Revise Yourself!

August 24th, 2016

Every time I revise for an agent or editor, I learn something about myself as a writer. Whether it’s a tendency toward overstatement or a habit of going too light on action and description in my dialogue scenes, a professional’s comments always help me hone my ability to convey my stories on the page.

My latest revision was no different. In challenging me to add more “side streets and alleys” to my novel and to delve deeper into my characters’ emotions, my agent drew my attention to the fact that I tend to write very tight and spare. I put out what some people call “skeletal drafts” – the bare bones of a story which I later need to flesh out. The problem is, I have trouble putting enough flesh on those bones. In some ways a tight manuscript can be good, but it can also leave readers feeling rushed through the plot and cheated of fully connecting with the characters.

In pondering my agent’s challenge, I realized that my propensity toward “fast and tight” relates not only to my writing, but to the way I live my life. I’m one of those people who is always in a hurry. Perhaps because my childhood experience of cancer left me with an awareness of my mortality, time feels like it’s at a premium, and as a result I tend to rush through both tasks and interactions in my urgency to move on to the next thing. Even in my teaching, I tend to value flow over depth. I’m afraid that if I go on too long, people will get bored. If you want proof, take a look at my posts on this blog, few of which are over 400 words. Up till now, my motto has been “Get to the point.”

My agent has made my see that in my writing – and in my life – I can afford to slow down and take the time to explore each moment, each interaction, to it’s fullest. I don’t have to worry that my readers will get bored if I elaborate on a characters thoughts and feelings, and in the course of a day, I can risk a few moments of downtime or a lull in a conversation.

And maybe someday, I’ll even take the ultimate risk and write a 500-word blog post.

What have you learned in revisions that you can apply to your life?

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

May 2nd, 2016

I don’t do many book reviews on this blog, but I’m currently reading a book that’s blowing my mind: BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR by Elizabeth Gilbert.


I almost didn’t pick this one up, because I wasn’t a huge fan of her blockbuster memoir, EAT, PRAY, LOVE. But thanks to a friend who recommended it, I decided to give Gilbert another chance – and boy, am I glad I did.

In BIG MAGIC, Gilbert doesn’t teach you how to write; she gives suggestions on how to live a creative life. Although the ideas she presents could apply to any artistic endeavor, because the author is a writer herself, the book focuses on the writing process. Giving examples from her own life and work, Gilbert discusses such issues as courting inspiration, dealing with rejection, and staying the course. While I’ve read scores of books about all of these topics, Gilbert manages to approach each one in a unique way. In talking about finding inspiration, for example, she doesn’t counsel writers to carry around a notebook or scour newspaper headlines. Instead, she advises thinking of ideas as actual beings out there in the ether, each one looking for a home. If you make yourself available, one of them will find you. And when it does, your job is to commit yourself to it and pledge your heart and soul to giving that idea a voice in the world.

One of the sections of the book that particularly speaks to me is titled “Day Job.” I’ve often bemoaned the fact that I have to work for a living and so can’t spend all of my time creating. But according to Gilbert, having a day job to support you is a good thing. Why put pressure on your creativity to singlehandedly shoulder your financial burdens? she asks. There’s a good chance your muse won’t feel up to the task and will take off for greener pastures.

In short, BIG MAGIC won’t change the way I write, but it will forever change my attitude toward writing. Instead of cursing the ups and downs of the writing life, thanks to the advice in the pages of this book, I’ll be grateful for the times that creativity finds me and offer myself unconditionally to its service.

Go-to Blogs for Writing Advice

April 19th, 2016

Of the scads of blogs out there aimed at writers, many of them useful and informative, a few rise to the top of my list when I need advice (what should the first paragraph of my query letter contain?), information (which agents are currently accepting unsolicited submissions?) or inspiration. Bookmark the blogs listed below. Or better yet, subscribe. You won’t regret it.

Kristin Lamb’s blog

Not only is this blog informative, with meaty posts on such topics as story structure, character, social media, and marketing, it’s also written in Kristin Lamb’s fun, hip style and peppered with lots of quirky visuals. Comment, and you could win discounted attendance to a webinar or a manuscript evaluation by Kristin herself.

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating blog

This blog, aimed at both writers and illustrators of children’s and YA books, offers several weekly features including Illustrator Sunday, inspirational guest posts by Erika Wassall, The Jersey Farm Scribe, and – my favorite – first-page critiques by both new and longtime agents. It was through one of these critiques that I got the go-ahead to submit a full manuscript to a top agent. Even though she ultimately rejected it, I was grateful to the Writing and Illustrating blog for allowing me to get my foot in the door.

K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors blog

After following this author on Twitter and enjoying her interactive posts, I subscribed to her blog and found a treasure trove of writing resources, including informative articles and useful charts, as well as videos and podcasts on the craft of writing. If you subscribe as I did, she’ll send an instructive newsletter to your inbox every week and provide you with a free e-book download.

C.S. Lakin’s Live WriteThrive blog

A new favorite for me, C. S. Larkin’s blog is full of nitty-gritty information on how to structure your novel, make your writing sing, and rise to the top of bestseller lists. I found her posts so helpful that I checked out her book The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction, which now ranks among my most-dogeared writing books.

I pop in and out of a lot of blogs, but these are the ones I’ve either subscribed to or bookmarked for frequent visits. How about you? Which writing blogs have you found most useful?

Diversity Dilemma

March 23rd, 2016

I’m afraid to write this post. Why? Because it’s about diversity in YA fiction, and writing about diversity is almost as scary as writing diverse characters. There’s a sense that you need to walk on eggshells, that at any moment you’re liable to say something offensive, un-PC, or just plain wrong.

The call to write diverse characters is everywhere, but when you’re not LBTQ, disabled, or a Person of Color, doing so is stepping into a minefield. No one sets out to create a character who is a stereotype. But when you’ve been fed those stereotypes all your life through the media and the institutionalized biases that run rampant in our culture, they can be hard to see beyond. Even worse, you may think you’re writing an authentic character, unaware that you’re reinforcing one of those very stereotypes.

A related problem occurs when you intentionally try to write against stereotype. The thinking goes like this: There is a stereotype out there of the young black man who is an unemployed, drug-dealing thug. Therefore the young black man in my book needs to aspire to a law degree from Harvard, speak the Queen’s English, and spend his spare hours doing volunteer work at the local hospital. Your character then becomes just as cardboard as the original stereotype, and what’s more, if your book’s setting is a crime-ridden inner city, downright unbelievable (is it okay that I said that??). This whitewashed, pardon the irony, version of your character is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the original stereotype, and therefore calls attention to that stereotype.

So how does a straight white woman like me go about creating characters who are very different from her? I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer lies in a combination of research, beta readers…and a bit of trust in our shared humanity. Through research, I can learn about the cultures of those different from myself, and once I’ve finished a draft, beta readers can reflect back to me any insensitive material I’ve unwittingly introduced into my work.

But the most important tool I have is empathy. Our skin colors and sexual orientations may be diverse, but my characters and I share primary human emotions and universal life experiences. If I can tap into the deep well of my feelings and experiences, I know I will find a connection with my characters whether they’re black or white, abled or disabled, straight or gay.

So I pledge to move forward boldly and do my best to bring diversity to my YA fiction. The danger of leaving deserving teens without books that reflect their backgrounds and experience trumps my personal fear of getting it wrong.

Break or Butt-in-Chair?

March 3rd, 2016

If there’s one rule writers hear more than any other, it’s “Keep Your Butt in the Chair!” The idea behind this well-worn phrase, of course, is that writing requires consistency and discipline. You can’t just wait for inspiration to strike, and you can’t make a habit of throwing in the towel after twenty minutes to respond to the call of dirty laundry or on-demand TV.

I’m all for discipline and productivity. In fact, most of the time, I’m the work-ethic queen. When I’m in the middle of a draft or revision, I work with laser-like focus, letting nothing get in my way until the job is complete. The problem I then bump up against is, what do I do when the work is done?

Take my current situation, for example. About a month ago, I completed three rigorous rewrites of my current novel and handed it in to my agent. The very day the manuscript went on submission, she asked me to write a pitch for my next book, which I did. I’ve revised the pitch three times, and am awaiting her feedback on my latest draft. There are many things I could do while I wait: write blog posts (well, yeah, I’m doing that), come up with ideas for future projects, do background research for possible new projects, etc., etc. In other words, in spite of not having a deadline-driven, concrete job to do, I could keep my butt in the chair.

But another path calls. When I’m eyeball-deep in a project, the rest of my life takes a back seat. I spend less time than I’d like with my family and friends, dust collects in the corners of my house, and the garden goes untended. The beauty of nature becomes something I see through the window – and most of the time I’m so glued to my computer screen that I don’t even see it.

So my dilemma is this: Do I stick to the rules and keep my writing time sacred and exclusively for writing? Or do I look at this break in the action as an opportunity to fill the well, so that when I do get back to work, it will be with a new perspective and a refreshed mind?

Helen Tree Dance

What do you do in-between projects? Do you maintain the practice of Butt in Chair, or do you give yourself a break?