Friday, May 30, 2014

“OMG! Wait until you hear this!”

I know, I know.

You thought I was going to tell you the story about how I ended up with this wooden leg and wooden ear and wooden neck or that I was finally—FINALLY—going to explain that lost weekend in Calgary (it was supposed to be a lost weekend in Tijuana but I turned right instead of left at some point).

No, I’m here to tell you about one of the best pieces of advice about writing that I ever heard: “You should want to tell a story like you want to tell gossip.”

Oscar Wilde, pioneer of the charming author photo
I believe that quote is attributed to Oscar Wilde, as are most witty, writing-related observations. It was either him or Dorothy Parker. 

Somewhere in history there’s a bunch of pissed off writers who said really witty things only to have them wrongly attributed but hey, what are you gonna do?

The point is, in anything you write, there should be a sense of urgency to writing it or otherwise, why bother? If you don’t need to tell this story, if you don’t relish telling this story, if you don’t truly believe you will come apart at the molecular level unless you tell this story right now, then what’s the point? Please bore your friends and family with your mildly interesting stories of no particular relevance and leave the rest of us out of it.
Who convinced Dorothy Parker this pose was a good idea?
Now, granted, writing is a slog on the best of days so you are not ALWAYS going to feel that manic urgency while doing the actual the writing of your must-tell tale, and if you do feel that way, you’re probably on some bourbon-and-Ring- Ding-fueled bender. You’d do well to take a break and let the sugar rush wear off. But by and large, you should feel like the story in your head is one you’d run home to tell your best friend right away or you’re going to burst.

Agents and editors talk all the time about the dreaded E word—enthusiasm. Well, enthusiasm begins at home. It’s got to start with you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Postcard to Self - An Easy Way to Affirm The Writer Inside.


I was a secret writer. I squirreled away at home tapping away on my laptop writing silly stories and not telling a soul. A colleague was going away to get an MFA in Creative Writing. I was there to eat the cake and toast the toasts but did I open my squeaky little mouth and say "you know, I write, too."? No. I did not.

When my book deal was announced and I told friends and family, people were shocked. "You write?""How did you do that?" I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled things like, "it just kind of happened" and "there were all these 5 am mornings."

But besides my partner, there was one person who knew. My friend, Katrina. You see, we'd gone to an art teacher conference together and on the way home we had confessional time. What hadn't we done yet? What did we want to accomplish with the second half of our lives? She talked about professional greatness and PhD's, I talked about writing. We made an agreement to send each other postcards with our intentions once we returned home.

She gave mine back to me when I announced my book deal: (she never did send me a postcard, but she is currently in the PhD program of her dreams!)

If you look closely, the date is January 2009. It took 3 1/2 years from that postcard to the sale of my first book, but in that time I joined SCBWI and Twitter. I found a writing class near my hometown specifically for middle grade and young adult fiction. I grew. I learned. But mostly when people asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher but that I also wrote. Some folks heard me, some didn't. But none of that mattered. What mattered was I had heard myself.

So if you want to name your intentions, send me a postcard. PO Box 133, Micaville, NC 28755. I'll send it back when they come true.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got, Or: The No-Fail Equation for Writing Success

The best writing advice I got actually had very little to do with writing but everything to do with wanting to be a writer.

When I was just a little baby writer, toying with the idea of writing and publishing a novel, I got coffee one afternoon with the daughter of a family friend, an amazing and kind YA writer who you’ve almost certainly heard of (because I’d like to protect her privacy, I shall henceforth refer to her as LEA--lovely, established author).

After sitting down with our coffees, LEA asked me a few questions about my background, why I was interested in writing, how much work I had done so far. I think at that point, I basically had an idea and was in the middle of writing. I knew about the query process, that I needed an agent, that it would take a long time to get to that point.

LEA talked about her own experiences getting into writing, struggling with finances, the pressures of the writing. In a really gentle, but straightforward, way, she laid out the difficult realities of writing. She pointed out that the YA windfalls (this was right after The Hunger Games began picking up steam) were few and far-between and that breaking out of the slush pile was a stunningly rare achievement.

I listened to her, and when she asked me more questions--how would I pay rent? What would I do about health insurance? How long was I willing to try? What plan did I have if my first book didn’t net me an agent?--I tried to respond in the best way I could. I had accumulated savings. I could go on my parents’ health insurance until I married my then-fiance (and then use his insurance). I gave myself until my husband graduated grad school or until our finances necessitated I go back to work. If I didn’t get an agent with this book, I already had a very different idea lined up for the next book.

At the end of our chat, she sat back in a chair and said, smiling, “Well, I’ve said everything I can think of to dissuade you, but you had good answers to everything, so I think you’re in a pretty good position. So long as you have the talent, I think you can handle the other stuff.”

That turned out to be my saving grace when getting into publishing. That LEA thought I could handle the stress and difficulties of writing, querying, and publishing took off a lot of pressure. It made the problems manageable, instead of insurmountable, because I started thinking of writing and publishing as something to tackle and overcome with careful thought and planning rather than some magical castle locked up with a spell.

I think a lot of people don't realize, when they get into writing, how much of this profession is just managing craziness, disappointment, and rejection, and learning how to adapt and overcome it all. I often hear complaints that agents and editors don't care about talent when it comes to selecting writers. Let me just state the obvious that anyone who's spent more than five minutes talking with agents or editors knows you'd be hard-pressed to find a bunch more devoted to finding and cultivating talent. But there is a measure of truth in that, because while talent is important, talent combined with hard work, perseverance, self-discipline, and the ability to evolve and take criticism is essential.

If you can handle all the craziness that comes with trying to be a writer--the instability, the low pay, the years of stress and discouragement--and have the talent, you will be successful. You just will. It is an equation that I still have yet to see fail: perseverance + talent = success. It is the best advice I ever got and my favorite advice to pass on because it's simple, it's easy to implement, and--most important--it actually works.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Universe Is Calling…Don't Send It to Voicemail

It took me about one second to decide who I owe this post to. Because there's no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be here if she hadn't given me a good firm shove.

Rewind to five years ago. Phone conversation with a friend from grade school. Me: I really want to start writing again. But I don't have the time. Kyra: Um. Do you have fifteen minutes a day? Me: Fifteen minutes? Her: Yes, fifteen minutes. Can you honestly say you don't have fifteen lousy minutes? Me: I see your point.

She ordered me to sit at my computer for the allotted time every day, even if all I did was stare at a blank screen. She also suggested I start with free writing, where you don't stop to edit or agonize or plot. You just write. Even if all you manage to type is "I can't think of one single thing to write."

Even if it really sucks.

 photo this-is-boring-gif_zpsf5afde9c.gif

And you know what? It worked. Fifteen minutes turned into half an hour, which turned into many hours, working late into the night after my day job was done and my daughter was asleep. I finished a YA fantasy novel about a year later, found an agent, and started writing a new one while the first was out on submission (being repeatedly drop-kicked). And miracle of miracles, then I sold the new one, which comes out this summer.

The moral? All it takes is one supportive person to change your life. One! I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a fiction writer, I'd always wanted to, but my dream got sidetracked somewhere along the way. I had every excuse in the book why now was not the right time to fit another thing into my already insane schedule. Know the feeling?

 photo exhausted_zps06dda19b.gif

But I just couldn't argue with that fifteen minutes a day. I mean, I spend at least fifteen minutes Googling things like "Aquaman Patrick Duffy theme song" and "celebrities plastic surgery disaster" and "biggest YA novel advances 2014" and *cough* other important research-type stuff. I can cut back on the crazy if I have a really good reason to.

Your own dream may not be writing a book. It might be painting or cooking gourmet vegan meals or reanimating the corpse of a seven-and-a-half-foot-long, fifty-four-inch-wide gorilla. That's okay. It doesn't matter.

 photo youngfranknstein_zps7b0433cb.gif

What matters is that when the voice of encouragement comes along—and it will, in the form of an old friend, or a co-worker, or a random stranger on an airplane—you listen to it. It might even be your own voice, the one that's soft and timid and that you don't pay much attention to, or that gets shouted down by the other voices, the ones that are scared or broke or just lazy. Listen to that soft voice for a change.

Oh, and you'll know if whatever-it-is is the thing you're supposed to be doing with your life if it makes you feel like this:

 photo dogcar_zps47c3f228.gif

Kat's debut, Some Fine Day, comes out July 1 from Strange Chemistry. You can find her on Twitter and her website.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two Little Words

When I first signed my publishing contract, I was awash with pride, which is actually something I’m not very good at. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life downplaying my skills, assets, talents, whatever, when someone congratulates me. Turns out, working my butt off to reach my dream is no exception.

Every January, I meet up with my writing family. We met several years ago at a conference and thought we hail from different parts of the Midwest, we make sure to get together 2 times a year, as a group. At our last meet up, I was on my way to being an honest to goodness, no really, you can buy my book at a bookstore published author.

So what do you think I did when the people who know writing me best made a HUGE deal about my news? Here’s a re-enactment of the conversation:

Friend: Congrats! I always knew you would get here!

Me: Really, it was just luck. Sometime I wonder if my agent was insane when she signed me.

Friend: No, seriously! You work harder and are more determined to learn what it takes to make it in this business than anyone I’ve ever met.

Me: Well, it’s a small press. I may not even earn out.

This praise/refusal to accept said praise went on for a few more minutes before one of our more veteran members stopped me mid-sentence.

D.E. Johnson, author of The Detroit Electric Scheme and the only person I know who has actually had a tour of Jay Leno’s car collection by the funny man himself gave me the best advice I have received to date.

D.E. (or Dan): When someone gives you a compliment, you say, “Thank you.” Say it.

Me: Thank you, but…

Dan: No. Thank you. That’s it.

Now, for a while, I didn’t get it. Aren’t we supposed to avoid being the arrogant author? Aren’t we supposed to be grateful for the opportunities we have? Aren’t we supposed to success shame our own work? Answers: Yes. Yes. No.

This is what I learned on that same freezing cold afternoon. If someone congratulates you on your success and you shame yourself, not only are you degrading yourself and your work, but also that person’s opinion. And the habit is really hard to break once you start. Fast forward 10 months when your book comes out and a fan approaches you, nervous because they are about to expose something to you… how your book effected them… and you, in your effort to be humble, downgrade the experience they had with a “Thank you, but…” Guess what… you just became the arrogant author you were desperately trying to avoid being.

I’m working really on learning to stop after “Thank you.” It’s harder than I thought it would be. It also made me realize how often I refuse to take praise and credit for the work I’ve done. Accepting someone’s positive feedback doesn’t make you a narcissist. It doesn’t make you vain. It makes you polite. And it validates the person and what your book means to them. I am allowing an amendment to the Thank you. rule. On the day someone DOES come up to me and proclaim how much they loved my book, I think I’ll say, “Thank you. I’m glad you liked it!” and I will try not to force half of a best friends for life charm on them… notice I said TRY!

BE FEARLESS when it comes to accepting a compliment.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A summary of the writing advice that resonates (with me)...

By Kate Boorman

Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. 
Write what you love. Write what you loathe. 
Write what scares you. Write what moves you. 
Write from the heart. Write from the very darkest depths of your soul. 
Write with eyes shut. Write with mind open. 
Write because you can. Write because you aren't allowed. 
Write because it’s in you. Write because it must come out. 
Write choking with sorrow. Write bursting with joy. 
Write because it’s the only way. 
Just write.

....... or something like that.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Writing Advice My Mother (Never) Gave Me

by Joshua David Bellin

“Write what you know.”

That’s what they say. Fiction, they tell you, is best when it comes from your own experience.

I disagree.

I’ve written a lot of “what I know.” It makes really good memoir.

But it makes really lousy fiction.

I started writing a short story about two cousins who spent their summers catching frogs together before they grew up and went their separate ways. The only problem was, that was my actual life, and the story showed it. I couldn’t get away from what I knew. I turned it into a memoir and published it that way. I think it’s one of the truest things I’ve written.

But it was no short story.

(The photo at right was taken from those days. I wish I could say the date scribbled in the corner is inaccurate, but alas, it's all too true.)

If I wrote only what I know, I’d be pretty limited. I don’t know that much. And what I do know, I know only as me, which would make it pretty hard to create characters who aren’t me.

So I don’t say “write what you know.” I say what a writing teacher once said to me: “Write what you want to know.”

I want to know lots of things. I want to know what it’s like to be other people, to live places I’ve never lived, to have experiences I’ve never had (and probably never will).

I think readers want that too. Isn’t that one of the reasons readers read?

The best stories I've read take me places neither I nor the authors have been. The Lord of the Rings. The Scorpio Races. The Sound and the Fury. The Maze Runner. The Book ThiefBeloved. I could go on forever. Some of these stories are fantasies or science fiction, but not all of them. What characterizes all of them, "realistic" or not, is that the author wanted to know something s/he didn't know, and decided to share it with readers.

My own best stories are the same: they're written about people, places, and things I don’t know, but want to. A burned-out professor who’s bullied into delivering a keynote address. A young woman who’s the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. A child who’s tormented by demons that take the form of his household pets. A man who flees his pregnant wife to drive a truck on a distant, swampy planet. Another man who’s losing his mind (and may be losing his soul). A black child in a white supremacist U.S. A woman accused of witchcraft. A refugee from the 1970s whose coffee shop caters to failed writers. An older sister who tells the story of her younger sibling at the latter’s funeral.

And, of course, a fourteen-year-old boy who struggles to recover his memory in a future world of dust and ruin.

If I’d written only what I know, I never would have met any of these people, traveled to any of these places, experienced any of these things.

And neither would you.

So write what you want to know. Chances are, others will want to know it too.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bless her heart, or Why I Didn't Take Mom's Writing Advice

I've always written. Way back when I was a wee lass of nine I was crafting Hey Dude fan fiction when I didn't even know what fan fiction was. Then around freshman year it turned into Interview with the Vampire fan fic. I mean, how can you not want to write about Lestat and poor, poor Louis?

It was around this time that my mom, bless her heart (I'm southern, I can say that un-ironically!), started realizing that writing wasn't just an emo-teenage phase I was going through. I covered my journals with collages and concurrently freaked my mother out. They looked a lot like this by the time I was done with them, though is is NOT one of mine.
I can't remember whether I voluntarily let my mom read some of my emo poems and short stories, or if she snuck into my room in the middle of the night while I was sleeping and read them with a flashlight. Either way, she got her hands on my words, and this is when she started giving me advice. Not lots of it, just one particular piece of advice over and over and over again.

Why don't you write know...

And, thus, the start of the eternal conversation between mother and daughter. With every poem, every story, I'd get the same comment. "It's nice, but don't you want to write something happy?"

I tried.

Really, I tried. But it all felt forced, contrived, done before. You know? Happy isn't what I'm supposed to write. Or, not happy in the sense that she wants it.

That's the thing with writing advice. Lots of people like to give it. Unfortunately you're the only one who will know if it works for you or not. Listen to advice. Listen to critique partners. But in the end, it's my story, or your story, or the author's story. We all have to be true to ourselves and our characters, no matter if it means not listening to our moms.

I love my mother to the moon and back, but that little piece of advice, I'm gonna ignore. I'll send her to Pharrell if she needs a dose of happy!

Happy Mothers Day, Bear! I hope you're okay with me not taking your advice just this once.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Best Writing Advice I Never Took...And Some That I Did

When I started writing (which wasn't really all that long ago), I did what I usually do when faced with a new situation--I research it to death. Which means that I found a lot of writing "advice."

Some of it was better than others. Turns out, though, I'm not so good at taking advice.

1. Get a critique partner:
I tried. I did. Really. I went to a lot of groups to try to find a critique partner, but I never really found anyone who clicked.

And then I had an agent and more confidence, and then I moved two states away, and then I got busy, so...  I have some people I swap work with now, but I've never done the formal trade-stuff-every-month thing with anything. The last book I wrote went to my favorite beta reader and then off to my agent. And I think that's okay, for now.

2. The Three Act Structure: Your book needs three acts. Things need to happen in those acts. By certain pages. Save the cat, dammit!!

Here's the thing, because I studied literature for so long, reading those handy-dandy "How to Write a Book" books never really worked for me. Sure, they have snappy titles like, "How to Build a Plot from Hairpins and Twine," and "Character: It's Like Real People, but Different," but as much as I tried to read them, it didn't work.

Besides, I think once you've read Ulysses, you get a pass, you know?

Which isn't to say they aren't helpful to some people, but the idea of a three act structure where things have to happen by certain places? Yeah... That doesn't work for me. I tend to come up with weird, interlocking stories, and while the plot is there and the different points (rising action, climax, falling action, etc.) are still there, thinking about them in such a mechanical way just didn't work for me.

3. Write Every Day: 

Look, I get it. Writing every day helps you hone your dedication and your overall skill as a writer. It gets you in a routine and keeps you in the story. There are days I do write every day. Those are good days. But I'm kind of a write-in-a-random-burst kind of writer. When I know the story, it comes fast and I can write and write and write. When I'm still plotting, or when I don't know where I'm going, writing just screws me up.

I did NaNoWriMo once. It was fabulous! I wrote every day. I wrote 70k words, and that book is going to get published in 2016 by Simon Pulse, but that book was such a mess because I forced myself through instead of slowing down to think that it took almost 2 years to get my head around the revision.

Which isn't to say I just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.

But there are weeks, sometimes months that I don't write. I read. I refill the well. I think. I go out and live.

All of which is to say, for as much "advice" as there is out there, you've got to find your own way. Which means, you have to know your strengths and your weaknesses. You have to be able to admit that you need help in certain areas, and have the confidence to know when your instincts are right.

So, tell me-- what advice did you find helpful, or unhelpful?

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Fall Fourteeners Support #WeNeedDiverseBooks

The campaign for diversity in YA literature is growing. We of the Fall Fourteeners say: amen, and it’s about time!

Looking at our self-portraits below, the word “diversity” might not instantly spring to mind.

But hold on there.

Our group includes gay members. Members with biracial and non-white children. Members with disabilities. Diversity isn’t always something you can see.

We’re not saying this to try to prove ourselves, much less to jump on some kind of diversity bandwagon. We’re saying it because diversity is a fact of life, and should be—to a far greater extent than it is—a fact of YA literature.

We join and support the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement because we believe it’s a watershed moment in our cultural history, and we’re both proud and awed to be part of it.

Joshua David Bellin

Kate Boorman

Jaye Robin Brown

Amy Finnegan

Joy N. Hensley

Kendall Kulper

Kristen Lippert-Martin

Lisa Maxwell

Kat Ross

Sarah J. Schmitt

Shallee McArthur