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.

The Act and Art of Mentoring

I’ve taught writing for many years – I guess 15 counts as many, doesn it? I love sharing my passion with others, and I’ve had some amazing students over the years who have gone on to their own publishing success.  I’m very proud to count among my former students Becky Hall (http://www.beckyhallbooks.com/) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and Anne Bowen http://www.annebowenbooks.com/  who have both achieved wonderful success with their children’s books. I was fortunate to grow with them and become a better writer as a result of working with them.

 

 

 

 

My good friend and writing partner, Jared Anderson, is another success story. That experience allowed me to learn about my own approach to writing, and I credit Jared with moving me off center and helping me rediscover how passionate about writing I truly am.

Now I am working with another young man, whose name I won’t mention as I haven’t asked his permission. As I work with “G” I find that I am again tuning in more closely to my own work and my own process. Having to delve so deeply into the construction of story always proves to be – at least for me – a very revealing and rewarding opportunity.

I’m not an advocate that you need a degree to be a writer. In fact, I believe that’s a silly statement in general. But getting my Master’s taught me to look at writing – my own and others’ – in a more intensive and intuitive way. I look at word selection and placement in new ways. I try to identify why a writer put things in a certain order, or why a certain word was chosen over so many others available. When I am mentoring, I’m trying to see the bigger picture, to identify what the puzzle will be when all the pieces are in place, but I’m also trying to find the specific details that will help the student to paint that picture in a more meaningful way. I want to show my students that there are layers to their work that even they may not know about.

Recently, while talking to G about an assignment I gave him, we were discussing a  particularly interesting character. I began asking him some questions about the stress level in this character’s life, about her inner thoughts, and G said, “How did you get in my head and figure this out when I couldn’t even tell what it was?”

That was a compliment indeed.

All I really did was looked a few layers deeper at what he was trying to achieve. I pushed him down a flight of stairs that he was happy to stand at the top of and simply look. But what also happened was that I began looking at my own writing and realizing how often I need that same push.

This might be the best thing about mentoring someone else: I get so much out of the experience it almost becomes more beneficial for me!

Of course – not all my experiences have been so positive.  There was the librarian in Texas who thought rhyming stories all about a happy, goofy librarian were guaranteed to make kids smile. When I told her that most kids’ books feature a child protagonist, she began citing chapter and verse all the books that didn’t do that. “Yes,” I explained, “and when you are famous enough to have a name that will carry a book like that, you can write it. But until then, good luck selling this concept.” She wasn’t too happy with my reply.

Then there are the people who want you to mentor them, but really what they want is for you to tell them the name of your agent or editor and then to have you call that agent or editor and get this person a book sold.

Yes – that happens. Yes – frequently.

It used to be that I would offer to work with anyone who asked for my help. These days, I’m a lot more picky. Frankly, I don’t have the time I used to have. I’m busy writing my own books and trying to move my career to the point where it is full-time rather than part-time. And these days, too, I’m really only interested in working with people who take their writing as seriously as I take their writing. They need to show some initiative, and be willing to work. Writing is HARD. And the creation of the story is the easy part. It’s the business side, the marketing, the dealings with publishers and editors that are the real challenge in this business.

I love mentoring, and I hope I can continue to do it as long as I continue to write. I was blessed to have great mentors like Alison McGhee, Tim Wynn-Jones, Sharon Darrow, M.T. Anderson, Carol Lynch Williams, and many others who helped to guide me on my journey. I hope I can do as well for others as these wonderful people have done for me.

Career Day!

I’ve been invited to attend the Hunter Jr. High School career day this Friday to talk about being a writer.

I  both love and dread these events (I’ve been to Hunter twice before, and a few other schools as well). I love them because junior high-aged kids make me laugh. They are so full of life and so ready to let you know that they will challenge anything you say if they think you’re trying to put one over on them. They are struggling to find themselves and their identities so they are open to new ideas even if they act like they are completely unaffected by what you say.  Some will chime in and engage in the conversation, others will listen eagerly, and others will just slap on a glazed expression and stare at you like zombies.

By the way, it’s often the zombies who approach me after the session wanting to pick my brains! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). They are the ones with the personal questions who don’t want to reveal that much of themselves in front of their fellow classmates (insert zombie joke of your choice here).

I”m always asked about the benefits of being a writer.  My co-author Jared did a very funny blog on this subject here on WordPress (Jared S. Anderson – check it out!) and I mostly agree with his assessment, but I don’t think I’d be mentioning a few of his perks in a junior high environment.  Perks like working in your jammies, being your own boss, and being able to stare at clouds and call it research are all excellent aspects to being a writer.

A lot of kids want to know how I got started in writing, and I tell them that I was interested in writing before I even really knew how to do it.

No, that’s not me, but it could have been.  I would play on my dad’s manual typewriter pretending to write books. I would write poetry for my mom when I learned to rhyme (my spelling was something hysterical to be sure), and when I was in 3rd grade, I wrote my own book and did a book report on it. I had a pen name and everything! In junior high, I wrote for the school newspaper (the Bonneville By-Line), and in high school I had poetry published in the literary magazine, and I was the type editor for our school newspaper (the Colt Round-Up).  In college, I majored in English, but decided to go into public relations and advertising. I wrote all the time, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be writing. So I decided to try writing professionally. I did a lot of research, I studied, I worked with mentors,   (thank you Carol Lynch Williams), and eventually had some success. I wrote for CitySearch.com and for a local magazine called Wasatch Parent. My first book, Love & Loathing, was published in 1998 and is still in print today.

 Then I decided I wanted to go back to school. I earned my Masters from Vermont College and the creative thesis for my degree became my first novel for kids (“My Brother the Dog” which is soon to be rereleased as “Kiss Kiss Bark”). That was preceded by three nonfiction books just a few months before (the “Hey, Ranger” books), and now an adult horror/suspense novel has arrived (“Beautiful Monster”) and a young adult novel will be released next year (“The Deepest Blue”).

But there is always the part of these career days I dread. Unfortunately, kids ultimately want to know “How much money do you make?”

My typical reply is a bit evasive, but it is none the less true: It depends.

It depends on the book.

It depends on the publisher.

It depends on the contract.

It depends on the sales for that book in a given time period.

Sometimes kids will be satisfied simply to know that you can make money from writing. Others want details.  So I tell them: It depends.

Some of my checks for my book advances have been a few thousand dollars, some have been a few hundred, and some publishers don’t pay an advance.  Some of my royalty checks have been over a thousand dollars, some have been a few hundred, and some have hardly been worth driving to the bank to deposit.

I don’t really get offended when they ask; it’s just embarrassing to admit that I’ve been doing this for so long, but I still don’t make a living at it. I’m committed to making that change, however. I have set a timeline of 5 years (well, 4 1/2 now) to living solely from the procedes of my writing.  Of course, one of the benefits of being a writer – to me, anyway – is that I will do this for the rest of my life even if I don’t make a living at because it’s what I do for my heart.  It’s what I do for me and it is something that not only do I love, but that I hope when my time comes to meet my maker, they find me dead at my keyboard with a long string of “f’s” being typed by my nose.

So wish me luck on Friday! Maybe I can inspire a young mind. I just pray I don’t put them all to sleep.

How Much is Enough?

How much are you willing to endure in order to have something you want? I don’t just mean a basic something, like you want steak for dinner or a new pair of shoes. I mean something big – a dream.

The truth is that most of us say we would go through anything to have a dream. How often have you heard someone you know say “I’d do anything to have . . . .” fill in the blank? Here is the truth of it – most of those statements are hyperbole. Most of the time, we are dedicated to something only so long as it doesn’t really inconvenience us or cause us any discomfort.

But sometimes, on some limited, rare occasions, we get tested for our dreams. I know a number of people (writers and otherwise), for whom this concept of “how much do you want it?” is being applied as a real-life exercise in discomfort. I’m going through this myself as I struggle to balance a fragile marriage, a disappointing job, a fading friendship, and my need to write. I’ve asked myself repeatedly if all of what I’m going through is really worth what I want. Am I really willing to stay up until 2:00 in the morning because I need to get another chapter written? Am I willing to be subjected to the inevitable criticism – the slices and dices – of those who will read my work and then make it their business to publicly flog my efforts? Will I hold firm when faced with a choice between meeting a deadline and listening to my family members complain that I never spend time with them and why can’t I go to the movies just this once?

It’s easy to say, “Oh sure, I can do it. My resolve is cast iron.” But the truth is, I find myself asking if it’s truly worthwhile to continue to pursue this dream. On more than one occasion, as I’ve struggled to find a reasonable ending to a novel I’ve worked on for close to a year now, I ask myself why I can’t just be happy with a mediocre job and a mediocre paycheck and call it good.  There are times when my spouse and I argue solely over the role that writing has in my life and the impact that this has on him. It is tempting to say, “F*** this dream,” throw my laptop against the wall, and deny I ever wanted to see my name on the cover of another book.

How much is enough? I already have a five books published, with a sixth one coming out in mere weeks, and a seventh within the next year. Isn’t that enough? Haven’t I given it my best shot? Shouldn’t I be happy with the mediocre results I’ve achieved?

I tried giving up writing once. In fact, I practically gave it up completely for almost 5 years. The end result of that endeavor was that I was miserable. I hated not writing, I resented my family (especially my husband) because I felt that I had sacrificed my dream for them and they appreciated it about as much as they appreciated stepping in dog poop.

 I felt that I couldn’t even talk about my writing because it would raise too many  issues with them and too many emotions with me. But that nagging, gnawing sensation to put words on paper never left me. I suppressed it as best I could, but it never really went away. And then I met someone who wanted my help, who wanted to learn about writing from someone who had done it. Suddenly, I had an excuse to “talk” about writing. I wasn’t actually doing it, but I was helping someone else to learn about it. That dream, that need to capture words and tame them, and to have my name on book covers, came rushing back with a vengeance. I wrote for hours and hours on end. I let loose some of the pent-up stories and poems that I had denied for so long, and it was cathartic. It was as if an ache that had plagued me for years was suddenly  and completely healed, and I felt renewed in a way I didn’t know I could experience. I felt like I had purpose, like I had something of value to offer.

I began to flex muscles that had atrophied, and I found that they still worked. The got stronger, and better, and now I am writing more effectively and more powerfully than I ever have before. I dove into stories that had lain unfinished in lost folders on my computer. I began submitting and collecting rejections, and feeling every bit the authentic writer that I dream of being. But dreams come with a price tag, and sometimes that price is high. But I have a stronger resolve today than I have ever felt before. I am more committed to my writing goals and to achieving the success that I believe I can have than I have ever been in the past. It exacts a toll to have this dream, but I am willing to pay no matter the cost. I am possessed by this vision, I am obsessed with achieving what I know is meant to be mine.

How much is enough to sacrifice for this dream? I don’t know. I haven’t found that limit. But I know the other side of it. How much will it cost me to give it up? The answer is: far too much. If I sound like some religious zealot, singing the praises of belief and faith, all I can say is – deal with it. I know that I’ll be challenged – I’ll face it. I know I will have to sacrifice – that’s my choice. I know that I will encounter people and situations that are stumbling blocks – I’ll get over them. Those who want to nay-say and throw road blocks up had best get out of my way. Those who see my passion, who want to share in it – keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times and hang on!

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!

Shifting Gears

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m having difficulty shifting gears.

I just finished revisions on a dystopic YA novel tentatively called “The Afterward” in which a 16-year-old girl survives the collapse of the American government and the start of the second civil war. I also just finished the first draft of the book I wrote with my writing partner Jared. It’s previous title, “An Evil Heart” has been changed to “Gallery of Dolls” which better fits the story line. In this one, I wrote the character of a 23-year-old college student who becomes the only surviving victim of a serial killer.  I started working on revisions this weekend.

Here’s where I’m running into problems: I started a new novel, currently titled “Death Kiss”, where a 17-year-old girl has seen the face of Death and is now obsessed with finding him. She is smart, but not as sweet as the Nia, the protagonist in “The Afterward” and she is not as adult as Brenna, the 23-year-old. But somehow, both of their voices are leaking over. Layna is the character from “Death Kiss” and she is struggling to find her own personality. She knows who she is (as d o I), and she’s been in the works for quite some time. But it is proving to be a challenge to shift gears between these three very important individuals. There is a lot of grinding and groaning going on.

It’s really irritating.

And it makes for a lot of rewriting very early in the writing process.

I don’t want to be one of those writers who allow all their characters to become so homogenous that they sound alike, think alike, and the only differentiation is hair color or height. As much as I love Dean Koontz, all his child characters sound alike and behave alike. It’s disappointing. There are other writers, famous and not-so, who make this same mistake with characters of all ages. It says to me that the writer is building a character to be the writer’s own mouthpiece rather than to tell an interesting story. I don’t want to be guilty of that. I also don’t want to be in any of my own books. My ego just isn’t that big.

There are a lot of valid (and not so valid) reasons as to why this is happening. Like I mentioned previously, my chaos level has been at maximum for the last three or four months, and that is making it harder to focus. My closest friend and writing companion abandoned me (yeah, I said it – abandoned! Okay, I smiled when I said it), and I’m still getting used to not having that person around on a daily basis. There are a lot of other factors that, to varying degrees, are getting in my head and keeping me from really being in the head of my character, but all of that boils down to just excuses. I don’t have writer’s block, I’m not stuck, so it’s time to take the dragon by the tail and get to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I’ve decided to do something I haven’t done in a while, but something I’ve often given to my students as an assignment: I’m having Layna write me a letter and tell me about herself, about her situation, and about how she thinks this ought to be resolved. I’ll allow her the free expression and hopefully catch her voice more effectively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have some other little tricks I can try, too, if that doesn’t work. For example, I intend to interview Layna about her history so I can know even more about her.  I plan to interview other characters in the book about their relationship with Layna.  Hopefully, all of this will solidify her as a person in my mind, and I won’t see bits of Nia or Brenna filtering through.

I have tons of resources at my disposal, I have wonderful writers who are always willing to give feedback and make suggestions. And as the old cliché goes, “This too shall pass.” Before I realize it, I’ll be head-long into this story and aggressively trying to make my self-imposed deadlines. Naturally, I’ll post my progress here.