I am completely taken with the novel All the Birds in the Sky and by completely taken, I mean obsessed. I've read it twice, and I want there to magically be a film adaptation tomorrow. In a pitifully small nutshell, this sci-fi fantasy romp that places the magical and the technological world s head to head in a brutal battle for power. Add a Romeo and Juliet-esque complication, and I was sold by page three.
But this isn't just a plug for the novel, although if you're reading this I expect you to go get a copy ASAP. This is, however, a huge plug for genre-jumping. And if you're already putting up your nose saying I don't DO fantasy or sci-fi, I especially charge you to try it. Minimally try a genre that you may enjoy but have never attempted for the following reasons:
1 - You will have to learn. As writers we ought to be learning constantly through our reading and workshops. Through mentor texts and interaction with authors. Unfortunately too many writers feel that their voices and styles are fixed somewhere after college and don't necessarily try to evolve.
2 - Genres need to be challenged, too. Perhaps you can bring new flair to an established medium. Your personal style and voice paired with a new genre might just open up a new space for authors to write in.
3 - We don't know until we try. It's impossible to know what you're good at it without flopping here and there. What if children's lit is your thing, or perhaps gritty detective narratives will allow your skills at setting creation to flourish.
4 - You won't be bored. Ever feel like you're writing the same story over and over again? Do characters nefariously appear and relive their plot like Groundhog Day? It's tougher to do that in a different genre, and it forces your brain to be creative in a different way.
5 - It's fun to fail! Ok, maybe not fun but we all need more practice and we learn more from what doesn't work than what does. Write a historical piece and see what you learn. Maybe research isn't your thing, or perhaps developing a not-so-modern voice doesn't gel with your voice. That's ok, and now you know.
Ultimately I think one of the most attractive things about the writing life is the ability to continue to grow, defying age, defying physicality, and defying resources. It is truly a craft accessible to everyone with a bit of elbow grease and determination.
April is my favorite month for writing because it's typically the month I sign up for summer conferences and plan where my writing is going for the duration of the year. The NJ SCBWI conference is by far my favorite, but I also investigate writing retreats and summer contests. As a teacher I'm afforded the luxury of being a mostly full-time author in the summer.
But as I make these plans I also block out which projects take priority, and every year I ask myself if it's wise to embark on two, three, sometimes even four writing adventures simultaneously. The same questions flash through my mind.
Would I be more productive if I just buckled down with one piece at a time?
Will the projects become repetitive?
Do characters hop from one work to the next?
Is splitting my attention essentially heading down a rabbit hole of never finishing anything?
And every April I arrive at the same answer. Absolutely not. While I can't speak for every writer, I know that laser focus on one project for me leads to writer's block and burnout. My writing blurs much the same way my eyes do if I stare at one thing too long. And while I keep a writing routine (writing every morning for at least two hours) working on the same project exclusively makes my passion fall into the landscape and becomes a task as tedious as cleaning the bathrooms and wiping down kitchen counters.
That being said, there are a few tips and tricks I use to keep projects organized up in the air simultaneously.
Physical Space: I keep the projects in separate binders or separate folders, color-coded so they carry their own visual cues. Just the different appearance often is enough to help my brain transition from one project to the next, particularly if the colors relate to the tone and vibe of the work.
Temporal Space: I never work on things back to back and minimally give myself an hour or two of physical work to cleanse my creative palate. I am by no means an avid exercise gal, but nothing allows me to reframe my focus like walking the dog or funning a few errands.
Emotional Space: The mood of the pieces matter. Rushing from a tragic piece to something cheery leaves a bad taste in my mouth. My mood matters, too. Multi-tasking my writing never works if I'm feeling overwhelmed in the other areas of my life. Doing so is akin to trying to parent my children simultaneously when both have different needs and different joys and challenges. If major problems in the 'real' world are at play, I've got to clear out those cobwebs before my fictional worlds can take flight.
Market Space: This one is touchy. By market space I really mean do these projects have a finality to them? Are they being entered in contests or submitted to agents? Have I given thought to where they'll go, or are they balloons in the wind with no real direction? Multiple open-ended projects can induce a sense of frenzy. If none have deadlines or take priority over the others, they can easily become tangled.
For me, multi-tasking my writing projects keeps them alive and keeps me on my toes. I know it's not for everyone, but that's ok. As with parenting, teaching, and the other facets of my life, I appreciate the fact that as I get older I learn how to best do each to suit my skills and challenges.
It's that time of year again when I find myself compelled to scamper around watching as many Oscar films as I possibly can before the big event. (Sort of a PokémonGO activity for movie fanatics.) This year, I've sort of outdone myself and broken down the walls into genres I tend not to care about so much. Arrival and Hell or High Water were the biggest departures from my book and film comfort zone, and I am so glad I decided. How the academy is picking a best movie from this year's insanely moving and powerful nominees, I have no idea.
And as many other writers, I hope a special spot in my heart for both original screenplay and adapted screenplay awards. Realistically I will sadly never grace the screen with Leo or Brad, but what if...just what if a short story or book I write ends up getting adapted by a screenwriter? Or better yet, I hone my skills and adapt something myself? There's a lot to be learned from the adapted screenplays which is why whether it's Brokeback Mountain or Hidden Figures, I often try to read the source story first. Watching what translates to screen is an excellent exercise in learning how to edit the fat down and make dialogue and action points more authentic. In fact, doing so for a number of years helped me evolve my own writing activity for my short stories, one that I'd love to share and strongly encourage if you're looking to discern the heart of your story.
It's not too terribly difficult, either.
First, go to a site like First Draft and read one of their tutorials. If you fall in love with doing this, you might progress to purchasing screenwriting software, but it's not necessary. Plenty of free ones out there. Celtx is a personal fave of mine.
Once you've learned the ropes, highlight digitally or with a good old-fashioned highlighter all the lines of dialogue in your story. These are your bread and butter and have to carry themselves well without excessive narration. In isolation, you may find that some of the lines fall flat - a good hint that in the story itself they need more oomph and purpose.
This part is tricky. Start slashing narration. Look, instead, for the action moments and include more of those. The narration is still needed, but a screenplay visually leans on dialogue and action. Narration is on a need to know basis. If it's not essential, it doesn't make it to the script.
Finally, and this is where having a writing group counts, ask a few folks to read the script for you. If they stumble over the dialogue, there's a problem. It will also allow you to see how easily they fall into character and if you've created characters that have different voices or are they really echoes of one another. Take notes. Lots of notes.
And when all is said and done, return to your story with a fresh eye to reexamine what could be cut and what perhaps is missing to build the tension, to flesh out the characters, and to give your story a pulse. All of this may seem like an extra phase in the editing process, but I promise, it's fun and a need way to stretch your brain in terms of writing skills.
And who knows, maybe you'll fall in love with screenwriting and I'll see you on that Oscar screen in a few years. Happy writing!
These shoes drive me insane. They’re stunning and overpriced but fit like a dream and make any ho-hum outfit dazzling. I found them online and took a leap of faith ordering a brand and size I’d never tried before, and the retail gods smiled down and they arrived in all their sparkling perfection. They were actually the inspiration for my Instagram account FashionAndFiction pairing two of my loves, books and shoes. How does this relate to writing in any way shape or form? Oh trust me, it does.
I save these shoes and rarely wear them, worried they’ll scuff or the heel might come off. But really, what good do they do in my closet, nestled between two pairs of everyday pumps? And as much as I logically know that these shoes were made for walking, I still snugly lock them away. Worse yet, sometimes I do this to my writing.
I don’t take risks when I should. I harbor plot ideas that feel too wild or hide away poetic bits that read more purple prose than I’d like. I keep them tucked in the corners of my brain firmly labeled with yellow caution tape. These ideas watch others come to fruition in stories and essays, in poems and play scenes. Because whenever I sit down to write the really risky stuff, I get the sensation of standing on a writing precipice and what if, what if, the ideas don’t take off? Then my precious writing time has been squandered on mischief rather than the slow and steady projects that are safer bets.
But with safety comes complacency. Safer ideas are often derivative of one another. They chug along and are enjoyable to write and complete, because there is a defined ending and no mental gymnastics required. And there is a time and place for them. They are satisfying and cozy, a literary form of grilled cheese and tomato soup, the mahogany loafers I can always count on because they’re already scuffed and a little beaten-down so I can really go anywhere, do anything, in them without pushing any boundaries.
The jeopardy in lively solely in these safe writings is that the wilder side to writing, the big risks and the big payoffs, don’t often stand around waiting for the proper moment. In fact they are risky because they’re like a maelstrom that arrives while you’re in the shower or manifest from a wild scene you’ve witnessed, a catastrophe in the news, the urgency of the human condition, and they need to be welcomed and managed as handily as you’d ride a rollercoaster from start to stop. Screaming and shaking and possibly breaking off into unchartered territory.
And that’s what writers, and artists and scientists and many other professionals in creative fields, are for. To push the boundaries of what we know and what we like. To show the world how things could be. One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Egan, always takes risks. Whether it’s a chapter written in PowerPoint or a story fully developed on Twitter, she pays fair homage to her wild ideas. And they create new spaces in the literary world.
So, I charge you to think back to the nuttiest idea you’ve had, whether it’s a play written backwards or an edible poetry collection, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might unleash something incredible or break a literary mold. And even if you don’t, your creative brain will thank you for the exercise. Personally, I’m taking those shoes out for a spin and beginning a chancy short story because today is a great day to start, don’t you think?
Snow days were made for writers and a wonderful affirmation that teaching and being a writer in the wings go hand in hand. Rarely does the universe hit the freeze button and say, go ahead, write your heart out. Nothing else is required of you. Today is a frozen moment in time, and I plan on using every minute.
I'm wrapping up a novel that has been a long time coming. It was an idea that turned into three poems and a short story, the characters scattered all over the map (and the internet). The end didn't come easily. It felt like an impossible game of tug-of-war, letting down the main characters whichever way I pulled. I went to bed last night wondering when I would sneak in a few minutes to wrestle with the ending, and this morning as the alarm went off and the call from my school district closing the high school simultaneously snapped me out of bed, I sat down and finished. There wasn't an epiphany. I didn't dream of the perfect ending, but somehow having the responsibilities of the day lifted off of my shoulders let things fall into place.
Those writers gifted with unlimited resources and unlimited time are few and far between. For the rest of us mere mortals, it's not just about finding the minutes to write. It's about silencing the voice reminding us that there is laundry to be done and what about the dog, he's dying for a walk and are you sure you did your taxes already? Time itself isn't such an unusual commodity. It manifests in doctor's waiting rooms and the space between work and the gym. Physical minutes and hours can be plucked from the day, but using them solely for writing, that's the tricky part. Climbing into the world you're creating, hushing the world hanging around you, is a sometimes impossible challenge. Not because one is better than the other but because they compete. They fight like maniacs, and at the end of the day the real world always wins. Its weight is tangible. Its urgency, undeniable.
I am a routine writer. Every morning whether it's for fifteen minutes or two hours depending on when I can eject myself from bed, I write. But of those days, only half, possibly a third, are ones where I win. Where I put up the shade that allows me to shut my eyes and see the characters twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be played with like dolls on a shelf. The other days I drudge through. I bump my head against the wall between this world and that trying to get the sensation that I'm over there. But my worries and my realities win over and those pages go in the file labeled, hey at least I wrote.
Whatever forces of God or nature blessed me with a snow day today, I owe you. Bigtime. Before the sun came out, when the snow was settling on the real world, I was able to slip off into my own little Narnia and give a few characters closure. And that is truly priceless.
January 1st brings new adventures and resolutions. Each year I try to shake up my writing routine in one way or another, whether it’s a move to poetry, taking on a new editing position, or in 2017 – deciding to self-publish.
While I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of success with my shorter pieces, I never placed a novel in the right spot. Twice I got close (I liken it to *almost* walking down the aisle but getting cold feet last minute and racing away with my book under my arm). Neither publication offers were right. One was lucrative but the compromise in my work was too great. The other publisher didn’t offer the enthusiasm for my novel that I wanted. And after a brief moment of regret, in both situations, I was comforted by the fact that a first book only comes out once, and I wanted it to be on my terms.
On the flip side, I’ve always held a dim view of self-publishing. As a freelance editor who worked with authors taking this path, I was often turned off by the speed with which people wanted a manuscript released and the flippant attitude towards deep editing, a ‘real’ book cover, and other staples of the publication process. Amazon is swarmed with self-published eBooks that don’t necessarily represent authors’ best works. Pair that with the fact that it’s expensive to do the right way, and self-publishing had no appeal.
Enter working with a for-hire editor who was just amazing last year, and my ideas shifted. I first heard about her at a SCBWI conference, and together she and I rummaged through an old manuscript of mine that was really brought to life. It was the first inkling for me that while I would have to shell out some cash for the moving parts of the process, I could actually produce a novel to my standard. But unlike some of the flash jobs I’d seen, I could devote a year to the process and really put my heart into what I was doing.
In other words, 2017, let’s do this. I’ll be blogging alternately about the writing process but also the steps I take to self-publish my YA book. And I promise to include the good, the bad, and the ugly in the hopes that if, nah make that when, I am successful, my how-to from a novice perspective may offer assistance to other folks planning to do the same.
I hope your writing goals and resolutions all come true in this upcoming year. Happy holidays, and keep writing!
For several years now I’ve half-watched the #PitchWars contest, devouring blogs about craft and enjoying authors and professionals encourage one another in an exceedingly tough industry. This year, I decided to jump in. Hopefully after reading this brief account, you might decide to take the plunge, too!
What is #PitchWars?
Brenda Drake’s website (click HERE) offers an incredible explanation since she is the genius behind the contest. But in a nutshell, bring a polished – but not agented or represented – draft novel to the party and pitch to mentors who each select a mentee to spend months with working to create a finished copy, ready to market to agents.
What are the benefits?
Many! First, the process of getting your manuscript ready to enter is a wonderful motivation. Researching the mentors introduces you to amazing new authors (and books, I have a list I’m working on now!) Both mentors and prospective mentees promote the contest with blog posts, query and first page contests, and other resources all wrapped up in the neat hashtag. And honestly for me the best benefit has been allowing myself time to invest in my craft. Let’s face it, most of us are not writing as our primary career, and it’s easy to shortchange the profession. The way the contest is structured, information is distributed bit by bit, making it so easily digestible and a neat, ongoing project to feed your writer soul.
What do I need?
As mentioned before, a full manuscript draft in good condition. Sure, the mentor will help you, but you have to bring something formidable to the table. And you also need a query that will be persuasive enough to entice mentors. Click HERE if you need a good Query 101.
How do I select mentors?
When the mentor lists come out, in various categories based on what you write, on Brenda’s blog, it’s sort of like Christmas in July. (Take a look at this year's mentor lists HERE.) Read their tweets. Check out their blogs. Start creating a list of favorites, BUT wait to make your final choices until their manuscript wish lists come out. My absolute favorite mentor of the YA batch isn’t looking for what I’m writing, and as much as it broke my heart to scratch his name off my list, I did it.
How do I get started if I have no idea what I’m doing?
That was me initially. Search #PitchWars and take it all in for a day or two. Then ask questions! The community is welcoming and will help you. Once you’ve done this, write a query, research mentors, and get ready to submit a query and first chapter to four (or six if you donate) mentors of your choice once the contest opens.
Were you successful?
I have absolutely no idea. The contest submission period starts August 3rd (so if you have all the right stuff there’s still time!) I have my dream mentor list set, I’m ready to send off my work, and fingers crossed by the end of August I’ll be selected as a mentee. But even if that doesn’t happen for me this year, I still consider the whole process a win. I’ve discovered new authors, received valuable feedback, and given time to my career as a writer, which means a lot.
I’m luxuriating in the moment where I’ve finished a manuscript after various edits, received the beta reader thumbs up, and added a few final touches. Now queries and the manuscript itself are in various agent and editorial hands, and I want to reflect upon the most helpful resource I used during the novel-writing process. Without a doubt, it was the use of a mentor text.
A mentor text is a work in the selected genre of what you want to tackle. For example, I was writing a middle grade novel (something new for me) so I specifically chose two texts to help me understand the structure and language of middle grade writing. While my goal was magical realism, I opted not to select a magical realism mentor text because I was worried about inadvertently including too much of the texts’ ideas into my work.
Emulation = awesome. Imitation = not so awesome.
I settled on Holes and When You Reach Me. When you’re selecting a mentor text, first and foremost read it once through for the sake of reading and enjoying. (If you find yourself bored or disengaged, drop it like a bad habit. It’s not the right mentor text for you!) Award winners or popular books are great because they’ve proven their success. Don’t shy away from older books, BUT I’d pair it with something more modern as well. As much as I love Holes, I wanted a book written in the past few years, too. Styles and trends change. (Goodreads and Amazon are my two favorite spots to find mentor texts, because works are broken down by category and reader reactions abound.)
Once you’ve read it/them for fun, get ready to be a detective and see how the book ticks. My process falls into Post-Its, a timeline, and a reader response journal. (Fellow English teachers, you’ll recognize that guy from what you assign your students, I’m guessing!)
1 – Note larger things such as plot structure, rising action, climax, high vs. low stakes, etc. Ultimately I chart the skeleton of the book. To make my life easier I do this all on multi-colored Post-It Page Markers, breaking my notes down into plot, character, and conflict.
2 – Pacing is key, and a simple chapter timeline showing where the ups and downs of the novel happen provides a lovely visual. (In other words don’t just write down what’s happening. The closer it is to the top of the paper, the happier it is for the protagonist. Conversely the low moments look low on the page.) Ultimately you can compare it to your own work down the road and see if you’re keeping the reader as engaged.
3 – Your reactions as a reader are, in my opinion, some of the most important harbingers of success when looking at how a novel functions. When does it make you love the protagonist, or hate them? When do you have faith in the narrative, and when are you hanging by a string?
As a Creative Writing teacher I’m always a bit horrified by students who love to write but refuse to read. “I don’t have time,” they argue. But without reading it’s nearly impossible to sort out the structural nuts and bolts of writing. The best prose cannot stand alone. Gorgeous lines must be draped on a formidable skeleton to support and highlight what you can do.
Good luck finding mentor texts, and happy writing!
June is my favorite month for a variety of reasons - end of the school year, my birthday, and a host of other fun moments. This includes packing up for the annual weekend in Princeton with the lovely NJ SCBWI folks. I've attended my fair share of writing conferences, and this is by far my favorite. The staff are superb, the fellow writers are invested and invigorating, and it's Princeton. Come on now.
As I've been preparing the past week my hope is that everyone reading this can find a way to get to a conference, whether it's a one-day pitchfest or a full weekend of fun and learning. And if you do, here are a few tips to make the most of the experience.
Attire - Be comfortable and notable. Think about how your clothing can highlight your personality and make you memorable. (No, do not dig out your sequined prom dress as a conversation starter/profession ender.) But if you write historical fiction, consider a piece of nostalgic flair. It's a subtle way to make your mark.
Supplies - Travel light. Transfer as many agendas and pieces of info to your phone or iPad as possible. My iPad is the perfect conference compliment. With a keyboard I can take notes at lightning pace, hyperlink important contacts, and even email my info to folks who request it. (The one caveat to going digital? Have business cards handy and plenty of them. There's something intimate and tangible about handing a new writing buddy or agent a physical card. Staples can print them for you in a day, but my favorite online source is Tiny Prints.)
Time Management - Arrive with a plan. Research the professionals attending. Register early if possible to pick strategic workshops and even possibly tables for meals. And schedule time to mingle. The most successful conferences I've enjoyed are ones where I have the confidence of knowing exactly where to be and who to touch base with. But I also always give myself dedicated wander and get lost time, too. It's a balance.
Personal Brand Management - Review your social media. Make sure everything is current and related to writing. If your last ten tweets have been about Johnny Depp (I say this because some of mine have been), tidy things up so when people check you out, they see you as the professional writing machine you are. Catch up on blogs. Source a few neat links. Make yourself as relevant as possible.
The Love - All of the above should be secondary to your love of writing. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are a writer, that paid or unpaid it is a real profession, and be proud of yourself for what you do. The conferences can unfortunately also elicit urges to compare yourself to other writers or beat yourself up for not having achieved everything you want. Success will come in good time, and while you're toiling away and waiting, you deserve to be in the company of writers.
Happy writing, and go HERE if you've been inspired to find a conference this summer.
I'm thrilled to be co-teaching a literary essay boot camp with Mothers Always Write this week. In addition to spending some virtual time with awesome writers, I am always appreciative of a chance to hone my editing skills and translate what I know onto paper.
In other words, it's one thing to be able to see what's wrong in a manuscript. It's an entirely different beast to be able to articulate a strong critique to someone else. The process reinforces the idea of layered editing - something in which I am a firm believer. I thought as a good prep for the course, I would blog a few thoughts.
Any writer who thinks a one-and-done editing pass will suffice needs to reconsider. It is impossible to pay attention to all of the various nuances of editing simultaneously. Even armed with a team of beta readers providing feedback, it is still essential to think about the various steps on your journey to a polished piece.
Step One: The Big Picture
Read your manuscript for clarity, because no amount of lovely language will save a reader from confusion or chaos. This is particularly appropriate if you are attempting a non-chronological or experimental approach. If the reader doesn't know what's going on, find the disconnect. (A bulleted plot list or good old-fashioned outline will help you see where the story runs off the rails.)
Step Two: Repetition and Rhyme
This is a great spot to trim down. Where are you repeating or making structural choices that perhaps don't have a purpose? Basically, if you find yourself on the defensive with the phrase But it sounds good, take out the scissors.
Step Three: The Nitty Gritty
This is, in my opinion, the fun step. You get to pour through the language and pat yourself on the back for those gorgeous metaphors or witty analogies. At the same time, banish any banal writing that doesn't live up to your best. Should everything be flowery and overwritten? Absolutely not. But everything should be well-written.
Step Four: Mechanical Clean-up
Conversely, this one is the least fun. And this is a perfect step to call in help if you don't feel that you are the strongest proofreader you could be. For example, if you always forget to use the appropriate 'to' or often misplace modifiers, hook up with a great editor or friend who has an eye for those details.
Some authors may combine multiple steps. I've known others who color code and do a dozen run-throughs. You certainly don't want to edit until you're sick of a piece, but give your work the appropriate respect and time.
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. I look for other writers who feel the same.