Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gotta get Creative

When my agent gave me her latest round of comments and questions for me to revise my novel, I felt like I had all the time in the world. That's what five weeks felt like back then.

Today, I am about two weeks away from my deadline and it feels like it's grabbing hold of my wind pipe. I have to stop letting life get in the way of my writing and sit my butt at my computer and make my story better. If not, it will never be strong enough to sell to editors and will never make it to print. 

Therefore, I have to focus on my creative writing for the remainder of the month and my blogging will have to take a snooze until March.

I appreciate those of you who have been reading my ramblings and those who have sent me text message responses to posts. Hearing from readers always makes my day.

Hasta March, peeps. Wish me luck that these revisions get done!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Living, Writing and Reading while Latina

The first book I read about a Latina living in the United States was Sandra Cisnero's House on Mango Street. I think I read it for a summer program right before I started high school, and I was so enamored. I loved that the main character was brown and lived in the same neighborhood where I was growing up. She named streets and places that I was familiar with. Her life mirrored those of my neighbors, family and friends, even though the character was Mexican, and living in a different decade. I remember wishing there were more books like that.

Sure there are fabulous writers from Latin America, like Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel. They write beautiful stories that have universal themes like love and loss, even though they take place in early turn of the century Chile and Mexico. I could relate to the character's loyalty to family and their love of country. I had fun imagining the landscape of places I had never been. But, it wasn't very different than reading a book that took place in Russia, China or the Middle East because, although the writers were of Latin origin, their stories were foreign to me. They didn't write about places I'd lived, or histories with which I was familiar. As much as I loved the prose and poetry in books by Latin American authors, I didn't feel a connection to them, even those like Rosario Ferré who wrote stories centered in Puerto Rico. 

What I was longing for was a book about a Latina who considered herself as American as she did Latina. I wanted to learn how others like me dealt with being bi-cultural, answering the ever-present question, "What are you?" when they didn't look black enough or white enough to fit neatly in someone's idea of what an American should look like. I wanted to read about brown girls from tough humble beginnings who were defeating the odds to be the first in their families to go to college. I wanted to read stories about women like me with expansive vocabularies and non-accented English. Where were those books? There were certainly plenty of Latinos who lived all their lives in the United States. We deserved to read about our lives, as much as the lives of those who were born and raised abroad.

I didn't read a book about a Latina living in the United States until I was in my early twenties. I can't recall the exact book I read, but once I found that Latinas were writing about experiences similar to my own, I was on the hunt. I scoured websites and bookstores for books and was ecstatic to find books by Sofia Quintero, Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, Lara Rios, Caridad Pinero, Berta Platas, Jackie Sandoval, Reyna Grande, Mary Castillo, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Barbara Caridad Ferrer, Michele Dominguez Green, Gaby Triana, Michele Serros, Marta Acosta, Kathy Cano Murillo, and Carolina Garcia Aguilera. These women, and those who have been published since them, reinvigorated my love of stories. Reading about lives that were so much like mine was like discovering the gift of reading all over again. To this day I cannot pass up buying a book by a Latina author who bases her books on the experience of living while brown and female in the U.S.

This discovery was pivotal because it sparked my interest in publishing. It made me question why it had taken so long (and so many books) to find these stories. Who was publishing them and why weren't they publishing more? How were these books marketed and why had it taken me so long to learn of their existence? Who were these writers and how could I meet them? The answer to that last question came in 2006 at the first-ever Chica Lit Conference put together by Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, author of Dirty Girl's Social Club and many subsequent books that all feature Latina protagonists. She brought Latina writers and readers together for a weekend in Miami to discuss all things Chica Lit and I was in my element.

Most attendees were writers and editors, but a few were like me - readers and admirers of their work. Learning that some of them were the only Latinas at their imprints was ridiculous to me and it set me on the path for learning all I could about publishing, to find out why more publishers weren't putting out books for this audience. I was a multicultural marketing manager at the time, so I knew that we were the fastest growing market in the country. It made no business sense not to cater to Latinos and I could not understand why the publishing industry wasn't working harder at producing books for this market.

Determined to learn more, I applied and was accepted to the University of Denver's Publishing Institute where I constantly posed that question to the visiting editors, publicists and publishers. I can tell you with confidence that I became somewhat unpopular among the faculty because I would not let up. I took every opportunity I could to educate them on the increasing numbers of Latinos and why it made sense to support their literacy. I grilled them for the names of Latinas in the publishing houses they worked for, and was discouraged by the low number.

After completing the program I set off to New York and met with the few Latinos I had heard about who were involved in various facets of publishing. I listened to story after story about the lack of publicity dollars and support for books featuring Latino main characters. I was told over and over again that the low purchasing numbers of those books did not warrant the time, attention and resources of mainstream books. They believed that Latinos didn't read, not even books featuring them as the main characters.

I came back home feeling defeated and wondering how and when that perception would change. I was a reader. My mother was a reader. My friends were readers. I had met other Latina readers at the conference. How could an entire industry think that an entire population did not read? It made no sense to me.

Fast forward to today. I see more and more books about and by Latinas on the market. While I primarily focus on children's books, I still keep my eye out for adult books. I buy books by Latinas in an effort to disprove the notion that Latinos don't read. Whenever I'm asked to recommend a good book, I think of a Latina/o author, no matter the ethnicity of the person asking. When it came time to write my critical thesis for graduate school, I turned to Latina authors and created a thesis and lecture about the importance of authentic Latina characters, and how to write one, no matter your ethnicity.

As I venture on the path towards publication, I feel even more strongly that I need to support fellow Latina writers by buying and recommending their books. I now see first-hand the work it takes to not only get your story out of your head, but to convince an industry that it is worth something. I feel a kinship with those who have blazed the trail that I am working to follow. I admire them and recognize that they made it possible for others to come after them. They helped change the publishing landscape by being brave enough to believe their stories held value, that our stories hold value. For the first time I feel like I am doing something about the lack of stories about women like me, and feel like I've found my place at being part of the solution. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Friends: My Lifeline

Friendship is at the forefront of my mind because this past week my friends both near and far have come through for me at a time they know is among the most difficult for me. Approaching the anniversary of Warren's death is still stagnating, even though I've faced it three times already. My friends have let me know they are with me in spirit, in grief and in love through phone calls where they listen to me cry at the injustice that is losing the love of my life. They have sent me beautiful gifts that filled me with gratitude at the generosity of the human spirit. They sent messages to tell me they love me and are thinking of me at a time when grief feels like a silo. They sent me funny photos of us laughing that have turned my tears into smiles. They drove for miles to be with me so that the 15th doesn't feel like a death sentence for my soul. They hugged me and let me cry. They consoled me with stories of how my love was an inspiration to them, and reminded me how far I have come in this journey that is widowhood - a kindness I don't often allow myself.

One of the challenges I've dealt with in one of my novels-in-progress is how much of a loner my main character is. But she didn't start out that way. In the original version, she had a best friend that I enjoyed writing almost as much as I enjoyed my protagonist. In fact, I think I enjoyed writing her more. She wasn't as damaged as my main character so I could have fun with her. She infused humor into the story, had an entertaining back story. She was just as complex as my hero and antagonist. She was vibrant in her contrast to the darker, hard-edged character I spent so many hours getting to know.

The scenes with the two characters were some of my favorite ones. I enjoyed writing the back and forth banter that comes when there is 100% trust and zero judgement between two people. When those two people are teen girls, it becomes even more gratifying in this day of the "Queen Bee" and "Mean Girl". 

The relationship was based on so many of my own. I am beyond lucky, blessed- or however you want to phrase it, to have deep, wonderful friendships. I have friends from as early as fifth grade with whom I still keep in touch and share my life with. We live miles apart and only see each other on rare occasions but it doesn't affect the level of closeness or the laughter that comes when we get together. I don't take that for granted. I know people who do not have friends. I have friends who live in areas where they do not have friends nearby. In my life, I have always found friends locally, while still connected to those across the country, and in some cases, across the globe. I have many theories for why I have done that, but that is not where this post is headed. 

I can't articulate how much these friendships have been my rock at different points in my life. They have been such an influence that when my advisor and agent told me to cut the BFF from my manuscript in order to make the m.c.'s struggle more pronounced, I thought they killed my story (they didn't). How was my character supposed to survive the tough life I was creating for her if I didn't know how I could make it in life without my friends? Lesson #5,354 in fiction writing: No matter how personal it feels, it is not your life - write what needs to be written.

That's what I had to do. I looked at the feedback and read it several times, yet still felt at a loss for how to make that happen. The easiest way I could think of was to do a Word search and remove the friend's name. Naturally, I started there, but it changed the story. Was it still the story I wanted to tell? Was it still my character's true story if she didn't have her side kick to share it with? 
In my life, the answer would be a resounding NO. There is no way that I could do what my character had to do without the support of my friends. Call me spoiled, but I'm used to having my confidantes, my cheerleaders, my shoulders-to-cry-on, my eager listeners, my reality-checking friends who enrich my life on a daily basis. To remove them from my life would be like cutting off my oxygen supply. The thought of taking a friend from my character was incomprehensible. But, I removed myself from the story and thought about what the feedback was telling me. It was on-point...for my story. It was dead wrong...for my life.

I have hands-down the best friends in the world. Maybe we all say that, but in my case I can't imagine facing life without them. The best way I can think of honoring them is by including them in my story. Not my written stories (although watch out, because many of you are in my characters already), but in my life story.

When I think of people I want to support, push to be better, challenge and celebrate, my friends are always in abundance. Yes, family first but the truth is that with many of my friends, that line is blurred beyond recognition. I love them and hope for them like I do my own blood. I worry about them and miss them like I birthed them. I brag about them like their accomplishments are my own, and above all, I am fiercely devoted to them. 
There is no parallel to what they bring to my life. Even if I lived a million lifetimes, I would not be able to give them as much as they have given me. They are my rock, my source of laughter, my role models, my voices of reason when my own fails. They are there for me when I need them, through laughter and tears. They share their lives with me and allow me to be a part of theirs.

We connect via various communication methods and that has been a lifeline for me. When I most need them, they come through in ways that are above what is ever expected. I often wonder how I got so lucky to have so many loving, caring, thoughtful, inspiring people in my life. All I can say is that there are angels on earth, and I am so thankful that I can count them as friends.


Monday, February 16, 2015

36 Months, yet Still as Vivid

The worse day of my life happened on February 15, 2012 - 36 months ago I lost my best friend, my partner in life, the person I had chosen to spend every day with. I think of it in months in hopes that it will feel like a lot more time has passed, and it won't feel so raw. It doesn't really work. I know in my heart that 3 years is nothing because emotionally it has passed dreadfully slow, while in real life, the months have flown by.

On June 12, 2004 I made a promise that was to last until death did us part, and we lived up to that. Of course, I had no idea that death would part us so soon. I had imagined we would grow old together, arguing over what country to explore first at retirement, and teasing each other about bladder control issues. Instead, after only seven years of marriage I found myself planning a funeral for the person I felt closest to in the world.

Once the shock of the event began to lift, I was left with more pain, fear and doubt than I had ever experienced. The pain was (still is) indescribable. I have tried to put it into words but haven't found the right ones that can express the intensity of losing Warren. All I can come up with is that it was like a huge part of me was ripped away, leaving me open and deeply wounded, bleeding all over the place. I felt incomplete, broken and foreign to myself in my own skin. The pain was also relentless. It woke me up at night, and choked me throughout the day. 

Fear came a little later when I realized that I was left to fulfill all the commitments we had made as a couple. The biggest one was raising our daughter. I wanted to give her as much normalcy as possible since her world had just been turned upside down as well. I didn't want to lose the home we had built for her, or create any other circumstance that would make her feel any more insecure about her future. I wanted to maintain the kind of life her father and I had established, the life she was used to, the kind of life her father wanted so much for her to live.

Having dedicated my most recent years to working for local non-profits, my income was nowhere near what Warren earned as a CEO. It was probably about a third of what he earned, and not as secure since it was grant-based. As if life hadn't already sucker-punched me, I lost that income six months after I lost my husband. The only thing I can say about how I got over losing my job is that I was already dealing with so much pain, fear and uncertainty that it got absorbed into that. I was numb. I went into survival mode, moving savings around and trying my best to figure out how to keep my house and my sanity. But it shook my confidence. 

Leading non-profits felt like a natural fit for me, more than my corporate career ever had. Now I had to ask myself if it made sense to stay in that line of work. Was it fair to my daughter and family who counted on me to stick to something that felt natural vs. going back to a corporate career that was far more lucrative? Could I continue to give my daughter the life she was used to and still work for agencies that served populations I was passionate about? How was I supposed to pay for graduate school on a non-existent income?

Looking back, losing that job was a blessing in disguise. For starters, graduate school required that I go to Vermont for ten days every six months. The agency I had worked for did not offer that much flexibility for time off. Secondly, it forced me to look for scholarships that I would otherwise not have had the time to research. It also gave me time to feel what I needed to feel so I could process it.

Those first months post-Warren were like something out of a nightmare. Everything in my world was out of sorts. Yet, life continued all around me. I had to return to work even though leaving my house was so difficult that I would often tremble and feel like puking the moment I walked out the door. It made me feel sick to my stomach to be outside the safety of my home, yet I was expected to perform the duties of my job with the same dedication as I had before that awful day. I tried to do that, but my concentration was shot. I worked in fear that I was going to forget something vitally important that was going to lead to something awful because I couldn't remember details like I once did with ease.

When I tried to concentrate so I could remember some work or life-related detail (like my various passwords that I'd been using for years) my head would fill with the last sights I had of Warren, and I was done. Tears would stream down my face and the air would get too thick to breathe. Thank God I had a tiny office in the corner of a basement that barely anyone visited, or I would probably have lost my job a lot sooner than the budget cuts that took it. In short, I was a wreck and pretending that I wasn't for forty-plus hours a week wasn't helping me heal.

I needed to take time to cry; to sleep during the day if I needed to; to stay locked away in my house if I wanted to; to hug Warren's pillow for hours to breathe in his scent. I needed to find ways to cope with the images that haunted me, and the final words that played on repeat in my mind. I needed to meet other widows and learn that I was not alone. None of those things could happen while I was going to my 9-5 and pretending I was done grieving. 

Several things happened once I accepted that I was unemployed and decided not to rush into another job. A major turning point of that time was that I was diagnosed with PTSD. I would never have imagined that I would be afflicted with such a complex condition from an episode that took only 61 minutes from start to finish. Putting a name to what was happening to me was by no means a cure, but it meant I was not going insane. Knowing it was treatable alleviated some of the fear I had about what my future held. It gave me hope that I could get past it as I dealt with this new version of myself. The diagnosis helped lessen the burden of doubt that I had as to whether or not I would ever be strong enough to provide for myself and my daughter.

Since the diagnosis I have learned various coping techniques that keep my PTSD symptoms in check. As part of that I adopted healthier eating habits and began working out regularly, which not only allay the symptoms, but vastly improves my overall outlook on life. I made writing a regular part of my life and that has been a tremendous help. I also developed and strengthened relationships that have sustained me and pushed me to move forward.

I am beyond lucky that those I love have allowed me to remember Warren, to talk about him, and to honor him. They let me know regularly that they miss him, too. Grieving is a lonely process. Knowing that others share the void Warren left makes it easier to bear. I often cling to the words and stories about Warren that others share with me. I may not always let those people know, but it soothes me to hear them speak of Mi Amor, even if briefly. Even those who never met Warren but who took the time to learn about him, or ask about my life with him have helped me. By creating a safe place to remember him, they have also created a healing space for me.

It has been a tough road. I still have moments where the aftermath of that day hit me like a ton of bricks. Those moments can be brought on by a song, a phrase, or a photo. Other times nothing at all, just the heaviness of loss takes me back. Sometimes I am filled with gratitude and wonder at how abundant our time together was, even though it was so short. There are times when I still pick up my cell phone with the intention of calling him and telling him something mundane, and then I remember that he won't be on the other end of my call. Those incidents still rock me and bring on tears and pain. But they aren't as frequent and I soothe myself back to reality more calmly than I did twelve, or even six months ago.

There are still milestones like my graduation, finishing my novel, getting an agent, the addition of family members who will never know him, birthdays, etc., where the wound feels fresh and the event is tainted by sadness. Those will probably linger for years to come. I still cry randomly at photos, or while writing this blog, but the tears don't turn to sobs as often. I still can't sleep on his side of the bed, but at least I can sleep more than two hours a night. I still have his photos up all over my house, but now I can pass by them without falling apart. I still think about him, miss him and love him, but the feelings aren't diluted with so much anger. No matter how many months go by I will love him, miss him, honor his memory, and try to live every day by the examples he set.

The lessons I've learned over these last three years are some of the toughest and most intense of my life. Acceptance and resilience have been the hardest earned. Something I know will continue to live in me is my love for Warren, what we had, what we made, and who I became because of our union. It brought my life richness, joy, perspective and gratitude. Thirty-six months later my confidence is restored because I am still surviving and I have no doubt that I can handle anything that comes my way. As awful as that has been to learn, I am eternally thankful for that lesson.

Something that has not waned these last three years is how proud I am to have been his wife. I am still amazed that he chose me to spend his life with. How did I get so lucky to be partners with such an incredible person who by actions alone made me aspire to be better every day? I'll never know the answer. When I asked him, he told me that he was the lucky one. I will never agree, nor will I ever stop being grateful that we found each other, even if it was brief. He gave me something that many people never know. He gave me the kind of love that made me feel like the most important woman in the universe. That kind of love moves you. It opens a side of you that can never be the same. It made me realize that I am deserving of a whole love, and that I can give it in return. Knowing that side of myself shows me the good he planted in my heart. And while that heart is currently broken, it doesn't bleed the same. It is wrapped in bandages and rubber bands, held in place by what he left and the love that has come from those who loved him as well. I know that it continues to heal and that one day I will offer it to someone special, in honor of how Warren taught me to love. It is not a lesson I chose to learn so early in life, but it is one that is as eternal as our bond.

Te amo Mi Amor. Hoy y siempre.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Conference Re-Cap Part 2: What is Your Legacy?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Award for The Crossover. He worked on that book for years. Editors told him that a middle-grade book in verse would not sell. They passed on it time and time again. He went back and worked on it some more, cutting and adding scenes and characters. He was driven because he knew there were kids out there who shared in the experience of his young protagonists. He knew that this book was needed. It was an urging that led him to re-write it; to work with a freelance editor (on his dime); to revise it several times; and keep submitting it for publication. Last month his persistence paid off when it was recognized as one of the best children's books of the year. But it represents much more than the award. To Kwame, it speaks to how following his gut was the right move, even when publishers rejected the piece. It was the culmination of never giving up on those kids who need to see a kid like them making decisions that are impactful. It went beyond fulfilling a dream - it was personal and necessary for him to feel that he was writing the story that needed to be told.
When Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl began writing Beautiful Creatures, they did it because a group of teens who were really into sci-fi, fantasy, magic and paranormal prose were tired of seeing the same types of characters in those books. The teens wanted more bad-ass female characters with real powers who could not only save themselves, but also save the males in the story. As a teacher of high school students with difficult behaviors, Kami often asked her students if they had any favorite books. Most said they hated to read and had never connected with a book. This broke her heart (as it does mine) and she introduced one student in particular to Walter Dean Myers' books. That student read the entire book that evening, then re-read it. He chose to read rather than go hang out outside the liquor store with his friends that night. His friends got arrested. Reading, had saved him. 

He came to school the next day and wanted to know if there were more books like the one he read. Kami gave him another book by the same author. He devoured that one, too. Aside from opening his mind, she created a dialogue with him that no other adult had been able to do. She learned why he was so angry (he had good reason, as she shared but I won't go into), and that no one ever asked him why he reacted so severely when he got upset. She became his confidant. When hearing that students wanted more from the books they read, she kept that student in mind. 

She wrote from her heart in the hopes that Beautiful Creatures would touch those students who needed it. She didn't intend for it to be published. In fact, she never really called it a book, but a story. It was the story that teens had told her they wanted to read. She had fun with it, incorporated themes and characters they were into, and took their feedback seriously. It began to get passed around and before she knew it, it had gone viral and was in the hands of students she had never met. They all wanted more (probably why the book is so long). She kept writing. It was a friend who referred her to an agent that got the book towards publication. Fast forward years ahead and it became a New York Times Bestseller and a movie was made in 2013. But Kami wasn't fully convinced she was on to something until she got a letter from a kid who told her that her book had saved his life. He was gay, but lived in a community where being different was not safe or accepted. On days when he felt like he couldn't stay in the closet a second longer, he'd pull out her book and read about how her characters were outcasts, too, and how they overcame to become heroes. They did not give up, and neither would he. That one letter spurred her to consider writing more novels. She is now the author of the Legion Series, spin-off books from Beautiful Creatures, short stories,  and has tons of fans of all ages and backgrounds. But what she has that inspired me most, is a legacy.

Like Kwame and so many writers before them, Kami Garcia created something that will live beyond her time on this planet. People often talk about legacies and it has been a big part of my life since losing Warren. Time and time again I have thought about what I want my legacy to be. The answer is simple, yet so terrifying. I want my passion to make a difference. I don't need to sell thousands of copies of a book, or see my book become a movie. I want to get a letter, email, tweet, or whatever other form of communication kids are using by the time I'm published - that tells me that my words made them change in some way. That it helped them see or become the person they want to be. That it gave them hope, or encouraged them to be better than what society expects from them. If I never sell more than the one book that touches that one kid, I will be fulfilled. At the end of the day, it is not about how many books I write, or sell, but what those books do for the world that will determine how the world remembers me. I never want to take that lightly.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

NYC: I Love You From a Distance


Aside from attending the SCBWI conference, I got to spend time in New York City. The city of my mother's birth has become one of my favorite cities to visit. 

As a child I felt differently. We'd visit family during the summer months and I sometimes felt uneasy. Not because of my family, but because I felt claustrophobic with so many people living in such close quarters. Growing up in Chicago, it was also a large city with many people, but we had side yards that separated us, gave us a little breathing room and privacy. When I'd get home, I appreciated the quiet nature of my neighborhood, the familiar faces and the easy access to sun light.

Since I was young when I visited NYC, I went where I was taken, which was mostly to visit family and maybe one tourist attraction per visit. This did not make for a very exciting trip. While I understand that the purpose of our trip was to spend time with family we didn't see often, I felt like there had to be more to the city. 

As an adult, it's a whole different ball game. I've been fortunate to visit New York City at least once a year for the past several years. I have a dear friend who lives there and I LOVE spending time with her, her hubby and their bunnies. They are both outgoing, energetic and know the ins and outs of what's happening in the city. Every time I visit we have a different adventure and I see a new side of this fascinating place. I love exploring cities, walking around and getting the true feel for a place unlike where I live. It gives me a rush and makes me feel alive with purpose. I don't always like what I see, but I always learn something, mostly about myself.

When I first decided to live in Des Moines it was a tough decision. I think I cried for about two hours the day I knew I was there for the long haul. Back then there was nothing special about Des Moines. In fact, I thought it was the ugliest city I'd ever seen, but I had been offered a great career opportunity that would allow me the best chance at becoming financially independent. It was where I had to be so I found a small, but cute apartment near the Des Moines Art Center and hoped my stay would be short. Fourteen years later, I find myself appreciating this little city, especially after sending time in New York.

I love the hustle and bustle of people, but I also like the steady pace of the Midwest, where you can choose to walk or drive and neither one is particularly stressful. While I love the subway system in NYC (amazing place to create character sketches just by observing the people around you, and easy to navigate), I like the convenience of being able to drive (and park) to my destinations.

One of my favorite things about visiting any large metropolis is hearing all the different accents of the people going this way and that. I don't wonder if they're talking about me, or wish I could understand what they're saying. Instead I marvel at how much of the world comes together in large cities. When I first moved to Des Moines I would go days without seeing anyone who looked like me or could speak more than English. Thankfully, Des Moines has become home to a number of international people who speak multiple languages and have wonderful accents. I have friends from dozens of countries and from all continents. I can walk a block to an international market and hear a plethora of languages, and see several beautiful shades of brown. I have learned to appreciate diversity in a way that gets lost in cities like New York.

The food in New York is phenomenal. You can find every culture and culinary fad within walking distance or a short train ride away. Eating through places I visit is my absolute favorite thing to do when I travel. There's nothing like having so many choices at your fingertips, and the fact that most of them deliver is icing on the cake, pun intended. While I can't get as many cultural options on a plate in Des Moines, they have certainly come a long way in that area, too. Restaurants pop up all the time and while the only Latino option used to be Mexican, today Des Moines has a famous Ecuadoran restaurant, several pupuserias, unparalleled taco trucks and a Honduran restaurant. Certainly not the options available in New York, but as long as there are planes to take me to my fave city at least once a year, I can manage with what's available.

When I'm in New York I feel like everything's amplified. Nothing feels simple and steady. I feel like I have to be on the go all the time in order to take it all in. It's a great feeling for about four days. After that, I start to look forward to the slower pace of the Midwest. Despite their reputation, I find that as long as I live and let live, New Yorkers are generally friendly, although unmatched to what I find locally.

When chatting with friends who live in New York, they all seem to have a love/hate relationship with their city. They love all the things I love about it but, their struggles are real. They have to take a few buses or trains to the grocery store and walk several blocks while bogged down with their groceries. When planning their day, they often have to carry a backpack of everything they might possibly need because returning home for something is rarely an easy option. Their days off are spent hustling from spot to spot, taking into account commute times and they often feel like there aren't enough hours in the day to get their errands run, and have time left to relax. They live surrounded by entertainment options, yet have to work like fiends in order to afford to live there, thus forgoing those entertaining options. They miss being able to drop in on friends just because they are "in the neighborhood" because they are often in an area for a very specific purpose, often vying their time based on the bus/subway schedule for the day.

As glamorous as that all sounds, Des Moines has grown on me. Over the years it has transformed. It now has a sculpture park that my daughter adores, where once stood abandoned lots. We have a Latino Festival that rivals any larger city event. Our cost of living remains low enough that young professionals and single moms can live comfortably and enjoy what the city offers. Our schools are constantly in top national rankings and we often appear on various lists as one of the most family-friendly places to live. More recently, Des Moines has begin appearing regularly on Forbes' lists as a good place to start a business and grow a career. In due time, I see myself moving out of Des Moines (not sure how much longer I can stand Iowa winters). I have loved so many things about living here, and appreciate them more when returning from other cities. It is where I began my career, met my husband, started a family, gained remarkable friends, saw my family thrive, and had the opportunity to be on the forefront of many experiences that have added to the vibrancy of the city. But, it is always fun to leave and come back, knowing that I am exactly where I need to be at this moment in my life.

Des Moines, IA - more than expected

Conference Re-Cap - Part 1: Funding the Passion Takes Work

I survived my first national writing conference! I know that sounds dramatic but it was a big deal to be among so many like-minded, passionate illustrators and writers of children's literature. I don't often get to spend time with people who navigate this world on a regular basis. One of the things I found most fascinating (and daunting) is how hard these writers work. 

Being a writer for children's books is often glamorized with images of a writer smiling at a computer, creativity spewing out her fingertips from Once upon a time to happily ever after. That is very far from the reality of the writers I know. I've posted about how writing itself is hard work, but when you're trying to make a name for yourself as an author, it's a lot more than getting words on the page.

Many published writers spend hours and money promoting themselves and their books. From creating interactive websites that can cost thousands, to buying swag to create buzz around their new book, to spending hours corresponding with readers via social media. Many do school visits - some paid, most unpaid, to talk about their books and experience as a writer. They sometimes have to travel to these schools and in some cases, many purchase copies of their books to give to students because the quantities needed at a school visit goes above and beyond the copies allocated to them by their publishers (Note: Authors do not get unlimited quantities of their published books. They get a few and must purchase the rest. Keep this in mind the next time you contact an author and request a free copy of their book - that's what libraries are for). They attend and present at conferences across the globe, and apply for writing sabbaticals to hone their craft.

When authors aren't self-promoting, they are meeting with their editors and revising manuscripts, or pitching new ideas to their agents. Those who have multiple books coming out must juggle the promotion of each book, which can be with different editors and publishing houses, each of whom have their own expectations of how the author should be spending her time on the specific book they are working on. Some of the debut authors I talked to said they write articles for various publications and websites, and are guest bloggers or do blog tours. Established authors write reviews of other writer's work, provide blurbs for other authors, and participate in video interviews and podcasts. It's an exhausting line of work. At the end of the day, even writers who do not have full time jobs (most do), don't spend the majority of their day writing.

But not a single author I spoke to could imagine their life without writing. It's something of a calling, a special kind of blood that forces you to seep words onto a page and create worlds different from your own. With this desire comes the ability to deal with rejection. That's the side of the business everyone tries to gloss over, but it is also the part that sometimes sparks a fire in those writers who know that some kid out there needs their book.
Kwame Alexander delivers a keynote
at the 2015 SCBWI conference, NYC
One such example is Kwame Alexander. In January his book, The Crossover won the John Newbery Medal, an award that is given annually for: the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children (This goes beyond ROCK STAR status in my book, but that's just me). When he was writing love poems, he took a job in an inner city school that would allow him to teach poetry because he was a poet. He had studied under the amazing Nikki Giovanni for three years and wanted to devote his life to his learning. What he found wasn't surprising: There wasn't much out there that allowed poets to make a living. In order to fund his passion he worked whatever jobs came his way while he not only wrote and taught, but he self-published, took himself on a nationwide tour to sell his books of poetry, and he started several writing initiatives that he felt were lacking. He didn't let closed doors stop him. When he wasn't selected for an international writing retreat, he created one himself. When he was asked if he'd write poetry for children, he learned all he could about what was available, and what was lacking and wrote his first rhyming picture book. He is a testament to working hard and saying yes when unexpected doors open - even when those doors mean more work.

James Dashner and his plethora of books
James Dashner, author of many books, including The Maze Runner series (also a major motion picture) spent eight years working on that manuscript. He had many books before that series that had low print runs, and horrendous covers that led them to go out of print almost immediately upon publication. He went through several agents and heard so many rejections for The Maze Runner that he put it away for more than a year, thinking that it would never see the light of day. But it wore on him. It was a story that wouldn't leave him. He couldn't let it go and I'm sure his fans are grateful that he kept at it, working, writing, revising and submitting that story until it found a home.

The moral of this blog is that no matter what your passion is, whether it's arts-related or not, it will not come to you. You will have to work for it. There will be snags along the way. You will face rejection. Don't let it define you. When you feel like you're getting nowhere, work harder, find new ways of linking your passion to your life. Remember that your passion isn't something that can be easily kept at bay, so don't allow it to fester there. It deserves your time and sacrifice. You deserve to see your passion lead you where it may. Take it from these great writers and get to work. Dreams don't fulfill themselves.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Plunging In - Ready or Not

SCBWIThis week I head to my first SCBWI national conference. SCBWI stands for: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the international professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s literature. It is a non-profit that started in 1971 and is the only professional organization specifically for those of us writing and illustrating for children and young adults in literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. Several of the most widely recognized, award-winning writing professionals sit on the SCBWI Board of Advisors, contribute to their monthly magazine, judge their various writing contests, and attend their annual events.

SCBWI has local chapters and I am a member locally, and attended their conference in the Fall. It was awesome to be among local writers and illustrators, and have publishing professionals from both coasts come as speakers and guests. The energy in the room was strong, but friendly and there was much celebrating of the accomplishments of others. It felt like a close-knit group, even though most came from all over the state. 

I had just signed on with my literary agent and many writers at the conference congratulated me throughout the event, welcoming me to the exciting (and long) road to publication. They also shared valuable advice and offered assurances that I highly appreciated. The workshops were full of practical information and it made me feel like I was back at a grad school residency, which I loved. It made me incredibly excited to get more involved with the organization as a whole, and locally. At the conclusion of the local conference I registered for the national conference. 

Attending the national conference is a total leap of faith for many reasons. For starters, it is a huge monetary investment. Registration, even the early registration discount is not cheap. That doesn't include getting to New York where the winter conference takes place, plus lodging and expenses while I'm there. Luckily I have friends and family in the area with whom I can crash, or I don't think I would be able to swing it. 

Secondly, being in a room with the "rock stars" of young adult literature is nerve-wrecking. I get totally star-struck when I meet authors of works I've read, even more-so when they've written something I like. My respect and admiration for published authors is through-the-roof-borderline-irrational. I admit it, I'm a total fangirl when it comes to writers. I want to know how they get inspired, compare writing processes, praise their work, learn how they came up with plot twists and characters...the list goes on and on. The problem is that when I get in front of them I can barely speak. I don't go as far as fainting, but I feel like if I'm not careful I might pass out. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. In order to make this experience worth the time and money I have invested, I have to have a strategy to overcome my fandom and appear cool, calm, collected and absorb as much knowledge and wisdom as I can. I can't allow myself to become intimidated, or to think that I don't bring anything to the table simply because I haven't been published. I have to decide what my goals are for the conference, and how I want to use what I learn when I come back home. 

Those are things I should have determined when I registered, but I thought I'd sign up and then figure it out. I had months and months to do so. Now those months have dwindled to days and I had to get my plan in order. I'll share that here, in case it can be helpful to any aspiring writers reading this and planning to attend a similar conference. 
  1. Learn all I can about the featured guests, keynote speakers, panelists and workshop leaders.
  2. Decide on a few works in progress to reference during presentations, keynotes and workshops.
  3. Make a list of speakers, presenters and attendees I want to make sure to meet and prioritize that list.
  4. Ask my various writing groups for ideas, recommendations and tips.
  5. Create a mantra, something like: Writers are people just like me. No need to freak out. Repeat internally as often as possible.
Learn all I can about the featured guests, keynote speakers, panelists and workshop leaders.
Most conferences offer a list of all who will be speaking throughout the event. Be familiar with what they have written, edited, etc. Read a bit of their work, visit their websites, or look them up on Google and Goodreads to learn what others think about them. If they have a blog, read a few entries and comments. If you are really interested in them find a way to connect (via their website, social media, etc. before the conference and let them know you are excited to meet them at the conference so when you approach them it doesn't feel like an out-of-the-blue introduction.

Look for specific things in their bios that you're interested in. For example, do they teach writing somewhere? If so, what age group and how did they get into teaching? If those details aren't included in their bios, add them to your list of questions for when you meet them. 

Decide on a few works in progress to reference  during presentations, keynotes and workshops.
Events like these inspire a wealth of ideas. Have a notebook and pen handy to jot them all down. I find it can also inspire current stories. I have a number of stories that I am working on at any given time. Before the conference I'll brush up on where I am in the stories so the workshops can be relevant to areas I need to develop, plot snags I need to work out, and characters I need to flush out in order to strengthen the story or move it forward. 

Reading through and having some selected works based on the workshop content can give you a starting point, especially if there are any writing exercises. Writing exercises during presentations have been tremendously helpful to me in the past when I have been struggling with a point in my story. They have also led to scenes, characters and inciting events in past works. Be prepared with some top of mind stories you are writing will help you make the most of the time allotted so you don't spend it wondering what to write about.

Make a list of speakers, presenters and attendees I want to make sure to meet and prioritize that list. 
Trying to meet all the speakers and presenters is probably unreasonable and unnecessary. As you research them try to identify three to five and make it a point to meet and try to spend some time with as many as you can. I am interested in meeting more writers and editors of color. As you know from past posts, this is very important to me. This conference has a few Latina authors and an African American that I would love to meet, even if we don't have much in common in terms of the genres we write. However, I think there's value in recognizing their role in opening doors for other writers of color, thanking them and congratulating them because becoming published as a person of color is not easy. 

Aside from that, some areas of interest could include:
  • Their genre(s)
  • Their agent
  • Sub-rights of their work
  • Their editors or publishing house
  • Awards, book lists or recognition they've gotten that you aspire to
Ask my various writing groups for ideas, recommendations and tips.
I have joined various writing groups, both in real life and virtually and encourage any writer to find their Tribe. They can be a wealth of information. Many of them have attended these conferences in the past so ask them to share their experiences with the conference in general (i.e. What is the dress code? Is there much time between events to network? Is there any time to write during the conference?) If any of them are going to be there, it would be a great time to meet up, or at least look for a familiar face, especially those you only know via social media.

Those groups are also well networked, so they can help you decide on your prioritized list as you consider how best to manage your time there. They can also offer insider tips like who usually stays for networking events, who is generally easier to approach, and if they've had any personal interactions with any of the presenters. 

Create a mantra, something like: Writers are people just like me. No need to freak out. Repeat internally as often as possible.
I need to start repeating this to myself well in advance of the conference so I can clear my head and settle my nerves when I get there so I can focus on what I have to do to make the most of the experience. If you tend to get star struck around certain folks, it might be a good idea to have a plan for calming your nerves and clearing your head. Hopefully it will help keep your Fangirl tendencies in check.

Given that I'll be traveling and at this conference for the next few days, there won't be another post until February 9th, when I'll post my reflections on my experience at the conference

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