In writing as in life, it’s always a good idea to know the rules, question them, and bend them – if for a good and compelling reason. Thanks for this post, Henry Herz.
Finding your weird, quirky, strong, true voice in life and in stories! Sing it, sista’!
I’m doing a webinar in a couple of weeks about how to be a great critique partner (hey, it’s my blog, so I can self-promote all I want), and as I prepare, I keep coming back to a side point.
Having friends/your writing group/beta readers/classmates read your work is invaluable. Getting outside opinions can help get through those rough patches, or fix that plot hole, or round out flat characters. But having too many readers, or having readers too early, can make a potentially rich stew into yesterday’s oatmeal. The problem is not having the work critiqued, it’s having the work over-critiqued. Too many cooks spoil the manuscript.
I sometimes get queries accompanied by a litany of other editors and agents who’ve offered up their opinions on the work, and those I read with trepidation. You know how in art class when you’re learning to mix colors, and you add…
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We’ve all had it. Writer’s block. The Inner Critic. This 6th grader has it figured out. I think you’ll agree that this astute and insightful young lady has a dynamic career ahead of her. And now, in her words…
Writer’s block. An evil disease that is very contagious. My teacher tries to help. Mr. Evers. He gives me advice like saying a line, “The bird smashed its head against my window with a loud smack”. That was the line of the day. I get one every day. It’s like a prescribed medicine that you have to take every day if you get a tick bite; that wicked somewhat cherry-flavored goo.
So he wanted a story. I’ll give it to him. It seems like every one has an inspiration. Why? I’m not a boring person (or so I think). What’s wrong? I have so many ideas throughout the day, but it’s like they just run away when I need them the most!
Don’t get me wrong. I have days when I’m at my highest. I manage to get some ideas out but when it’s time to share our writing it’s like everyone is trying to mop the floor with me.
It’s not all me that’s contributing to my writer’s block. It’s also my Inner Critic always telling me, “That’s not good” or “Too boring”. And that’s not all. He turns down all my good ideas like they’re applying for a job with old clothes and five arrest warrants. Whenever I’m writing, my hand trembles because I just know he’s up there waiting for the perfect moment to take a stab at whatever is printed on the paper. He has no filter and no sympathy. His only goal in life is to criticize my writing and tell me how bad it is.
There is no cure to writer’s block. You just wait it out until someone else gets it by touching your pencil, or reading a paper that has been written by someone with writer’s block. So now you know this was one big trap. Have fun!
There you have it. Next time you’re staring at the page or screen, banging your head on the wall, chewing your pencil to shreds, or listening to that nasty Inner Critic…wait it out. It’s going to pass sooner than you think. In the meantime, you can try writing about it like Ellie did and surprise yourself with what comes out.
Ellie’s writing was not always this insightful and peppered with figurative language. She has struggled mightily in school. I know. I’ve been her reading teacher for five years. At the beginning of 4th grade she was still reading at an early 2nd grade level and struggled to write a legible sentence. She is a beautiful girl, inside and out, with a palpable zest for life. She’s an outdoor girl that spends most of her free time climbing trees, making forts with her best friend, and exploring.
Mid- 5th grade something started to click. She had a new teacher – a self published author. A teacher that read real literature aloud to the class every day and taught the children to savor the words. One that required every student to read at least 20 novels during the school year. A teacher that guided her class through writing their first novels. Yes, you read that right. Every 5th and 6th grade student wrote a full length novel last year. (This was not the first time the teacher had done this with her class either).
With a love for reading and writing lovingly bestowed on the students, Ellie had suddenly (though there was nothing sudden about it) blossomed into a reader, working her way through the first of the Harry Potter books (with me cheering her wildly on). Between that book and the many she heard read aloud in class, Ellie’s understanding of story structure and the beauty and power of words grew exponentially. Oh, she started and stopped her novel more times than I can count, and chewed up the whole first semester on ideas that never came to fruition. But that was all just practice, I like to tell her. Because the real story – the novel- did come out. And when it did, Ellie couldn’t stop. Her characters were alive and the plot revealed itself to her each day. Honestly, it was something of a miracle to witness.
Now, even on those rough days, she calls herself a writer, and I’m behind her 100%.
So what’s the take away?
-Share beautiful stories.
-Believe in the power of words.
-Believe in yourself and be patient. The words will come.
-And if all else fails, find an inspiring 6th grade to set you straight!
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL WAY OF GETTING THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK, and WAYS YOU SPEAK TO YOUR INNER CRITIC? Please share!
I have gratitude coming out the ears! For my good health and that of my family, for a family that is loving and funny and compassionate and interesting, for a roof over my head and food on our table, for a career that I love and friends that fill me up, to live in a peaceful place and have clean drinking water and freshly grown food, and so much more.
I am also grateful for my love of writing. And I am grateful to so many other writers who have helped me learn and grow as a writer, supported me through the ups and downs of this mostly solitary endeavor, and shared of their knowledge and of themselves selflessly to help me and other writers. Some I know personally, others I have never met and they likely don’t even know the impact they have had on me. I have been writing children’s stories for 12 years, but have been a writer since I picked up my first crayon. So the list of thanks is long, and I am going to attempt to thank as many as I can.
Before I do that, in a minuscule effort to give back all that I have received, I am offering a free picture book manuscript critique to the first 5 writers that leave a comment. I ask that you also share this post on Twitter or Facebook or your personal blog and, if you don’t already, please sign up to follow my blog. Please include an email in your comment so that I may contact you directly if you have won a critique.
Without further ado, in no particular order, the thanks go to…
Katie Davis for sharing her vast knowledge on book marketing, blogging, making book trailer videos, and general all around sharing of her broad knowledge of the children’s publishing industry. You are a techno whiz.
NESCBWI for creating the most supportive community of children’s writers, editors, agents, and children’s book enthusiasts. Without NESCBWI I wouldn’t know one fraction of what I know today about writing books for children, and I wouldn’t know half the amazing writers that have touched my life.
My many critique partners over the years who have nurtured me as a writer and guided me through every manuscript I’ve birthed. I absolutely could not have done it without you.
Kate Feiffer for being my second formal teacher in the field of writing picture books and for her steadfast camaraderie. You are so creative, Kate.
Sharon (Patterson) Magill for being the most influential and encouraging English teacher I had in high school and, while being very frugal with her As, was the first teacher to recognize my writing voice.
All of the published picture book authors I have written to with a question along the lines of, “How do you do it?!” and wrote me a helpful, kind response (Aaron Reynolds of Creepy Carrots fame, Mark Fearing whose Great Thanksgiving Escape is a perfect book for today, Bruce Coville whose Unicorn Chronicles on audio entertained my family for many a road trip, Brenda Sturgis for being the first to entice me to try rhyme, and Kelly Bingham who helped me understand about matching text to illustrations).
Janet Lawler who graciously gave feedback on my first ever attempt at writing in rhyme, and taught me that meter is everything. Your kindness will never be forgotten, Janet.
Emma Walton Hamilton for her simple, sound advice spelled out in her regular emails. I have a file of your suggestions, Emma.
Elaine Kiely Kearns and Sylvia Liu for their informative KidLit411 website and updates on writing contests and Twitter pitches. You’ve expanded my horizons, Elaine and Sylvia.
Jay Smith of The New School for giving me the space to write and for being my first editor when I was 10 years old.
My son for his inspiration.
My students for being so curious, funny, and astute. I have snatched many real life quotes and character traits from you for my stories.
My husband for his constant support, understanding, encouragement and occasional editing skills.
All of my friends and family who know not to call me on Fridays when I have a precious full day to write!
And I’m sure I have left out many others for which I am deeply sorry.
I send you all a heartfelt, deep nod of gratitude. Without you my writing life would be empty and perpetually fledgling. With you, I have grown exponentially. Thank you, thank you, thank you. May you, too, be filled up with love, good health, good friends, and inspiration.
This is an amazing list – thanks to Julie Hedlund’s efforts at collecting! Lots to look for, and even more inspiration.
I got a huge response to my call to tell me about 2016 books in my Facebook post!
Here is what I have so far.
Yes, I know some people are left out. It is not intentional; I just did not know about your book or couldn’t find the information. (Or you did tell me about it, but I had so many respond that I lost track of it. I am sorry! It is not intentional and I will be sure you are on PART TWO of the post!)
Another post will follow in the next month or two with additional titles and covers.
In the mean time, get out there and order the books, and let me know if I left anything out!
Be on the lookout for….
Fly Guy: Ninja Christmas by Tedd Arnold
From Day One by Rosemary Wells
Catch a Kiss by Debbie Diesen
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Now for the re-creation of Sunday’s deleted post…
Reunion. The word is deceptively simple. The dictionary definitions are:
1. the act of uniting again.
2. the state of being united again.
3. a gathering of relatives, friends, or associates at regular intervals or after separation.
This weekend I had not one, but three reunions with people from all eras of my life – ages 7, 15, 20 and everything in between. Living in a remote area, I had to pack it all in at once. Fortunately, everyone else was on the band wagon!
As I drove home Sunday night after this amazing whirlwind, I started to think about the word reunion and merged it with what I was feeling. The three groups of people I saw were from vastly different times in my life. The first group of friends was from college. By then I was reaching adulthood, happy to be starting a new chapter in my life, happy to be moving on to a new place and new environment, happy to have new adventures with new people, happy to evolve into the person I would be as an adult, and happy for my education to lead to a career (at least I had hoped). Friendships were deep and lasting.
The second group of friends was from an intergenerational recreation group (www.ecrs.org) that my family and I started going to when I was seven. Within this group I met my extended family. This is where I felt the most authentic, alive, joyful, accepted, and bonded with people from ages 7 to 97. This group of people laid the foundation for who I am today and what kind of environment makes me happiest and how to realize my full potential. These days were filled with play and song and dance.
And lastly, I reunited with my high school friends. I won’t lie. High school was not always an easy time for me. I never really felt like I fit in. I never felt like I could really be myself. I never wanted to be part of one group, so I had friends from many – the jocks, the burnouts, the music and theater group, the fringe…I like all kinds of people and it didn’t matter to me what pack they traveled with as long as I enjoyed being in their company. While I didn’t have enough esteem to let my authentic self fully show up in high school, I definitely had a ton of fun and made some wonderful friendships. At home I wrote lots and lots of poetry and listened to a lot of music (thank you JT and Cat Stevens), wrote a lot of letters (remember those?!), and tried desperately to feel connected. By virtue of my family situation I was literally alone the majority of the time at home. This was not all bad. (It made for a great party house, LOL!) It forced me to become a fiercely independent person, which I don’t regret for a second. At 13 I was traveling by train alone to visit friends in other states, going to concerts solo or with friends, cooking food for myself and doing my laundry.
So on that drive home Sunday night, I thought about all these eras of my life. And I realized that prior to the weekend, I had thought of them as breadcrumbs dropped along the path of my life, leading me back when I wanted to visit those places in my mind, but forever being separate from each other. After reuniting with all of the wonderful people I saw this weekend, though, I had a new realization. A reunion isn’t just a gathering of old friends. It is a gathering up of all those breadcrumbs and putting them back together into a whole loaf of bread. That these parts of my life were not, in fact, separate. They are all me. The experiences and relationships I had with people make me who I am today. All of them.
Realizing this was very satisfying and relieving in a way. I felt like I didn’t need to try to discount any part of who I was. “Oh, that’s what I was like at age 14, but I’m not like that today.” Yeah, but that 14-year-old still lives in me, as does that 7-year-old, and that 20-year-old, and all the people I knew from those times.
So I’ve forged a new definition of reunion: A gathering of the pieces of your life that make you who you are today. A reuniting of the fragments of your life into one integrated whole. The sum of our parts.
Thank you to every single person I saw this weekend that is a piece of my life – some that have been for decades, some brand new pieces, some lost and found. I cherish each and every one of you, and thank you for making me who I am today.
You inform who I am, you inform what kind of teacher I am, and you inform the stories I write.
May you all celebrate the parts that together make you whole. May you make a happy reunion in your heart.
Life Lesson #19: We are always becoming the person we are at any given moment.
Words. What more is there to say?
Okay, seriously. I love them and I find myself wishing I had taken that Latin class in high school that so many of my friends took. I’m convinced I’d have a better vocabulary. Sometimes I absolutely, positively cannot find the right word. It exists. I know it does. I’m sure I’ve heard it or read it scores of times. But where is it when I need it?
Sometimes, as a writer, I turn words into a game. My goal, after all, is for kids to love reading my books not only for the story but for the sound of words. This, to me, is one of the re-readability factors. What makes them coming back for more!
I’m currently working on a story that I’ve had in my noggin for over a year (as happens with most of my stories), and I really, really, really want to get the words right. The story depends on it. So here’s what I did last week…
This is my bedroom floor, or should I say my drafting table? It’s probably impossible to see in the photo, but the middle row of cards are the nouns in the story. The cards under them are onomatopoeia, and the cards above them are verbs. Along the side I have the location of every scene from the book. As I worked on my manuscript I realized I had so many of these in the draft I couldn’t possibly move them around on my computer screen. With the cards I could see where I fell short. Heck, you can see where I fall short. There are a couple of lengthy columns there and then a few pipsqueaky ones. Those are my word holes. Where are the words I need? By doing this exercise I could see it so much better, and come up with the words desperately waiting to be heard in this story. Now I’ve transferred this mess onto a spreadsheet so I can carry it around with me while I work on my story outside. Downstairs. In the shower (okay, just kidding there). And (hopefully) sooner, rather than later, the rest of the words needing to be heard will come to me. It’s like a miracle.
Do you have favorite or crazy way you find or organize the words you use in your writing? Do you have some favorite words to share? Please leave a comment. You could be my miracle!
I loved Amy Dixon’s recent post and wanted to share it with you. Time to practice celebrating each other without worrying about what we don’t have or didn’t get, too. Enjoy and send me a comment!
Every year I try to get to at least one writing conference or workshop and this year I’ve made it to three so far! Last weekend the annual NESCBWI conference swept me off my feet. Dazed and groggy from flying a red eye back from my rock climbing trip in Nevada, I dove right in and scooped up buckets of inspiration. And I can’t possibly keep it all to myself!
Four of the keynote speakers had me glued to my seat. First up, 2015 Caldecott Award Winner Dan Santat. I loved Beekle the first time I read it, but after hearing Dan talk about how our books are an amalgam of our life experiences I could appreciate his book and illustrations in an entirely different way. Something about Dan and his life appears on every page. This comforted me. As a writer I find it nearly impossible to write a book without drawing on some aspect of my own life, but up until I heard Dan speak I thought this was cheating. Now it makes perfect sense. Everything has a purpose. How could we not include our own experiences in that which we create for others? Trust your instincts. Thank you, Dan, for giving me the go ahead!
I wished I had a box of tissues for the next speaker, the lovely and talented Jo Knowles. Jo writes YA novels such as See You at Harry’s, and brought us on a journey of her life as a painfully shy child and young adult, to her first writing experience and how one teacher changed her life. Jo touched a nerve for me, both as a writer and as a teacher. Every day that I am with children I remind myself that something I say may stay with them for the rest of their lives. I never know what it will be, but I hope with all my heart that those words are inspirational, not critical. And the odd thing about teaching is that it’s rare that we know who we have truly touched. Sometimes it’s the child we least expect, and we don’t find out about it until they are an adult, if we are lucky. I hope Jo’s teacher knew how much he changed the course of her life, and I thank him. I know she has changed the lives of many young readers.
Next up was wonderful Kwame Alexander. He is this year’s Newbery winner for his novel in verse, The Crossover. Get the tissues out again! Kwame stands over 6 feet tall and has a smile to light up the room. He is a poet and every poem he recited made me cry – tears of sadness, love, joy, and pain. His poems bring you along on an everyday ride and then hit you with raw emotion and truth that you never saw coming. I also had the honor and pleasure of attending Kwame’s workshop on Writing for Boys. While the content was to the point and extra clear, I was impressed by Kwame’s ability to invite conversation and really listen to what people had to say. The heart of his workshop was about being authentic as writers and as people, and all else will follow. This is one man that walks the talk. As a mom of a son and a reading specialist I was bothered by the idea that so many boys are pigeon-holed as “reluctant readers”. This reminds me of how many boys are identified as having ADD or ADHD. Both make me question what we are doing wrong in schools. Why are boys getting this double bad rap? If you are a writer, write the book that all boys will love. Make them prove the adults wrong. Boys are not reluctant to read, they just need a book that is authentic to them. Thank you, Kwame!
And then there was the comic relief – Marvin Terban. Marvin is known as the grammar professor. This kind, personable, supportive and terrifically funny man and author has been teaching for 52 years! If that isn’t dedication and patience I don’t know what is. Marvin spoke about the importance (dare I say the necessity?) of humor in books, and he put a twist on this that had never occurred to me. Humor exists in the presence of tragedy and sorrow. It truly is a medicine and helps us feel better, especially in the most tense situations. So go ahead of put it in your book wherever you can. Your readers will thank you in giggles, guffaws, and groans of appreciation.
The knowledgeable Jane Kohuth taught me about the beauty of poetry and how to sprinkle it into my prose.
Kristine Asselin (the “query godmother”) and literary agent Kathleen Rushall gave an inspiring, clear presentation about how to write a stand out query letter. You can bet I’ve already revised mine to make a stellar hook, book and cook!
Aubrey Poole taught us the various ways to write a book series, considering whether the thread throughout would be character or plot based.
Mark Scott Ricketts and Josh Alves opened my eyes to the world of comics (or graphic novels as we call them today). These lively and talented guys showed me the many layers that go into creating illustrations in this genre, most of which I had never even considered. Did you know, for example, that the simplest things like what shape a talking bubble will have coneys emotion? That white space, zooming in or out, showing movement, and color can all affect the pace and feeling of a story? And most importantly, I never knew that I could write the text of a graphic novel and have an artist do the illustrations. This opens up a whole new genre to consider!
Miriam Glassman artfully spoke about deeply caring about our characters as a the way to finding the heartbeat of our stories.
And last, but certainly not least, Josh Funk gave us an overview of and tips on writing rhyming. Did you know that because of regional dialects squirrel doesn’t truly rhyme with anything? For those of us just trying out rhyme for the first time, this was a terrific introduction to some of the most important basics such as meter, internal rhymes, multi-syllabic rhymes, and word choice to move the plot along. Josh is a debut author and his books are sure to be a hit!
Thank you to one and all for revving up my spirit, giving me tools to bring home to my stories, and reminding me that every day is an opportunity to learn, inspire, and share.
What’s the most inspiring thing you have heard recently? Please leave a comment!
Yesterday in my blog post, I was remiss in not mentioning Mary Pierce and her tireless efforts as the outstanding co-director of Whispering Pines. She, too, is stepping down after many years at the helm. Thank you, Mary, for all that you do! I also goofed on next year’s dates for Whispering Pines… it will be March 11-13, 2016.