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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It’s PARTY TIME!

I used to present a workshop entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers” that was all about the many things that can wrong on the way to your publishing dream. For example: one writer friend came up with a wonderful idea about kids who used an old shack as a club house, then discover that their club house is really a time portal that allows them to travel back and forth through time. It was a great idea, and she started working on it feverishly. A few months into her writing, the “Magic Treehouse” series came out. Tough to sell your idea when someone else is already making money on it. 

Another true story of a serious bump in the publishing road: a writer I know personally had put hundreds of hours into researching, writing, and revising a nonfiction book for an educational publisher. Just as the last revisions were about to be submitted, the editor called to announce that the publisher was being bought out, and the series that this book belonged to was being discontinued.

And here’s another: After working on a novel for nearly a year, a writer found an agent. The agent sent a glowing letter about how marvelous the book was, and that the agent knew exactly which editor would be interested. Months went by with no word, then more months went by. Finally the author called and ased the agent what the status of her book was. The agent replied that it looked like a sale and they should get the contract soon. The the author later found out that the editor had passed away. A new editor was hired. The the bad news: the agent sent a letter saying that not only did the new editor not want the manuscript, but the agent, too, has had a change of heart and would no longer be representing the work.

The sad truth is, there are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of stories just like this (I have many of them written down for my presentation). I tell people all the time: Finishing the book is the easy part. Getting it accepted for publication and seeing it in a finished form is the hard part. Long ago I adopted the phrase, “It ain’t a book til it’s a book.” The fact is that until you can hold it in your hand (or now a days, download it to your iPad), it isn’t a book.  So many things can go wrong along the way to that final piece that it’s best not to get too excited.

But then there is a point where getting excited is not only justifiable, it’s almost impossible to avoid. At some point, you can’t stop the ball from rolling, and like a big cartoon snowball, gathering momentum, the inevitable happens – the book becomes real and the excitement becomes almost unstoppable.

I’m there! It’s just over a week to the release of “Beautiful Monster” and I can no longer contain my enthusiasm! But if the truth be told, this one was twice as hard to get excited for as any of my other books.  First,  it’s a very different book for me, and I have spent a great deal of time worrying about what people who know me will think when they read it.  Second, this book generates a lot of mixed emotions for me for reasons I’m not going to bother explaining at the moment. Just take my word – it’s a tough one for me. Third, I haven’t had a lot of support for this book from one very important person, and that has kept me from wanting to celebrate.

But all of this changed in the last few days. A wise person asked me, “Why would you let anyone control your happiness – or any other emotion for that matter?” It was a valid question, and one which I spent several days contemplating. After much meditation and thought, I arrived at the following conclusions:

First – this book made me stretch as a writer, and as such, I grew as a writer as well. That is definitely worth celebrating. And the people who know me will just have to deal with the fact that I can write horror and other difficult subject matter as well as writing the funny kids’ stuff! Second – for all the challenges I had writing this book, I also gained a great deal. I gained confidence, I gained clarity, and I strengthened a friendship that will matter to me for the rest of my life. These are all things that I find worthy of celebrating. Third – turning over my happiness about something to anyone – regardless of who that person is – is just not emotionally healthy, and I should be tougher and more committed to my dream than to allow that. I earned this celebration, and I deserve to hold my head high about this upcoming release.

With all that in mind, I decided that I would, indeed, allow myself to be happy about this new book and to celebrate in a way that I never have with any other book! I am throwing a book release party at my house and I’ve invited hundreds of people! I hope they don’t all show up at once, cuz my house just ain’t that big! But if they do, that’s fine! We will overflow into the parking lot, maybe take over the neighbor’s place – who knows! I have ordered postcards to mail to everyone I can think of. The theme of the party – in keeping with the story of course – is serial killers! There will be a drawing for an autographed copy of the book and for a free download of a digital copy. 

My moment of triumph came when I calmly told the person whose support I wanted that I was going to celebrate whether or not this person supported me. I invited the person to join in, and I explained that if this person chose not to celebrate with me, that was fine – I was going to do it anyway. The response was not what I expected. “I think that’s a great idea, and I’m proud of you for going forward.”

Yeah, it was a jaw-drop moment!

So if you live nearby, or you can get here with reasonable expense (I have airmats if you need a place to stay!) consider yourself invited! It is going to be joyous, creepy, exciting, and a great deal of fun! I hope to see you there!

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!

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

This may be every writer’s favorite, and least favorite question.  Coming from children, it always makes me excited, because I see it as an opportunity to engage them in the writing process, to show them that their own ideas are valid and valuable.  Coming from adults, it makes me wonder why their brains aren’t overspilling with the same overwhelming number of stories that flood my waking and sleeping moments.

I used to teach writing classes for the University of Utah’s Life Long Learning program, an assortment of non-credit courses through the Continuing Education office.  Shortly before I started doing this, I had read an article in Writer’s Digest by a woman who was a prolific romance novelist.  She talked about speaking at conferences and being asked this question over and over.  Her standard response was “all around me.”  Then one day, she looked out over the audience and her tongue got the better of her. 

“Where do you get your ideas?” asked an elderly woman on the third row.

“From living and breathing,” the writer answered.

What was even funnier was that the same woman approached the writer after her speech and said, “I have a few ideas, too, and one day I hope to have the time to write a few of them down.”

The writer stared at her, dumb-founded.  This silver-haired participant, well past retirement, couldn’t find time to write?  The writer blurted her response.  “Honey,” she said, “I have four kids, a part-time job, a husband, and a house to take care of.  If you can’t find the time, it’s because you don’t want to find the time.”

I love that.  I think of it regularly when I have adults who ask “Where do you get your ideas?”

In my kinder moments, I realize what this question really is: fear.  Often, those who ask this question are really saying something like, “I’ve never been told I could write, and I’m afraid my ideas won’t be good enough.”  It is important for me to realize at times like this that not everyone had Mrs. Saenz for a third grade teacher.  Not everyone was told from the time he or she was eight that he or she should be a writer.  I was.  I was lucky.

(This is going to look like I’ve taken a giant off-ramp, but it relates, I promise.)  When I was in the fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Sharp.  He was an evil man who should not have been allowed around young minds.  He was a form Army drill sergeant and he made us do push-ups and squats first thing in the morning.  And he is the reason I will not do art.

We were studying the concept of shadow, and I was utterly confused.  I couldn’t figure out how the angles worked.  Like, if the sun is at a 45 degree angle, and a tree is at a 90 degree angle, where does the shadow fall?  And I kept confusing shadow with reflection.  A part of the wiring in my brain could not grasp this concept – it’s a math thing I guess, like why I sometimes add when I’m supposed to subtract.

So we were drawing pictures that demonstrated shadow and I kept getting them wrong.  At the end of the class, I turned in a picture that I knew wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  I hadn’t but barely set the picture on the desk when Mr. Sharp wrote an enormous F at the top and handed it back.  I was crushed.  I had worked for days on that picture, struggling to make it realistic, to grasp the concepts.

The following day I stayed in from morning recess and tried again.  After several efforts gone terribly wrong, I came up with what I thought was an easy and reasonable solution.  I drew the sun directly overhead at 90 degrees.  Then I drew a turtle, and beneath the turtle, a proportionally sized shadow.  It was a good turtle, and I believed it solved my dilemma.

After recess, Mr. Sharp began holding up the pictures that our class had done and offering his own art critique.  He was cruel, and rude, except for two instances: Barbara Burton and Steve Fairbanks (the two straight A students in our class). Then he got to my turtle.  I sat up a little straighter, quite proud of my compromise.

Mr. Sharp tore the picture into small pieces and threw them in the trash.

I failed 7th grade Art class because I refused to do any of the assignments.  I never took another art class after that.

I’d love to be able to draw and paint, especially water colors.  But truthfully, the mere thought of attempting it causes me anxiety, and I justify my fear by saying that I simply don’t have time to take up one more thing.  I barely have time for the things I enjoy as it is.  I console myself with knitting and crocheting – I do those beautifully if I do say so myself. But part of me harbors a deep resentment toward this man, now long dead buried, for having taken something from me. 

Now, when I’m tempted to offer some smart-ass answer to the question that launched this whole topic, I remind myself that I don’t ever want to do to another person what Mr. Sharp did to me (and a lot of other kids, no doubt).  So I measure my words, and what I typically say is “I get my ideas from the same place you get yours.  I watch, I listen, and I try to imagine those things around me being woven into a story.  Sometimes I tuck the idea away in my subconscious to let it mature.  Sometimes I write it down in its raw state and try to find its natural qualities.  And sometimes, I start polishing right away and working it into something I think is going to shine. But I try not to throw out anything or judge it as ‘bad’ or ‘not useful’ because I’m afraid I may toss aside something really clever that’s hidden beneath a shadow.”

So – where do you get your ideas?