A Writer’s Obsession(s)

Whether a writer or not, we all have our obsessions. Here are my top three:

  1. Striving to be a better writer
  2. Giving self-rewards
  3. Balancing writing with “real life”

The ways to strive to become a better writer is first of all read; read within the genre you write and read without. You may also watch; while watching shows, dissect plot or character inconsistences so you won’t. Watch Korean dramas (e.g., W – Two Worlds, or Goblin) to catch unexpected plot twists and characters who pull you out of this world and straight into theirs.

There are writers conferences, books, courses, webinars, writer support organizations (like SCBWI, RWA, NaNoWriMo, etc.), and critique groups. Go to them, join them. Learn, grow, read, make connections.

Of course, to become a better writer, the absolutely top thing to do is to write. A lot.

Giving self-rewards works for many writers. You may write to a word count or within a time frame or have a goal by a certain date. When you reach major goals (e.g., finished with first draft, or ready to send to agent, etc.), treat yourself to a rare and special treat for this milestone.

Balancing writing with “real life” is the trickiest. There may be obligatory events, which you do want to attend, but which take you away from writing, like with school or church or work. There may be children or aging relatives to attend to. Or when the grass climbs to knee-high, you run out of clean dishes to eat off of, or your editor returns your manuscript for edits the night before your vacation, saying she needs it back within the week (true story for me)…you need balance, and wisdom. Prioritize, but do not ignore the most important things to you. (For me, family trumps all, even writing.

Become a better writer. Reach for your goals. Balance your writing with real life.

Another Print Book v.s. eBook Shocker — and eBookstores in Airports

A year ago I’d talked at length to a book buyer for three bookstores in the Detroit Airport. He was actually very excited and gave me much promise particularly since he loved my genre (historical fiction). But because in my excitement I had no contact information except his name, I waited for my next flight out of Detroit this past weekend in order to drop off one of my books for him to preview. To my shock, the bookstore was gone. I asked one of the workers across the hallway what had happened. She informed me that the two bookstores in that terminal had changed over to sports stores last spring or summer. The Wall Street Journal was the only store now carrying books, and that was only if the author was on the best seller list. This kind clerk actually called the buyer from a year ago, who said he remembered me, apologized, and regretfully told me that books don’t sell. I thanked him, signed the copy of my book, and gave it away to the helpful clerk who apparently does read books, and was very excited about her gift.

I then went to the gate area to await the arrival of my plane, brooding on the sad state of economy where bookstores no longer existed. I felt like I was cast into some bookless utopian society I’d read about as a youth. When I pulled out of my depression, I looked around at my fellow waiting passengers. Out of about two hundred seated people, six slept, three read books or a magazine, and everyone else was on an electronic device. Everyone. Else.

So how are we to adapt to this shocking realization? (Granted, people were playing eGames as well as reading, but some people were reading!)

I was thinking there ought to be eBookstores in airports with QR tags along a wall, which could easily be both categorized by age and genre as well as rotated. The eBookstore would then get part of the profits for selling the books. All it would take is a scan from an electronic device and a “clerk” who would change the tags every week or every other week.

BRILLIANT, SANDY! SIMPLY BRILLIANT!

And finny-dib-dibs on the idea! I figure that for coming up with this sensational original idea, I would have my book covers and QR tags displayed in airports on a rotating basis, or maybe a 0.01% for every book sold this way.

Raise your eHand if you think this is also a brilliant idea.

(BTW, on my trip I read from both print books and ebooks. And on another-yet-similar note, about twenty-five years ago I came up with the idea of hand-held computers. At least I wrote about them in my novel. Seriously. Wouldn’t that be cool? Oh. Right. People have already invented that now. Sigh.)

Clinging to What We Want

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In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the fourth week in November, as President Abraham Lincoln first set it, to the third Thursday in November. This was done to give more buying time for Christmas and boost our nation’s economy. It was moved back to the fourth week a couple of years later. Today, however, there is no need to move holidays around. Christmas lights and Halloween decorations together are not an uncommon sight, presidential degree or not.

I can’t do much about boosting the economy, but I do know about things I would like to have and have already started a Christmas list. Most of my suggestions come from book stores, of course.

When our first-born was about 18 months old, we were going through a store. He was strapped in his stroller. Suddenly, he did something he had never done before. With a lightning reach, he grabbed and clung to a pillow. It was the front and backside of a beaver, printed on cloth, with the word “smile” on its T-shirt. Our son didn’t say anything, like, “Want this.” He just grabbed and hugged tightly — a man of action.

With this think-of-what-I-want season,  besides the biggies (love, joy, peace, faith, hope, family), I allow myself to be selfish and think of  some things I’d like. Besides a few simple material things, what I want to cling to is the freedom and time to write. Writing (and reading) would be my pillow with a “smile” on it.

WriteOnCon 2010, part II

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I attended 2 days of the very first WriteOnCon last week, but then had to leave town on Thursday. I look forward to catching up with the third of the conference which I missed. The thing about writers conferences, is that I have attended over a dozen of them… in person. Some of the things the speakers talk about are “old hat” stuff to me.

Here are some things I gleaned from the first two days of the conference:

1) It was fascinating to “listen in” on the thought process of agent Natalie Fisher. She reminded us all that what she mentioned was only her own opinion, and other agents might not feel the same way. It was interesting, and helpful. Learn what the agent to whom you are submitting is looking for.

2) I now have a list of about 100 additional books to read, both about writing, and written for MG/YA. (Oh, the time. The time! How to find the time to do all the reading and writing I want to do!)

3) Stay current! Classics are nice, but some of those loved stories wouldn’t cut it in today’s highly competitive market. Read them. Love them. But write for today’s kids.

4) (related to #3) Kids hate retro. (Thank you, J.S. Lewis.) Don’t write about YOUR childhood, unless it’s a historical novel. Write for today’s kids and about today’s kids.

5) Know what the acceptable word counts are for today’s market. Yes, yes. We each can name several books which break the rules, but unless you are an established author with a great fan following, stick to the rules.

(More to come, both on the first two days, and the third day of WriteOnCon!) (Yeah to the organizers!)

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part IV — 1 More from Darcy Pattison

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In Darcy Pattison’s “Fiction Notes,” she addressed this very topic this week. There are too many other people to list who have also given suggestions. Gee. Sounds like a book idea! Wait. There are probably lots of books concerning how to write when there are others around.

One of Darcy’s suggestions is to use pen and paper. I do this so much — even journaling daily in marble notebooks — that I think about this suggestion about as much as I think about being a woman, i.e., it just is a part of me. So, thank you, Darcy, for rattling my brain a bit.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina struck, I headed south on a mission trip with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). For the first few days, I helped cut trees and drag branches to the roadside for later pickup and became spotty with gnat and mosquito bites. During our shade-and-drink breaks, I’d whip the small notebook and pen from my back jeans pocket, and write furiously until we started up again. Then, during the leaders meeting, the director of the camp asked if anyone had a writer in their group — to work on the website, write down stories, etc. My fearless leader’s hand shot up, indicating that I was the only one in the group of 90-some volunteers there at that time who was “a writer.” One man from NJ who’d worked with me and the trees that week, confessed he wondered why I hid behind tree trunks scribbling all the time.

The next day, I was left alone in the tent camp, except for my gnat and mosquito friends, staring at the computer. The wall-canvases were pulled to the poles so I could look over my lonely territory. I stared at the screen, tried to organize my notebook thoughts, feeling lonely and deserted and wondering how I could stand the pressure of being the lone writer, and what I would write about first, when who wandered into the shade of my tent, but the big honcho in charge of all PDA camps in the area. Interview time!

I had lots to share with him from my scribbles to bring him up to current speed of the camp, and he gave me lots more to write about, dealing with the camp’s short history.

Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my literary heros) always carried pencil and pad with him and scribbled away notes and snatched bits of conversation. Of course, this was pre-notebook (computer) days. But there are many times when technology is unavailable even today. So… keep those notebooks and journals and a couple of pens (in case one runs out of ink on you) handy.

School Visits and the JOB of being a writer

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A writer friend of mine — Ruth McNally Barshaw — was in my town last week, doing five school visits. Of COURSE, I had to both meet up with her and sit in on one of her school talks. I was not disappointed. I never expected I would be.

Ruth’s story is interesting. She sketched in journals all her life, but it wasn’t until she went to the SCBWI NY conference (sketching the whole way on the train and back), did an agent approach her and tell her about the new genre called graphic novels. Ruth found both her nitch and her dream job, and she’s good at it, too.

My former career was as an elementary teacher. I’ve sat through hundreds of school assemblies or special events. Some were awesome; some were utter flops.  I know what works and what doesn’t. I know how to be flexible and change things mid-stream (although there is always THE PLAN to rely back upon). After seeing Ruth in action last week, I made a startling discovery: I want to have that job. I want to write stories for kids, then travel around from school to school encouraging children to write (and read).

Oh. Wait. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a while now. Ah. It’s all about the confirmation. Someday…

A Famous Writer

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I was outside watering a few dry plants this evening when a kid rode up onto our lawn heading straight at me, with two runners in tow.

“Ain’t you that famous writer?” the bike rider said.

I laughed lightly. I remembered the 6th grade boy. He was selling candy a couple of months ago to help defray the costs from when his house burned down. I got to talking (back then) to his friend and him about a story I wrote a story about a 6th grade boy whose house burnt down.  Ironic, I thought. Since I wasn’t sure they believed me, I ran back into the house and brought out the manuscript. (Writers sure can get desperate sometimes.) We read together the first paragraph, and their eyes got wide. See? I was telling the truth! My writerly spirit encouraged, I bought some candy bars from him, wondering deep down  if it was really a hoax, but always liking to have friendly contact with neighborhood kids for several reasons. When that incident happened, I didn’t think I’d ever see the kid again. And here he was, riding on my lawn, showing off to his friends the famous writer he knew.

“I’m not famous,” I admitted. “But I do write. And at the moment, the story you just mentioned is out with an editor.” I wasn’t sure if they even knew what an editor did, but didn’t want to confuse them, or sound like a teacher.

“I want to read it,” said the Candy Bar Boy. The other two nodded.

“It takes time,” I told them. “Once the editor accepts the final copy of the story, it normally takes two or three years before it gets published into a book you can read.” This would be going through a traditional publishing house, of course, but again, I didn’t want to flood them with too much information, nor the fact that it could very well be rejected by several editors first.

“I’ll be in 10th grade by then,” said the older boy, counting on his fingers.

Again, I didn’t want to add other publishing housing rejections to the mix, but thinking about rejection slips, my pessimism escaped. “Yeah,” I said. “By then you probably won’t even remember me.”

“Oh, yes, we will,” they all three assured me. Maybe they knew what long waits and being sad was all about.

“We sure are thirsty,” hinted the one runner.

“I’ll get you some water,” I offered my potential future readers.

They quickly chugged down the glasses of water and were off to play basketball while it was still light. As they rode away, I heard the Candy Bar Boy say to his friends, “See? I told you I knew a famous writer!”

Character Changes in Past 50 Years

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This week I caught up on some ancient reading history. I read a couple of Newberry books from the 1960’s.

Okay. I know this epiphany should not at all surprise me, but it did. Before these latest reads, I’d been doing what “everyone” says to do — read the latest books in the field in which I want to get published to see what IS getting published out there today. There are many great reads. Too many books, too little time. However, I noticed that in the books of the ’60’s the main characters experienced a lot of what main characters in today’s writing world do, too. (There is nothing new under the sun.) Only, back then, the kids were fifteen years old or older; today’s main characters who do the same actions are nine or ten years old.

This can only mean that in another fifty years, we will be reading of two and three year olds fighting off villans with mad sword skills, and dashing through streets or forests to rescue the fair maidens in distress or find the enormous lost treasure. Good thing I’ll be dead by then.

Spell-Binding History for Writing Fodder

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I just read a news report from the BBC about a mass grave found near Weymouth (UK) last June, where construction workers discovered 51 decapitated men, recently determined to have originated from Scandinavia (i.e., Vikings). They were apparently buried naked since no metal objects, nor bone buttons, etc., were found near them.

Many things struck me concerning this article, which has me still reeling in thought. I find that from either point of view (Vikings or Saxons), the story is emotionally charged.

There is the wonder and horror of the Saxons living near the coast, getting invaded by Vikings, probably more than once in order to be so prepared. There is the remarkable capture of 51 men, assumedly warriors. There is the killing by beheading of these invaders, assumedly witnessed by many people. There is the unceremonious mass burial. Then, there is the last line of the article: “Most of them were in their late teens to early 20s, with a handful in their 30s.”

My father-in-law was born in Sweden. My mother-in-law was the only one of her original family not born in England. My mother’s people are from England (5 generations ago). My sons are in their late 20’s. I love being on the sea.

Is there a story in this find? Certainly. Undoubtedly many stories.  Will I attempt to put flesh and blood on the skeletons for a story? Not sure. It’s still too soon after reading the article for me to process the implications, but for some strange reason, the story is hitting very close to home. I can almost see their story, from the boat, from the land. See their faces. See their hopes. See their fears. See the horror. It all flashes before my eyes as if I’m right there, over 1,000 years ago, carrying a video camera on my shoulder, a silent observer in this tragedy-victory. I can’t seem to stop shaking.