One Word Can Change Everything

Happy New Year! We are now 9 days into 2015, and most of you have probably thought about resolutions, goals, or other plans for this brand new year.

Happy New Yearr

I love the idea of a fresh start, even though it’s a bit arbitrary. Spring also feels full of new opportunity to me, so perhaps in March if you look back and find that things have not gone as planned for the first few months, you can update and tweak your plans.

There are many ways to approach your planning – some people make resolutions (lose weight, finish that novel, be nicer, smile more). Conventional wisdom says that resolutions are not effective for most people, since there is no measurable plan for how to get there. (What are you going to do to get your novel finished? Write each day for 10 minutes? Set a deadline with a friend to read your draft?)

I am a believer in setting goals. Not too many, because then I will get overwhelmed and try to focus on too many things at once. I have three main categories for my goals – writing, fitness, and personal. In each category, I have 3-5 goals. I try to make them as measurable as possible, so I can legitimately celebrate when I get there. Some of my goals include Get an Agent (= rewrite the first chapter of my finished novel + send out my manuscript repeatedly), learn/re-learn to knit, and earn a 5K race time of under 30 minutes. Wish me luck!

Perhaps goals or resolutions don’t work for you, or you want to take a different approach this year. Perhaps you are looking for an overarching theme for everything you do this year. When Joanna and I were discussing this subject, she proposed taking a One Word approach. The idea is to use one word as your guiding principle – words like Believe, Forgive, Dare, or Simplify. It could even just be Write! If I were to choose one word to guide my year, I might choose Soul. I want to focus my choices on those things that feed and nurture my soul. While there are things that I have to do that are neutral on my soul (certain kinds of work, perhaps?), it gives me permission to get rid of those choices that are life-suckers and drag me down. Why make time for that?

What are you goals, resolutions, plans or one word for 2015? Please share in the comments! We’d love to hear them.

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Floppy-eared rabbits

For PiBoIdMo, I decided to keep a small journal with me at all times, something I’d often considered, but had never done before. One page per idea. And I’d look to my own life for the seeds. Over the past few days, I’ve found that being attentive to, well, life and all its ridiculousness (or wonder or awkwardness or or or) is the best way to access interesting concepts for picture books. After I got my notebook, the ideas started coming like hot-cakes. Not all of them seem immediate winners.

A recent favorite: I just returned home from dinner with friends, one of whom shared a story about a bush airstrip in remote Alaska covered in floppy-eared rabbits. Now, it might take a more creative person than me to turn that into a viable picture book. But what a fantastic image! I wrote that one down, but if it inspires you, go with it. (Please send me your draft, if you do.) On a more serious note, my son has developed a fear of riding the school bus–there are so many angles to take on this theme. Katie once said that she’s got too many ideas, and I see what she means. The ideas are really every where. We just have to take them and run.

Registration for PiBoIdMo has passed, but I encourage you to check out the daily posts. I’ve gotten something from each of them, and maybe, just maybe, there might be something to help me write my book about the rabbits on the airstrip.

Point of View

I am working on a new novel, and have been struggling with the appropriate point of view for my characters. There are two teenage girl protagonists, so I initially challenged myself to write it in a close third person. The problem is, close third does not feel close enough.

After much internal wrangling, many discussions with my critique group, and the opinions of some teachers/published authors, I have decided to try first person with alternating chapters. I have not ready many middle grade/young adult novels that successfully alternate between two distinct characters, especially of the same gender. A few books have been recommended to me, including Because of Mr. Terupt (multiple voices) and Gemini Bites.

Are there other books that you have read that you would recommend? 

Wish me luck! I’m off to rewrite the beginning, where hopefully I can make these two girls jump off the page.

The Last Weekend of Summer

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, fall begins in the Northeast with the autumnal equinox on September 22nd at 10:29 PM EST. So we technically have one last weekend of the summer. The weather has already started turning cooler and the kids are back in school, but we can still claim a summer state of mind.

I know it’s hard – I find myself barraged on a daily basis with Halloween candy, Christmas layaway programs, and pumpkin spice lattes. I love the holidays more than a lot of people (my dad calls me a Christmas Nut), but this year I am resisting the push. Getting caught up in the mad rush just leaves me harried and exhausted on January 2nd, wondering what just happened.

I have decided no fall decorations until October – that leaves 2 full months to fully enjoy the season. It also means that any mums I eventually buy won’t have to try and hold on for an extended period of time. While I will still slowly work on all of the Christmas projects that I began over the summer (in an attempt not to be stressed in December), I will wait to fully embrace Christmas until Black Friday.

I am hoping this holding back approach will translate to other areas – a calmer approach to fall house cleaning and more time spent outdoors enjoying the crisp air. I’m also looking forward to its effect on my writing. I have so much that I want to accomplish – new novels to write, other work to revise, blog posts to write, contests to enter, and agents to get. Because I never have as much time as I would like, I sometimes feel paralyzed with what to do in the limited time that I have.

So I will take it one item at a time. This week I’m going to tackle the planning for my novel, and spend time with my son this weekend writing a picture book story we’ve been talking about. Maybe we’ll write it outside – and take lots to deep breaths to remind ourselves of what we loved about summer, and then open our hearts to autumn.

summer into autumn

Connections Across the Miles

I believe that technology can be an amazing resource for a writer. It certainly can have its downsides, but used properly it can make information and support much more readily available.

In my writing, I often have questions about certain details. For example, I am writing a picture book about a boy in Venice. As I was writing, I wondered: What type of boats do your average Venetians own? If the main character went out into the Adriatic Sea, would he be able to see land? How do you say “my boy” in Italian? Thanks to Google, YouTube, and other Internet resources, I had my answer quickly and could focus on the story telling. Just 10-20 years ago, I would have needed to make a list of my questions, go to my local library, and search for the answers in reference books. And if I still had questions, I might need to write letters to experts, or travel to other libraries.

Technology such as video chatting, email, online courses, and file sharing sites help us stay connected as writers. I began my formal writing journey years ago with an online course with Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I took several courses with other aspiring writers from all over the United States, and the world. As a result of that class, several of us formed a critique group that met virtually – first by email and Google Docs, and then by video chatting.

Over 3-1/2 years later, our critique group endures. Its members have ebbed and flowed, and we have added other tools to help us better support each other’s writing. The constant has been Joanna and me, and our writing partnership.

Prior to this week, Joanna and I had only met once before in person at an SCBWI conference 2 years ago. I need to often remind myself of this, since I talk to her frequently by email and video chats every few weeks. This week, Joanna travelled all the way from Wyoming to the East Coast for her MFA residency. She spared a few days before school began to visit with me and my family.

Joanna was only here for less than 24 hours, but connecting with her in person was such a blessing. We hiked, we talked, I showed her my town, and my children totally fell in love with her. When she got on the train and waved goodbye, my daughter cried and I couldn’t help feeling a little sad too. She has had such a positive impact on my writing, and has supported me through all the ups and downs of new projects, rejections, and becoming a better writer.

So technology has brought me wonderful resources, feedback, support, and friends. It sustains me through the long writing process. But it could never replace how it feels to connect with another person, walking beside you. We got a little lost on our hike, but as always, we found our way out together.

Hard Work, Persistence, and a Little Luck

I double checked the content, took a deep breath, and clicked Submit. The first 50 pages of my middle grade novel and a synopsis went whizzing off to the inbox of an agent.

As you regular readers will know, I am referring to my beloved first novel that I have labored over for the last two years (ugh- has it really been that long?). Through hard work, persistence, lots of herbal tea, and much support from my critique group it is finally ready.

So now what? It is out of my hands and hopefully an agent will fall in love with it. All I can do for the next 4 weeks (their typical response time) is cross my fingers, pray, and hope. Any good thoughts you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Now that I have finally finished the synopsis and submitted the novel, I have no more excuses for putting off writing new stories. Sure, I have another novel to revise but what I really need is a creative jumpstart. My journals are bursting with ideas – perhaps the next book is just waiting to be freed from the pages.

 

It’s Time for Action!

A long (really long) winter causes me to want to pull the thick comforter over my head until it’s all over. This winter was so long, I tried to resist that temptation and kept plugging away at a few of my long term goals. I finished revisions on my first novel, and I ran as often as I could.

Now Spring has sprung. How do I know? The daffodils are in full bloom, the magnolias are ready to burst, and the sun is out more often. I am very eager to get back outside and work in my yard. I want to smell mulch, and grass clippings, and lilacs. I want to watch my kids swing, and rollerskate, and draw with chalk on the driveway.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

It also means that the fruit of my winter’s labors are at hand. I need to make final changes to my synopsis, and then I will begin sending it out to agents. I ran my first 5K race for the season two weeks ago, taking two minutes off my personal best race time. I’m still striving for a sub-30 minute race time this year, so we’ll see if another few weeks of training can get me there in my next race on Mother’s Day.

It’s hard to take the long view of things. I know I want to feel progress, feel accomplishment, and check something off my list. It takes a lot of faith and perseverance. Sometimes I’m up for the task, and sometimes I’m not. The best way I have found to keep my eye on my goals and put in the necessary hard work is to break it down into pieces. Biting off a piece at a time feels more manageable.

So the biggest step is just to start – to jump in and begin the process. I’ve always wanted to grow strawberries and blueberries in my garden. I resisted planting them, since most varieties must be in the ground for a year before they will yield significant fruit. Last year I finally planted them. So after a year of waiting, covering them over a long winter, and giving them much TLC, I peeked under the straw this week to see this year’s strawberry plants already growing and spreading vigorously across the planting bed. I can almost taste the fat ripe strawberries.

The hard work will pay off. I keep telling myself that. So if you hear me muttering to myself, don’t worry. I’m just talking myself into another revision cycle.

Weakness and Opportunity

I’ve been absent from the blog while working toward my MFA at Lesley University, and it’s good to come back for a quick reflection. When Katie and I chat, which we do with semi-regularity, we often discuss the latest thing I’m learning in my program. There’s always a lot to talk about.

During my recent residency in Boston, one of the faculty asked us to be truthful about our writing weaknesses. A task such as this is always easier said than done. Of course, we all have weaknesses. (Mine is dark chocolate sea salt caramels. Isn’t yours?) Prior to this seminar, I would have said revision was my biggest weakness. But if our weaknesses should be our top priority when it comes to revision, as this faculty person said, then revision itself couldn’t be my weakness. Besides, revision isn’t a craft technique. It’s the process of reworking the mechanics (read: craft techniques) of a piece. So I couldn’t play it safe with “revision.” But what I discovered at first unnerved me.

In general, my characters are deemed likable or relatable. At the same time, they trend toward being one-dimensional, lacking backstory, or blurring with other characters. In the case of my current WIP, I’d been thinking about these characters for over three years—I was convinced I knew them well. But when my chapters were workshopped at residency, there were questions about my characters I couldn’t answer. Here are just a few:

What was Sage doing when she found out her father had died?

What did she think when her mother first told her they were moving out of the country?

What did AJ think when he met his adoptive parents for the first time?

Why did Leighanne resist going to Nepal all those years?

Did Tenzin ever resent having a nun for a mother?

What fascinating questions! And what I wouldn’t give to know the answers to them.

It’s incredible to grasp how much I can not know my characters. Right now, they live only in my head. At some point, I hope they will live in your head as well, but until that day, I’m all they’ve got. To tell their stories, I would have to get to know them better.  I’d discovered a weakness, and a pretty significant one at that. What to do?

My advisor for this semester, Sara Zarr, recommended daily writing prompts by Sarah Selecky. (You can access it here.) Using these prompts, I write scenes with various characters from my WIP. A recent favorite involved an unnamed baby. In writing this scene, I discovered more about the dynamic between my protagonist’s parents. And while their relationship is somewhat critical to the backstory, I honestly hadn’t given them much thought.

Now, uncovering the details about my characters is a top priority, and the daily prompts are a big part in this process. Since I don’t know the answer (and arguably there is no right answer) of who my characters are, I can simply experience the joy of discovering new things about them. And my characters are so much more interesting than I ever would have imagined. I don’t foresee being able to use these scenes directly in my WIP, but I’ve only been doing them a few weeks, and already I feel more in touch with my characters. I’m hooked.

At first I was scared to confront the idea that I didn’t know my characters. Now I see that even within weakness there is opportunity. This is true beyond writing as well. Whether your weakness is defining characters or asking for help or speaking in front of large groups, be brave and embrace it fully. Who knows what will come of it.

Write in the Past, Live in the Present, Dream for the Future

I was reading a blog post over at The Art of Simple, and it caused me to think about all the states we find ourselves in- the present, past, and future.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself in a constant tug of war amongst these times. As a writer, one of my first lessons was about which tense to write in. For some reason, as a storyteller I naturally recount stories (fact or fiction) in present tense. I think I try to help the listener/reader feel like they are there, in the moment. In manuscript form, it actually becomes quite distracting. So I learned to write in the past tense. It actually helps when I am trying to integrate ribbons of my own memories into my stories.

Trying to effectively balance the present and the future is more challenging. Everyday I try to fully enjoy my blessings – my children, my home, a good run, my family, my friends, something I read or saw that made me laugh. But I also need to dream. I look forward to future events – whether they are finite (like the next time I will have a visit with my parents), or those with no specific date (like when certain goals will be met, or places I’d like to go). Dreaming of the joy of these future events sometimes helps me get through the bad parts of my day. I can’t get so caught up in the future that I forget to take the steps to get there, but I can spend a few minutes letting their sweet wisps dance through my brain.

So enjoy your day. I hope today is all you want it to be, and each day gets even better from here.

It’s a Probability Game

I was catching up on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon (one of my favorite shows), and his one and only guest for the evening was Bruce Springsteen. I’d never heard The Boss speak, so I was pleased to find he was extremely knowledgeable and articulate.

One of his comments really stuck with me. Jimmy asked him how he continues to come up with such great music, and he answered that you just have to keep writing. He said that 90% of what you write is no good. So if you can turn out 12 good songs every 2 years, you can imagine what you spend the rest of the time doing.

I think his comments really apply to anything in the creative process. It certainly feels like an accurate commentary on writing. You may have heard similar comments from successfully published authors such as Jane Yolen commenting on how many manuscripts they have sitting in a desk, unpublished.

There was something about how he said it (sometimes I can hear the same thing multiple times, but just say it a different way and it may finally click with me). It means that even highly successful artists and creative people fail. Repeatedly. And that for the creative process to succeed, we have to keep going. We have to keep learning, trying, and producing.

So I figure that if I keep writing (which I love, anyway), keep revising, and keep submitting, something will click. My success may not be as breakthrough as Born to Run, but a girl can dream right?