring you to do the same. I've also just signed up for the Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Camp. Happy writing. :-)
4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group
Critique Groups: What's Right For You?
How to Critique Writing
This is a busy week for me. The marking period marches along, Spirit Week at the high school requires a fair amount of ingenuity and elbow grease, and I have until the 30th to upload part one of my current project for a peer critique in early June. (I'm not sure I actually took a breath while typing that sentence.)
Mix in a demanding toddler, a pre-teen with a pre-attitude, a dedicated attempt to lose weight and I'm pretty sure it's the recipe for to the bone exhaustion. I've been ending my days in a Sarah puddle. Not to mention the blogging, the tweeting, the writing, the editing, and the other things I should be doing each and every day, right?
Wrong. Absolutely wrong. And I'm embarrassed to admit that my daughter Sophia figured this out well before I did.
"Mommy, stop." Her voice was quiet at first, and I was too busy multitasking to acknowledge her. "Mommy." Sadly still ignoring the voice as parents often do when trying to be productive. "Mommy stoooooooooooop," she hollered. Her face turned red and her tiny teeth chattered. "It's raining. It's raining. It's raining."
I need to listen to Sophia more often. I put everything down, I leaned over the back of the sofa in our living room and gazed out the window with her at the rain. I stopped thinking about anything that wasn't framed in the window. Blooming trees. Thousands of drops. The rhythm against the house. I haven't felt that good in days. Possibly weeks. And I didn't want to stop.
We live in a society hell bent on production, and being a writer offers added pressure. We are not Hemingway on a boat or in a fist fight living life. We are techno folks behind a screen developing images, typing words at lightning speed faster than our brains can think, reading blogs telling us to do better. Be better. We're liking statuses on Facebook, liking our own statuses - something I don't do but it drives me batty when I see it, and herding people into our virtual corral. And this just isn't, in my humble opinion, what writing is all about.
Creativity loves silence. Or if there is noise, authentic noise tends to hit the spot. Real voices with intonation, thunderous applause at a concert or ripping a piece of paper in half when the writing on it doesn't work. The glut of resources at our virtual fingertips can overwhelm and lose value. Minimally I worry that it's too easy to forget what's real. Watching life and living it are two distinctly different experiences. And I know that I feel the most depleted when I've been sitting for too long as a spectator. It's the easier choice to be one, but it's not the best.
I'm certainly not advocating sacrificing electronic communication or entertainment. Obviously you're reading my blog right now, and I know I'll be watching Survivor at 8 and texting with friends later on. Rather I'm suggesting that you make a simple pie chart of time spent actively living versus time spent as a spectator or voyeur. If the latter overwhelms, ask yourself a simple question. What is real?
After careful reflection, the best part of my day (before the rain episode with Sophia) occurred in study hall with two students energized by an idea for a play that they're writing. And while I did have my phone out playing Candy Crush from time to time, the best moments were the ones where I could almost see the ideas bouncing back and forth between the two of them. I think that's why I relish teaching. I witness inspiration like that every day. And the best days are when it comes from an unusual student I would have never guessed had the tornado brewing in them.
This evening I won't throw away all electronics and move into the yurt I so desperately want to buy for the backyard. But when I think about the writing craft and creativity, I am definitively detaching all of the baggage I have lately muddled it with. It's going to be me, a notepad, and a rainstorm. Or a quiet room, or one where my toddler might be braiding my hair. But at heart it's going to be just me and the writing. Ridiculous expectations and chaotic noise, I'm just not that into you anymore.
I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but my husband mentioned a few days back that when he was in middle school he absolutely loved the author Piers Anthony. I'd never heard of him, and experiencing the insane urge that most teachers/writers/book lovers do to know every single author in the universe, I looked him up and even ordered the first book in one of his fantasy series. (Thank you Amazon for the crack that you call Prime, literally getting me anything I want in two days. Evil evil evil.) We also found a super cool This American Life, "Show Me The Way" where coincidentally two young men discussed adoring this author, one so much so that he actually ran away to go live with Anthony. (Anthony politely but appropriately refused.) I've only read a couple pages of A Spell for Chameleon, but the guy seems pretty cool.
This also spurred me to revisit all of the old books that drove my parents nuts when they saw me reading them. Both my mother and father are academics, and if it wasn't Little Women or The Stranger, they were appalled. I've read the good stuff, the beautiful stuff. With sentences so perfectly constructed that they would make you cry. But I thought it would be more fun this afternoon to reflect on the 'fluff' books that helped mold me into the writer that I am today. I still maintain (and always will) that there's a huge difference between recreational books and garbage. The books I'll be discussing have value. They don't promote poor ideals or stereotypes of women and teenagers that shouldn't exist. These books are just pure, unadulterated fun reads, and I enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed my first reading of Great Expectations.
(I still have every single one. See below.)
We Hate Everything But Boys - Linda Lewis
Who isn't boy crazy in high school? This one is great because the girls form a club, a secret club, hiding the very obvious fact that they are boy crazy. Thankfully none of them lose their souls (sorry, only Twilightbash, I promise) or even their friends but instead do whatever it takes to find out who these objects of their affections like, even if the answers are crushing. My absolute favorite part? The protagonist gets the boy, things are resolved, but Lewis leaves her wondering what the heck happens when she heads to Junior High. Shockingly getting the guy was not the only happiness or looming question in her life. Good show, Lewis.
Cassie - Vivian Schurfranz
Back in the early 90's there was nothing like today's Young Adult and Middle Grade book markets. Little did I know when a friend gave me this book that it was not at all geared for my age group but was instead a Sunfire romance. This particular gem was about a spunky Caucasian girl captured by an Iroquois family, learning to survive and assimilate with a perky smile and flowing blond hair. This book (and many others in this serious that I completely devoured) all had brilliant pacing. I learned so much about moving a story along with action, even if from time to time the writing was so cheesy it begged for crackers.
The Secret Circle - L. J. Smith
Never judge this series based on the short-lived television show of 2012. By the author of the Vampire Diaries series, this town of witches is so, well, cool. I am embarrassed to admit that this is also about the time I started buying into crystals. Yes I very briefly thought there might be something to all that healing jazz. I also became obsessed with Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean" and believed that these three things were somehow cosmically related. I also loved the town that Smith created and started considering how a landscape might shape the characters rather than be just a static aspect of a work.
Facing It - Julian F. Thompson
I love this guy. His books contain the quirkiest characters who all just exist in the warm spaces he creates. This is actually the quietest of all of his books. (The Grounding of Group Six is a better one to start with.) I specifically remember this one because I didn't read about many male protagonists, and Randy Duke captured my attention immediately. His dialogue was spot on. I even liked the way he dressed. And I started considering how I would develop genuine male protagonists in my own writing.
Freshman Dorm (Book One) - Linda A. Cooney
This was of course required reading before I headed off to Dickinson. I mean, I was sure everything in this book was absolutely representative of college life. Actually I think that's why I loved this awful, awful series so much. I knew college life couldn't be this insane ball of turmoil, so it was fun watching the trio of girls (in their blazers and leggings and Maybelline Kissing Koolers) take on freshman year. I honestly can't think of one good writing lesson to draw from these except perhaps read what you love, and if it's a series more power to you because you get to visit and revisit the spot that makes you happy.
There are dozens more. Feel free to add you own guilty reading pleasure as long as it is not Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. I suppose when it comes to the two of them, I am a book snob.
I tried to devise a snazzier title, but considering my resolutions are rather cut and dry this year, a utilitarian title suits. I had also planned to start by looking back at last year's resolutions and assessing those, but I think that's for another post. Tonight I'm peering straight ahead into the next 365 day ride.
1) I need to write every day for at least one hour...no cheating. I've always fought against this adage because in my own mind ten minutes of quality writing is worth an hour of garbage. That being said, I'm too easy on myself. I bank the good days of several hours of writing to justify lamer days where little gets done.
2) I need to view writing as a primary job. I'm a teacher...and I love it. All the time, even on the days when a student has me ready to jump out a window. But I love writing just as much, and I need to stop feeling guilty when I make time for it. It may not be bringing in the big bucks just yet (or ever), but it still deserves as much attention as my other jobs like teaching, parenting, etc.
3) I need to build more Lego sets. Seriously, it's important. Yesterday my family and I raided our embarrassingly huge stock of unfinished sets and created the following:
The Mummy + Pirates of the Caribbean + LOTR + Bionicles + Avengers + The Hobbit + Star Wars. At least three or four times during the building process my brain raced to places in my current WIP and other stories where I could add new ideas or create subplots. The Lego adventure jumpstarted my creative process because I was making SOMETHING. Even if it did involve following another artist's plans, and yes those Lego geniuses who make these schematics are artists, I still felt creative and there are too many tasks in a routine day that try to suck that creativity right out of my toes. So I need to do more artsy and building stuff.
4) I need to talk to other writers. I have friends who write who I speak to, but we tend to get sidetracked with children and teaching and shoes. I need to do the writer speak thing more often. I am excited when I hear others speak of their processes, and I am happy to blab endlessly about how I write, too.
5) If I'm not sending my writing out SOMEWHERE, it's not suiting it's full purpose. Don't get me wrong, rejection is an integral part of being a writer, and it's a terrifying one. I know that there are some pieces I write which will never see the light of day. (A month after graduating Dickinson I wrote a short story called Cats and Guinness that I fully believed would be published in seconds and sadly still pouts in my binder of early writing with no magazines a' calling.) But it's the trying, the preparation, the process that can't really be a process without that last stretch. Otherwise writing becomes more of a selfish act, a pleasing myself and then stopping sort of act. And for me, anyway, that's not ok.
6) I WILL WRITE DOWN ALL OF MY GOOD IDEAS! If it wouldn't have been obnoxious, I would have made that one a million and a half font because there are dozens of fabulous sentences and characters and bits that are lost forever because I simply refused to slow down and capture them. I am not a surgeon up to my wrists in blood and a man's heart, I am not a pilot maneuvering an airplane above the clouds, and I am not a cowgirl engaged in a whiskey fueled gunfight. Therefore I can stop whatever I'm doing and tap ideas into my phone or use the ridiculously bad ass fountain pen my husband bought me for Christmas to write things down. No exceptions. No excuses.
7) Last but not least, I will be grateful. I get to be a writer. Somewhere in my brain is an insidious spark to create things, and I am blown away that everyone doesn't want to write all the time. Too often this past year I grumbled over minutia that wasn't that bad, or bad at all. And those moments all stole from my general happiness of being and my writing. Unacceptable, and I won't allow it in myself or those surrounding me this year.
Of course there are a million other resolutions that would look fabulous on paper (or screen). No more social networking. Oh FB and Twitter, you time goblins! Write every day between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. because I'm just that committed. I will go to sleep reading Hemingway rather than swooning over The Vampire Diaries. But I'd rather these resolution be honest, be straightforward, the way I hope my writing ends up. Have a beautiful new year all you beautiful writers. Let's make it the absolute best we can, shall we?
I wanted to call this blog Why Stephenie Meyer Is Single-Handedly Destroying The Universe. Then I realized that might be a slight exaggeration, so I thought perhaps Neil Gaiman Should Be My Starbucks Pal. But that one sounded a shade stalker-like. I'm definitely filing both of those away for another time, but today I'll simply stick with I Want to Be Mary Gaitskill When I Grow Up.
Why Mary Gaitskill? Her writing is beautiful and genuine and slightly uncomfortable. I've read and reread her short story collections a dozen times or more. And when I write, I always hope that I can be that honest and raw in the words I put down on the page. I've blogged about it before, but honesty in writing means more to me than just about anything. And this leads me to my super obvious but utterly vital writer tip of the day.
Good writers surround themselves with other good writers. It's such a simple equation but one that I think people easily forget. I constantly run into folks who either read junk, or worse yet, don't read at all. Can you imagine that? An author who doesn't like to read? Sure there are a million excuses for not reading. It's time-consuming. It's costly. It's a mental challenge that rarely yields the instant gratification of a quick game of Angry Birds. But any reader worth his or her literary salt will quickly explain that those excuses don't matter because they can't live without reading. They need to crawl into the brains of others like an addict needs his or her poison of choice. Life...and reality...are just not good enough for readers when they know that just a hop, skip, and a Barnes and Noble or Kindle away, there are other worlds waiting with arms stretched open. (I also quickly point out the films and television, in their own rights, do very similar things.) But I digress. You have to read to write. It's one of those very clear universal truths. And this is how you discover writing mentors for life.
I note here that you have to read good things or else the equation collapses (hence the nod to Meyer, queen of the sparkling junk). Good stories are chock full of exciting vocabulary, engaging plots, quirky characters, and reading those stories is like feeding your brain with spinach and sweet potato vitamin food. Now I say this fully acknowledging that there is a vintage stack of Sweet Valley High books hiding in my basement. (A personal favorite - Book 2, Secrets. Oh Jessica, you vixen.) In my youth I also read The Secret Circle Series and a few others that made my very academic parents' stomachs twist and shout. But in between those fluff series I read every word L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. And Sewell. And Tolkien. And eventually Angelou, Munro, Hoffman, Palahniuk, Austen, and a million others. And I would argue that I know when I'm reading something quality. Or as my husband will quip from time to time, game recognizes game.
As a writer finding those mentors, in my case the Neil Gaimans and Jennifer Egans of the world, to respect and emulate is crucial. It's as much a part of the writing process as practice or taking classes or anything else. Basically if we can't recognize good writing in others, how can we possibly hope to cultivate or identify it in ourselves? I remember being obsessed with Joyce Carol Oates immediately after college. I underlined every other word in her stories when I read them. I copied down her phrases of wisdom and even tried on a few pairs of glasses like hers to channel the inspiration. And there are faint threads of her style still present in my own writing today. Little moments where making her my idol affected my process profoundly.
It's the one piece of writing advice I give without reservation. Find the writers you love, and hate, because they write so beautifully you want to die with envy, but it's a stunning envy. A fruitful one. Study those authors. Visit their homes if you can. Wear a scarf of their favorite color on a day you lack inspiration. Understand their style. Read their works aloud. And one morning, you'll wake up and realize that they've made a deep impression upon you. And that you've established a relationship with them that will last a lifetime and beyond.
Mary Gaitskill, if you're reading this, seriously give me a call. We have a lot to chat about.
Twilight makes me cringe. Any of my students, family, friends, strangers stuck in an elevator with me, all know how much I detest it. Not because vampires shouldn't glitter. Or sparkle. Or shimmer. Not because the same seven words are repeated so often that my mastery of the English language begins to fail me. (I say this knowing that Stephanie Meyer likely sell more copies of the dreaded text in a year than I might in my entire lifetime. I do give credit where credit is due.) I can't standTwilight because of the message. It advises young women to obsess, to change themselves, sacrifice anything they have for the man they love. It promotes digging ourselves a lovely hole in the leafy ground and staying there until love returns or else there is nothingness. A cliff and an abyss begging us to throw ourselves in.
I study my current project and ask myself, what message am I sending forth? What do I know about life that is worth spreading and infusing my characters with who might otherwise run around the book knocking into each other like meaningless bumper cars? Love is a sticky subject to approach. Experience enhances and taints our perspectives. Career and education goals are often utterly subjective and individualized. I could talk about shoes. I've got some good ideas about shoes, but I doubt the Newbery Medal will be knocking down my door to commend me on educating today's youth about blowing out their Achilles tendons in favor of jaunty little wedges. So what's left? What can I teach?
Forget it, I tell myself. I don't need a message. I've got strong characters. They do things. Interesting things. And there are pretty or desolate landscapes thrown into the mix. My readers will stay with me for the sheer joy of reading. They don't need a message. Except some of them will ferret around and find one regardless. They'll point to the character who smokes on the pier. The girl who sleeps with someone and regrets it, except they may not see the regret. They see the girl who is liked by a boy for a brilliant shining moment. And before I can race around and FIND that girl, hit her over the head with my book and say it is fiction and don't you dare use it as a role model for your life, the damage is done. A message has scuttled its way out there. And I am responsible.
I believe that writers (successful or no) carry with them an unbelievable responsibility. It is their jobs to study what they write, find the kernels of truth that occupy even the silliest pieces, and make sure they are intended or at least palatable. I often write and make the message so obvious it is bigger than the characters surrounding it. Or I forget altogether that the messages are lurking and create lascivious characters who ought to watch themselves more carefully. What a responsibility but what a thrill to decide what in our lives is worthwhile, valuable to share, and toss it into the wind, reaching maybe a few. Maybe many.
What a privilege it is to be a writer.
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.