Funeral for a Flip Phone

October 3rd, 2016

flip-phone

Do you know what this is? It’s called a flip phone or “clamshell,” and was used by our ancestors near the beginning of the digital age. It was also my phone of choice up until this weekend, when I finally purchased my first iPhone.

Don’t laugh. Flip phones have some things to be said for them. They fit neatly into small spaces, and they don’t provide any of the Internet-related distractions that smartphones are so famous for. As a style statement, they’re so retro that they’re almost cool. Almost.

I’ve been putting off getting a smartphone for ages, even though all of my friends and colleagues have them. Even my 80-year-old uncle swears by his iPhone.

There were many reasons that I resisted trading in this baby for a smartphone; some good, some not so good. I’m not a fan of the way so many people seem attached to their smartphones to the point of neurosis. I mean, do you really need to check incoming texts at every red light? So what if the only replies I could text on my clamshell were “yes,” “no,” or “okay?” I feared adding one more distraction to my already cluttered life.

But if I dig a little deeper, I can see that the real reason I resisted trading in (well, okay: trading up) for so long was fear of change. In some ways, I crave the new and different. I’m always looking for ways to add more excitement to my life. How many people, for example, invite a parade of international students into their homes? But when it comes to life’s more mundane routines, I cling to the familiar, even when it no longer serves me. I remember a time, quite a few years ago, when I resisted getting a laptop because it would pull me away from the comfort zone of my home computer.

Now, of course, I swear by my laptop and seldom leave home without it. And once I get used to it, I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my new iPhone 4. (I know, I know, it’s obsolete; there are much more current versions I could buy. What can I tell you? I need to ease into things.) In fact, it has changed my life already. This post represents the first time I’ve used a phone to create an image for this blog.

I guess I’m finally becoming part of the digital age. In my own, tentative way. Small steps, baby. Small steps.

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.

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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.