Can’t Write in a Vacuum

Though writing is essentially a solitary sport, one of the requirements for bettering your book is honest critique to help in the revision process.  If you plan on traditionally publishing, you want to have a polished manuscript to query to agents.  But how do you polish?

I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  I live in South Florida, and the Florida chapter of SCBWI is awesome.  We have a big conference in Miami each January and a workshop in Orlando each June.  There are also smaller workshops offered in several cities throughout the state.  So this has given me a great opportunity to meet other writers on all levels – newbies, veteran but still unpublished, published, veteran published.  So there are plenty of opportunities to find critique groups or beta-reading partners.

It’s important to have other sets of eyes on your book before you submit it for representation (or to self-publish, whatever your road is).  Fresh eyes can find plot holes, see flaws in characterizations, and make recommendations to help strengthen your manuscript.  I just had my mentor/bestie read my unrevised first draft of a YA novel, and she gave me so many good notes for revision that I almost can’t wait to dig in to it. (I hate revising.)

So when you write, to paraphrase Stephen King, write with the door closed.  But throw that baby open and invite other writers or really strong beta readers to give you feedback as you head into the revision mode!

When I First Found the Muse.

A lot of my friends are posting about summer camps for their kids.  I started thinking, how cool would it be to have a summer camp where kids who love to write could come and do writing exercises, share work, and feel accomplished at the end of the summer program?  Kind of made me wish I had a place and insurance and all the practical stuff to go along with “Hey, let’s take some teen writers and collect them for a couple of hours a day for a few weeks and see what comes out of it!”

And that reminded me of one summer, I believe it was the summer between 5th and 6th grades, the transition between elementary and middle school.  My parents sent my brother and me to the city-sponsored camp, held at my elementary school.  It was a fairly standard camp, I guess, that allowed a lot of freedom to play with adult supervision.  And I remember meeting a couple of girls my age with whom I would sit down for a little while each day, and we wrote “our books.”  We brought notebook paper from home and made “book covers” with construction paper and crayons.  I was ever the hopeless romantic then, and my two “books” that summer were called True Love and Love’s Arrow.  I still have them.  They are prime examples of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts.”

Something else happened that summer.  I’d just come off a really bad year of being what we would now call bullied, but back then, “picked on” would have been the phrase of choice.  In our summer camp was a boy who had been in my 5th grade class.  I remember at the end of the summer he came up to me and apologized for treating me badly.  He said I was really nice and he was sorry he hadn’t gotten the chance to know me better.  It didn’t make up for his climbing on the bandwagon with the kids who teased me mercilessly, but it was proof, even for a minute, that I was NOT as worthless as I’d felt.

And for me, those two things combined compelled me to go on writing.  It started out as company when I had no friends to speak of, then morphed into catharsis when I’d put mean people into my books and give them horrible deaths, disfigurements, or teen pregnancies.  (Yes, I watched soap operas as a young person. What gave it away?)  Now, writing is so ingrained in me that even if I’m not actively writing, I’m still thinking about writing in some way.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  But I wouldn’t give it up for the world.


I’m still working toward a writing career.  I’m at the stage where I’ve finally snagged an agent, and have given her a few more requested revisions on my manuscript.  The next step of the road to publication is for my agent to now put my manuscript out on sub to publishing houses and wait for the bidding war to get my book a publisher.

Okay, the bidding war is a fanciful dream.  I just want to be published by a decent house.

But in the meantime, ideally, what I should be doing is writing more books.  I have a bunch of ideas I generated in January, and tried to start working on a couple of them.  However, I do have a full-time job that takes up time.  I teach high school, and it’s almost the end of the school year, which means testing and reining the ferrets in until final exams and the last day of school.  So by the time I get home in the afternoons, I don’t feel like writing.

Another distraction I’ve recently discovered is Doctor Who.  My favorite companion turned me on to the Whoverse, and I’m in love.  I’m binge watching like crazy.  But the cool thing about Who is the WRITING.  As a writer, I appreciate great story, and the writers for Doctor Who really understand great story.

So I guess the point of this meandering blog post is to say to embrace your distractions.  You never know what you can weave into your next story.

Making the Time to Write

I am guilty of not following my own advice.  I’m a high school English teacher.  After a day of wrangling recalcitrant teenagers, I have little energy for much else.  My health is not optimal as a result, and I don’t write.  I need to write.

So I guess I’m writing today’s blog to myself, as well as to anyone who finds his or her way across it.  There are as many different ways to write as there are writers.  One of my writing friends gets up at 4am to make sure she gets her writing in.  I am so NOT a morning person.  It takes everything I have to drag my butt out of bed just to make it to school on time.  So that’s not something that works for me.  That’s important too – to know if you’re at your best in the morning, afternoon, or nighttime.  I’ve had friends who wrote after their families went to bed and the house was quiet.  My furry daughter gets bent out of shape when I leave her in bed and go to my computer.  She suddenly wants to leave the room.

Clearly, something has to give in my world for writing time to happen.  I miss the year I taught creative writing – once the kids were working on their assignments, I’d write with them.  As education fixates more heavily on standardized test prep, I don’t have the luxury of creative writing time with my kiddos so often.  It’s not tested.

The way I see it, I’m going to have to make some evening time to get some writing done.  As soon as I figure out, of course, which project is next in my queue.  I have over 40 ideas right now, and not a clue which one will actually become my next book.

Ah, the challenges of a writing life bent into a teaching life!

Life Gets in the Way

This is a writing blog, but two things happened this week that I really wanted to talk about.  The first is the #metoo movement that spurred Lin Oliver and the SCBWI to shore up their harassment policy, and the second is the Parkland school shooting.

I saw the School Library Journal article in which women finally started naming names of those they were harassed by at various conferences and meetings of SCBWI.  And it hurt my heart.  A couple of the names shared were authors I’d previously respected, whose works I’d read and shared with my students, and one I’d even met and was friends with on Facebook (I unfriended him when the news broke and was backed up by multiple victims, though he staunchly denies it still).  I went back in my head to all the conferences I’d attended, and tried to think of any time in my professional life – as a writer, a teacher, or in the Corporate America jobs I held before teaching – I had felt sexually harassed by anyone.  I couldn’t think of any.  For anyone who doesn’t know me personally, I stand 6’1” in bare feet, and I’m a person “of size.” (a pretty euphemism for clinically obese.)  Perhaps it’s the intimidation factor that kept me protected from the harassment felt by other women.  I’m often told I can be intimidating. And if that’s the case, I’m thankful.  But I stand with all of my fellow SCBWI members who are victims, and I’m glad they finally feel brave enough to shout down their victimizers.

While I was thinking about this, and how I wanted to address it from a personal standpoint, I got a text message driving home after school on Wednesday from a friend in the next county asking if I was okay, as the news was reporting a school shooting in my county.  I live a few miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  The school at which I teach is maybe twelve miles from MSD.  And though I am grateful that I didn’t personally know any of the murdered victims, my heart hurts.  I can’t focus or concentrate.  Because as I just told the few students who came to school today, two days post-tragedy, when it happens in your backyard, it becomes more REAL.  I sympathized with victims’ families of every school shooting from Columbine forward, but in my heart, I don’t think I ever believed it could happen HERE.  And the fact that it not only DID happen here, and at the LAST school in the district you would expect it COULD happen to, makes it a real possibility that someday, I might have to decide whether to defend my students with my own life.

That is NOT anything any teacher should have to do.

I took a Facebook break yesterday because I was getting very angry at people who kept saying gun control wasn’t the problem, mental illness isn’t the problem, and blaming this boy’s actions on the fact that the “system let him down.”  Poor baby was probably bullied, many who had never met this boy declared on social media.  And yet, reports from people who DID know him were AFRAID of him.  Who’s AFRAID of a victim?

I don’t have the answers, and I wish I did.  But I really wish the armchair quarterbacking would stop.  I wish we lived in a country in which we value our children’s lives more than we value the 2nd Amendment and our faulty interpretation of it.  But we don’t, so I will have to keep on doing what I do – trying to care for all my students in the best way I can, and hope I continue to live another day to keep entering my classroom to educate my babies.

Thanks for reading my rambling today.  I’ll go back to writing about writing next time.

The Waiting Game

A lot of pursuit of publication boils down to being patient.

You have to be patient while you develop your craft into something worthy.

You have to be patient through the query process and hope to find a match for your manuscript.

You have to be patient while your agent works with her other clients and you to shop all of you to editors.

That’s where I am right now.  Hopefully, soon, my agent will begin sending out my manuscript, and then I wait to see who might be interested in buying it.  Then it’s more waiting games to find out what edits the editor might want, and then waiting for the publication date to arrive (I’m thinking positively here).

But in the meantime, the next book isn’t going to write itself.  During the month of January, I managed to scribble 33 ideas into my little StoryStorm notebook.  That’s added to the four or five ideas I have on my flash drive already.  So lots of ideas.  (Not to mention my former-rockstar roommate wants me to write his biography SOON.)

Now the problem is deciding which idea to develop and work on.

There are worse problems to have!

On Reading and Writing

I sent my latest revision to my agent a few weeks ago, and am still letting my NaNo manuscript simmer on the back burner – revision is NOT my favorite tool in the box, so I’m putting that off.  Though I am participating in #StoryStorm2018, I’m not currently developing or writing.  Just brainstorming.

And since my Master’s Thesis is completed and my degree conferred, I’m grateful to have time after school for something I really miss when I don’t have time to do it – PLEASURE READING!

The key to becoming a good writer is to be a good reader.  Obviously, reading in your field is optimal to see what’s already been done and how to really fit the genre of your choosing.  But I like reading widely.  When I was visiting my parents earlier this month, I devoured some Sandra Brown, Michael Connelly, and James Patterson from my mom’s bookshelves.  I read a bunch of adult and new adult romances because I’m on a mailing list that sends me titles that are available for free that day through my Kindle.  And last week, I rediscovered my best friend – the local library.

Can you believe it’s been THREE YEARS since my library card expired?  I didn’t believe it!  I used to practically live in the YA section of my neighborhood library (as a YA writer and teacher – it was TOTALLY research!).  Plus I took advantage of the e-book app to borrow electronic books as well.  So I was shocked to realize how far I’d strayed.  Not that I stopped reading – I was buying books instead of borrowing them.  But since I’m an underpaid educator, that’s not the best option anymore.

Reading is the foundation for a strong writing career.  If you don’t read, you don’t know what good writing looks like, and, for that matter, what BAD writing looks like.  Writers can’t live in a vacuum.  We have to know the literary world around us.

So go get a book, and make some time to READ today. 🙂

Words from the Wise at SCBWI Miami

So last weekend, I attended the workshop day at the SCBWI-Florida Miami conference.  I’ve attended the conference pretty much every year since joining SCBWI, though over the past few years I’ve whittled down to attending on Sunday only, the day the presenters give actual workshops.  So one of the workshops I attended was with Amy Fitzgerald, an editor with Carolrhoda books.  She spoke on the topic of “Building Flesh and Blood Novel Characters.”

You would think that, as a veteran writer with an agent, I wouldn’t be interested in what seems like a beginner’s workshop.  But the truth is, growth comes from learning.  And if nothing Amy said was new to me, it was still worth hearing and being reminded that yes, you always have to remember certain things about character building that make characters real for readers.  So I’m sharing a couple of my takeaways from Amy’s session.

First – you have to know the ROOTS of your character.  She said, “A lot of what you know won’t make it into your manuscript. Figure it out anyway, write it down somewhere.”

In the past, I’ve used various methods for developing the roots of a character.  I’ve done character “interviews.”  I’ve written scenes that never appeared in my book – some of which were workshop exercises that helped deepen my knowledge of my characters.  Either of these methods can help you know your characters well.

One of the last things Amy talked about Sunday resonated with me, and that was “Be willing to reinvent your character.”

We can’t stay married to a character that just doesn’t work.  If, in the course of your storytelling, you realize the character should be a different kind of person, let that happen.  I wrote a novel once in the wrong character’s voice.  I could never make the book feel right.  It was finally my mentor who told me the real story was not my MC’s story, but instead, her twin brother’s.  And since I’m not comfortable enough in boy head for a male MC, I shelved the story (at least for now).

So there are a couple of points to ponder from my SCBWI weekend experience.

Write on!

Tuesday Tip

I put up a quick post on my Facebook author page today that advocated Finding Your Tribe.  I feel this is important in many aspects of life, but especially for writers.  Why?  Read on, Macduff, and I shall elaborate.

I’ve always written.  Writing is, by its very nature, a pretty solitary activity.  I can say, however, that my writing skills escalated wildly when I did two things.  Thing one, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  I had met author Alexandra Flinn at an educator event – a discussion on Why Boys Don’t Read attended by Alex and other YA authors Joyce Sweeney, Dorian Cirrone, and Joanne Hyppolite.  While getting my copy of Breathing Underwater signed by Alex, I mentioned that someday, I hoped to be on her side of the table.  She gave me her business card and wrote the SCBWI web address on the back.  She told me if I was serious about writing for teens, SCBWI was the best organization to join.  So I did, the very next day, and I’ve been attending the SCBWI Florida conferences and workshops regularly ever since, which led me to Thing two.

Thing two was receiving a coveted invitation to a private critique group run by Joyce Sweeney.  Joyce had gotten on my radar years earlier, when I took a YA Literature class at FAU and she was a guest speaker.  She had mentioned running the invitation-only critique groups, and I remember thinking that someday, I wanted to be a good enough writer to earn an invitation.  Through many SCBWI events and local classes, I got on her radar, and after taking a class with her through my local library, Joyce invited me to her Thursday group.

So those two things helped me really find my tribe.  Through SCBWI, I attended conferences and workshops, working on my craft as I learned what agents and editors looked for.  Through Joyce’s critique group, I honed my story-writing skills.  And through both, I found my tribe – the storytellers like me.

Find your tribe.  It really helps kickstart your creative soul.

The “What Ifs” of Writing

My favorite way to generate a story is to start with a “what if.”  My current novel, Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll, started germinating with, “what if a teenage girl wanted to be in a band, but her musician father says no?”  Previous works came from questions like, “what if a hypochondriac fell in love with a boy dying from leukemia?” and “what if a mother’s boyfriend sexually abused her daughter but Mom doesn’t believe her?”

As I said in the last blog, I’m doing StoryStorm 2018, and this morning, reading this amazing piece by Matt de la Pena – Darkness – I suddenly had another “what if.”  The author mentioned thinking about something as he sat in the airport on a flight delay, and those words triggered a what if for me (I’m not sharing it, because we’re not supposed to!).  I grabbed my mini StoryStorm notebook, which I try to keep close by for when the muse speaks, and jotted down my “what if.”

As writers, we should cherish the “what if” moments.  Be open to them.  No matter how crazy they are, the chances of generating a story from a “what if” are monumental.

What if you listened to all the what ifs that drifted through your mind each day?