Exercising Patience – A Few Words from Matt de la Pena

scbwi2013

I have a confession to make.

I came away from the SCBWI LA Summer conference with a brand new author crush.

 

Matt de la Peña.

-Resources-Image-1Matt de la penaH175W175A1

And not just because he is ruggedly handsome. Or because he took the time to notice where I was from when I was in line to get my book signed and then asked me where exactly Broken Arrow was. He even talked to me about an upcoming author event he had scheduled in my area. Very nice.

And it wasn’t because he said it was great to meet me. See?

MAtt Autograph

Or because he took the time to stand up to take a picture with me. Not many authors do that. So thoughtful.

Me and Matt de la Pena. The flash went off and I froze like a deer waiting to be shot.
Me and Matt de la Peña. The flash went off and I froze like a deer waiting to be shot.

Or because he gave me a copy of his short story, Passing Each Other in Halls,  por nada. So awesome of him, wasn’t it?

Matt Books

Okay, okay. Ma-ybe he did that for all of his quasi-mental, yet adoring fans. Still, not all authors take this kind of time with their readers/stalkers/fans, believe me. Better than any fabulous swag I may have gained from the conference was the knowledge he imparted during his keynote speech and break out sessions. For that, I will be eternally grateful and a forever devoted stalker reader.

During his break out session on exercising patience, one of the first things he said was:

The first page is important but don’t mistake this for EVERYTHING has to happen on the first page.

You don’t have to cram all the major drama – the break up, the car crash, the gun shot – in that first page to make your story great and to keep readers interested. Allow your characters to tell the story; let it unfold naturally. Sometimes you have to get out of your own way and let your readers come to their own conclusions.

Which brings me to de la Peña’s next nugget of wisdom:

Not every reader has to get every thing.

He shared the opening pages from Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke with us as an example of writing that allows the story to unfold without tree of smokeprejudice or narrator comment. The opening line is “Last night at 3:00am President Kennedy had been killed.” Within this passage, as the young soldier stalks through the jungle, there is a 2nd assassination with the death of a monkey, but the narrator doesn’t draw attention to it. If the reader gets the parallel, great. It adds another layer, a deeper connection to the story, but the reader doesn’t need to understand this connection to follow the plot.

De la Peña does the same with his own writing as well. In Ball Don’t Lie, a story about a foster kid who’s only constant in life is basketball, you don’t have to understand the game of basketball to appreciate it. In Mexican WhiteBoy, there are tons of Spanish passages that he doesn’t translate. You don’t have to know what’s being said to appreciate the story, but it enhances the experience. De la Peña says that when a kid who isn’t a big reader can translate a passage for a teacher who’s reading aloud to the class, he takes ownership of the story, which is what you want.

When reading a book, you are doing half the work; you take ownership of it. You picture the action in your mind.

 I love that.

When de la Peña returned to the discussion of how we as writers can show patience in our work, he talked about his experience in his MFA program. At one point, he was trying to show off, be a real stylist by throwing everything he’d learned into his current writing project. His advisor told him the story was suffering because of it. She told him to slow the f*ck down.

Just slow down.

She was so right.

This advice has followed him throughout his career.

Sometimes the slow build is the best build.

 When something big is about to happen in your story, slow that moment down. Car crashes, gun shots, even break ups can take seconds. You can slow it down in a book with many different strategies. Do you go with hypersensitivity? Backstory? Try different ways and see what works.

Sit there with the audience in the palm of your hand and make them suffer.

 Ooh hoo hoo! Gives you chills doesn’t it? I’ve heard of hurting your characters, of torturing them until it hurts, but your reader? I’d never thought of their suffering while I write, have you?

But he does make an excellent point. Some of my favorite books have those delicious scenes that have kept me on that edge, prolonging the moment. It’s almost an agony, suffering the pain of the moment along with the character, but I find myself rereading these passages again and again, soaking up every bit, until I’m satisfied enough to move on.

If you are lucky enough to live in the Tulsa area, come see this dynamic author for yourself. Matt will be speaking on September 24th at the Martin Regional Library.

Learn more about Matt de la Peña here.

Follow Matt on Twitter here.

Follow Matt on Facebook here.

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June #writemotivation Week 2

photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. httpwww.flickr.comphotossahlgoodeIt’s been a busy week here at the Lawson hacienda. I had the opportunity to see a Shakespeare play at the Philbrook Museum thanks to a generous gesture on the part of fellow blogger Paula at stuffitellmysister. She gave me the tickets when she couldn’t use them. So thoughtful!

It was also Autism Awareness Night at the Tulsa Drillers baseball game. Much to my parents’ dismay, the Drillers beat their fave home team, The Springfield Cardinals. There was such a good turn out for the game – so many autism families participated!

Our family had a great time.

Trevor too involved in watching the game to pose for a picture.
Trevor too involved in watching the game to pose for a picture.
Me and the daughter.
Me and the daughter.
View of downtown Tulsa from stadium.
View of downtown Tulsa from stadium.

6 Tulsa Drillers Game 06 11 13

Husband photo bombs pic with me and Trevor.
Husband photo bombs pic with me and Trevor.
Almost good! Foul ball.
Almost good! Foul ball.

Trevor loves baseball and can actually sit through a couple of hours of watching the game before he gets restless and is ready to go home. We all enjoyed getting out as a family in a fun, accepting environment. The kids got to go down on the field before the game and the announcer talked about signs and symptoms of autism throughout the evening. The more education out there the better. That’s why the Autism Center of Tulsa is such a great organization and why our family supports them every year during their autism walk fundraiser. Movie Night at Circle Cinema is coming later this month and in July there is the fabulous family fun night swim party. For any other families with autism in the area looking for opportunities to socialize, make sure to sign up!

Believe it or not, there was actual goal progress made on top of everything else. Hell , yeah! Overall a pretty great week.

Here are my #writemotivation goals for June:

1. Submit Museum Crashers (MG mystery) to editor who requested the full. Getting closer to the end – trying not to rush it. I’m really excited about submitting this one!

2. Submit Institutionalized (YA contemporary) to five more literary agents. I’ve submitted to three agents and received an immediate rejection from one. I’m researching specifics on three more to submit to this month.

3. Work on first draft of Pretty Vacant (YA contemporary). No progress on this one.

4. Read at least five books – review one on the blog. I’ve just finished my second book, Hereafter by Tara Hudson. It’s hereafter-200the first in her Hereafter trilogy. Fantastic book. She recently spoke at our June SCBWI schmooze and I really enjoyed meeting her. There may be more news to post about this meeting, soon. Stay tuned!

5. Work on outlining new blog project idea. I made some headway with this by starting my new series of posts, “Inspiring Stories”. More still to do, though.

6. Exercise 3 times each week. Still making good progress on this and still feeling crippled with pain every day from overworked, whiny muscles. (Tell me this gets easier!)

7. Finish critique of friend’s manuscript. No progress on this one, either. Will do better this week!

Nothing overwhelming me so far. It feels good to be back out there submitting to agents – even with the rejections. How are all of you doing with your goals?

Quote of the day:

“In waiting for the glorious moment of that first book contract, writers must have giant reservoirs of patience. Yet they must persevere because they don’t know the destiny that is being worked out for them. They creep humbly along the ground, without the spacious aerial vision of their lives that would show them the destiny in store for them.”

– Ron Chernow

Here’s to creeping humbly and having massive reservoirs of patience! Have a great week, and keep writing!

Are You a Premature Querier?

First of all, I must say that I have been absent from my blogging duties after being knocked down by one nasty summer head cold/sinus infection thing. Why do I always seemed to get the WORST colds in the summer? I wouldn’t know exactly what is was because I don’t like to bother my doctor for things like colds, flus, arms falling off, etc. – only real medical emergencies. I was actually in danger of being dragged into my lovely physician’s office for some serious care as this sickness held on way past it’s welcome – over a week of miserable leaky/stuffy head pain and sleepless nights. (This very whiny writer is ever so glad she married a nurse who loves to take care of her when he isn’t taking care of critically ill patients at the hospital. I’m like a vacation after taking care of actual sick people all day.) Maybe he was being sarcastic…

Anyway, now that I can feed and bathe myself (was that going too far?), a long overdue series of posts has been promised about knowledge tidbits gleaned from THE AMAZING SCBWI conference.

So here we go with post NUMBER ONE. Oh! It’s so exciting!

Speaking of which, THE NUMBER ONE complaint I heard from almost every editor and agent who spoke at the SCBWI LA conference was that writers are sending out their manuscripts too early.

Author and Editor Deborah Halverson echoed this when she reported her findings on the survey of the market:

“Of the unsolicited manuscripts, editors are wading through too many not ready to be submitted.”

I must admit that I myself, am a recovering premature querier.

That’s right! When I first started out on this writer’s journey, the minute I wrote the words, “The End” on my very first novel,  I couldn’t wait to get that newly minted manuscript hot off the printer, into an envelope, and out to the mailbox to be discovered – remember when we mailed queries? If not, don’t tell me. The only thing I discovered was how fast I could receive form rejection letters. Even by snail mail, you can get them pretty damn fast.

When Newberry Award Winner Clare Vanderpool gave her keynote address, she said it took her 16 years to get her first book published. SIXTEEN YEARS!  I’m a little over halfway there, but I still wanted to cry. Then she talked about how during those years, while she was writing her book, Moon Over Manifest, whenever and wherever she could – even at stoplights –  she was also studying her craft, practicing it. She learned that you have to put in the miles. She said one of the major factors for her success was joining a critique group. Sometimes we think what we write is good and it’s not and vice versa. That it’s important to know that what we’re putting out is what we intend.

You should know this before you start submitting your manuscript. You should know if your story flows well and makes sense to unbiased, knowledgeable peers before you blow your one chance with that dream editor or agent. Submit your best, your most polished work. How will you know if this is your best work unless you slow down and put in the time? Unless you get a second or third opinion? Whenever you finish a draft, put it away. Sit with it a few days before you start revising. Re-read it. Revise it. Revise it again. Have trusted readers read it. Revise it again. My good friend Anna Myers says she’d let someone see her first draft as soon as let them see her dirty underwear. You sure as hell don’t want an editor or agent to see your dirty drawers, do you? You know I’m not one for ironing, but I’d probably even iron my underwear before I’d send it to an agent.

Josh Adams of Adams Literary gave this advice to new writers during the Agent Panel: “Do everything you can to be ready, to be polished. There’s such a rush to be published. Do your research. It’s important to find your voice and the voice of an agent who will be an advocate for you.”

There is no hurry. Everyone is waiting for your best.

The only reason I can see for someone to be in a rush is if they are trying to catch a marketing trend and this is another major fallacy that writers should avoid. I will address this in the next post. Until then, keep practicing your craft!

When am I Going To Find Some Freaking Patience Already?!!

Patience is its Own Reward

Being the mom of a son with autism, I often hear things like, “You are so patient with him” or “You have the patience of Job”.  Sure, I can stand my ground in a public place while my son is yelling at me, throwing a code red tantrum, and not only keep calm with him, but even if someone comes over to offer help or to ask me to keep it down, I can turn to them – while remaining placid as a lake in Canada and controlling my desire to throttle them – and say, “My son has autism and I’ve got this under control. Thank you.” Yeah, the whole patience thing was totally developed by necessity and definitely not by my choice, I can tell you.

I am not naturally a patient person.

One only has to hop in the car with me and go for a drive, then you’ll see me at my worst. (Only in really heavy traffic and then I only swear like a sailor and make creative hand gestures while having loud, one-sided conversations with the other drivers. I’m not dangerous or anything, honest.) I learned the hard way that if you beg, plead, scream and yell, or stomp your feet at a kid with autism to cajole him into doing what you want, if he’s not ready or willing to do it, odds are he’s not going to do it EVER – the mountain will not be moved – and all of your efforts to force him will only makes things worse.

This reminds me a lot of my writing journey thus far. I’ve had to learn to be patient many times over – it’s like someone out there is trying to tell me something as I bang my head up against wall after wall. (Patience is important or a virtue or something, I don’t know.) I’ve wanted to be a published children’s writer more than anything. Before I joined a critique group or let anyone even read my first story, I wrote out a picture book manuscript, I’m the Princess!,  somewhere over three thousand words long. I had to cut it down to two thousand words – and I thought that was quite an accomplishment – to submit it to a writing contest. I was sure that winning this contest would be my key to getting published quickly. I was so confident that my story was the best, that I waited for the inevitable notification of my win. When it didn’t come, I was completely shocked. I didn’t even place! What was wrong with those people? Didn’t they recognize talent when they saw it?

After my denial wore off, I decided that maybe I needed to try something else. Thankfully, it wasn’t long afterwards that I came to my senses and joined SCBWI. I was so embarrassed when I learned that the average length of a picture book manuscript shouldn’t really be any longer than fifteen hundred words. (Now, I think they like them even shorter.)  I realized after studying many well written picture books and learning more about the whole writing process that I’m not really a picture book writer. Picture books are extremely hard to write well and are a completely different animal. I think the best ones are more like poetry. Maybe some day I’ll master that format, but I know I am far from it right now. Until then, I’m the Princess! will stay buried deep in the vault, as a painful reminder of where I started. Although it did make a brief appearance at one of our local SCBWI schmoozes where some of us brought examples of our writing comparing our early works to our recent works, to show how we’d grown as writers. Yes, the laughter was the loudest during the reading of my “before” example. Okay, I can’t keep you in suspense, here’s just the first paragraph:

Princess Isabelle fluttered her dark eyelashes as she opened her dazzling deep blue eyes. A sunbeam fell across her long wavy light brown hair, making an ocean of golden thread on her pillow. She sat up slowly and stretched her delicate arms into the air, her perfectly pink mouth opened into a tiny, perfect yawn. A most enchanting smile crossed her face as she remembered her plan for mischief this morning. She jumped out of bed, slammed open her huge golden doors and yelled down the corridor.

That’s all the sample I can bear. I’m afraid it didn’t get any better in the following paragraphs. I left nothing to the illustrator’s imagination – mistake number one. (No need to go through them all, seriously, this manuscript was thoroughly dissected at the schmooze.) How could I have crammed so many flowery descriptors into one mouthful? OMG! That is just painful to look at.

Still, I didn’t learn all the lessons in patience that I needed to. I did realize that I wanted to tell too much of the story for the picture book format and moved on to the daunting middle grade format. I was scared at first. How could I possibly write an entire novel? Three thousand words was easy, but thirty thousand words? Fifty thousand? Impossible! But I started writing anyway. Slowly. One chapter at a time. I studied my craft and learned as much as I could this time about the rules of the middle grade format. I attended conferences and joined a critique group. I started reading middle grade novels like crazy. Finally, a few years later, I had my first completed middle grade novel and my critique group loved it. It still needed to be revised and had some plot issues to work out, but it was a great start. I was a real writer. But sometimes it was hard to hear about other writers in our group sending off their work to editors and agents; I wanted to be doing that, too. I went ahead and sent out work that wasn’t anywhere near ready. I received form rejection letters in return for my trouble. Oh, patience! When would you be mine?

After so many form rejections I lost count, no personals, and no requests for fulls, something told me it was time to go back to the drawing board. Then, while in the middle of revisions on my first middle grade and halfway through the first draft of my second middle grade, I had this idea for a YA novel that would not go away. It was so different from what I’d been writing I was a little worried about switching gears so completely. I remembered something I’d heard an author at a conference I’d attended (I think it was Rachel Cohn, but I can’t be sure) about following the voice that pulls you the strongest and I knew I had to at least try it.

I was beyond nervous the first time I brought a chapter of Institutionalized to my critique group. They were surprised by the change of direction, some of the language, and content, but they also loved the main character and THE VOICE. I’d finally gotten it right. And once passed the initial shock, they all were on board and so supportive. I wrote this one so much faster and so differently than all the others. I knew this was one THE ONE. This time, though I didn’t want to rush it. I received some critiques from editors and agents at conferences, all with positive results and some very helpful constructive criticisms. I did the necessary revisions and had it critiqued again and did more revising. Finally it was time to start sending it out. YIKES!

The results so far have been much more promising than the first time, with personal rejections and helpful comments and requests for additional pages, but the road is far from over and I still find myself looking too far into the future, wistfully wanting to skip the necessary steps and be crossing that damned elusive publishing finish line already. One day at a time and one step at a time. I know, I know!

Do you ever find yourself feeling impatient with where you are as a writer? Do you ever wonder ‘why don’t they see how talented I am and pick me already?’ What are some of your embarrassing stories along your road to publication? I’d love to hear them.