Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Before a Resolution

Back when chain letters were all the rage, I remember one that went around that asked a bunch of questions and you had to answer each one then pass it on or you'd get 10 years of bad luck. I thought it would be fun to re-live that a bit, but remove the bad luck and keep the fun.

So as we think about New Year's Resolutions, maybe we should think about who we really are, or things that brought us joy and try to use those to commit to adding something in our lives in 2015 that builds on that. So in honor of this idea, I'm sharing 10 things about myself that have brought me joy over the years - from childhood to the present, but in no specific order. Maybe it'll help me decide on a resolution for 2015.

  1. When I was in college I was a fine arts minor and I sketched a lot of my friend's tattoos. It was cool to see my art on someone's body. Now that I have ink of my own, I hope they still love theirs.
  2. Ever since I was little, one of my favorite foods has been egg rolls. Perhaps I should learn to make them. But that would mean I'd have to get over my fear of deep frying.
  3. Speaking of fears. I have an irrational fear of birds that are bigger than pigeons. I have never visited an aviary but would consider it if it were in Costa Rica...GOD I MISS EXPLORING NEW INTERNATIONAL DESTINATIONS!
  4. I love roller coasters and only went to one amusement park in 2014. I need more roller coaster thrills in my life - of the kind I can get on and off.
  5. I am like the Princess and the Pea when it comes to socks. I can feel even the tiniest of seams. I still have a pair of socks I got in 3rd grade because they have zero seams and still fit. I also have some socks labeled "World's Softest Socks" that used to belong to Warren. I should wear them more often. He had good taste in socks.
  6. I drive a manual car that I love. It's a Honda Element and it's almost 12 years old. I'm starting to fear that it won't last much longer and I want another Element but they stopped making them in 2011. That makes me sad.
  7. I don't drink much pop (soda to those who reside outside the Midwest), but when I do, I prefer Pepsi products. I know it's not the healthiest choice, but life is short, I'm going to drink Pepsi when I crave one. It doesn't have to be a Big Gulp, just enough to taste some carbonated sweetness.
  8. Monthly massages should be mandatory for all writers. I need to find a way to budget for this.
  9. Movie musicals drive me nuts. I have yet to find one that doesn't make me want to scream. Musicals are best left to the stage, that's where I like them and wouldn't mind seeing more.
  10. Tea and coffee are equally valuable in my world, just depends on my mood. I look forward to exploring more varieties of each.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Killing the Love of Reading in Kids

I read an article that stated seven ways that schools kill the love of reading in children. It was a rather long article and to be truthful, the second half really didn't keep my interest because it became more about how schools operate, rather than reading. What stuck out to me was how many points I disagree with.

Quantify their reading assignments
The article states that assigning kids a set time or amount to read makes them turn pages and not develop a love of reading. I assign my daughter thirty minutes of reading per night. It can be a magazine, online articles, graphic novels, books of her choosing. I disagree that it is making her hate reading. There are times when she reads well over her assigned thirty minutes and when she does that, it makes my heart soar. Of course, the majority of the time it's the opposite - the timer goes off and she slams the book shut, mid-sentence, even mid-word and I can tell she is glad to be done with the chore of reading. But I don't believe it is making her hate reading. She still asks to go to the library. She still spends birthday money on the next book in the series she's into. She still enjoys listening to audio books with me. And, she is a good reader to boot.

Of all the assignments I had as a child, I don't recall being told that I had to read for a certain amount of time. I recall being assigned chapters in my textbooks, but not that I had to read a book of my choosing for XX minutes per night. I am thankful for that because in elementary and high school, I had a ton of homework to deal with as it was, so adding reading time would have put my bedtime at around midnight.

But, times have changed. My daughter goes to an IB school that prides itself on its innovative, global curriculum, high tech classrooms, and small class sizes. She loves it. Yet, she hasn't had a homework assignment in three years. That blows my mind. In the real world, there are hardly any careers that are done within the confines of the job hours. Most dedicated professionals dedicate time outside their office hours to getting the job done. Yet, my daughter believes that she can get everything done during the school day and that is enough. While I vehemently disagree and feel that she is being groomed to be an under-achiever, I'll leave that for another post, and get back to my point. Making a child read does not lead to their hatred of the written word. It opens them to books they wouldn't otherwise know they like, or genres they may not try if not looking to fulfill a timed requirement. Like anything else required on a regular basis, it can feel tedious and some freedom should be allowed so they can explore writing in different forms, and keep it interesting.  

Make them write reports
Writing book reports was listed as a way to make children hate reading. Again, I disagree that simply making a student write something in response to what they read is going to make them hate reading. There are many people who would not have digested a book and found their love of reading if they did not have to think about it for an assignment. Many reluctant readers who have had books forced on them via a book report have found a favorite book, author or hobby because of a book report. Rather than the assignment, I believe what the child is asked to read makes a difference in how the report influences their opinion on reading.

I had to read a ton of books and write many essays on those books during high school. When the books were harder to grasp, like Dante's The Inferno, I wasn't excited to write an essay. But as we discussed the book in class and understood it better, I was able to write the reports and maintain my love of reading. That's not to say that the assignments were easy. But, having to articulate my understanding of the book via a book report did not diminish the act of reading, or the enjoyment the book brought. 

Offer them incentives
The article says that incentives for reading make children hate reading. Did the author of the article never earn a BOOK IT pizza from Pizza Hut?! Those things were the BOMB when I was growing up. We didn't have a lot of extra money to go have pizza so earning a free personal pan pizza by doing something I loved was definitely a motivator for me. I don't offer my daughter a pizza at the end of the month, but I do gather things I know she's into, like funky socks, nail polish, and earrings and toss them in a prize box that she gets to choose from at the end of the month for reading. She decorated the box and looks forward to the prizes in it, which I rotate to keep it fun. She looks forward to choosing a prize and I love rewarding her for something that I love so much as well.

I don't think that incentives will make kids hate reading for the reason the article lists. I think it's more a sign of the times. When I was young (writing that makes me feel old), we didn't have the means or access to getting what we wanted when we wanted it. We got toys and treats when we earned them, or as gifts for holidays and birthdays. Today, kids get stuff for no reason. A kid doesn't expect to wait to earn the newest Iphone, they expect they will get it when it comes out. Their expectation of instant gratification makes working to earn an incentive outdated and unreasonable to them. It has nothing to do with the task that leads to the reward.

Like anything else, I believe that positive reinforcement works when mixing kids and reading. It gives them something to achieve, something to work towards and that's a valuable lesson we owe our kids.

There are some points that I agree can make reading feel like a chore, rather than a pleasant experience, and the article does a good job capturing them.

Isolate them
Reading is a lonely task. As a child, I preferred to read out loud to an audience. I also loved to hear what my peers thought about the book. I have fond memories of the round-table discussions I had in my high school English class where we talked about really challenging books. I loved talking about them in a group because it made the books feel more palatable. Taking the isolation out of trying to figure out what the author intended in classic literature, or what characters in contemporary novels is a great way to make young readers feel like there is a greater purpose to reading.

I would love for there to be more book groups for kids in my area. The library offers one for teens, but that is the only book club I know of for kids. I believe that if children see other kids get excited about books and characters they will get into them, too. It creates an environment of acceptance of books that is rare for kids.

I know that enticing your kids to join a book club probably sounds like a difficult task, but I am not one who believes that kids should have too many choices anyway. I'd take the approach of signing up my daughter, and making her attend at least three sessions before deciding if she doesn't want to do it anymore. By then she'll meet the other kids, make a friend, and find something she likes about the group that will make her want to stick to it. I believe this can be true for kids who struggle with reading as well. Just because a child struggles with reading, doesn't mean he doesn't like it. If put in an environment of patience and support, even a kid who reads below his grade level can develop a love of reading, and find characters he loves. If more schools offered reading time more like small book groups among kids who read at the same level and choose what they read, perhaps the statistics in the infographic above would improve.

Focus on skills
I'll be the first to admit that I never took to the Classics. I never became a fan of Poe, Shakespeare, or the Bronte Sisters. Mostly because of the way I read their books. They were assigned reading in high school and we broke down nearly every line, dissecting how it was written and the brilliance of the language. There was no focus on how we could relate to the writing or how it fit into the world we were facing. The books were read to teach vocabulary, sentence structure and other literacy skills that made reading these books feel like a lesson, rather than feeling like a connection between me and the words on the page. It made it an exhaustive experience, and it was certainly a turn off. I understand why experiences like that turn kids off to reading.

Prepare them for tests
It was clear when a teacher presented a book solely to prepare the class for some standardized test. I think most books I read in middle school were for that purpose. When the focus was more on expanding vocabulary and not on expanding my world view, I was instantly disengaged in the book. It didn't make me hate reading, but I definitely didn't look forward to it, or care what happened to the characters.

I agree one million percent with James Patterson. I think that the main reason children decide they hate reading is because they don't find a book that draws them in. That is why I find it so imperative that reading materials - from magazines, to comics to e-books and blogs be offered as reading options to kids. If a kid is more visual, there are comic books and graphic novels. If a child loves facts or real world scenarios, they can read National Geographic for kids on their tablet or phone. Kids who have trouble reading can listen to audio books.

And not to beat a dead horse, but if a kid doesn't relate to the characters, they are less likely to create an affinity to books in general, which is why diverse books is so important. I am willing to bet that kids seeing characters like them in print, or headlines that reflect the world as they live it, are more likely to develop a love of reading than those who are only given the option of reading about the world from a place or time of privilege. The real culprit negating reading habits among our children is not that we set an expectation of reading, or reward them for it. The true transgression is when they are force fed the materials for purposes other than the expansion of their world from a lens of understanding.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays

I am taking some time to revise my writing (EEK, due to my agent in 2 weeks!) and spend some time with friends and family over the holidays. I hope you have an opportunity to do the same.

Stay tuned for my next post on 12/29/2014.

Friday, December 19, 2014

When You Feel Like Dancing

Writer's block is very real. It sucks the creativity out of you and makes you believe that you're not really a writer, but a fraud who happened to write a story once upon a time. You don't even remember how you wrote that story because no words come out of you that make sense anymore. It is frustrating and horrible and it hits you no matter how long you've been writing, or where you are in the process. It's like all the originality has been vacuumed out of you and you don't now how it can ever return.

My bouts with writer's block can last days, even weeks when mixed with dread and procrastination. I think it hits me hardest when I have a deadline that's more than two weeks away. The planner in me wants to sit down and hack at the word count a little each day, like a good writer should. The skeptic in me feels like there is plenty of time and it allows the block to set in. When it's firmly planted, I sit at my computer and one of two things happens. Either I write crappy line after crappy line and delete, delete, delete. Or I stare at the cursor, and nothing comes to mind. 

When I was in graduate school I usually had two or three stories that I was working on at any given time, and I would go back to them and read the past feedback I'd gotten from my advisors. Sometimes something one of them said would grab me and get the creative juices flowing. That would get me writing again, chipping away at the block. If I could get a paragraph out, that would feel like a major accomplishment. As the due date creeped closer, I would get more words out, and the block would lift slowly.

Since being out of school I haven't been able to use that method. I still have several stories that I am working on. However, I think the biggest difference is that I don't feel they're all equal in terms of where I should be spending my time. While I love my middle grade novel and know that I need to work on the desire line so my plot makes sense, I feel like I can't spend time on it because I owe my agent revisions to my novel by the beginning of 2015. I also have a picture book idea that keeps haunting me, but I haven't put a single word to paper on it because of my novel. This time, it feels like the writer's block is made up of a lot of words that I want to get out, but they're not in the book that needs to get done.

But, lucky for me, this round of writer's block has been broken. Thanks to a gift from one of my Allies, I felt the block lift. It was slow at first and I wrote just a few hundred words. But those words made way for more words and they kept coming. My fingers were flying across the keyboard and dialogue was coming together that I had thought wouldn't work. Characters were becoming more dimensional as I uncovered layers about them I didn't know were there. My voice came back to me and I was back in my protagonist's head, and it felt comfortable, like I belonged there, telling that story.

Do you know what it feels like when writer's block is lifted? It feels like dancing. It feels like spreading your arms and twirling, the air zipping through your fingers and hair, your mouth open to happy sounds, your feet light. You're full of energy and the music touches your soul. It's a beautiful feeling and I am so glad that I'm there, even if it's only until the next block falls and I need to figure out how to get moving again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Straight A's

Growing up my mother was meticulous about everything. She did laundry daily, cooked traditional Puerto Rican dinners, was constantly cleaning, and made sure my socks and bows matched my outfits until I was old enough to stop wearing bows in my hair. The same was true about my homework. If I erased more than three times, she made me re-do the entire assignment. For the first five years of my education I attended a private Lutheran school that assigned homework in every subject every night. On average, I spent about three hours a night on homework.

My mom would check over every worksheet, making sure my letters faced the right direction, that my sentences had correct punctuation, that my words were all spelled correctly. When I'd complain she'd tell me that I owed it to my teachers to turn in neat assignments because they worked too hard for me not to take their teaching seriously. It is no surprise that I grew up to be an extremely Type A personality.

The benefits of a Type A personality, for me, has been that I have always excelled in all things academic. I kept that same work ethic and nearly all my annual reviews at various jobs have noted that I am dedicated, organized and a problem-solver.

On the flip side, it has its moments that drive me completely insane. Most of the time, it is self-induced insanity because I can't rest unless things are perfectly in order, done to the best of my ability, or exceeding some expectation that I set upon myself. This is probably why I get stressed out so easily and why my family is always telling me to relax (which drives be bonkers). This is also why my love of fiction surprises me.

It's not that I think that fiction is easy, because as I've blogged before, when done well, it is anything but. What I mean is that I often wonder why my passion isn't in technical or non-fiction writing. Granted, I have a degree in marketing, which means I have done a ton of that type of writing and have even won awards and accolades because of it. However, that isn't where my heart is, although it's definitely an area where my Type A personality shines. Sorting out facts; organizing data; persuading audiences- all goes hand-in-hand with technical, fact-based writing. This is the type of writing where attention to detail and careful analysis is key. This is the type of writing I thought I'd always do because I am good at it. It is why I pursued marketing instead of English as an undergraduate.

Fast forward some years and I'm focused on writing fiction, where one would think it takes less meticulousness and attention to detail. That would be an incorrect assumption. I find myself using my Type A tendencies all the time in my writing. When I'm figuring out the order of events, or where a plot turn makes most sense, it is calculated. It may come to me out of order, or as a random idea, but I spend hours making sure it fits, or deciding to cut it altogether. Sometimes it comes in the form of mapping out the days of the week, so that a reference in the story makes sense. Without keeping track of the day and time in which scenes take place, I run the risk of confusing readers, or writing something out of context. When deciding on where to start a chapter I have to know when and where I am with each character. I have to track how many words and pages have been in past chapters to keep it about the same. These elements of writing fiction requires not only attention to detail, but clear mapping of time and setting. 

But there are drawbacks as well. I struggle with deviating from the plot outline in my head. In my fiction, I get to control everything, but that doesn't always mean that I get the story right the first time around. It takes several drafts and the constant addition and deletion of scenes. When I get to a point where I realize something isn't working, it's sometimes hard to go back and make changes. I tend to want to make it work without getting rid of what's already on the page. That isn't the best approach. It limits you and your story. Sometimes I spend a lot of time trying to make a scene or a character work the way I think it should fit, when in reality, what the story needs is an overhaul. I need to increase the stakes, or reaffirm the protagonist's desire line so that the reader can stay vested in the story. This can mean eliminating entire chapters, scenes or characters that I have worked hard to make a part of the story. Letting them go is tough for me because it means that they don't work.

Other times, I am slow to notice my characters' flaws. I tend to want my characters to be likable and relatable and that's not always the best thing for the story, or true to the character. It is best to know your character as best you can without trying to define her so that your readers can do that for themselves. As a writer, I can't control how readers digest my characters so I have to make the character as layered and true as possible, and trust that the reader will understand. As you can probably guess, trusting the reader isn't my strong suit. I always fear that the subtleties that I work hard to infuse might be lost, or that a detail might be skipped and negatively impact the interaction between the reader and the page. Time and time again I have been incorrect in that assumption when readers comment on my work. In most cases, they not only pick up on all that I want them to notice, but they identify other elements in my work, like themes and foreshadowing that I had not even considered.

Sometimes I wish that I were less Type A and more laid-back, able to dive into fantasy and play without worrying about anything else. It's exhausting to think so much about so many things all at once. I process and over-process, plan and stress about things that aren't in my control, or that really aren't all that important. I spend way too much time researching minute details in my stories that aren't make or break points. When I think about things like that, I wish I were different. But then I wonder, if I weren't who I am, would I still be a writer? 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Proud of my peers!

This year alone, Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and faculty published over seventy books, and I'm sure the list is not complete. I am humbled to belong to such a talented group of writers.

Just in time to stuff stockings and gift bags with books!

Guys Read: True Stories, Dorothea Lange Grab A Hunk of Lightening by Elizabeth Partridge - my advisor!
Divided We Fall, If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy
Mumbet's Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle
All that Glitters,  Purple Nails and Puppy Tails, Summer Love, Makeover Magic and True Colors by Jill Santopolo
Read Write Recite series by Joann Early Mackin
Something Real, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios - my roommate!
Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan
The Art of Goodbye, & Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley
The Haven, and Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams
Grandfather Gandhi by Bethany Hegedus and Arun Gandhi
Strange Sweet Song by Adi Rule
Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Blue Iguana by Wendy Townsend
The Devil's Temptation by Toni De Palma
Feathers and Trumpets by Joyce Ray
Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle
Caminar by Skila Brown
Petal And Poppy by Ed Briant and Lisa Jahn-Clough
Jack The Castaway, The Berenson Schemes #02, Jack and the Wildlife by Lisa Doan
The Life of Ty by Lauren Myracle
Jubilee by Alicia Potter
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
Outside In by Sarah Ellis
A Girl Called Fearless by Catherine Linka
Map Art Lab by Linden McNeilly (co-author with Jill Berry)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
Mogie: The Heart of the House by Kathi Appelt
Chasing the Milky Way by Erin E. Moulton
Princess Posey and the First Grade Boys by Stephanie Greene
Toby, Waggers by Stacy Nyikos
Girls from Gettysburg by Bobbi Miller
Magic Delivery by Clete Barrett Smith
Not Very Scarey by Carol Brendler
Feeding Time At The Zoo by Sherry Shahan
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth
Amity by Micol Ostow
Colors of the Wind by Jessica Powers
Teeny Little Grief Machines by Linda Oatman High
Goldie Takes a Stand: Golda Meir's First Crusade by Barbara Krasner
Don't  Touch, The Game of Boys and Monsters by Rachel M. Wilson
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: The Terror the Southlands by Caroline Carlson
Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen
Penelope Crumb is Mad at the Moon (Book 4) by Shawn K. Stout
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane
The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry
Fat and Bones by Larissa Theule
Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham
Girl On a Wire by Gwenda Bond
Devin Rhodes is Dead by Jennifer Wolf Kam
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A. S. King
How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Blue Mountain - by Martine Leavitt - my advisor!
Entangled (paperback release) by Amy Rose Capetta
Small Wonders by Matt Smith, illus. Giuliano Ferri
Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath
Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall
The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris
Liesel's Ocean Rescue by Barbara Krasner
Blue On Blue by Dianne White, illus. Beth Krommes

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Choosing Magic

When I applied to graduate school, I didn't tell anyone except my husband. I had just won a local writing contest and was feeling pretty confident, and felt like the time was right to explore becoming more serious about my writing. I had a job that didn't drain me and my family was financially sound. Warren had built an amazing team at his company that allowed him some more flexibility to help pick up some of the slack at home so I could pursue my Masters degree. My daughter was just getting into chapter books and her enthusiasm about books fueled my desire to be part of that excitement for kids beyond my own.

I spent hours researching writing programs. There weren't very many with a focus on writing for children, but the ones I found sounded fascinating. I also looked at other programs like writing for social justice and community literacy. They had equally impressive programs. I applied to 4. All of them required writing samples. Warren took the realm at home and with our daughter, and I wrote essay after essay, filled out all the applications, and completed various writing to meet the requirements. I still didn't tell a soul what I was up to. I wasn't fully convinced that I would be accepted and I don't do well with failure. If I did not get accepted, I did not want to share that with anyone beyond the person I knew would still be encouraging no matter what.

I sent my applications and tried not to be too anxious about the responses. Although I had given myself options, I really, really wanted to get into Vermont College of Fine Arts. Aside from theirs being the first MFA program to focus on writing for children and young adults, their faculty list was impressive and diverse. Their teaching model had been adopted by other graduate programs, and their list of alumni was awe-inspiring. Getting in felt like the ultimate validation that I should be writing stories for young readers.

On February 12, 2012 Warren and I were in my car and he put his hand on my knee and asked gently, "Have you heard from any of the schools you applied to?" 

I told him I had not heard anything. 

He didn't falter and said, "You'll get in. I know you really want to go to Vermont, and you will." 

He rubbed my knee, and then put both hands on the steering wheel. We didn't speak of it again because we both knew how much I wanted him to be right. 

Three days later Warren passed away unexpectedly. I felt as though a huge chunk of myself was missing. I didn't know how I was going to face a future without him. All that had once seemed solid and sure was gone and I operated on auto-pilot, in a fog of epic pain and confusion. Nothing made sense anymore. Suffice it to say, I was no longer thinking about graduate school or writing.

Two days after the funeral I got a call from Vermont College of Fine Arts. The voice on the other end congratulated me on my acceptance. I cupped my hands over the phone to stifle a sob and sunk to the floor in my kitchen. The voice said, "Hello. Can you hear me? I said you got into our writing for children and young adults program. Are you still on the line?" I choked out a "yes" then couldn't speak again for fear I would weep into the phone and scare her into rescinding the offer. 

Her response, "You're the calmest person I've talked to about coming to VCFA. Most people are super excited. It's a tough program to get into." I thanked her and told her I was happy. Then I asked for some time to decide and rushed to get off the phone. I walked up to my aunt and sobbed into her arms, facing the first milestone without Warren. What would have been a time for celebrating, made it strikingly clear that my biggest cheerleader was not there for this moment. 

That is one of the hardest parts of my grief journey. I wanted so much to share that accomplishment with Warren, to see his bright smile and the pride in his eyes that I had grown so accustomed to. No one knew what it meant to me to get into VCFA. No one knew I was even pursuing it. In order to share my joy I would have to explain those things to my family and friends. I barely had the energy to breathe, let alone articulate what it meant to get in. I kept hearing Warren's voice in my head, telling me that I would get in. I saw the confidence in his eyes from just a few days earlier and my joy was quickly sucked into a mix of pain, anger and awe. 

The program required me to go to Vermont for ten days every six months for two years. I had just lost my husband, my partner in all things. His death made me the sole provider for my daughter on a salary that was nearly one third of our joint income. My daughter was constantly checking to see if I was breathing in my sleep. How could I even consider going into debt and leaving when she had just lost her daddy? It felt like life had just thrown me another cruel joke. It had presented me with something that I wanted so badly but could not have. Another glimpse of what could be but never would be.

Still, I couldn't shake Warren's words. I could see him so vividly assuring me that I would go to Vermont. How could I let him down? He believed I would go more than I did. Another thing that was prevalent those days was that so many people were reaching out to me. I felt their love for Warren and their sincerity at wanting to do something, anything they could, to help me. They wanted to be close to my daughter and I so they could feel closer to him. Some told me they wanted to find a way to return the kindness he had once shown them. It was fascinating. Even though I had never experienced such a loss in my life, I knew their reactions were unique and special. I decided to trust Warren. He had always given me incredible advice. He wanted me to be a writer. He called me a writer in a way that felt genuine. 

A few days later I called VCFA and accepted my place in their upcoming class. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I had five months to help my daughter heal enough to let me out of her sight for two weeks. I used that time to prepare myself to meet a slew of people who wouldn't know me as Warren's wife. I called on those caring souls who offered help and asked them to help me in various ways to make it possible to go to Vermont. I visualized myself taking on a totally new challenge. I told myself that I wasn't doing it alone, Warren would be with me.

This is not to say that it was smooth sailing. I can't tell you how I survived my first two semesters because I remember them in bits and pieces, like clips of a movie. There were plenty of tears. There were times I felt that Warren was so far from me, and other times when I'd smile at something I wrote, imagining his reaction if he could read it. When I completed the first draft of my young adult novel I was instantly filled with relief, pride, and anger that I couldn't share it with him, see his smile, or hear his voice tell me that he knew I could do it. When I got to work with amazing advisors who I held in the highest esteem, it hurt not to share that excitement with him. On the day I walked across the stage at my graduation ceremony the tears would not stop, no matter how hard I tried, feeling every minute that the person who should have been there to share that moment was not with me. I still look back and feel awash with the joy of the moment and the sadness of that fact. 

However, so many beautiful realizations came from that experience that I will be eternally grateful that I took the chance and didn't let grief and fear stop me. I made incredible friends, worked with phenomenal writers, and wrote some of my best stories to date. I learned more than I dreamed, and most importantly, I began forming new dreams for myself that were mine, not remnants of the life I'd lost, but the life I wanted to live. It was healing and magical to explore new possibilities and know that I am braver than I believed, stronger than I seemed, and smarter than I thought. 

Monday, December 8, 2014


It is often said that we are our own worst critics. That is because no matter what our craft is, we allow doubt to make us feel inadequate. When you love doing something so much, you want to be great at it. You expect perfection from yourself. We define perfection in various ways but one thing is common: if we fall short of what we want from ourselves, we tend to think that what we create is shit. I'm not trying to be vulgar for the sake of vulgarity. I am thinking back to a writer you may have heard of, who said this:
The first draft
Even beyond the first draft, as writers we feel compelled to tell a story with the dignity and resolve it deserves. That is why we pour hours of research into our stories. It is why we feel so strongly about our characters. Our love of story propels us to do it justice. When we can't muster up our best, doubt tells us that we were never any good to begin with. It convinces us that we are talentless, unworthy of past accolades and that we are not the right person to tell the story.

This is something I am battling right now. I have a manuscript that I love. I am proud of it and sometimes can't believe it came from me. But I also know that it can be better. I know there are areas that need more development. There are characters that need more dimension. There are scenes missing that I haven't thought of yet. The ending could have more emotion and leave a greater impact if I infuse more substance into some relationships. Yet, I've been putting off tackling those areas. Instead I have knitted a sweater for my daughter's American Girl doll, I have taken on coordinating my church's Christmas Eve dinner, I have volunteered to make a Nutella flan for my bestie's birthday bash. All the while allowing doubt to guide me away from doing what I need to do.

I know what needs to be done, but I doubt that I have the capabilities to do them. Am I skilled enough to make this story as incredible as my agent thinks it can be? Am I brave enough to tackle the relationships in it that are a reflection of some of my own complex relationships? Doubt tells me that I can't. It tells me that I have given this story the best of what I can give, that there is no more left. Doubt tells me that it was a fluke that I even wrote 75,000 words. Doubt tells me that no one will ever want to read it.

What I need to do in order to move forward is use that doubt as motivation. It should be the fuel I add to the fire of dedication to my craft. To quote yet another dead, male writer: 
Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
 - Khalil Gibran
In other words, doubt is only one side of a double-edge sword. The other side is improvement. As impossible as it seems, I can counter the doubts with what I know to be true - that I have the skills to address all the areas that need to be revised; that I've done the hardest part already by getting the story out; that those who have read excerpts believe this story needs to be told; that I love my characters and their stories and I will not let them down. The truth of the matter is, this is all easier said than believed, and ten times easier to think about than put into practice.

I take solace knowing that I am not alone in this struggle. It something that every artist I know struggles with - from designers, actors and illustrators. My Tribe reach out to one another when doubt rears its ugly head and their struggle is my struggle. They are brilliant so it keeps me hopeful that since I am in good company, I will prevail over doubt.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

It Takes Guts to Write from the Gut

Fiction: literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.

Writing fiction is a brave act. Even when the characters, settings and circumstances are "imaginary", they come from a place that is close to the writer. Any genre of fiction, including magical realism, science-fiction, dystopian, fantasy, etc. have elements that come from the writer’s life, even if the writer doesn’t realize it at the time. I have yet to meet a writer who does not pour their reality into their fiction.

The obvious is through characters. Characters can embody qualities of people we know and that  is what gives them layers. It makes them likable, relatable, hated, admired and memorable to readers. We don’t always know we are infusing characters with personalities, hopes, dreams and fears of those we know, or of our own. Because it is what we know, it comes out naturally. We make conscious decisions to allow them to be subtle or overt. From names to  physical attributes, our characters are extensions of who we are and who we know.

Same is true for setting. When I write a story it is almost always based on places I’ve been. From states to interiors of buildings, I need to have a visual, something that makes that place real. Stories tend to come to me set in cities I’ve been to, or lived in. In the rare occasion where the city is ambiguous, or not relevant to the story, the scenes take place inside places I’ve been, like schools I attended, but they are redesigned to fit the story. One thing I learned to do in graduate school is to build a blueprint of where scenes take place. Some writers draw out the spaces in their stories. As you know from my 11/18/14 post, I typically don’t draw in conjunction with my writing. However, in one of the lectures I attended we were given a writing exercise where we had to draw out the room where a scene took place. I was having trouble with a particular scene so I did a quick sketch of the room in which the scene played out. I was surprised at how helpful it was.  Taking the time to study the space where my characters were helped me learn more about them. I saw the entire room, and in doing so, parts of the scene unfolded, and I was able to write it out more vividly. In doing so I felt more connected to all the characters, and felt that I better understood the story.

When I write, I make a mental map in my head and refer to it as the story unfolds. If there is an interior space, I include furniture and knick-knacks. I think of them as props because they can hold a purpose in the story, just as they can in plays or movies. If there is an outdoor space I have fun deciding the weather, the smells, and the sounds. Sometimes I challenge myself to consider what it would look like if I crank up the temperature, make the space larger, smaller or more or less public. Doing so I draw on how those things would affect me if I was standing in that space, and it helps me explore how my characters respond to the space around them.

These are some of the more obvious ways that I write what I know. To me, these are the easier ways. The harder ways are when I get down to the relationships in my stories. When I ask myself why characters make the choices they do; why they love how they love; why they react as they do. These answers are much harder to define. That is when my subconscious goes to places deep within me and pulls out my unspoken fears and burdens, the biases I am scared to admit to, and the darker parts of myself that I can’t explain. It is where tenderness lurks that I often squelch in the name of survival. Is the place where my dreams lay dormant, waiting for a chance to come into focus. It is a place that I can’t tap into easily, save for my writing.

The novel that I am currently revising deals with mixed martial arts. There are a lot of fight scenes, blood, broken bones, and violence. Am I an MMA fighter? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I wasn’t even a fan when I started it two years ago. I knew close to nothing about the sport. It came to me and I went with it. It’s not until a recent conversation I had with a classmate that it dawned on me that it didn’t just come to me as I originally believed. What I was really doing was writing out my pain.

I started that story less than six months after the worse event of my life. I was feeling pain that I had no idea how to deal with. It was intense, deep, maddening at times and I was at a loss for expressing it. I had no words for the pain of losing my best friend. There was nothing I could do to ease the torment of facing my future void of everything I thought it would hold. But the mind is a mysterious phenomenon. It took over and began to heal in a way that it knew I could handle. I dealt with my internal pain by writing about physical pain. I didn’t have the words to deal with the kind of pain I was feeling inside. It was so new, so foreign and so raw that I had no clue how to wrap my head around it so that I could start healing. But, I knew how to deal with physical pain. Without realizing it, I drew on that and the fight scenes are some of the most intense and vivid scenes in the manuscript. They are filled with tons of detail and movement. They are me in a different form.

Writing fiction does not alleviate the burden of truth. It does not mean that the writer can be completely unengaged because the story is made up. Elements of the writer's truths seep into the various facets of the story in different ways. Writers can’t escape that. At the end of the day, we write what we know, what we've learned through living. Our words reflect how we interact with the world, even when we make up the world and add magical creatures or unexplored galaxies. We write for so many personal reasons that we can't do so honestly without exposing our inner selves. We are connected to what we write and that is a scary thing. Putting our writing into the world is a frightening. I liken it to sending your baby off on their own for the first time. You know it must happen and you think you’re prepared, but it terrifies you to the core. But, you don’t clip your baby’s wings to pacify your fear. You find a way to face it, you find the courage to let that baby forge their own way in the world. That is how it is for writers of fiction. So, the next time you write a review, or talk about a book you loved or hated, think about how the writer allowed you to see a bit of her soul, and try to honor her bravery.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Tribe

One of the most important things I have when it comes to my writing is what I call my “Tribe”. According to Webster’s Dictionary, tribe means a natural group of related plants or animals. When it comes to the writers I know and love, I am especially drawn to the words related and animals. I say that in jest but not really, because writers have been known to be a strange bunch. But I digress.

My Tribe consists of other writers who focus on writing for young readers. Given geography, most of my Tribe lives in other states and I interact with them via social media, email and at national conferences. They are essential in my journey as a writer. They are the ones I turn to when I have questions or need encouragement. What I love most about my Tribe is that they are always willing to offer advice. They tell me to go have some wine and chocolate and then come back to my story. 

I am blessed beyond measure to have gone to a writing program filled with other children’s and YA writers. For two years I got to go to Vermont every six months for ten days of intense graduate work, made enjoyable by the community of writers experiencing it with me. We spent hours thinking about characters and plots, setting and pace. At the end of the day we spent time laughing at Muggle jokes and lamenting over our love of all things Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl. I have no doubt that those classmates and peers will be life-long friends. 

Locally, I am getting to know others in the area who have published, or are trying to publish books and illustrations for kids. Slowly, as I participate in more of their events and groups I am becoming more comfortable sharing my work with them and offering feedback in critique groups. 

Online, I am part of a Facebook group of YA writers that called themselves Binders, but I think of them more like the Bible of all things YA. It is a large group and most of them I only know via their posts, but they are responsive, have a wealth of experience both pre- and post-publication, and are constant reminders that even when I’m sitting at my laptop in an empty house, or quiet corner of a local library, I am never alone. That is invaluable because writing is a lonely task. It requires silence, time to think, and ridiculous Google searches that might make you blush if anyone saw what you are looking up. Most writers I know write when they are alone. This can make you feel isolated. Isolation doesn’t come alone; it brings its good friend, doubt along. When doubt creeps into my head, and I'm sitting at my desk with no one around, that Tribe becomes my lifeline. 

It is those times when I turn to those who understand. They have been there. They offer reassurance that this moment will pass, and it gets me writing again. They give me people to aspire to. They help me create goals. They make me laugh with their stories of botched school visits and overzealous librarians. They pass along ideas and resources for becoming a better storyteller. They share good news that makes me feel happy for them, hopeful for myself. 

No one can succeed in a vacuum. The most successful among us are those who value the opinions and experiences of others. Writers are no different. We may operate unaccompanied, but we need peers just like anyone else. If there are any aspiring writers reading this blog I hope you have a Tribe, a group of like-minded creatives who share in your journey, to be sounding boards and cheerleaders, coaches and role models. You may be good on your own, but with the support of your Tribe, you will be great.

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