Getting in the Conversation

DSCN3513I love Ted talks. I watch them in airports, while waiting for my son’s practice that are supposed to be over but aren’t, wherever I have my phone and an extra 18 minutes. So when I saw the format was coming to the fairly rural community where we live, I high-tailed it down to the box office for tickets.

I was not disappointed.

I live in a rural community where often people lose their vision to the daily grind. They sacrifice new ideas, learning, and vision to the comfort of the way it’s always been, even if that way is unhappy and uninspiring. Conversations revolve around the weather and whatever lines up with a particular world view that dominates a mental landscape. There’s not a great deal of diversity which often means not much diverse thinking. It can feel stale at times. It can rub off on you if you spend too much time rubbing up against it.

However, this past Saturday night there was energy in the air that was motivating and anything but stale. Eight speakers were launched by Shasta Taiko, a drumming group that originated as a group of friends and now performs in Mt. Shasta annually. The performance set the tone: this would be an evening of listening to someone moving to their own passionate beat.

One speaker, Jason Roberts, inspired listeners to make a difference in their communities just by doing things. He pulled off neighborhood restoration projects in Texas, breaking all the rules of what “could” be done, to create lively centers where families came out and brought the cities to life. He had been motivated by a trip to Europe where he saw that people of all ages were out in the streets unlike the “bad” areas near his home in Dallas. The takeaway? Just follow your crazy ideas. Just do something.

Matthew Diffee, a New Yorker cartoonist, talked about his process which starts each day with a whole pot of coffee and a blank sheet of paper. He explained how he comes up with his winners, and promoted “quantity over quality.” As a writer, I did so appreciate this. Gives credence to Lamott’s “shitty first drafts.” (seconds, thirds…) Just hearing how a cartoonist creates inspires me. It all comes back to showing up with the blank page on a regular basis.

One speaker from Cedar Rapids, Iowa was named Andy Stoll. His talk was on “Startup Alchemy and Rural Places.” He said that when he graduated, he wanted to understand how all kinds of people do things, so committed to travelling the world–with no money. My husband and I talked to him after he spoke and asked him how he did that. Bottom line? He just got really good at making friends. He’d tell them the truth–he just wanted to learn more about their culture and how they thought.

What kind of ideas could we manifest if we all entered into this larger conversation with such an attitude? How would this reflect in our systems and structures, in our art and our writings?

After the event we talked to people we don’t usually talk to. We listened to what they were doing, thinking about, excited about. Threaded through those conversations (with various people of all ages) was such possibility and promise. My husband and I even skipped our traditional Saturday night movie (Woody Allen, at that) to continue talking to a young archaeologist and her partner, a young man ready to embark on a micro-biology Masters’ Degree in Scotland. After they left, high school classmate Bill Jostock stopped by the Grape Escape, a small wine bar in downtown he told us about, and we continued the conversation.

The whole night reminded me of the importance of talking to new people about things that matter and old friends about new things. To listen, without agenda. To approach humanity with the idea of being a student of the University of the Universe. It’s no coincidence that the words are so similar.

The Speaking Part of Writing

cabinUsed to be writers could sit in a cabin Thoreau-style and just write. Not so much anymore.

After the long hours in the cave, where often the writer’s best friends are the characters in her novel, it’s time to emerge and share those characters with the world. That involves the real people.

When I first started attending Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators events about eight years ago, I marveled at the skill of the authors who got up to speak in the keynotes or in workshops. Public speaking seemed counterintuitive to a writer’s sensibilities for some reason. Did Hemingway get up and speak on stage? Or wasn’t he usually in a pub or coffee shop somewhere chatting with other writer friends? In my mind, it was always the latter.

I knew I would have to work on that part of writing–the speaking part. I knew it was important to learn how to tell stories on stage just like I had shared Mr. Greenskin stories with my second graders on the carpet in a circle after lunch. I wondered how I could transport that joy my 8 year olds felt, and the comfort level I had making up those stories on the fly, to the stage. I wondered if I could.

But like much rest of the population, I’d rather be burnt alive by fire then get on a stage and speak. I joined Toastmasters several years ago to get over that. At a speaking conference several weeks ago, the guy putting it on said he still gets nervous every time he starts even though he has spoken on thousands of occasions at this point. Some do, some don’t. Some writers I know write their acceptance speeches for their Pulitzer Prize winners before they ever write the books and can’t wait to have the stage.

For me, it was a challenge I would face. I set a goal to let go of the resistance because I knew what I had to say was important. I knew I was put on this earth to share stories that would help others along their path, and that sharing would inevitably involve speaking in front of large groups of people.

For the past week, in my dreams I have been speaking at conferences, in classrooms, in corporations. When this happens while I sleep, I know what’s coming.

And it’s not the cave.

Best Writing Advice Ever

rabbitE.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.

There’s no one answer.

Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)

We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.

So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.

It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.

When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.

That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.

Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.

Writer Jealousy

greenmonsterIt’s a topic not frequently chatted about openly among writers. I’ve been to an embarrassing number of writer conferences and not once have I seen it on the menu. But I’m willing to bet it’s touched every writer in some way at some time somewhere along the journey. And when nobody else is listening, my writer friends confirm my suspicions.

I think it starts in high school with the English teacher who passed out the A/A papers to all the other poor writing students who only dreamed of seeing perfect scores assigned to their deepest thoughts? These, I realize now, were the first unofficial reviews (classmates rolling their eyes) of a published work–the assignment–from my publisher–English teacher, Mrs. Jones. I recently dug through an old chest of papers from 30 years ago my mom had been saving in her storage shed and found some of those A/As (not all of them mine, mind you). Why did I save random papers for 30 years from classmates I can’t even remember? Because these were held up as the best. I remembered those feelings of inadequacy if mine wasn’t the chosen one. Pangs of jealousy.

But there was also an issue on the other side. If mine was the chosen one, that, too, was slightly awkward. It wasn’t as if the teacher passed out “The Perfect Paper” and everybody threw love and gratitude the author’s way for the great care she’d taken with her similes. No. More like, “Whatever. She probably copied it.” Still, that was certainly better than the alternative.

As an adult, I notice these concepts still alive in the lives and thoughts of writers. Who gets published. Who doesn’t. Who gets an agent. Who doesn’t. Who self-publishes. Who gets picked up by a publisher. Who leaves a publisher to self-publish. Who writes in a very commercial way (vs. literary) and makes lots of money–and makes lots of writers say, “But the writing is crap.” Good reviews. Crushing bad reviews. It never stops.

The theme has snaked its way in to night time drama. Have you seen “Girls” on HBO? Aspring writer Hannah is recently out of college as an English major. (Been there.) She does a brief internship at a publisher, but when real life calls, she needs to get a job that actually pays. In Season 1, Episode 9, she is not amused when the crappy writer in one of her classes (you know the one–there’s always one) publishes a book which is wildly successful. At the big book bash party which she forces herself to attend said writer comes up to Hannah with this really awkward, “How’s your writing going? I know it must be hard when it doesn’t come naturally to you. It just pours out of me.”

Hannah, according to her English professor, is a great writer, but horribly insecure about her writing. This insecurity seems to flow through writers like the ink through their printers. Internal critics abound. Hannah sulks, realizing she’s not disappointed with crappy writer girl, but rather with herself for her own unrealized dreams.

I’ve felt this–like everyone around me is winning and I’m not winning. One time, I went to a conference and agreed to be the carpool driver and pick people up, go early and help, and take people home. (Good karma, right?)  Both my riders won top honors at the conference. I won squat. That was defeating. I wanted to throw my manuscript in the trash. Wait–something more dramatic. Burn it at night in a fire in an abandoned field while sobbing.

Once I got myself together, here’s how I decided to look at that: it’s getting closer. It’s in my car, and it’s almost to the driver’s seat. “It” is recognition. Validation. Somebody likes what I wrote. Because in the end, that’s why we do it, right? We want people to like what we write.

But becoming a master writer takes time (10,000 hours, right Burl?) It takes dedication and consistency. It takes focus. And damned if you can’t buy these things at Rite Aid. You need to dig in deep, be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and observant. Oh, and, work really, really hard BEFORE (and by before I mean in case) you get paid. All this, and yet everyone I know wants to write a book.

Today, I work at appreciating exactly where I am when I’m there. I respect and admire the A/A novels I read and am grateful to learn how language can be used in a way that tells a story so well because that is my goal, too. I feel genuinely happy inside when my writer friends do well–sell a book, get a great review, get recognized in some way along the process–no matter what part of the process I’m in at the moment. I am grateful for my mentors and am grateful when I can mentor others. What I think this means is I’ve become more secure in my own abilities. I know what needs to be done to become a better writer, and I love the process–reading, writing, growing, rewriting, rewriting, crying, rewriting.

If you’re pre-published, enjoy the waiting room. It comes with its own set of perks. Appreciate when your friends have success. What you appreciate, appreciates, and before you know it, it’ll make its way to the driver’s seat.

Wednesday Writes #1

6236_337288503037165_1518858661_nA quick study of the dates since my last dip into the vortex of word fun tells the tale.

Theme #1: This girl needs some writing Metamucil. Or some word juicing. Something to get her moving the keys more regularly.

Theme #2: She likes to write about conferences. Not so much about writing. Or anything else. Just conferences.

There is some truth to both these themes, but as with all things, there’s more when you dig deeper. So I’ve dug, and have uncovered this truth: no time like the almost-end-of-the-world (I know–so 2012) to turn over a more regular leaf. And this is a good thing. Perhaps it will eliminate cliches about foliage from my writing.

What really spurred me on was my commitment to my health coaching clients and to my personal health. I set a goal to write daily through the 2012  holidays and completed that recently. Heck, doing anything every day during the holidays besides wrapping presents is a challenge. Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (we like to be safe) makes December a full-time job at my house so just getting through on a regular year is iffy. This year I had an additional four trips to weave through that tapestry.

Still, by keeping this commitment, I realized the value of daily writing outside my normal  writing. I fell back in love with that which had become trudgery. (Don’t go looking it up. the Merriams haven’t learned the word yet, but once they stop being trudgerous, they will.)

I reignited with that part of me that got so excited when I saw my first poem, “Red,” published in the Redding Record Searchlight back in 1971 or so. (Oh, to find that piece of work sent in by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Pope.) I’ve always felt I was put on this planet to write, and when I do it regularly, I’m reminded of that.

Balance is key, though, and I’m working on many projects. I need to organize my time. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Look for thoughts on writing each Wednesday. If you’re into healthy living, you can find me Mondays here  ( They go together in my mind since I gained 85 pounds drafting my first novel (too many peanut butter M&Ms–you’ve been warned) and I had to learn how to draft novels without that crutch, a secret of the universe I like to call decaf tea.

I hope you’ll join me through the process, the trudgerous and glorious roller coaster we call writing.

Writing Strategy 101: Get Involved!

Turns out putting together a writing conference is harder than it looks. I have two years of proof to back that up.
And yet SCBWI volunteers worldwide do this every day and make it look like it’s nothing. Every minute they take to put on those conferences replaces valuable writing time, and, yet, they plan away. For so many years, I sat on the other side of that, slapped my dollars down on the counter (technically, I hit the PayPal button but somehow that image is not as powerful), sat in the audience, and asked myself the whole time if I was getting my money’s worth.  Those days are gone, much like before I became a teacher and stood in the doorway of my son’s second grade classroom thinking of how “I’d run that classroom.” (I saw those Karmic eyes staring back at me once I had my own class of second graders.)
In the end, though, when it comes together—often in a string of hard-pressed synchronicities—writing conferences are the fertilizer that writers need to grow. Especially conferences like the Second Annual Shasta County SCBWI Workshop.
What of those hard-pressed synchronicities? The first editor scheduled to attend the workshop left publishing after the initial flyers went out. So that author extraordinaire Charlie Price would not need to put on an eight hour workshop on his own (though I know he could’ve done it and done a smashing job), we began trying to find a replacement. Eventually, the initial editor attempted to contact a former colleague at a previous publishing house and, with the angels smiling down on us, Noa Wheeler of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers intercepted it. With an enthusiastic, “She’s no longer here, but I’d love to come!” we had an editor.
Between Edgar-award winning author, Charlie Price, and delightful Noa Wheeler, writers left at the end of the day with a full slew of questions to ask their characters and a technique for envisioning those characters in action. The workshop atmosphere allowed Charlie and Noa to work with writers in the moment on improving writing techniques in the moment. It allowed writers to write. And it gave all the attendees an opportunity to really get to know Charlie and Noa who made a point of connecting with attendees and finding out about their writing.
The next time you attend a writing conference, here’s my advice. If you really want to grow, get involved. We’re all busy, but look for ways to help. It’s a community effort, and the more you actually connect to the community, the more you will evolve as writers–and as people.

Mills College SCBWI

I always come back from conferences with a list about a mile long, and that doesn’t include laundry, dishes, groceries and cleaning the entire house. Tim Meyers, author and all-around good guy, said it best, “You are all feeling completely overwhelmed and like you can’t wait to get started.” (Not on the house cleaning, but on the other stuff.) Tim also told us to “take time to notice the sun.” He lifted our spirits at the end of the day by emphasizing the importance of what we do for kids. Thanks, Tim. We needed that.

Mills College, a beautiful, all-female campus where bathroom graffiti is mermaids, sits in Oakland, California. Volunteer Anne Reilly and I arrived before the sun came up to hang up SCBWI signs in the rain in the hopes that members wouldn’t end up at one of the other multiple events on campus. We watched the day open and members arrive ripe with anticipation. It struck me how it takes a village to throw a conference.

There were two sessions to choose from and speakers moved between both tracks. One track focused more on older YA/middlegrade and the other on picture books. In a stroke of brilliance, sessions were staggered to keep hallways, bathrooms and the snack table less jam-packed.

I was in the main session. All the speakers brought unique offerings. Joe Cepeda started the day with a look into his creative process and prefers to “make it up” rather than copy. He says if you can’t remember what it looks like, close your eyes and remember what it “feels” like.

Agents weighed in. Caryn Wiseman (Andrea Brown) discussed specifics of the market—where it’s been, where it’s going. Joan Paquette (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) talked about the writing process and what needs to be in a manuscript.

Editors gave insight. Kaylan Adair gave a look inside Candlewick (Boston). She covered the 5 W’s of the publishing company and by the time she was done, I felt like I had been there. Lisa Yoskowitz talked about what to make sure is in a manuscript and also announced that she is moving from Dutton to Hyperion (both are in New York and fairly close to each other) and will only be able to receive agent submissions there. (Both very nice editors and instrumental in helping me get out of the Mills College campus when my nav system got thoroughly confused by errant locked gates.)

Authors Pam Turner and Ginger Wadsworth covered the world of nonfiction, including matching photos with manuscript. (Kimxa, did you save the original PMS photos? I might know what to do with those now.) Both seem to love where the world of nonfiction takes them, physically and mentally.

Perhaps the most hysterical speaker of the day was Bruce Hale. I think he should hold workshops and teach writers how to present. If he does, I’m signing up! (Think Toastmasters on crack.)

So many synchronicities happen at these events. For example at Mills, I met a new friend named Angie (an SCBWI newbie). Turns out her best friend was my 23-year-old daughter’s 4th grade teacher in Manhattan Beach where I also taught. Random? I think not. SCBWI synchronicity reigns once again!

SCBWI Pioneers Come to Cottonwood

If we define pioneers as those individuals who go out and explore new lands then Co-Regional Advisers, Erin Dealey and Patti Newman, proved themselves SCBWI pioneers today. They made the trek from Sacramento (two hours south) and landed at North Cottonwood Elementary School’s multipurpose room, a perfect venue to meet local members and children’s book writers and illustrators.

Due to my ongoing camera issues, my camera died immediately after my first shot so I’m lacking on photo support here. In this picture is Patti Newman (left) and Maggi Milton, first timer talk before we get started.

The day began getting to know each other. Beginning, pre-published authors to veteran multi-published authors were represented. Each shared where she is in the process. And it is a process. Nobody learns this stuff in a day. It’s encouraging to hear other’s stories. It makes us realize there are so many paths to publication.

We covered some points from the Big Momma LA Conference like what editors are looking for, how to get your manuscript publisher-ready and how to get to know your character’s voice. Ahh, the mystical voice.

Erin did an awesome exercise on listening, something we can so easily forget to do. She put a bunch of ojects in the middle of the floor and asked people to pick one. My personal favorite was the rainbow-colored mohawk head mask. As you listen to your object, you find voice. (Lou, the bulldog in this picture, was not there, but if you want you can practice with him. He lives at my doctor’s office.) One of the most fascinating parts of this exercise was to see how two different people hear such different story from an object. The point: your voice is unique. Find that.

Erin and Patti represent 33 counties in Northern California, and since Cottonwood sits over two (Shasta and Tehama) they can knock a few more off their list. Thanks, Pioneers. We appreciate your pilgrimage to the great North-North.

Immersed: SCBWI Nevada

Who knew it snowed like this in May in Tahoe? At the Novel Immersion workshop at the Granlibakken just over Donner Pass (remember the one where people died?), dainty little snowflakes danced amongst the cherry blossoms. Hours later they turned into what seemed like a blizzard right before my eyes.

I asked my roommate Susan if she wanted a ride back down the hill to our room. What should have been a one minute drive morphed into a 30 minute ordeal with us sliding sideways down a hill and nearly into a rocky ditch with no control whatsoever over my car. At one point she jumped out and made tracks with her shoes so my car could get some traction. It worked and we made it to our room.

I couldn’t help thinking how similar that was to writing. You take off often unprepared for where your story might go. Sure you have some semblance of an outline (maybe), but characters evolve and make choices you may not have seen coming. You go with it and you write your story. You think it makes sense. You think it’s beautiful. Then you pick it up after some time and it’s a mess and you wonder whose eyes read this before because it certainly couldn’t have been yours.

And so you invite someone to read your work, critique it, give you feed back. You think there might be a quick fix to your 100th revision. But as you sit and listen, you suddenly realize that writing years are like dog years and there is nothing quick about this process. What helps you get there, to that point when you see what needs to be done, is someone hopping out of the car and helping you make tracks in the muddle so you can get some traction and stop sliding down the hill.

That’s what makes weekends like this one invaluable. A group of writers, editors, agents–people who care about books–helping each other make each story the best it can be. It may be magical at first, then a bit stormy and perhaps feel a little out of control. But in the morning, when the sun comes up and the day shows what the storm has created, it’s back to magical–times five.

That’s why I write.

SCBWI Asilomar – Day 3 – The Book List & Thinking Like an Editor

What I like most about being at a literature conference of any type is that you are surrounded by people who love books. At SCBWI conferences, that focus becomes children’s literature. As Sunday morning opened with a panel of the amazing Asilomar faculty, a great take-away was the reading list. RA Amy Laughlin asked, “What books (that you don’t represent) were your favorites over the last year?” Here’s the list:

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story and The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex
Tales of Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan
Red Sings for the Tree Tops, Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski
All the World, Liz Garten Scanlon
Lips Touch, Lani Taylor
How to Say Good-bye in Robot, Natalie Standiford
Charles and Emma, Deborah Heiligman
Ages and Angels, Adam Gopnik
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
The Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker
Diego, Bigger Than Life, Carmen Bernier and David Diaz
Jeremy Draws a Monster and Henry in Love, Peter McCarty
Marcello in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork

And there you have it. The books the agents, editors and authors liked.

Tracy Gates, senior editor at Viking’s Children (she’s blurry in top right because I didn’t want to flash her), presented “Thinking Like an Editor” with visuals via PowerPoint that gave you a real feel for what an editor does. Her favorite part of the job is the reading (not necessarily the emails which can suck up a whole day), but her responsibilities extend far beyond that. She covered topics like how to get her attention (attend conferences, get an agent), what she is thinking when she reads a manuscript (is it as good as these?) and whether or not she can work well with the author (do we have a connection?) Also, are you ready to revise, Revise, REVISE? She looks for people who are ready to work. I’ve seen editors talk before, and I’ve worked with editors in my freelance work, but Tracy’s insight into the thought process of an editor was outstanding and very helpful to both newbies and veterans alike.

The conference ended with a commitment ceremony. People wrote out a commitment for the year on two cards–one they took home to remind them what they selected and the other they burned in the fire. I was reminded of GirlScouts. Before the cards were burned, everybody stood in an energy circle as if to say, “We’re all in this together.”

And, really, we are.