Because I Cannot Be Disuaded

At the end of each year, it has become my tradition to review the goals I set and see how I did, and then to create new goals for the new year. I’ve been doing this for 8 years now, and I find it helpful for keeping my focus throughout the year – usually. Life happens when you’re making plans for something else, right? So, let’s see how I did:

1. I will get an agent this year. Period.

Well, I tried. I did begin to submit to agents again, and while I had favorable comments, I haven’t landed one just yet. So, we’ll be seeing this one again, I’m certain.

2. I will finish at least three novels this year, including rewriting The Afterward, finishing Namesake, and a third novel (yet to be determined).

That was very ambitious of me! And I did pretty well. The Afterward has been revised, I finished a novel called “The Year I Went Invisible” (though it needs a great deal of work still). I wrote (and sold!) two new short stories, and I’ve started a new novel that is moving along nicely (it doesn’t have a name yet, though). While I didn’t actually write three two new novels, I still feel pretty good about my accomplishments.

3. I will continue to look for opportunities to promote my work and to participate in at least one writing-related event each month. 

I came so close on this! I did find new places to market my work! And I took full advantage of every opportunity! I managed to be involved in 10 events this year! And for some of them, I was even paid! This one might be tougher with only one new book coming out this year, but hopefully, I’ll find some new resources as well.

4. I will attend two writing conferences or workshops to benefit my own writing.

I have to cheat a bit on this one, but to me, it still counts. In April, I was one of the presenters at the Writing for Charity event in Provo, Utah. However, I took full advantage of the times I wasn’t presenting and attended as many workshops as I could fit in during the day. Then in September, I joined the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers organization and attended their three-day conference in Denver. It was amazing, uplifting, and something I very much needed to do for myself and my heart.

5. I will offer four writing workshops  during the year.

And here, I exceeded my goal significantly. I began teaching for the University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning program again after not having taught for them in over 12 years. It is a wonderful, rewarding experience, and I look forward to the classes and my students each week. This coming spring, I will be teaching a class on Flash Fiction, and I have gained so much insight by reading in this area, so I’m very excited to share this with my students.

And so for next year? Well, I’m continuing to try to stretch a bit, but I’m also trying not to set myself up for failure or disappoint. Let’s be realistic: I have a full-time job; I’m a wife, mother, grandmother, and the giant furless mommy cat in my family. I have responsibilities and demands – but I also have a need to write, so I’m trying to find that balance between the real world and my writing ambitions. My family is supportive and willing to compromise (which is easier now that my baby is 19 and only lives here on school breaks), but I need time with them, too. In that realm of balance and ambition, here are the 2015 edition of my goals:

1. I will submit to no less than 5 agents each month.

2. I will write a minimum of 7,500 words each week.

3. I will participate in a minimum of 10 events which allow me to promote my books.

4. I will attend at least one writing event where I am NOT speaking or presenting.

5. I will continue teaching creative writing courses through Lifelong Learning.

Now, I’m adding a new twist: I have printed off my goals and stuck them to the wall next to my desk so that I can see them each day. I am inviting you to ask me at any time to provide a public update on these goals, which I will do. I’m inviting any encouragement, support, chastising, or harassment that you may feel is appropriate throughout the year. And I will thank you now, in advance, for doing so.

Here’s to the new year: may we all follow our dreams and continue to flourish and grow!

dream

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She said what???

From the mouths of babes . . .

Baby-Picture-Funny-Baby-Boy-Yelling-at-the-Camera

I was presenting a workshop recently, and I was approached by a woman who had attended one of my workshops. She asked a few questions about something I’d said, and then she hit me with something I was totally unprepared for.

“When did you stop attending events like this and start presenting?”

I had to think for a minute. “I started presenting at conferences about 12 years ago,” I said. “But I still attend workshops when I see one that looks really useful.”

The woman shook her head, her eyes wide. “You still go to writing workshops?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “Does that surprise you?”

She sort of “harrumphed” and folded her arms. “I’ve been coming to these things for three years and I could probably teach most of these classes. I’ve read every book on writing ever written, just about, and I’ve got at least eight books finished.”

“How many books have you published?” I asked. I figured she’d have at least a few in print, and maybe she was just looking for the opportunity to be part of a conference in a different way.

“I have one published, but I have eight finished.” She sounded sort of defensive.

“Great,” I said, trying to be enthusiastic. I was getting a really strange vibe from this lady, and I wasn’t sure what she wanted from me. “Who published your first book?”

“I did.” She dug into a canvas bag she was carrying and produced the finished product. She handed it to me as if it were gold leafed and she was afraid I’d damage it.

The cover art was amateurish, to be polite. The design felt almost lopsided and the colors looked muddy. I don’t recall the title of the book because it was really hard to read. And when I looked at the back cover, I found two typos that were set in bold type.

Now, lest my self-published friends think I’m ragging on self-published books, the point of this particular blog is not her book, but rather, it is her attitude. I’m sure the story was fine, maybe even really good, but this woman acted as if this one book meant she knew everything about writing.  Her very words to me hinted (not so subtly) that this is how she felt, too.

I know how this feels. When my first book was published, I felt like I had it all figured out and that my success as a writer was guaranteed. But there is an old adage in the publishing world: The second book is twice as hard as the first. And that is so true. I went six years between my first novel and my second. It’s not that I wasn’t writing – in fact I wrote a lot. But I became afraid. What if this one wasn’t as good as the first one? What if I couldn’t make the magic happen again? What if I wasn’t as good as I thought I was? What if, what if, what if? It paralyzed me, and that made it easy for me not to even try for a while. But I couldn’t stay away, and eventually I had to try again, but I needed reassurance.

So I went to conferences. I went to workshops. I read books. I worked with other writers. These things allowed me to see what my strengths were, identify those areas I needed more work, and helped me to build up those skills that needed a bit more muscle. Even now, these events remind me that I do know a lot about writing, but also remind me that I will never know everything.

I understand this woman’s desire. I understand that she wants validation of her dream. We all do! But the idea that you’ve learned it all and you could teach it all is sort of silly, especially with only one book in print. Yes, you know a lot, and no doubt this woman could talk about her self-publishing experiences, but it takes a bit more than that before conference organizers and workshop hosts invite you to come and present.

The writers I know who are invited to events like this have worked hard for many years to develop the skills they demonstrate in their books and present in their classes. They have tried different ideas, adopted some, rejected others, and have shown through their successes that they understand elements of writing at a very intimate level. And they didn’t show up somewhere, announce that they knew everything, and demand to be allowed to present.

I wish this woman well, and I hope that she is successful – whatever that may mean to her – but the minute you suggest you don’t have anything else to learn, you’ve just proven how little you know.

Paying it Forward

It isn’t a new concept. The movie with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt came out in 2000, so we’ve all heard the phrase, and we’ve probably all thought it was a great concept – but how does one pay it forward? Well, I can’t address this for everyone, so let me speak to it from my own experience as it relates to writing.

The first big writing conference I ever attended was the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference in Los Angeles, CA. in 1996. I had been writing and submitting for years, but was getting nowhere. I’d had some success writing nonfiction on the internet search site CitySearch, but my stories were stuck.  I’d been suckered by a vanity press, and I’d almost decided to give up when I learned about the organization, met the Regional Advisor, and began attending workshops. It was through this organization I came to know my first mentor, and very dear friend, Carol Lynch Williams. At that point, she had something like 15 books published, and to me, she was a goddess of children’s writing.

At the conference, Carol and I discovered a mutual quirky sense of humor, and a sincere desire to become more effective and successful writers. Carol invited me to attend a writing group in her home, and we became fast friends.  During the conference, I was able to hear from writers such as Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, and E.L. Konigsburg: some of the biggest names in children’s literature in the past 20+ years!

Each of these speakers was eloquent, helpful, and very generous in giving advice and time to those of us who were new. In a fortunate turn of circumstances, I was actually seated with Ms. Yolen alone for about 20 minutes and was able to talk with her uninterrupted. Her kindness, warmth, and patience with what I know now and  acknowledge were stupid questions was certainly beyond the call of duty, but she was tolerant beyond measure with me. Later, when she spoke at another even I attended, I learned why. Ms. Yolen has long-held the belief that paying it forward is the only proper way to conduct yourself.  You can’t pay back those who’ve helped you. What could I possible teach to a woman who’s won more literary awards than I have fingers and toes to count them on? So this became my mission: as I learned, I shared. As I progressed, I helped to bring someone else along, too. Carol mentored me, and we continue to stay in touch even today. I began to mentor others through classes, writing groups, and individually.

But there are downfalls to doing this. There are those who don’t really want to learn. What they want is for you to give them the shortcut to success. They want the name of your agent, your publisher, and a good word from you to guarantee that their work will make it to publication with the effort and time that everyone else has put in.  There are those, too, who don’t really want your comments, your feedback, or your help. They want you to tell them how outstanding their work already is, even if it violates every law of grammar, punctuation, and acceptable standards for the genre in which they are writing. I’ve been asked for help by would-be writers, only to have them turn around and call me names and insult me. I’ve had them ask for my input, and because they didn’t like what I said, they’ve publicly flogged me through email, on blogs, and to others in the writing community.

But I’ve had some very positive experiences, too. Several writers who are former students of mine have gone on to become very successful writers themselves. Anne Bowen and Becky Hall are both former students and now friends who have been multiply published – and not because of me. Because they are hardworking and committed writers, and I was just in the right place at the right time to provide some encouragement and some insight.  My wonderful friend and writing partner Jared Anderson is on the brink of success – so close we can both taste it. I’ve worked with him for a few years as a mentor, but now more as a co-writer and friend. When he achieves success – and it is inevitable because he is so good – it won’t be because of me. It will be because he listened and applied what he learned, and he improve his craft. But I can take great pride in having offered just a little help to each of these writers, and they in turn are paying it forward to others.

This is how writing improves, excellent books get written, and new writers are encouraged to bring their voices out into the open. I have long practiced, and long believed in the power of paying it forward, and I hope that those whom I’ve touched, whether they are writers or not, will see the value to themselves in doing the same.  PIF on, my friends!

Conferences, Workshops, and Talks – Oh My

Throughout the years, I’ve been privileged to attend a number of good – and not-so-good – conferences and workshops over the years.  I’ve heard speakers who ranged from demented wanna-bes to award-winning writers. I’ve had the chance to go alone, and a chance to go with friends, and a chance to meet friends – new and old – at an event of mutual interest. Having participated in so many of these, I’ve decided I’ve earned the right to be picky about which ones I go to, and which ones I avoid.

The things I look for now in a conference are not the same as what I looked for when I was first interested in being a writer. Back then, I needed basic information like character development and storyline ideas.  I needed to know how to meet editors and agents, and how to get my writing to them.  If there was a manuscript critique, chances were good that I’d be participating because I wanted all the feedback I could get.  I would talk with other writers and listen, enthralled, at their tales of woe from the front lines of publishing. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being critical of this. It was truly valuable to me at the time, and I am grateful for every writer, every agent, every editor who commented,  or gave me insight, or taught me something about the business of being a writer.

Then I reached a point where I was attending for the sake of working. I went to retreats where ample time was devoted to creation of work, revision, and working on the craft.  Let me say here that I genuinely miss the Wildacres Retreat for Children’s Writers – a week in the mountains outside of Asheville to work with other professionals, get feedback, and enjoy that amazing setting was an absolute joy to participate in.  I’m certain, too, that this is where my desire to go to Vermont College came from.  I was sincerely attracted to the concept of spending 11 days, twice a year, solely focused on learning about and working on my writing.  I still went to a few conferences, even while I was working on my Masters at Vermont, but their value and importance began to diminish for me.

Then – for a variety of reasons good and bad – I didn’t attend anything for a while.  Time, money, family, and other issues conspired against me to determine that I couldn’t make the commitment anymore. Sadly, my writing began to suffer at the same time.  For nearly two years, I wrote almost nothing. I took a monstrous effort to try to get back into the swing of things, and there were several failed attempts at it along the way. But as there were numerous factors that went into pulling me from following my dream, there were numerous factors that went into forcing me back into it as well.  The first was beginning to mentor a young writer who has since become my best friend and writing partner.  The lion’s share of credit belongs here, and if I’ve mentioned it before it bears repeating.  I owe him a great dept of thanks for challenging me, inspiring me, and helping me rediscover the love of writing I had misplaced.  Another factor was attending a conference.  I won’t mention it by name, but the experience was profound.  As I listened to speakers and attended the break-out sessions, I knew this wasn’t the information I needed – that, in fact, I was beyond what was being taught in the classes that few days.  There was some value to attending – I got to see old friends for one thing. But the most valuable thing I got was the affirmation that this wasn’t what I needed, that I had since progressed beyond what was being offered. I was a positive discovery, and one that fueled me even further.

So now, I’m planning on attending a new conference – the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City in July.  I can only take off enough time to participate in one of the weekend workshops, but I’m quite excited about it. The session focuses on idea generation and inspiration – a favorite subject, and also promises to produce new work – what appeals to me most.  As of right now, I’m probably attending by myself, but there is a good possibility my writing partner may be joining me for the experience.  Either way, I’m excited at the prospect of learning new things, of taking that time to focus only on my writing, and of generating new ideas and new writing that will continue to propel me down the path I’m on.  I can use the cliché “It’s an investment in my career,” but it is more than that – it’ is an investment in me, in my heart, in my soul, and in my dream. Here’s to continuing education!

The Learning Curve

As with most things in life, the longer you stick around,  the more tricks you pick up.  I have found this to be especially true in the world of writing. 

My friends and fellow writers Jessica Day George (http://www.jessicadaygeorge.com/), Randall Wright, and I were having a conversation during the Provo Children’s Book Festival that centered on a comment someone had made to Jessica about her “overnight success.” I’d had a newspaper reporter say something similar a few years ago when I had four books released within five months of each other.

“Yeah, it’s overnight if you don’t count the six years I’ve been writing and submitting and going to conferences and workshops,” was Jessica’s comment.  Randall and I agreed. 

Much like Jessica, I had been studying my craft for a long time before I got recognized for it.  I’d actually had a number of things published, including an adult nonfiction book, a work-for-hire piece for the Klutz publishing group, magazine articles, and internet articles just to name a few.  I’d been working at writing for ten years before my books came out – even longer if you count the years I spent writing press releases, video scripts, advertising copy, and newsletters when I worked in PR and advertising.  But somehow, because a few things fell together at the same time, the reporter felt it was appropriate to refer to my success as “sudden.”

Writing has a learning curve to it, not just for the craft itself, but for business side as well.  Studying the markets takes time.  Finding the right publishers, the right editors at those publishers, at the right time, and with the right manuscript is as much a game of patience as it is knowledge.  Even then, it can sometimes be who you know, not what you know.  Spending the time (and the money) to attend workshops, conferences, and retreats is all part of the learning curve.  This is where writers meet each other, meet editors and agents, learn about what’s happening in the industry, and make those connections that can make a difference in a career.

Jessica talked about something similar, and then said the person in her conversation had added a sarcastic “Oh, so it’s not what you know, but who you know?”

Truthfully – yes.  That networking is as valuable as any other aspect of the conference.  Many editors will only accept submissions if they’ve met you at a conference.  But that by no means should indicate that studying the craft of writing isn’t every bit as important.  Children’s book editors are typically not interested in rhyming picture books with talking animals.  They don’t want another vampire or wizard book just because you think that vampires or wizards are the hot item.  The two elements, networking and knowledge, go hand-in-hand, and you don’t learn them by attending only one conference and proclaiming yourself a writer.  There is such a thing as paying your dues – and that usually comes in the form of a lot of rejection letters.

Many novice writers don’t have the stomach for rejection.  Sadly, a lot of good writers give up quickly because they take the rejection so personally.  When I first started writing, a wise mentor told me to save all my rejection letters.  “Create a ritual out of it,” she told me.  Her name is Cheryl Zach, if you’re interested. So I did.  I got a box and wrapped it in gold paper.  Then I used a calligraphy brush and painted the words “One Step Close” on the lid of the box.  I decorated it with ribbons and jewels.  Each time I got another rejection letter in the mail, I would put it in the box and I would say, “That’s one step closer to the dream.”  That ritual helped get me through some tough years, and kept me motivated.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is patience.  In the beginning, I would put a manuscript in the mail and then haunt my mailbox for the next three or four weeks, waiting for the acceptance letter, or the big check that I was certain was on it’s way.  I could hear my mailman pulling up from half a block away.  Now, I often forget I’ve sent something out and am surprised to get an email or a letter from the editor I sent it to.  I realized recently that I’d sent an article to Highlights magazine seven years ago, which they bought and promptly shelved, that I’ve never seen in print.  I remember sending it, remember writing it, remember getting the check, but had completely forgotten about the whole thing until I was in Connecticut at my ICL training and someone asked if I’d ever written for Highlights.

Of course there are always the exceptions to everything in this business.  There are the “overnight” success stories, the writers who will publish a book just like one that came out a few months ago, etc.  These exceptions are the unfortunate cause of many novice writers believing that they, too, can publish a book just like “Cat in the Hat” called “Dog on the Log” and become the next great thing in children’s literature.  Those writers don’t want to spend the time and effort on the learning curve, and so they send 300 copies of their first-draft manuscript to every publisher listed in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market Book.  As a result, more and more publishers will not take unsolicited manuscripts, or work from writers who have never been published before.

I’m glad I wasn’t an overnight success, that writing didn’t come “all of a sudden” for me.  I’ve enjoyed the time spent learning, and the people I’ve been able to meet.  The learning curve is an important, valuable part of this whole experience, and gave me experiences I wouldn’t trade.

Good writing!