New Year’s Writing Goals, 2017, and Critique Groups

Happy Pagan New Year!

The month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faces on one head keeper of the doors, of transitions, of ends and beginnings, of looking at the  past and the future. Through the years I have come to appreciate this concept more and more. For me, each January first is a day of renewal,  a time to set goals, a time to dream, a time to hope.

Like with diets, I know I can’t accomplish much writing without the encouragement of friends. My biggest encourager is my husband, Jeff, without whom I never would have honestly pursued writing.

One of my critique partners for the past many years is Samantha. Today she sent a Happy New Year’s message to the group. She wrote, “I wanted to start the year by thanking you wonderful ladies for all your support, encouragement and patience (and of course, thoughtful and skillful critiques)! I cannot imagine traveling this writing journey without you! Love you all!” Everyone in the group agrees with her.

Writing may seem like a lonely journey. I mean, individuals must do the sitting down at the keyboard and typing away alone. But I cannot conceive of a time without the support and encouragement of critique groups, people at conferences, listservs, my husband.

My two writing goals this year is to write, and to show my appreciation and encouragement to my fellow writers.

Happy New Year. May this year be full of completed hopes and dreams.

Miss Snark’s First Victim Contest

Literature Blogs

This week I’ve been involved in Miss Snark’s Secret Agent Contest, where an anonymous literary agent critiques submissions on line. (If you don’t know about Miss Snark, please check her out at http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/p/secret-agent.html  OR at  http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/  for this week’s first 250 words of a MG or YA completed novel.) Friend Rose told me about the contest. I subbed at noon on Monday, missed the first window by subbing too late (4 minutes after the hour v.s. 2; gotta be quick with these things), but made it in during the second window of submissions (by getting my email all set to go according to the rules, and keeping my finger hovering over the “send” key as I watched the clock change to 7 p.m. — a nice hint from Rose). I’ve be critiquing many of the subs, and just today the Secret Agent — oh, I wonder who s/he is! — has started commenting on them.

Interesting things learned from this experience:

1) I work well with deadlines;

2) I like clear-cut rules;

3) I enjoy reading first pages and the critical thinking involved on how a piece of writing could be improved;

4) I love writing communities;

5) I get to see if what I critiqued matches what a real-life agent has to say, and use his/her observations to improve my own writing.

Be brave. Enter contests. Learn from others. And keep on writing.

Learn Something New – Research and Experimentation

Literature Blogs

I remember a speaker at a writer’s conference, mucho years ago, telling us not to limit ourselves to one genre of speaker. If we write science fiction, go sit in on a workshop given by a romance writer. If we are an adult mystery writer, listen to an author of young adult literature. I found her advice very interesting. I also read outside my box (genre), sometimes randomly picking books from the library shelf or eShop. I have researched poisonous snakes of Brazil, and toilets of the middle ages, and land-locked U.S. Navy bases which GPS their trees. We have moved enough for me to have learned and several experienced different cultures and humor in many states, including internationals.

While I was working as a long-term substitute teaching the other year, I found myself at a school where white boards (don’t even mention black boards) were obsolete, and everything was taught via computer and workbook page projection through ceiling attachment. I had a lot to learn at that school, not about student behavior, nor about subject matter, nor about teaching in general from years of past experience, but about communication and presentation to the students. In fact, for the first several weeks teaching there, I wasn’t informed of meetings or even school-wide assemblies because my email wasn’t part of their daily staff system.

On the first second day, I asked my next-door teacher and grade team leader (in her third year of teaching) how to use the classroom equipment. She told me to ask the teacher across the hallway (in her second year of teaching) who was the equipment expert. I was substituting for a maternity leave teacher after six months of teaching. The equipment expert across the hall told me she just played around with it until it did what she wanted. I asked her more specific questions, which she couldn’t answer. I asked her to show me. When she came to my room, the expert informed me my equipment wasn’t the same as hers, and left. I went back to the team leader and asked for a manual. The team leader said she didn’t know of any, then informed me that it was good for old people to learn new things, that it kept them alert with new streams flowing in their brains. I really wish that slapping were still a viable means of communication, put that is so passe. Instead, I just stood facing her with my mouth opened, trying not to drool – like old folks do – then went back to my classroom and figured it out on my own.

Well, I’m off now to research different forms of nuclear energy and waste for a book I’m revising. I also feel the need to find out more about rose-breasted grosbeaks who have visited our yard this past week for the first time ever. (Merely curious.) Later, I’ll mow our lawn with our new manual push lawn mower – a very, very, very cool green machine – which I assembled the other day, before going for a run, showering, and singing and playing guitar at a health care facility.

Learn new things. Experience new places. Meet and talk with people unlike yourself. File away encounters for future references. And KEEP ON WRITING.

Rejection

 Literature Blogs

I’ve only known one author who never got rejected (Barb Yirka, aka Anne Barbour). She was an avid regency romance reader, then wrote two chapters for a contest and won the book contract award. Outside of this highly unusual situation (and wonderful person), most writers need to expect rejections from agents and editors and sometimes even fellow writers (although we writers tend to be more gentle).

A recent newsfeed led me to a study done on rejection and that social rejections (e.g., relationships; but this could be extended to writers, too, you know) cause actual physical pain to the one rejected. It makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, it makes ME think. Here’s the link:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110328/ap_on_sc/us_sci_rejection_hurts

So why do we writers do this again?

I’m thinking that our submissions is like going through the pains of dating and breaking up… until… we find THE ONE. Here’s to every writer’s love relationship (with editor, agent, readers). May it be true and happily ever after lasting.

An Evening With Gary Paulsen

Literature Blogs

Last night I hd the privilege of attending a library-sponsored “Evening with Gary Paulsen” at the W.K. Kellogg Auditorium in Battle Creek, MI. Known for his Newbery Honor Books, HATCHET, THE WINTER ROOM, AND DOGSONG, at 73-years-old, Gary looks like a cross between Santa Claus and Red Green. Although his hour-long talk was biographical, listening to him was as much fun, and certainly as interesting, as reading a book by him. It isn’t that Gary has led a good and lucky live. Quite the contrary. His real-life adventure demonstrates a fascinating and interesting life of a writer.

Gary grew up in northern Minnesota with both parents drunks. As a kid, he was never a reader. His life changed when he escaped the cold one winter day, by stepping into a library. The librarian asked if he wanted a card. He never had anything with his name on it before, plus, someone took an interest in him.  It took Gary a long time to finish that first book, but when he did, he went back for another, and another. Each book took less time to read. He is the author of over two hundred books. 

At 17, he forged his parents’ signature and joined the army, mostly to get away from his parents. He worked as an engineer on missiles and satellite tracking. In 1963, he was making “two grand” a month, at a time when teachers made two grand a year. He decided one night he wanted to be a writer, got up, turned in his security badge, and quit his job. He wrote a story involving missile guidance systems, forcing the FBI to question him, thinking he was a spy. He was so excited with his first book that he didn’t tell them they misspelled his name for fear they wouldn’t publish it.

He went to Hollywood where he got a job by lying about his writing credentials. He made a penny a letter, which amounted to about $380 per month. He knew he wasn’t a good writer, but there were good writers where he worked. He wrote westerns. Gary approached three of them who agreed to meet with him each week to critique writing, insisting he write a chapter a day during the week, and three chapters over the weekend.

With no money, he left Hollywood, just like he left engineering. He paid $25 per month for a cabin on a Minnesota lake, snaring rabbits for food. He wrote all winter and in spring, he sold two books. He went to New Mexico where he started drinking for the first time in his life, and became “a full-blown alcoholic.” In 1973, he got sober and went back to writing. He signed a 20-book deal with a children’s publisher, but the book club never sent him money for his books. He went from rich to poor, and moved back to Minnesota.

Minnesota passed a law that it was legal to trap animals by dog sled, but not with motorized vehicles. So Gary invested in dogs and a dog sled. This experience changed his life. He didn’t have a lead dog, but he saw a dog lying in the back of a pickup truck, ready to be “put down.” Gary took the dog, fed it two beavers, and the dog, Cookie, survived and because his lead dog. Cookie also saved Gary’s life when he fell through some ice and was sinking in the water like a rock. He grabbed a dangling rope and Cookie pulled him to safety.

Gary heard about the Iditarod in Alaska, and businesses in MN supported him, allowing him to participate. He came in 42nd place on his first race, and was hooked. He wrote the Newbery Honor Book DOGSONG after a young Inuit boy approached him during a race, wanting to see what a dog looked like.

I could only post a few of Gary’s stories here. I could easily have listened to him for hours. Gary Paulsen is a fascinating man with fascinating adventures, and, of course, excellent writing skills.

2011 Writing Goals

 Literature Blogs

Long ago, I ditched the resolutions bit. Could never keep them; often broken by the end of the first week of the new year. So I started setting goals. Goals are much easier to reach, especially when taken in baby steps, e.g., not a vague “lose weight” or “lose 30 pounds,” but rather, “lose 5 pounds by February 14.” Ah, sounds like a goal I could reach.

So it is with writing. Set goals you can keep, then re-evaluate and reset them in summer.

Like my friend Rose, each year I try to simplify my new year’s writing goals. My general (did you hear “vague?”) writing goals are to read, write and submit. More specific is to revise two novels, send them off, and write two more. At this moment, I have no idea what the two 2011 new novels will be about. Isn’t life exciting?

So what are your new year’s writing goals?

Revisions!

 Literature Blogs

I am revising one of my stories now, and came to the conclusion that I find revisions both frustrating and wonderful. Frustrating, because I must find the time or force myself to sit down and DO them. Wonderful, because, my, what a better story I’ve written afterwards.

I have come to a second conclusion, that if I’m doing a whole-novel revision, I work best on hard copy. When I sit in front of a computer screen to do revisions, I don’t have the past scribbled pages next to me to show me how much progress I’ve made. On the computer screen, it all looks good, and so I plug away one line at a time without really seeing the progress. Doing whole novel revisions is similar to weeding a garden. If you just plucked five weeds daily, you may not notice much of a difference. But if you spend a couple of hours (or full day) weeding, and next to you is this pile of weeds to be tossed, there is greater satisfaction.

Keep writing, and keep revising! If you have only a few minutes a day to revise, keep plugging away. If you can read your hard-copy scribbles, keep doing those corrections. Which is your preference, or do you do revisions entirely different from these two?

Writer’s Inspiration Boost

 Literature Blogs

I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking of how to connect two main characters in one of my novels (besides the obvious conflicts). I need (want) them to be interconnected, but I can’t brainstorm how they do. It’s been a struggle on my poor brain. I think about them, wander away, sometimes for a couple months, then come back to think some more. I keep wondering why it’s not working, or if I should just trash one character or perhaps the entire story. (It’s not really writer’s block. Although, I admit, I don’t know what that is besides an excuse.) However, the problem makes me wonder about various ways to boost inspiration and imagination and creativity.

1) Eat well, sleep well, get exercise, see your doctor. Being pain-free, and having blood moving swiftly through your body and into your little grey cells, can only help stimulate writing thoughts and get those creative juices flowing. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I take a LONG walk. This does three things for me: unfreezes my stiffened muscles from sitting hours in one position at my computer; distracts me with neighborhood happenings; and releases some built up story-making-adreneline to free my mind to think more clearly.

2) Get off of drugs which make your brain sluggish. (Talk with your doctor about this one.)

3) Get onto drugs, which make your brain a wilderness to explore. (A Federal Marshall I know who is a mystery writer solves his writer’s block or plot problems by “sitting down with Jack” (a bottle of Jack Daniels) until he comes up with a solution in his plot. Personally, I think this way would turn my mind to mush, so it’s not something I recommend; just something I know works for one crazed writer.)

4) Find writing support. Join a writing organization and participate. You can also find writing support by taking a class or by reading books on craft. Three of my favorite ones include ON WRITING, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, and NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS: UNCOMMON WAYS TO REVISE. In the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of SCBWI bulletin, Kate Dopirak writes about forming her “writing team” in a classroom of middle school kids. A self-published author I know uses his “editors,” who are six beta readers, including librarians and teachers. There are unlimited writing support groups on-line (critique groups, forums, listservs, blogs, etc). It can be done live (critique groups, writing conferences, going to hear visiting authors, local write-ins, etc.). 5) Step back from the story. Maybe start another one. But then come back to your original story, knead out those bumps, and become an award-winning author.

What additional ways do you have to boost your writing?

SCBWI-MI Fall Writers Conference, Part I

 Literature Blogs

Our SCBWI-Michigan Fall Writers Conference is going on this weekend. I am commuting since it is: 1) close to where I live; 2) cheaper than staying there; (Those reasons should probably be reversed, but I’d sound too cheap if I wrote it out the other way.) and 3) I get to see my husband, and sleep in my own bed, actually sleep during  conference! Nice.

Our speaker for Friday was fantasy author Cinda Chima. She spoke about fantasy. (Surprise.) She directed us to: Why write fantasy? What are the categories of fantasy? And, what is magic? To greatly summarize her talk, she said that the elements of fantasy are character, setting, plot and magic, with magic being why it is fantasy, and the first three elements being the reason why others would want to read your story.

I do enjoy live writing conferences. It has been wonderful (as I anticipated) to see all my writing friends whom I only see at conferences, and some I’ve only known via the internet. I was also able to eat dinner with spot-on author-speaker, Darcy Pattison. Words flow from her mouth like diamonds. I was in a workshop with Darcy several years ago, and have her Novel Metamorphoses book, and get her Fiction Notes. Since I’d invited her to this conference, I didn’t expect anything less than diamonds.

Last night, I also had to privilege to introduce myself to Tor Senior Editor, Susan Chang. I was the one who invited her, too, to the conference, so naturally, I was looking forward to meeting her and listening to her pearls of wisdom. I’d heard many wonderful things about Susan pre-conference. Face-to-face (even for a minute) has been a thousand times better. First impressions are very… impressionable. She is gracious, knowledgable, reasonable, an excellent listener, quite charming, and (I’ve been told) humorous. (No, I am not buttering her up! She truly is quite nice.) I look forward to her talks today and tomorrow.

My guess is that I will not post again about the conference until Monday. Need to focus. On to the writers conference.

Writing Conference Expectations

 Literature Blogs

We’re having our SCBWI-MI fall conference this weekend. I’ve been to over a dozen live writing conferences in different states. I’ve also been co-chair of four of them. I’ve attended on-line writers conferences as well. After all this time and experience, I rather know what to expect. I should rather say, I ought to know by now what to expect. Here’s what I expect for this weekend.

* That I will greet old friends, and make bunches of new ones – all of us gathered by a shared interest and hope.

* That one of these writer friends will tell me: 1) if I put my sweater on tag-side out; or 2) if my shoes don’t match, from getting dressed in the dark; or 3) that before I slip away for a critique, to be sure I remove the spinach dangling from between my teeth or pumpkin smear on my cheek.

* That I remember to bring extra pens in case my favorite one runs out of ink. I also take a water bottle, a watch, and business cards, and sometimes even remember to hand out the cards.

* That I will have one manuscript (possibly more) polished enough to pitch.

* That when I practice my elevator pitches, I mentally delete each “um” and “well, then…” and “ya know?” and remember to keep such phrases deleted when my mouth lays a patch at the intersection of Conversation Street and Nervous Lane.

* That I take cash-only for book purchases v.s. my credit card, which doesn’t light up when I’ve exceeded our monthly food budget.

* That I don’t pass out when I come face-to-face with an editor or agent. First impressions count.

* That I will take away gobs of information for my personal writing craft improvement.

* That after an attending editor or agent asks for a partial or a full, I’ll be business-like-delighted, but not so elated-ecstatic-happy that I’ve forgotten where I parked my car.