When inspiration hits, roll with the punch and take it to lunch!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Winning The Staring Contest

There it stares--daunting and haunting.
It's bright. It's white. A bit of a fright.
It's not a ghost, and it's not lightning.
Although at times, it is quite frightening.
It lies on desks or lights a screen.
It often scares us and seems quite mean!
It's the dreaded...BLANK PAGE!!!

Perhaps one of the most difficult obstacles when beginning to write is getting started. I don't know how many times I've sat with a blank page as I checked email, Twitter, Facebook, email again...as though something magical would happen, that suddenly I'd be overtaken with vivid verse which would flow faster than I could fill a page.

As I've come to learn, creative writing is not an "on demand" activity. Writing creatively takes time and patience. It's the end result of something much greater than whipping out words on a whim. It comes from practice, and plenty of it. But in order to practice efficiently, there's something many writers must learn to let go--the urge to edit at every turn.

While editing is an important--and usually necessary--part of writing, it's best to avoid while composing drafts. Doing so would be comparable to taking a mile long jog, stopping every few minutes to walk backward a few hundred feet, then restarting. Not only would it take much longer to make the goal, it would disrupt the flow of the exercise and probably create frustration.

How does a writer resist the urge to revise?

One method is to set a timer for a short amount of time, maybe fifteen minutes to start. With an idea in mind and blank page on hand, let the words go where they will, not stopping until time is up. It doesn't matter if it flows a in a direction other than originally imagined. The point is to just get words on paper (or screen). You can always return to work on details.

Another way to battle a blank page is by first creating an outline, then working on it one segment at a time. For a picture book writer this may entail writing two or three paragraphs, then revising. For a novelist, it may mean composing several pages (or even an entire chapter) before editing. The point is to break the project into smaller pieces, making the overall task more manageable.

A third option when taking on a blank page is to brainstorm the who, what, when, where, why and how of your story. This is especially useful when an overall idea is not fully formed. For example, if a writer is contemplating a manuscript about a child and her pet, it would be a good idea to create lists, descriptions and questions about any and every thing that could possibly relate to that type of story. (What type of pet? Pet's appearance? Child's relationship with pet? Setting? Conflict? Child's age? Temperament of pet/child?) The potential is endless.

So the next time you find yourself in a staring contest with the beast that never blinks, look it in the eye, round up your resources and write, write, write!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Readying For A Writer's Conference

It’s that time again. Time for our region’s annual SCBWI writer’s conference. Woo hoo! This will be the third year I’ve attended, so while I’m not quite an expert, I have learned a few things about making the most of these valuable meetings.

Before The Conference

Know where to go. First of all, if you’re like me, you’ll want to know in advance the exact route and time it takes to reach your destination. (Thanks to Google maps this is easier than ever!) After that's calculated, it’s a good idea to add 15-20 minutes, providing leeway should the unexpected occur.

Gather supplies. Many writer’s conferences offer handouts as well as opportunities to purchase books. Knowing this, I take an extra large tote. Not only does it hold the goodies I gather, it also carries other “necessities” such as a notebook, pens, snacks and bottled water. Some people prefer a laptop in lieu of paper and pens. That’s okay too, just remember to fully charge your battery as there may not be access to an outlet.

Consider business cards. If you don’t already carry cards identifying you as a writer, now may be the time do so. With today’s software and perforated card stock, it’s simple to create your own. Just remember to include your email address and/or website as this will help you connect with other writers, editors and agents should they request contact information.

Prepare your manuscript if opting for critique. It’s essential to thoroughly proof your work prior to a critique. Doing so reduces the chance of discovering mistakes during your reading. Printing in advance also prevents a mad dash to the store to buy ink or paper at an inopportune time.

Select your attire. Since Midwest weather is as stable as the stock market, I wait till the day before to select what to wear. The recommended style is business casual; however, it’s important to choose something that’s comfortable for you. At past conferences I’ve noticed participants donning everything from jeans and t-shirts to skirts/slacks and dress shirts. Just keep in mind, it’s a business atmosphere, so cutoffs and tube tops are best left at home.

Conference Day
The big day is finally here. You’re dressed and ready to roll. You know where you’re going and have materials on hand. You arrive in plenty of time, collect a heap of handouts, grab a cup of coffee and locate a comfortable seat. Now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show!

Take notice. At the conferences I attended, a schedule was provided upon arrival. It outlined the day’s events which included three speakers, a lunch break, three breakout sessions and a final wrap up. During the breakout sessions, attendees were able to select from several workshops according to their writing interests. This was also the time when critiques took place. Although other conferences may differ from this agenda, many offer a variety of workshops. Therefore, it’s wise to check your schedule early, should you need to decide which sessions you’d like to attend.

Take notes. Since you prepared ahead of time, you brought your notebook (or Netbook) and are ready to write. I find that I fill about half a notebook by the time all is said and done. You may end up writing more. Or less. There’s no test afterwards, so relax and write what feels right to you!

Have fun! Don’t forget to mix and mingle. This is the time to get acquainted with others who share your passion. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking the person next to you what genre(s) they write and read. I’m happy to say that this year I will be sharing my enthusiasm with three of my fellow critique group members. Thanks to our helpful and talented former regional advisor (whom I met at last year’s conference), we got off the ground last December, are at six members strong and still going!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Meandering Muse

Here it is, the middle of summer. Not surprisingly, my muse has taken a leave a absence. Again. No need for search warrants. No need for panic. I’m certain he’ll return. He always does, eventually. In the meantime it’s fun to ponder the possibilities of his whereabouts. For example, perhaps he’s on an extravagant vacation, enjoying a beautiful beach and gathering fresh ideas as he sifts through the sand. Or maybe he’s inspiring another writer, weaving the web of an intricate composition that will evolve into a best seller. Then again, he could be alone sorting through a current set of concepts, deciding which are treasures and which are trash. Another likelihood, he’s found a like minded muse with which to wander. Now that would be nice, especially if he brings his friend home to help! One thing is certain, whatever he’s up to, the end result will be worth the wait. So carry on my meandering muse!

Do you have a meandering muse? What do you do when yours is away?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reveling In Rejection

When I first began writing seriously I told myself I’d make 100 submissions before becoming the slightest bit frustrated. Five rejections later, no problem. Fifteen, still doing well. But somewhere around the 30-something mark, I lost my muse, got stuck in a rut and found myself battling writer’s rejection blues. It felt like I’d never return to that hopeful state of blind faith, believing that eventually I’d succeed. Luckily it was at this point that I got the next best thing to an acceptance call--a personal response--and an encouraging one at that, signed by an editor herself! Finally, proof that my manuscripts were not being sucked into a black hole (my equivalent to receiving a form letter or worse, nothing at all).

That one response meant so much, I made several copies and hung them around my house to remind me that my efforts would not go unnoticed. Since then, I’ve made it to the halfway mark with fifty submissions. And although I’m still waiting for my first publication, I must be doing something right as my last three rejections were each personalized, making for an overall count of ten--twenty percent of everything I’ve done. Not bad when thought of that way.

Although an editor's note may seem insignificant to some, for a struggling writer, being able to revel in rewards, no matter how small, keeps us going.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What's Left To Write?

When I first began writing, I believed I was creating something that had never been done before. After all, who would think to write a concept book about seasons in rhyme? In all the years I read to my own three children, I had come across only one such picture book, and it was published long ago. Surely it hadn’t been done since, right? Wrong.

Shortly after completing my first manuscript, I discovered that not only were there three season books with the exact same title as mine, but also a new one released through Scholastic. In rhyme. At first this was discouraging, but then I learned something all writers need to know: Everything’s been done. It’s the way in which you do it that makes the difference.

One of the best examples of this is fairy tales. Most of us are familiar with the story of the gingerbread man who jumps out of the oven and leads everyone on a wild chase until finally, he’s eaten by the fox. But suppose a few changes are made as in Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett, Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst, or Gingerbread Man, Superhero! by Dottie Enderle. These are all based on the same tale, yet they each have their own unique way of retelling the story, providing a new voice, style and approach.

The same holds true for other fiction. One of the most common plots is: a protagonist is introduced; he/she faces conflict; he/she tries to solve conflict but faces setbacks; after several trials and tribulations, he/she finally succeeds. There are many stories that use this formula. And there are many other formulas used as the framework of a story. The job of the writer is to invent colorful characters, visual verbiage and individual design, creating “new” narrative.

So what’s left to write? Everything! In your own manner.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

There Is No Wrong To Write

One of the greatest aspects of writing is the freedom of expression. And to do so without the involvement of vocal interaction (listening, answering questions), makes it all the more liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I love good conversation, but sometimes the best way to let thoughts be known is through the written word. This is especially true when searching for just the right term to convey a message.

Something I’ve become increasingly aware of by practicing the art of composition is how easy it is for people to interpret the same phrase in so many different ways. The definitions we assign to certain words can be as individualized as our personalities, and the reactions we have to them may be varied as well. When I first began writing, I found this overwhelming. How would I ever be assured that what I wrote would be understood by everyone in the manner in which I intended? The good news is, I don’t.

As I’ve come to learn, writing stories is writing for the masses. It’s comparable to giving a speech. Not everyone will agree with it. Not everyone will enjoy it’s content. But the reward is, there will be those who appreciate it as it is whether it’s absorbed as intended or taken with an individualized perspective. As in any artistry, there is no wrong to write!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't Abuse Your Muse!

Not long ago, my fourth grade son’s teacher told me my child was having difficulty with writing assignments. It wasn’t that he was unable to understand the conventions of the language, nor was he lacking in vocabulary. His fluency was fine and he always found a voice, once he got started. So what was the trouble? Ideas.

This came as a surprise since this child not only took it upon himself to create a class newspaper, but also enjoys writing enough to have penned several pieces of fiction for fun. How, I wondered, could he have an issue with ideas?

As it turns out, my son was getting stuck when asked to write about a specific topic. Writing came easily when it was (pardon the pun) an open book, but having to stay within certain parameters was enough to cool his creativity to a frozen state. If ideas didn’t erupt immediately, he felt he was a terrible writer. That’s when I let him in on a secret. I asked if he would tell a friend what he tells himself during those times. After an emphatic, “No way!”, I said, “Why then, would you do this to your muse?” Being the speculative student he is, he pondered the question as I explained how harmful this is to the spirit of expression and how it can block the influx of ideas. This made sense to him…somewhat. Then it donned upon me what I really needed to say: Don’t abuse your muse!

Like a person, a muse deserves respect and patience. Negative thoughts can send one running, hiding, or at best, up a tree. Being impatient and expecting words to flow too fast will render the same result. Instead, your muse will tell you what it needs to say. It may not sound like you think it should in the beginning, but give it time. Rewriting is fine. The first step is just to get the words on paper.

With that explanation, I felt I’d made a connection. And while I have yet to see if my son took the advice to heart (no writing assignments this week) the least I’ve gained is a new motto!


Monday, April 19, 2010

Beginner's Guide to Navigating the Road to Authorship

Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve discovered that the road to authorship involves four main phases: reading, writing, rewriting and research.

Like any other form of art, it takes time to recognize the difference between the outstanding and the ordinary, the unadorned the and the overdone, and just how your writing compares. So what’s the best way to acquire this skill? Read, and read often. While studying a variety of literature helps increase vocabulary and refresh grammatical skills, it’s essential to read a myriad of material within the genre in which you wish to write. Doing so not only provides information about what’s already written on certain topics and the latest trends, but also renders a feel for that style of writing.

The next step toward authorship is the obvious: write, write and write some more! Just as any other craft, becoming a proficient composer takes practice and plenty of it. One of the best parts about this is that there are so many mediums in which to do so. On days that my muse has meandered, I find catching up with friends through email and spending time on other projects, like this blog, helpful. There are also websites such as www.goodnightstories.com

which allow writers to hone their skills, not to mention numerous classes and literature on the subject. One book I highly recommend is “Writing for Children & Teens” by Cynthea Liu.

Next comes rewriting. Although I began creating stories just two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve already noticed an increase in the quality of my creations. One way to observe advancement is by filing a manuscript away and not viewing it for at least four months. By that time it’s amusing how easy it is to spot mistakes, (provided you’ve continued to practice during this period). Another good way to track progress is by joining a critique group. Members read each other’s manuscripts and offer comments and suggestions as to what they feel are the story’s strong points and those that may need tweaking. It’s also an excellent way to meet and share enthusiasm for the art with like minded individuals, a real plus to what can otherwise become a lonely pursuit.

Researching the market, the final process toward publication, is as absorbing as writing itself. It’s not just a matter of finding a publisher’s address. First, it’s important to know which publishers are open to unsolicited manuscripts and which accept books in the genre your story’s written. For this information, I refer to the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Most publishers also have a website which includes submission details. But be forewarned and read guidelines carefully! Some publishers wish to receive only non-fiction while others want just fiction. Then there are those looking for very specific material such as regional based stories.

Another reliable way to learn about publishers, trends, editors and agents is through various newsletters including the Children’s Book Insider http://www.write4kids.com/, Children's Writer http://www.childrenswriter.com/, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin http://www.scbwi.org/.

These publications are not only packed with industry information, they also lend reference to other useful sites and sources.

So there it is. It’s a long road--sometimes uphill, sometimes down. Some days you’ll find yourself racing with the wind, the words forming faster than you can type. Then there will be others when you get side tracked on the scenic route with an overload of adjectives and run out of gas. You may even find yourself in a ditch a time or two, but don’t give up! Trust your vehicle of creativity and eventually it will drive you just where you want to go. Happy travels!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Slowly But Surely, The Garden Will Grow

Ah, spring...such a wonderful time of year. Buds appear, birds return and the air is filled with the promise of fresh beginnings. Such is my outlook on becoming published. Although I've been a writer at heart for many years, it's been just over two that I began writing seriously for children. At that time my expectations were--as many budding authors--a bit unrealistic. I had written my first manuscript, edited it several times, submitted and was certain it would be only a matter of weeks before I'd receive opportunity for publication. Little did I know!

Weeks passed, then months. Rejections letters cluttered my cabinet. More submissions. More rejections. I stayed optimistic and wrote a second story, then a third. So far, those have met the same fate as the first. It may have bothered me if it weren’t for the promise I made to myself--to withstand 100 rejections before becoming discouraged. I was at 17. I pushed forward.

In the meantime, I joined my local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Attending their annual conference and participating in a group critique with an editor from Clarion fostered enthusiasm. And over the next year, I wrote three more manuscripts, attended another conference and joined a critique group. The rejection letters were still coming, however, some were now personal and very encouraging. I felt I was on a roll. Then it happened…I lost my muse. Just like that, I was in a slump. The harder I tried, the less I wrote. It was if I’d chased a cat up a tree. Nothing could coax it down. Nothing but time.

Three months later, it was back. That was an important lesson. It led me to the realization that writing is a long-term learning process. Sure there are those talented few that make it overnight, that’s the exception. But for most of us the craft improves with practice, and a lot of it. We learn to weed out words that don’t belong. We enrich our creativity by attending workshops and conferences. And we acquire nourishment from fellow writers through critiques and support. Eventually, the seeds we sow blossom into stories. Some thrive, some die. But as in any garden, it takes time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Muse Returned Today

After an extended vacation, I'm happy to report that my muse has returned. Although his travels are unknown, he's made his way home with plenty of interesting souvenirs. Now it's time to sort through this creative collection of keepsakes...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Okay, here it goes... This is my first blog and my first entry. As a long-time writer, you wouldn't think the task would seem so intimidating, but at the moment, my heart is literally beating faster than I can type. Is it excitement? Is it nerves? Perhaps a bit of both. Anyhow, I'm pleased to join the rest of the online writing community in this increasingly important venue for aspiring authors. Now, back to working on manuscripts!

Whew...that wasn't so bad.