June #writemotivation Week 3

photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. httpwww.flickr.comphotossahlgoodeModerate progress made this week on the goals.  I hope to make some serious progress this weekend when I’m spending time with a bunch of writers. Uninterrupted time to write and discuss all things of a literary nature for an entire weekend?

Ah! It’s my favorite kind of getaway.

We’re also going to be celebrating because one of our own just received a book deal on a much-beloved and much-anticipated manuscript. (I’m so excited for you, Gwen!) I can’t wait to own a copy. I’ll tell you all more about her story when it’s closer to publication time.

I’m really looking forward to this weekend!

Here are my #writemotivation goals for June:

1. Submit Museum Crashers (MG mystery) to editor who requested the full. I swear I’m almost ready. Next week is the final deadline!

2. Submit Institutionalized (YA contemporary) to five more literary agents. DONE!

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’m more than halfway done with Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. I looooved The toprow-03-onWednesday Wars and this is the companion to it – so perfectly everything I want in a middle grade.

5. Work on outlining new blog project idea. DONE!

6. Exercise 3 times each week. Done and DONE!!! I may actually be getting used to this.

7. Finish critique of friend’s manuscript. Still no progress on this one – must at least get through a few chapters next week or hang my head in shame.

Kind of hit and miss, but I love that I have at least some goals completed. Feels good! How are all of you doing with your goals?

Quote of the day:

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
– Douglas Adams

Kind of how I’m feeling right now…whoosh!

May #writemotivation begins! Let’s get some motivation up in here!

bake sale
One of three tables filled with tempting treats. All sold out by the end of the day.

April was incredibly busy for me. What with the massive amount of work I put into the pre-conference days – Pitch Clinic, Twitter activity on the conference hashtag, escorting speakers with plane delays to the hotel (helping Jerry find his speaker that he lost), competing with Jerry for best nerd shirt (I won, of course) –  juggling a fund-raising event for our autism team at the same time was pushing it. Why stop there? Let’s throw a fund-raiser for our fund-raiser! Bake sale time. Nothing like wading through frosting-covered counters and rows of chocolate delights you aren’t allowed to eat. TORTURE! What I do for you people! (I may have done some taste-testing on a rather wonky-looking chocolate/raspberry filled cupcake. It passed inspection.) I still found time for writing, critiquing, and revising, but I almost didn’t survive the month.

Okay, SLIGHT exaggeration.

I had an amazing time at the conference, met some new writers, and received an excellent critique on a new project I can’t wait to get into. We also raised more money than ever for our autism team AND had more out-of-towners walk with us than any other year – score! So all the craziness was worth it.

My body did rebel against the unusually high level of activity and stress, coupled with the constant weather shift provided by Mother Nature’s crap shoot where we vacillated between bright sunny skies and brooding thunderstorms, mixed with hail and maybe some ice and snow just to freak people out a bit. Well played, Mother Nature, well played. My sinuses experienced some sort of implosion/invasion/infection. Not pretty. I was down for about a week, making very ugly bodily noises and whiny demands of my family, who somehow still took care of me and still loved me. If the roles had been reversed, I may have been tempted to apply the pillow over the face therapy. Hold firmly until breathing and complaining cease.

But I digress…

photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. httpwww.flickr.comphotossahlgoodeApparently April was a very busy month for many others in our #writemotivation gang, several of whom participated in either Camp Nano or the A to Z challenge or both! (Those crazy kids.) It was a good thing I was mistaken in thinking that April would be another #writemotivation month. No one had the time! Our fearless leader and brand new mommy of the cutest, cheekiest baby, KT Hanna, used April as a test month for getting back on her writing schedule and juggling the youngling’s needs. (Oh, those cheeks! So schmooshy!)

Although she’s back in the writing saddle, it looks like we’re still going to do #writemotivation every other month for awhile. If you didn’t make the deadline for May, you can still set goals for yourself and join us on Twitter at the hashtag #writemotivation anytime to ask questions, ( about good names for characters, history of dinosaurs, etc.) or if you need help with motivation, ( maybe you want someone to join you in a writing challenge for the evening to keep you on track for your own personal writing goal or maybe you just need to know that someone else out there is banging their head against their keyboard in frustration, too), or for whatever you need, we’ll be there to help push you through. That’s what #writemotivation is all about. Try it out and then you can sign up in July and join us for the complete #writemotivation experience.

(Just FYI, Camp Nano will also be up and running again in July if you missed it or were too busy for the first camping experience.)

My goals for May? Why, so kind of you to ask. Here they are:

1. Complete latest draft of Museum Crashers (MG mystery) and prepare for submission.
2. Research more literary agents for submission of Institutionalized (YA contemporary) and send out to five of them.
3. Make some progress on first draft of Pretty Vacant (YA contemporary). Develop main character fully and decide which way story arc will go.
4. Exercise 3 times each week.


Let’s hear from you. Got any goals?

Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

– Socrates

I’m at that stage in my writing where I no longer feel like a complete novice. I’ve made many of the classic beginning mistakes – I fell in love with my own words whether or not what I was saying moved the story forward, I sprinkled my sentences liberally with adjectives and adverbs, and the narrative voice? We were best friends.

I’ve since moved on to the more advanced mistakes.

Like becoming a bit complacent with my craft.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that although I may now be able to whip out some excellent dialogue and show the action of a scene and insert some awesome sensory details and have great pacing and an authentic teen voice that I still have things to learn; that this is an ongoing, evolving journey that I may never truly master.

My friend and fellow critique partner Helen Newton came along just in time to remind me. She gave an excellent presentation at our Tulsa SCBWI schmooze earlier this month where she discussed novel revision techniques. One of her suggestions dealt with reading your manuscript out loud – in different ways, like in a monotone or with an accent. The purpose of this exercise was to make mistakes in your writing easier to see when you hear your words read aloud  – especially by someone else or in a different rhythm. When we become too familiar with our own work, we can miss glaring mistakes that others might see without a problem.

This reminded me of a recent story I heard on NPR about radiologists who were given films of lungs and asked to look for cancerous nodules as part of an experiment. Almost all failed

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

to notice the picture of the gorilla superimposed on the slides  because of their narrowed scope. They were looking for disease, not gorillas. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness”.

“In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

So did I have “inattentional blindness” in my writing? I’d heard this practice of reading one’s work aloud was a good idea before, but never before in such detail. I’d also never had the patience to try it. It was one thing to read a picture book manuscript out loud, but an entire novel? And more than once? Forget it.

But the very next week, I was preparing my submission for our upcoming OK SCBWI conference in April, and I was working on completely new manuscript. I needed some input before submitting it. There was no time to get feedback from the great and mighty dream team, my critique group, so what was I to do? I recruited some beloved family members and gave the read-aloud idea a try. I’m useless when I read my own work aloud because I stop and edit too much, hence negating the whole purpose of the exercise.

I have to admit having two different people read aloud through my pages was really helpful. They both also made helpful editorial comments when they were finished – which showed me that they’d finally learned to spare my feelings and comment from the heart. All of which kept me from sending something out that was less than stellar.

Now if I could just talk them into reading my completed YA manuscript – it’s only 350 pages. I sense a hefty bribe is in order there.

So what about you? Do you read your manuscripts out loud? Do you use a program to read it out loud for you? Do you cajole adoring family members into reading it for you? What other revising exercises do you find helpful for seeing the hidden mistakes?

Stealing Time and Being Selfish

I am often taken by surprise when others remark on how amazed they are that I find any time to write because I have a son with autism. Maybe because I don’t know any other way. Maybe because I have to write and I must find the time.

True, some days he can be very demanding. Here are some typical interactions we have on those trying days:

“Mom, are you having a good day?” (This is asked at five minute intervals.)

“Mom, are you hungry?” (Which means he’s hungry and I need to find him something to eat before he uproots the pantry and the fridge trying to find something on his own.)

“Mom can we order an Abby doll?” (Which means he wants me to buy him a character doll from the Disney movie Chicken Little that you cannot buy anywhere on the planet, but my son refuses to believe this and continues to ask for several times a day even when told “no” – not a pretty argument.)

“Mom, where is Dad?” (This is also asked at five minute intervals even after he’s given the answer.)

“Mom, can Joey and Ashley come over to our house?” (Or whatever relatives couldn’t possibly travel large distances to reach our house today – another fun way to disappoint him.)

“Mom, you look great.” (Said repeatedly, but not often enough.)

“Look, Mom! Bananas!” (I must then pretend to be hit with a face full of bananas and cry, then Trevor will console me and apologize for ‘hitting’ me with said pretend bananas. yeah, thanks for THAT game, DAD. Also repeated ad nauseum.)

Not to mention the odd number of head noogies and bone-crushing hugs that come out of nowhere.

On these days, I do struggle to find time for anything else, let alone time to form a cohesive thought or capture that thought onto the computer in a string of words that make any sense at all. (I should always stop writing once he asks any of these questions the first time. Always.)

And he is only one person in my family that requires some of my attention. My time is in high demand.

So how do I find time to write?

I steal it.

Writing is more than just a hobby to me. It is something that I have to do. If I’m not allowed to express myself through the written word, I will… well maybe not climb a clock tower and do something blood thirsty and violent, but I will be extremely cranky. You don’t want to see me when I’m cranky. Just ask my family.

So. Instead of making their lives unbearable, I get up early in the morning while they’re all still asleep – and more importantly, silent – and I write.

Without interruption.

For as long as I can.

Some days I steal the time while they are all away at school or work. On those days, there are many other things I could do with this time; laundry, walk the dogs, yard work, etc., but none of those things will fulfill me as much as my writing. Maybe it’s selfish to use this time just for me, but when I do get to exorcise my writing demons and exhaust that creative spirit, I don’t resent my family’s demands on my time. I’m a much more patient parent, a more tolerant spouse.

I am happy.

And we all know that when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.

I think we all have to steal a little time for ourselves, to be selfish a bit with our time. If we don’t take any time to pursue our own interests, we cannot be there for our loved ones without feeling resentment or frustration.

Make sure you take a little time this week to be selfish. Your family will appreciate it.

Cupid Was Very Good To Me – End of the Surprise Agent Invasion

As some of you may know, I participated in the Cupid’s Literary Connection Surprise Agent Invasion Contest. The details of which are here in this previous post. Well, the contest has officially ended and I was indeed struck by Cupid’s arrow a few times – such a giddy feeling! The contest as a whole was so much fun. It was also incredibly intense and nerve-wracking as well. I met some fantastic new writer friends. We bonded over on Twitter where we totally obsessed about what agents would stop by, WHEN agents would stop by, would the current agent browsing through the list pick our entry (please, please,PLEASE!!!) We really knew how to obsess. But the best thing we did was offer up support and congratulations to each other when an agent made a request – and there were many requests! There were a total of 86 requests made by 12 agents and 1 editor who stopped by for surprise invasions during the three week period that our entries were posted. Not bad! I’d definitely call that a huge success.

I learned some valuable things about my writing from the agent comments on my entry, mostly that they loved my first page and that I apparently lack the ability to write tight, clear queries. (I kind of already knew that part; I loathe the query.) It was a good thing my writing was strong enough on the first page for a few agents to over-look my atrocious query. As I am always looking for ways to improve my craft, I decided that I should suck it up and dispense with the query-loathing and master the damned thing. Several writing friends have already sent me in the direction of their favorite query sites and given me helpful tips, but I am always open to hearing more from others who excel in this area.

In the column of even more exciting news, hot on the heels of her vastly successful Surprise Agent Invasion Contest, our lovely, hard-working Cupid has a new contest starting May 3rd called “The Writer’s Voice”. She is patterning it after the hit show “The Voice”. Entries will be picked based on their queries and first pages and then a few select coaches will get involved to help the chosen candidates improve their entries for the final round where agents will pick their favorites and request to see their manuscripts. One major change in this contest is that you do have to have a blog to enter. Check out the details if you are interested in entering. It should be another amazing contest.

For me, I plan on watching this one and cheering on the hopeful competitors. I still have one agent reviewing my manuscript and once I brush up my query skills, I will start submitting. I may have a few more agents requesting soon. Who knows. Good luck to the new competitors!

Lucky 7

The ever fantastic and ever floral Laura Stanfill tagged me for the Lucky 7 meme about a week ago. As it is a holiday weekend and I’d like to keep things fun I thought I’d give it a go.

The rules ask me to open my novel-in-progress and:

  1. Go to page 77.
  2. Go to line 7.
  3. Copy down the next 7 lines, sentences, or paragraphs as they are written.
  4. Tag 7 new authors.

What  a lovely, self-indulgent excuse for me to post a random tidbit of my latest novel and force you to read it totally against your will! I love it! I shall choose seven paragraphs from my YA novel Institutionalized, which is currently on display – or at least the query and first 250 words – at the Surprise Agent Invasion on the Cupid Literary Connection Blog and finally getting some responses and even its first agent request – woohoo! I’m choosing the longest form because the particular section in question wouldn’t make much sense otherwise and because it’s my game, my rules, and…because I said so. (I’m also not going to tag seven new authors because I think everyone I would tag has already been tagged by this particular meme.)

Excerpt from Institutionalized:

“Why?” I turned to her, crossed my arms, and huffed. “Cause knowing he likes green is so top secret? C’mon.” I seriously was about to lose my patience with this Nazi control crap. And I didn’t want Matt to get into any trouble. Not because of me.

Courtney shook her head.  “Sara, you’re a smart girl. You know it’s more than that. Think about it.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with just talking.” I flopped back down in my chair. What was she getting so uptight about? “Everybody’s always trying to get me to talk – all the damn time. It’s all I ever hear from you people! Then I start talking to someone – oooh, a boy – and you freak out. Whatever!”

“Why do you think you’re here? To find a new boyfriend?” Courtney reached over and gently took a hold of my wrists. “You are here for a reason.” She looked over my bandages and then up into my eyes. I had definitely acted crazy and she was letting me know it. As far as she was concerned, I belonged here.

I pulled away and turned my head to look out the window. There was a pond in a little circle of trees with a fountain floating in the middle. I wished I could explode like that right now; shoot jets of emotion up into the air and let them fall all over everyone. I could feel the storm edging up to the surface, but I knew I had to keep it together or I’d never escape this place. I pushed the feelings back down. After a moment of silence, Courtney spoke again.

“If you spend all of your energy focusing on a male peer, you won’t make any progress in your treatment. Don’t you want to get better?”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say there was nothing wrong with me and I didn’t need to get better, but I realized that I’d been acting like a real nutcase since they’d locked me up. Besides, I’d already tried the ‘I’m not crazy” defense and it hadn’t worked. So I stared down at my feet and tried to keep the tears from bubbling out of my eyes. She didn’t understand. It wasn’t my fault that I was here. No one was ever going to understand. My parents had made sure of that.

“Can I go now?” I asked. “I have a map to finish coloring.”

I hope you enjoyed it. Happy Easter/Passover to all!

#writemotivation wrap up

March was basically my first month writing this blog and participating in the #writemotivation challenge not only helped me learn to balance my actual writing time with my platform building time, it helped me connect with others going through the same challenges and struggles that present themselves to unpublished writers. This has been so much fun and I love the feedback I’m getting about the blog – on the site itself and in person at conferences or writers’ meetings. You guys are so awesome. I don’t really know much about the numbers, but I’ve had over 600 viewers in the first months alone. And that doesn’t suck.

Having goals really helps me keep my butt in the chair, doing what I’m supposed to be doing – what I love to do more than anything else. Writing. So here is the final recap on my March goals.

My goals for March:

  • Complete my novel revision: I’ve done most of the heavy-lifting on this goal, only a bit of fine-tuning left near the end. I’ll call it done.
  • Post two blog entries each week: Definitely done. Woohoo!
  • Update my journal project and keep it current: Not much progress on this. Can’t win them all. I will set this down as a goal for April.

I’d like to thank K.T. Hanna for creating #writemotivation and for keeping us all motivated throughout the month with our tweet chats and for just being an all-around wonderful supporter of us writers struggling right on the cusp of success. That may be the hardest place to be. I’d also like to thank all of the other #writemotivation participants who gave so much support to me and listened to me rant when things were frustrating. You guys rock. Good luck in April! And keep on writing!

Locked Down with Walter Dean Myers – a book review

I am so thrilled that Walter Dean Myers is our current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and that his focus is how reading will affect your life – telling parents that it is vital to sit down and read to their children every day. It will make a difference in their lives. What an obvious and yet necessary thing to convey to kids and parents. Reading is important.

I was a fairly new writer or at least  new to accepting the label of “writer” to myself when I first heard Walter Dean Myers speak back in 2007. It was also the first time I had attended the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. I was a happy, glowing sponge, soaking up the atmosphere of so many people talking in a language that I understood – who understood me. I felt for the first time that I had found where I belonged. These were my people!

Mr. Myers’s Keynote address was called “A Passion for Details” and in his talk, he said the thing that made one writer more successful than another was the details.

“You need to recognize the details as the truth.”

You know you have accomplished this when the reader walks away from the story and can think about it further knowing what the character is doing beyond the story itself – how his life will progress beyond the ending. He also said that the internal landscape of the character is much more important than the physical attributes. You should understand the details that comprise your characters so readers can recreate them in their own minds.

He went on to say that every story is about a character with a problem. We have to know enough about that character to make his life interesting to us and we have to be able to create his problem in our minds. Why is that person’s life important? Give us the details.

In his one of his latest books, Lockdown, Myers does just that. He puts us right into the mind of Reese, a 14 year-old kid struggling in Progress juvenile detention after stealing prescription pads to help his family with money problems. Reese is trying to follow the rules to get an early release and get back home to take care of his younger siblings left at home with his drug-addicted mother. With guards that turn the other way when bad things happen and old men who think you’re going to steal from them just because of the color of your skin, Reese gets pushed to the brink every day. But Reese can’t just sit by when his friend Toon gets jumped. He risks his freedom and his future to do what he thinks is right.

Myers pulls you inside this dreary world and makes you feel what life is like, being misunderstood, being neglected, ignored, and having no one to count on but yourself. You care for Reese and want to scream at the people not helping him and not seeing what he’s going through and you hope that he can rise above his circumstances and somehow things will turn out all right. Any book that can illicit that much emotion from me is stupendous and well worth the read.  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

To learn more about Walter Dean Myers and his other books, visit his website.

It Started with a Whisper…Inspiration

Pirate Ship in the Clouds

My ideas for stories come from the most unexpected places; they never seem to arrive in the same way. They all start with a thought teasing my brain drifting out of the ether.

“What if?”

Sometimes that thought comes from a dream fragment or after I’ve read a newspaper article (like the 1958 “Kissing Case” where two black boys, ages 7 and 9, were arrested for letting a young white girl kiss them on the cheek) or while my brain is exploring a childhood fantasy (“What if you lived upside-down and your feet stuck to the ceiling?”). Maybe it surfaces while I’m zoning out in the shower, contemplating a fascinating work of art, staring up at the clouds (is that a pirate ship?), or listening to some music that touches me emotionally. I never know what will inspire a new idea. I write down every crazy idea and file it away until its time comes.

The other day I was driving in the car listening to the Mumford and Sons song  Awake My Soul. Near the end, when the the song builds to a crescendo with instruments and vocals tearing off in musical abandon, I felt myself being transported elsewhere. I wasn’t driving down a dreary winter street, I was racing barefoot along a mossy forest floor, with warm sunbeams streaking through the breaks in the trees. I was leaping and chasing the music. A wild creature with no worries or commitments, totally free…then the vision changed into the thought of what would a character like that do when interacting with others? How would she affect them? I was so into this idea, thinking about storylines that I barely remembered where I was going, trusting my muscle memories to keep me on course when my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, broke the spell:

“You look like one of those bobbleheads – no offense.”

The dreamscape disappeared instantly. I just had to laugh and then make even more exaggerated bobblehead movements to entertain/embarrass my daughter. I was still grooving out to the music, still in my car, navigating through traffic, but now I had a thread of  an idea for a story forming. Would it be a good idea worth pursuing? Maybe. Maybe not. I wrote it down anyway.

My latest YA novel, for example, came to me because I kept thinking about some of the young girls I had worked with at a private psychiatric hospital as a mental health tech, and one in particular. I was pursuing a degree in psychology at the time. Working at the psych hospital was the one of the most emotionally challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life. I’d always wanted to tell a story giving a voice to what the lives of the kids in treatment were like, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. I couldn’t tell their actual individual stories, of course, but I hoped to capture some of the emotions their stories inspired. Then an idea was whispered into my ear, or rather shouted into it.

I was hard at work revising a completely different manuscript when I was constantly interrupted by a girl’s voice yelling in my head, “I don’t need to be here!” She became rather insistent that I turn my attention away from the story I was working on and start writing hers instead, or actually a very fictionalized version of hers.  This girl wasn’t a conduct problem and she hadn’t seemed like an addict. She had run away from home, but that didn’t seem reason enough to warrant admission. To me, she appeared to be a rebellious teenager with wealthy parents. I started thinking “what if” someone put their child into treatment when they didn’t need to be there and what would cause them to do that. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. It became so persistent that I stopped working on the other story and started writing Institutionalized.

One of my writing mentors always says, “You have to feed your artist’s soul.” I truly believe that. The more you open yourself up to experiences and to influences outside of yourself – music, art, theatre, bobbleheads –  the more ways you will find inspiration.

What inspires you?