Wednesday, June 7, 2017

ISWG: Finding Your Way Back

This month's question: Did you ever say "I quit"? If so, what happened to make you come back to writing?

I have many different times in my life when I wanted to quit. The longest stretch was about six years ago. I had a lot going on in my personal life (my younger son required two surgeries within the space of a few months), and I’d gotten some discouraging feedback on a new project. I’ve since learned never to let anyone see my first drafts, but I didn’t know that then. I was so discouraged I set that book aside.

That’s when the writer's block started. For a few months, I just wrote, “I can’t write anything,” in my journal. At least I was writing words, right?

How did I find my way back? I started asking myself what I really liked to read and what I really wanted to write if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else reading it. This led me to tackling a YA retelling, a book of my heart. Instead of writing for the market, I wrote just for me.

No, it’s not published, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that through writing that novel, I found my love of writing again. Because if I don’t enjoy writing, why am I doing this anyway?

I’ve since learned that I’m often most vulnerable to giving up when life presents me with a mix of writing obstacles and difficult life circumstances. But now that I’ve seen I can come back, dealing with those bad days or those days (or months) when writing comes hard is easier. I know they won’t last forever.

All I need to keep in mind is why I’m writing in the first place: What do I like to read? What do I like to write?

If that’s my focus, I won’t give up for long.

And that book I gave up on? It’s finished, and I’m now querying it. Setting something aside doesn’t mean forever.

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

 To see more IWSG posts, go here. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What I Learned About Dreams from La La Land

Summit Entertainment via
Have you seen La La Land? I recently watched it, since it just came out on DVD.  As a fan of old movies, especially Singing in the Rain, it was my cup of tea: lovely score, costumes, and snappy dialogue. I was enthralled with this story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician till the end.

But all that talk of following your dreams made me think of my own dreams—and how long I’ve wanted to be a writer (since fourth grade—but who’s counting?).

Here’s what I learned about dreams:

***Spoiler Alert—if you haven’t watched the movie, you might want to stop here.***

1.  Rejection can make you lose sight of your dreams. There’s one point in the movie, when Mia, the main character, is so discouraged she wants to give up. “It hurts,” she says. I don’t blame her. Auditions are harder than querying. I’d rather get a form letter. But no matter how it happens, rejection does hurt. The only thing that’s helped me is to remember—it’s not personal. It’s my work they don’t like, not me.

Summit Entertainment
2.  Support is essential for any dreamer. I loved how Sebastian pushes Mia when she’s at her lowest, finding her an audition and driving her all the way from Nevada to L.A. This made me thankful for the supportive people in my life—like my husband who always took my dream seriously, never doubting I’d see a book in my hands some day. I know it’s harder following your dreams without support, though not impossible.

3.  Being a dreamer means making tough choices. The only part about the movie I didn’t like was the ending. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s not typical Hollywood. But, at the same time, I agree with what the filmmakers are saying. Having a dream—a big dream, like acting or any of the arts—is consuming. It can be hard on your family. I know this, because there was a time when I was so consumed with my art that I had very little left over for my husband or kids. But unlike Mia, I don’t think that is a good thing. I love writing, but I hold it a lot more loosely than I once did. Of course, it’s still my dream to get published, but there is more to life than writing. And I don’t regret the fact that my writing dreams have sometimes moved at a snail's pace in order to put my family first.

Summit Entertainment via
Have you seen La La Land? What do you think about what it said about choices and following your dreams?

* I won't be blogging for the next Mondays due to a family wedding and Memorial Day weekend. I'll be back on June 7th for Insecure Writer's Support Group.  I'll see you then!

Monday, May 8, 2017

MMGM: School Ship Tobermory

If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you may have heard me mention Alexander McCall Smith. I love his mystery series for adults, THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. It’s one of a few series that  I faithfully read Why? It’s got quirky characters, lovely prose, and a rich African setting.

When I saw that he had a new series out for kids, I was excited. Not only did it have a mystery element, but it was set on the isle of Mull in Scotland (!), and just happened to take place on a school that’s a ship. What’s not to like?

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

The author of the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency draws from his own sailing experience to deliver this rip-roaring adventure on the high seas. The first volume in a middle-grade adventure-mystery series perfect for boys and girls!

Ben and Fee MacTavish are twins who’ve been homeschooled on a submarine. Now they’re heading to the School Ship Tobermory. This is no ordinary school—it’s a sailing ship where kids from around the world train to be sailors and learn about all things nautical. Come aboard as the kids set sail for their first adventure.

Ben and Fee make friends as they adjust to life aboard the Tobermory. When a film crew arrives on a nearby ship, the Albatross, Ben is one of the lucky kids chosen as a movie extra. But after a day’s filming, his suspicions are aroused. Are the director and crew really shooting a film? Or are they protecting a secret on the lower decks of the Albatross? Ben, Fee, and their friends set out to investigate. Are they prepared for what they might find?

What to like:

1. The author, as always, draws from his own experience: This is what I love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. McCall Smith’s books are always set in places he knows well, like Africa or Scotland. He’s also a sailor. So, it goes to show that “writing what you know” really pays off—especially in the depth of your story.

2. A close-knit family: Although Ben and Fee’s folks only appear in the very beginning, I thought it was endearing that Ben and Fee are constantly thinking of writing their parents. I also loved how these twins share secrets and clearly like each other. While Fee and Ben drive the narrative, the author didn’t make the parents awful or kill them off in order for that to happen.

3. An interesting setting: Much of the first part of the book is establishing this school on a ship, and wow, that was a fun idea. I loved how all the students are from all over the world, each with different stories about why they’re at this boarding school.

4. A mystery that’s engaging (and not too scary) for kids: I loved how the two mysteries in the book entwined together.  I loved the emphasis on animals, which was also a hit with my 12-year-old son. This is a gentle mystery, like the No. 1 books, which will appeal to kids who normally don’t like the dark stuff.

5. Kids solve the problems, but adults play a part too. Recently my kids and I were talking about how it seems that all kids in kidlit are smarter than the adults. That doesn’t happen in Tobermory. The teachers are warm and caring, though not without flaws. I liked how the kids decided to tell their teachers what was going on—even if that didn’t work out so well at first—rather than sneaking off by themselves. (I suppose my teacher/mom side is showing.)

What else? Well, there’s an antagonist aptly named Shark (with hair to match), comic-style drawings throughout, cool parents, and the possibility of a sequel in the Caribbean.

This is MG approved, at least at my house. It’s interesting to watch what happens when I bring books home to read for MMGM. The more literary books, especially if they’re perceived to be “sad,” never get stolen from me. But humorous adventures and books about ordinary kids in interesting circumstances (like a Scottish sailing school) almost always disappear. 

Have you read any good nautical yarns lately?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ISWG: Hands On Research

 This is an update of a post I ran in January 2014. To read the original post, click here.

They say children learn best if they can touch and handle what they are learning, if they are given real experiences.

That seems to apply to us writers too.

One of my favorite parts of writing is the research. (Hey, my first job out of college was a research assistant. I got paid to go to the library!)

But the best kind of research is the kind you can't find in books.

About four years ago, I was working on a historical fantasy set in Russia in 1812.

Although it was not possible for me to travel to Russia to see a reenactment, I attended a Civil War reenactment nearby my house, just so I could talk about wartime medicine with some experts.

Tools used for amputations
I brought my then 8-year-old son as a foil and asked lots of questions. The answers changed a quite a few details in my book.

I also have a falcon in my book, so thanks to some advice from Oregon writer, Emily Whitman, I went to my local Audubon society and met Finnegan:

Finnegan the Peregrine

I took movies with my camera to refer to later. For my kids, it was a "field trip for Mom."

This last summer (2016), I stumbled on two research opportunities that helped with my current projects. Again, these both happened at different festivals or shows that I attended with my kids, often not knowing that I'm find a gem of insight for my writing. 

One, was a medieval sword demonstration, which taught me, among other things that swords fighting is much different in reality than in the movies. And a collie dog show taught me some important facts about that breed (also needed for that same book). Most recently, I am living my research as I just happen to be writing a story set in a school and have recently started substitute teaching.

Me handling a medieval sword

What's next? Hopefully, this summer, my faithful research assistants (a.k.a. sons) and I will learn how to fence.

What has been the most memorable research you have done?

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!  

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

To see more ISWG posts, check out our list here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What I've Learned (About Writing) From the British Baking Show

(BBC photo)

I just rewatched several seasons of the British Baking Show on Netflix. It’s comfort TV for me: lovely English grounds, accents (!), and beautiful food. And unlike most American cooking or baking shows, the contestants and the judges are actually supportive of each other. But recently I’ve been thinking of how some of the contestants acted in the competition and how that relates to writing.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Don’t self reject. In season 1, episode 4, one of the contestants flubbed his dessert. He was so angry at himself that he threw everything in the garbage or rather the “bin.” So he had nothing to show for himself during the judging—except a garbage can.

Lesson learned: I’ve had a couple times where I’ve felt like giving up on a manuscript or writing because of harsh criticism I’ve received. Thankfully, I snapped out of it. There are other ways to reject yourself too—like not sending your work out at all or not sending it to certain agents or editors because you're certain they wouldn't like your work. All of this is throwing your work away before someone even has a chance to judge read it. 

The Baked Alaska before it went in the bin. (BBC photo)

2. Don’t broadcast your mistakes to the judges (or other writers, agents, or editors). In season 2, there was a baker who constantly put herself down. At one point, the judges told her to quit telling them what was wrong with her baking before they took a bite! Despite that, this girl made it to the final three—so obviously she had a skewed view of her talents.

Lesson learned: It’s easy to put your work down when you’re handing it off to beta readers, critique partners, editors or agents. In Confidence, I talked about how I struggle with this myself. But if you put your work down (or elaborate on all your mistakes before someone reads your book), you prejudice your readers against your work. Don’t do it. Be quietly confident—confidence is not the same bragging.

Mary and Paul judging the dreaded technical challenge (BBC photo)

3. Good bakers (and writers) have style AND substance. In the second season and third season, two bakers kept getting criticized for bakes that were beautiful on the outside (fancy piping and cute themes), but tasted horrible. This is not what you want to do!

Lesson learned: It’s not just words or lovely phrases that make a book, it’s the story your book tells that makes it compelling. Purple prose and lovely metaphors will not mask plot holes. I’ve been so guilty of this at times—because I struggle with plotting, but love a good turn of phrase. 

(BBC photo)

Have you made any of these mistakes? Do you watch the British Baking Show?

Monday, April 17, 2017

MMGM: Navigating Early

I’m convinced that contrary to what people at writing workshops say, the hardest part of a book to write is the ending. I don’t know about you, but I’ve started many a book that was very promising only to fling it across the room (figuratively, of course) by the middle or the end. The worst is a book I love till the last chapter.  (And don’t get me started on those twists that make you see the whole book in a different light. These type of shocking endings don't often work.)

But then there’s a different kind of a book, a book that’s more like a slow simmer. It might start strong, it might meander, but the end is completely satisfactory, making you forget that you ever had to make yourself keep reading in parts.

That, my friends, is NAVIGATING EARLY. It was a book I loved from the beginning, had some doubts about in the middle, but was very pleased with how it ended.

The Synopsis (from Amazon):

From the author of Newbery Medal winner
Moon Over Manifest comes the odyssey-like adventure of two boys’ incredible quest on the Appalachian Trail.

When Jack Baker’s father sends him from his home in Kansas to attend a boys’ boarding school in Maine, Jack doesn’t know what to expect. Certainly not Early Auden, the strangest of boys. Early keeps to himself, reads the number pi as a story, and refuses to accept truths others take for granted. Jack, feeling lonely and out of place, connects with Early, and the two become friends.

During a break from school, the boys set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for a great black bear. As Jack and Early travel deeper into the mountains, they meet peculiar and dangerous characters, and they make some shocking discoveries. But their adventure is only just beginning. Will Jack’s and Early’s friendship last the journey? Can the boys make it home alive?

What I loved about this book:

1. A book with a child with autism where the autism isn’t the focus. There’s been a lot of books with characters with autism in recent years, and most of them I love. But I loved even more that Early’s autism wasn’t named, and how Jack comes to realize Early actually has feelings. This may seem like a minor thing, but I think it's a common assumption people have. Kids with autism are still kids, with dreams and goals and real emotions.

2. Early—I already mentioned him in my last point, but he has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I loved how he listened to music on different days—and he has such fantastic taste. (Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday!) Usually I bond with the narrator, but Early was the character I sympathized with the most. He is why I kept reading.

3. Metaphors and narrative progressions—I loved how the author used Early's days of the week music, especially how Billie Holiday was for rainy days, and the whole concept of raining inside. There were other luscious and meaningful patterns and repetitions in this. Lovely.

4.  Pi! I cannot forget the main reason I picked up this book. I loved how Early saw Pi as a story, I loved the pi elements and mystery in terms of whether it stopped. (Before we read the afterword, which clearly said it was fiction, my kids and I had some interesting discussions about this.)

What more can I say? There’s adventure, boating, pirates, a murder mystery, and a story within a story. If you like character-driven novels with a lot of depth and adventure, this one’s for you!

Just for fun, I’m including a picture from our Pi celebration last month. We always make a p-i-e in honor of it. It’s on March 14 (3.14), if you’d like to celebrate next year! Come to think of it, NAVIGATING EARLY would be the perfect read for that day.

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

MMGM: Cloud and Wallfish

I am late to the party on CLOUD AND WALLFISH, although I actually read this last fall. When I picked the book up, I knew the author’s name was familiar. I’d read THE WRINKLED CROWN by her, but though that was intriguing, it doesn’t hold a candle to CLOUD AND WALLFISH. I think this is what happens when a writer really writes from the heart. Nesbit’s heart came through strong and clear in this one—and it was obvious that she knew her setting like the back of her hand.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now “Jonah Brown”—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.

Cloud and Wallfish

1.    Nonfiction at the end of chapters help kids understand the historical background: I thought this was an interesting way for the author to give kids background about the time period without overloading the actual story.

2.    Setting/time period I’m drawn to: As many of you know, I lived in Ukraine shortly after the Iron Curtain fell, so I could relate to so many of the oddities and situations  described in this book. I loved how it showed the propaganda against the U.S. It rang true for me on so many levels.

3.    Interesting kids: Both Jonah (Wallfish) and Claudia (Cloud) were such interesting, unique characters. Their friendship was beautifully handled and well-done. The “Cloud” scene at the end is an image that will stay for me a long time.

4.    Biblical allusions: I thought the references to the Tower of Babel and Jonah and the Whale added a lot of depth to this story, although it is not a religious book.

Caveat: The interesting thing about this book was that I expected from the first chapter that it was going to be a spy novel with lots of action, people being chased, etc.  And though spies are integral to the plot, and the stakes are high, it was really a character-driven novel about a cross-cultural friendship about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Now, I was not disappointed at all, because I love novels about friendships and novels set during the Cold War, but if you’re looking for James Bond-type book set in Eastern Germany, you might be disappointed.

If you enjoy reading about this time period, you might also enjoy SECOND FIDDLE by Roseanne Parry, another favorite of mine, which is about an American violinist in Eastern Germany shortly after communism ended.

Have you read Cloud and Wallfish or any other novels set during the Cold War?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.