The Writer, The Reader, and Mirror Neurons

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Imagine that you are hiking and you trip on a slick section of the trail, Cactus detail and a cactus spine pierces your palm—the sharp, focused pain spreads through the muscle and nerves, and the end catches inside your skin as you work to remove it.

Sometimes when one of my kids has had a shot, I flinch and the skin in my upper arm tingles, even though I’m not the one getting the shot.

Why and how do we have physical and emotional responses to what we see and what we read?

The answer may be mirror neurons.

Current theory states that the mirror neurons in our brain mirrors the actions, goals, intentions, thoughts, and emotions of another person’s actions, etc.

Our neurons fire in the same location in our brain when we move and when we observe the same movement by someone else. (Note: additional research shows that we do distinguish the difference between our own action versus someone else’s action.)  Neuroscientist, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, found that the brain shows the same activity with observing an action or reading words describing an action.

Perhaps mirror neurons are how readers can feel as if they have literally entered the story. “The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know ‘it’s just a movie,'” said Normal N. Holland, PhD.

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, suggested that theater events “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.” In essence we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” (The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: Interview with Vittorio Gallese)

One could theorize that stories and literature create greater emotional impact if we fully can connect with readers and directly access their brains (mirror neurons).

So what does this research mean to a writer?

  • Our writing needs to be specific and sensory filled.
  • Characters need to be well rounded and believable.
  • The plot needs to be well crafted and correctly paced.
  • The setting needs to be realistically described.

Good writing means readers’ mirror neurons will fire up and they will physically and emotionally experience the story along with the character. As they read, they will experience an illusion of reality.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

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The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me special.theater-seats

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources: http://jamesclear.com/overcome-fear)

 

Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.

 

 

Finding Inspiration

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As a child, I loved reading books about the Borrowers, a fictional family of tiny people who live secretly in the walls of an English house. To survive, they “borrow” items from the big people living there, who assume their things have been lost. Recently I’ve been wondering if the Borrowers have taken up residence with me too, because something I need has gone missing.

Inspiration.   Unknown

Inspiration is not like mislaid socks or lost buttons. You can’t see, hear or hold it, but you know when it’s gone. Because it’s the New Year, a hopeful time, when people are focused on fresh starts, I thought blogging about the problem might help me get back on track. After all, I’m starting something too—the ending of my novel. But the challenge of tying story elements together and weaving in concepts like crisis, climax and character arc into a brilliant conclusion has temporarily overwhelmed me. I need a creativity reboot!

So I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I made a list. I also turned to authors I respect for advice. “Where do you find inspiration? Stimulation and motivation?” I asked them. “What do you do when you hit a rough patch? And if you’re stuck, fading or afraid of failing, how do you convince yourself that you’ll succeed?”

images-21. Walk in nature. Writer Jill Koenigsdorf, author of Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall, swears by going on long hikes in nature with her dogs. “I find that during my walks, all my senses are more attuned and I tend to slow down and mull ideas over. I will see a raven on a barbed wire fence or a slit-open bag of sand on the side of the road or a piece of torn fabric on a rose bush, and it will trigger a story,” she explains. “I also find if I am stuck writing a certain scene or character in a piece I have already started, that walking outdoors helps me see what the problem is.”

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  1. Watch a TED Talk. The extraordinary range of TED topics makes for a smorgasbord of thought-provoking talks. Best of all, you can watch them for free. Subjects range from understanding quantum physics to curing Alzheimer’s to discovering life on other planets, so whatever you need for your writing, you may be able to find right here. I gained valuable insights into one of my POV characters (a gamer), when I watched Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jane McGonigal’s talk on how “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Highly recommended.
  1. Listen to audiobooks. My son gave me a subscription to Audible.com for    Christmas, and it’s changed my life. It’s also made me late to a lot of appointments, because I’m constantly pulling off the road to park so I can take notes on what I’m listening to. From a craft standpoint, however, I’ve become a convert. When I listen to books read aloud, I hear things I didn’t notice when I read in my head, like how the author uses  rhythm, cadence, syntax, tone and vocabulary to create an authentic voice.

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  1. Seek out other people’s stories in whatever forms they take. Consider using unconventional materials. Stories can be found wherever we are, so be open about where to look. Sources like stand-up comedy routines, church sermons, obituaries, maps, yearbooks, brochures, games, restaurant menus, journals and even junk mail can be chock-a-block full of anecdotes and ideas. Recently, my husband and I discovered a stash of his mother’s old diaries. The yellowing pages, antiquated language, and old-fashioned perspective from a different era is a treasure chest of data—charming and sweet and a little bit sad. Reading the words my mother-in-law wrote as a 16-year-old in 1939 has been eye-opening. Bonus materials crammed into her diaries included postcards, dance cards, sketches, and even notes from summer camp friends. My favorite one was addressed to “a girl who can keep her temper well.” 
  1. Change Your Location. Change Your Perspective. A writer’s job is to look at the world from different points of view. Kathy Wilson, writer, teacher, digital media specialist and founder of the film collective Rikaroo thinks changing locations can help. Writing in a coffee shop in Harlem, for instance, will give you a different perspective than hanging out on Madison Avenue. Switching it up, she says, can be as simple as taking “a ride on the subway, intersecting with different lives, exploring new neighborhoods, eating different food, talking with my students, spending time with my father and his friends [who] are in their eighties and nineties [and] hearing their stories.”” Kathy’s also inspired by the courage and loyalty of animals. “Spending time with my dog inspires me,” she adds. “She seems to have drawn the short straw in life, yet never gives up.”
  1. Teach. Volunteer. I tutor at a school for disadvantaged kids where 100% of the students are on scholarship. Despite significant and often heartbreaking hardships, every senior graduates to attend a four-year college. Most are the first in their families to do so. Every time I set foot on campus, I’m awed by the courage, determination, and resiliency of these teens—often in the face of unspeakable odds. Talk about putting things into perspective…
  1. Take a class. Want to learn to Salsa dance, speak Swahili, sew, sing, sail, or practice Pilates? Go for it. It’s all grist for the mill. Having interests and hobbies is good for character creation, so writers should be lifelong learners. In order to prepare for a lecture I’m giving, I’ll be polishing my public speaking skills next month by working with stage and screen actor Andrew Hurteau, who helps people “tell a more compelling story” as a coach with Butterfield Speaks. Hollywood here I come.

images-1  8. Give Yourself a Deadline: Inspiration is more likely to show up if you have a deadline. If you don’t, make one up and ask a friend (or your writer’s group) to enforce. Procrastination is one of the seven deadly writer’s sins.

  1. Think of writing as a job. Stacy Nyikos, author of numerous picture books and the middle grade novel, Dragon Wishes, says she’s a drill sergeant when it comes to her writing routine. “I write every day, rain or shine, no matter if inspiration comes to the table or not. Writing is my job. Isn’t that how one treats any other job?”

Most importantly, don’t forget the words of Jack London. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

So, come on. Find your club and have at it. Let me know how it goes.

Draft: (noun) A Preliminary Version of a Pieces of Writing

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I’ve been drafting a new story…it’s an historical and it wasn’t new idea to me or others. I’d worked on it years ago, but stopped when another story set in the same time and place came out. But I STILL love the time and setting–Los Alamos 1944–and I still love the story I want to tell. So figuring that enough time had passed since that other book had been published, last August while on a lovely writing retreat on Cape Cod, I started anew.

Cape

I charged on; wrote, like Kathi Appelt has said, “like my fingers were on fire!” It was wonderful, exciting, and fun. Then life happened. PAPER HEARTS came out, my son got married, and then there was the Holy Grail of all holidays – Thanksgiving. All wonderful and happy events, but still…for all of September and October I wrote maybe 5,000 words. I didn’t write at all during November. Not. A. Single. Word. Starting December 1st, I started writing again. I secluded myself in the drafting cave. Once more writing “like my fingers were on fire!” I have not seen my friends. I have not always done the laundry or gone to the grocery story, let alone had dinner ready at the appointed time. Some days are tough, and my fingers only give off whispers of smoke. Some days are easy, and my characters are the ones on fire. I am trying desperately to finish the draft before the end of January. I’m not sure I’ll make it.

And this is why: I don’t write shitty first drafts. Some people can crank out first drafts in a month or two. I will never do Nanowrimo. That is not the way I write. I like to polish the turd as it comes out. I’ve decided to blame Alan Cumyn for this.

Alan Cuymn

Alan was my advisor second semester at VCFA and he made me rewrite the beginning of my creative thesis every single packet. Every single one. That’s four times for those who don’t know how VCFA works. He said when he was writing, he liked to have his work as right as possible before moving on. He might not have said those exact words, but that was my take away from second semester. Make it as good as possible before moving on.

Those are not bad words to write by. But it does have a way of slowing down the drafting process. I have gone back and started over three times already–adding threads, changing secondary characters, writing a new opening so the story opens closer to The Day Everything Changed, condensing the timeline. Some may say I’m actually writing my fourth draft — but I haven’t written the end yet!

But I have plotted the complete story out and I know where it’s going.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 8.43.51 AM

Now all I have to do it make it to the finish line.

A Treat of a Retreat: How to Plan Your Own

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I’m feeling that December frenzy. Holiday prep stuff. Work is hectic. Company is coming. All the to-dos and who-tos and yoo-hoos are piling up. There’s lots of jolly good and fa-la-la joy… BUT:

All I really want to do is finish my problem child novel. The one that’s been tormenting me for a good part of this year. 

Which has me dreaming of going on a writing retreat. I’ve been lucky enough to go on three this year. I’m greedy that way. These were all personal retreats, planned by us, not an organization. Each one had at least one other VCFA grad there. I guess we know what we want. And each one included friends from all over the country–and even the wider world. 

The wonderful thing about planning your own retreat is, you get to plan it. The harder thing is, you get to plan it. 

Some things to think about:

LOCATION

  • Convenient travel location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be close to everyone or even anyone; but it should be easily accessible. Pick a place within an easy distance to drive or near a major travel hub. Getting there shouldn’t feel close to impossible.
  • Out in the wild SoCalPlaces to walk (or sit) outside. For me, it’s important to have some kind of access to fresh air and outside explorations. A nice walk is an important balance to sitting and writing whether it’s for a solitary stroll or a group walk-n-talk.
  • Not too interesting. It’s good to stay somewhere interesting–but not so interesting it serves as a distraction from writing.

THE SPACE

  • Beds. Depending on the closeness of your group, as well personal idiosyncrasies, be sure to have enough beds and space to work around different sleep schedules. 
  • Work space. Personally, I think having separate work spots is more important than separate sleeping arrangements. I think it’s hard to work with someone else’s creative energy too close to mine. 

TIME

  • I’ve found four to five days, depending on the impact of travel, to be the perfect amount of time. A weekend is too short to settle in and feel comfortable, but fatigue and the disruption of ordinary routines can start wear you down. I usually get homesick on day three, then reinvigorated on day four and then end up in a good spot of feeling both accomplished and ready to go home.

FOOD

  • AhhhhIt can be a hassle to plan, but it is worth the pain to think ahead. Everyone needs to eat, but the food preparation can’t take precedence over the reason everyone is there.
  • Generally it seems to work if breakfast and lunch are DIY and dinners are shared. One group decided to go out to eat for dinners–although we ended up with enough leftovers that we stayed in, also. 
  • It’s possible to assign different meals to different people, but I’ve found it to be that some people like to cook and others don’t. The non-cookers can prep and clean-up. Talk about realistic expectations before you are all starving and suffering from creative brain overload.
  • Eating together builds community and camaraderie.
  • Have a balance of healthy and naughty snacks!

THE WORK

  • I think it’s nice to be somewhat familiar with each other’s work.
  • If at all possible, share pages and/or a summary ahead of time. Not to critique, or even formally discuss, simply knowing what the others are working on adds a deeper dimension to the experience–and allows for more focused conversations.
  • Picture Books!Book club! It can also be nice to read a book or two in common in preparation, simply to have a starting place for discussion. Or, for my picture book focused retreat, we brought an enormous stack of books to read and study.
  • Goal setting. It’s good to start the retreat with setting goals. Think measurable and realistic.

SCHEDULE

  • Early morning Palm SpringsSome groups only want time to write.
  • Having a set schedule–with room for flexibility and adjusting–allows for greater productivity. If you only have a certain number of alone hours, you’ll be more likely to use them for writing, as opposed to if you feel as though you have an endless amount of hours to fill. Brains need breaks and variety.
  • Take advantage of having access to other people’s brains. The shared collective think tank is a powerful thing!
  • It can be really interesting and helpful if each person leads a conversation or activity–again, planning ahead is key. It doesn’t have to be formal or complex, it’s just so enlightening to learn how someone else thinks and works.
  • Readings. Make time to listen to each other’s work. No critiques, just reading. 
  • Downtime is crucial too. 

GOODBYE…FOLLOW UP

  • It can be an emotional experience to do good hard work with others. I think it’s good to have some kind of cumulative send-off in which everyone shares what they’ve accomplished and what they plan to do next.
  • After every retreat, I always end up thinking about my friends’ stories along with my own. I love to hear updates and progress reports.
  • Schedule check-ins, with one person serving as organizer.

What did I forget? What do you think is key to a successful retreat?

Dreamingly yours,

Sarah Tomp

Quotables

Tips from the Slush Pile

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Editors, like other superheroes, can sometimes seem inscrutable. What are they thinking each morning as they open their inboxes and pore through the most recent submissions from hopeful authors? What are they looking for? What do they want? Will they adore us? Will they cast us aside? What mysterious notions will strike their fancy? How will the editorial trade winds blow, and when will they shift?

I’m a writer first and foremost, but through my work at the Vermont College literary journal Hunger Mountain, first as a submissions reader and then as an editor, I’ve gotten a good look at life on the editorial side of the desk, too. What I’ve learned as an editor has been both useful and comforting to me as a writer. Now that we’re selecting final pieces to publish in our 2016 print issue, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned from my time reading submissions. Here’s what makes me sit up and take notice, what makes me groan, and why I’ve promised myself never to take rejection personally.

If you are an experienced writer who cares about craft, you will stand out from the crowd. It’s true that editors and agents receive a ton of submissions, but what you might not know is that many of these submissions are from writers at the very beginning of their literary lives. At Hunger Mountain, we often see work with a lot of promise from authors who still need more time to practice and hone their craft. We also sometimes see work that’s simply not right for us and our audience, work that seems to have been cast out into the world without much thought or care. If you have taken the time to write, revise, and research appropriate homes for your work, you do not need to do anything special to get noticed by editors: they will appreciate your competence, professionalism, and attention to detail, and they will take your writing as seriously as you do.

If you’re writing about a well-explored topic, you’ve got to do it fabulously. Some guy once famously said that there are only two stories in the world. I’d like to suggest that in the world of YA short fiction, those stories are “a teenager goes to a party” and “a teenager struggles with an eating disorder.” Not that there is anything wrong with these stories! These are, in fact, real things that lots of teens experience; there’s a good reason we see so many stories about these topics in our submissions inbox. Many of these stories are excellent. We’ve published several of them during my time at Hunger Mountain, and some of those stories about common subjects are among my favorites. I’ll admit, though, that when I open up a submission that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times before, the writer must work extremely hard to win me over, grab my attention, and convince me that this story is something new and special. If your topic is familiar, the other characteristics of your writing cannot be. More than ever, you’ll need a strong narrative voice, a fresh perspective, a brilliantly unique character, a quick wit—anything that will make your work stand out from the pack of tales with similar themes. Ask yourself what makes this a story that only you can tell.

Sometimes it’s truly a matter of taste. I don’t know exactly why—maybe I had a bad run-in with Steinbeck in a previous life—but I really can’t stand stories about plucky kids growing up during the Dust Bowl. I know there are a lot of good stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I know other readers love stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I’m aware that this is a totally irrational irritation, but the fact remains: I hate Dust Bowl stories. I have been known to shout, upon opening a submission, “NOT THE DUST BOWL AGAIN!”

What I’m getting at here is that you shouldn’t let a rejection letter discourage you. It honestly might not mean anything at all about the quality of your work. It just means your story wasn’t the right fit for that particular editor. I know people say this all the time, but it’s not just an excuse to make you feel better. The next time you hear it, please believe it.

Editors can’t publish every piece they truly love. This is the truth that breaks my heart. Hunger Mountain receives a number of absolutely excellent submissions each reading period—more than we have the space to publish in our slender little mag—and, this year in particular, we’ve been forced to make impossible choices. I gave my heart to a more than a dozen great stories this fall, but we’ll only have room to print three or four. This is true outside the literary magazine world as well: even if an editor falls in love with your story, she might not be able to publish it. Maybe she doesn’t have the budget or the time for it. Maybe she’s already working on a similar title, and she’s trying to build a more well-rounded list. Maybe her colleagues just don’t feel the same way about the story. I know it’s not much consolation if you’re the author whose work has been rejected, but you should know that the editor who turned down your piece is probably kicking her desk in frustration right now. She loves you! She knows you will go on to do great things!

You all are writing a lot of amazing stuff. What I’ve been most impressed by during my editorial adventures is the amount of truly great writing that’s being produced in the children’s literature community right now. I’ve loved having a chance to get a small sense of all the new, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and risky projects writers are attempting these days, and I’ve been inspired to push myself farther in my own writing. Thank you for being talented enough to tell these stories well and brave enough to send them out into the world.

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

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Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on wattpad.com.  https://www.wattpad.com/story/28382310-sparrow%27s-story-a-girl-defiant

Writing and Waiting….and Waiting

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Recently I played on a softball team and got some coaching on hitting. “Wait for it,” said my friend, Doug, as he lobbed the ball. A slow pitch comes at you from above, like an apple falling from a tree. It’s very hard to gauge when to swing, and I’m usually wrong.

At first I swung and swung, connecting with nothing more than air. “Wait for it. Let it drop into the zone,” he’d say patiently, letting fly another pitch.

Eventually, I learned to wait for the ball to enter the space in front of me, about waist high. When I hit the ball, it felt soft. Suddenly I knew the meaning of the phrase “sweet spot.” If I waited until just the right moment, it was easy to hit, and felt perfect. Now I could hit them out into the field over and over. But if I jumped the gun and swung too soon, the ball spun backwards, or popped off foul. Too late, and the hit was so harsh it hurt my hands.

Waiting is a big part of the writing life, too. Waiting for readers to finish, to give feedback. Waiting for editors to buy. Waiting for agents to give a thumbs up.

All those kinds of waiting are what I’d call external waiting. But there is also internal waiting, and this is what’s hardest for me right now.

I finished yet another draft of a book I have been working on for several years. I’d taken extensive feedback from a year or so ago, and reworked most of the book. I thought the book was ready to shop around. But I worked with kid lit editor Emma Dryden over a long weekend at Better Books Marin in October. Her critique was to the point: You are starting at the wrong time in this character’s life. This meant that the entire opening was useless, and the world building I’d done there was wasted.

Not a small thing to swallow. I had no idea how I’d go about fixing the problem without writing the whole thing again. The notion froze me in my tracks.

Later in the conference, she counseled all of us kid lit writers to let the manuscripts on which we’d gotten feedback sit in the background as we digested all that we’d learned over the course of the conference. She said that our subconscious writer minds needed time to mull over what to do next.

This is what I mean by internal waiting. It feels like doing nothing, just as I felt while standing at home base, watching the ball come at me, waiting for the time when I could see that it was in the right place to hit. Those split seconds feel like a year when you are nervously hoping to get on base. It feels like I am doing nothing as I let the story stew and I reread and study my notes from the critique group, the lectures and my own journals during that conference. I have to trust that I am sorting things out even as I do nothing at all for this story but wait.

While my writing seems to stand still, my thinking doesn’t. It is moving in a slow arc, bringing my story into focus. This meditation will get it in just the right position. Once it’s there, I’ll be ready to swing and send it flying.

Anonymous Author Confessions

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Being an author is weird. Here are a few anonymous quotes that I gathered from a variety of YA, MG, and PB writers on publishing, life, writing, etc.

WRITING

I don’t write every day. I’d be a better writer if I did, and it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t actually manage to write every day. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Being a writer is not always a straight line process.

I’m 100% certain I’d be much less moodier and a lot nicer to people in general if I gave up the stress-filled writing life, but I can’t possibly stop. Does that make me an addict? I’m pretty sure it does.

Most times, I’m afraid my writing is bad. Other times, I’m afraid my writing is great. The second fear is the one that blocks me.

REVISING

Why is it that polishing silver looks so exciting when I reach act 2 in revision?

There are certain bits of writing advice that I’ve heard bandied about by so many people so often that they make me want to scream. “Show don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Butt in chair” come to mind. I think at this point one should have to pay $5 into the Overused Adage Retirement Trust Fund prior to invoking any of these.

WORKING WITH AN EDITOR

90% of the time I’m convinced my editor hates me, even when she’s writing totally innocuous or even positive emails. The compliments are just an elaborate cover for her searing rage at everything I’m doing wrong!

I stalk my editor’s Twitter feed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? I mean, I think I could say I just “check” her Twitter feed a lot, but for whatever reason it feels like stalking.

LIFE

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Fast, Cheap, or Well-Made: Pick Two.” Well, I have a writer’s equivalent. “Writing, Family, or Self-Care: Pick Two.” On any given day, I can only attend to two out of these three things.

The week before my deadline, no one gets a bath in my house. No one gets dinner either.

I was folding laundry and remembered that I just sold a book, so now I can buy new underwear! Triumph!”

CASH FLOW

I thought royalty checks would trickle in, but no. Even though my debut novel is selling fine (according to my publisher), it might be years before I earn back the advance — an amount that was less than a public school teacher makes in a year. (No matter that it took me two years to write the book.) Now I fully understand the advice, ‘Don’t quit the day job.’

Did you know you can sell a book to a publisher and actually lose money? Unless you’re with a big publisher and with support from their marketing team, you may have to hire your own publicist and attend conferences at your expense–or else nobody hears about your book. At this point, I have to wait for my finances to recover from my last book before I let my agent submit a new one.

ARE YOU THE NEXT J.K. ROWLING?

I cringe at the way people seem to automatically put the words “famous” and “author” together; there are a lot of us authors who aren’t the least bit famous. It embarrasses me for some reason when I get introduced by friends and acquaintances as a “famous author.”

You know darn well my name is not John Green or Veronica Roth, so please don’t ask if you’d have heard of my book before.

At least once a month, someone says, “So you’re an author. Where can I find your books?” And I inwardly chant, “Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’ Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’” It then tends to come out as: “A bookstore…?”

I learned the hard way…so much of our publishing fates are pre-destined the second our deals inked. Every season, publishers pick their horses, the favored titles that are slated to finish first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of them, and get incredible marketing, a huge print run and lots of support. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s not fair, but give it everything you’ve got, regardless. Just run like hell, race after race, against all odds. One day, you may win.

AUTHOR EVENTS

Nothing like not remembering the name of a friend of some twenty years when she comes up for a signing. And she is one of three people buying your book.

A customer admiring one of my picture books said with enthusiasm, “The illustrations are really great!” Pause. “Too!” she added, suddenly remembering that I was the author, not the illustrator.

If you’re ever wondering if authors are still fans at heart–I once found myself on a panel with one of my favorite authors, speaking about one of my favorite subjects. On the panel, I easily made the room laugh. Afterwards, I wanted to tell the author how much her books meant to me, and was completely tongue-tied. After a few highly uncomfortable seconds, I mumbled something unintelligible and beelined… straight for the bar.

At a group book signing, there is nothing more humbling than having so few people line up for your autograph that your “signing assistant” gets bored and wanders away to buy the other authors’ books. (She doesn’t want to buy your book, but could she have a copy for free?)

REVIEWS

I don’t read my reviews, but sometimes my family tells me about them anyway. My cousin once called to read me my one-star review on Amazon. He thought it would be hilarious. Still not laughing, cuz.

I refer to Kirkus as Jerkus.

I claim not to read my Amazon reviews, but I can’t help myself: I read all my bad reviews.

 

 

6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration

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Nileometer

Interior of Nileometer (measures the Nile level) Photo by Sarah Johnson

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

What does a writer (or artist) do when the muse hides, the well freezes, or the trails fade or are overgrown? Ideally the well always is overflowing, the muse is always whispering in our ear, the trail is easy and clear and the words flow. But when words seem flat on the page, here are a few ideas that can help get creativity flowing again.

Write. Write and write and write. Write until the words flow. National Novel Writing Month taps into this approach.

Don’t write. A walk always helps me when I need inspiration. Kate Messner recently found a solution to a plot problem while hiking. Her post is an insightful read.  When Tim Wynne-Jones’ well ran dry, he stepped away from the computer and traveled for a year. Check out his great post.

Read. Read. Read more. Jane Smiley, when not satisfied with the way her writing was moving forward, decided to read 100 novels. She describes her journey in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

A class or program. Take a writing class, online or in your community. Or get a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This is a wonderful book that assists artists after a “creative injury” or artists who are looking for more inspiration in their creative path.

Writer’s groups or online writing communities. This is a great way to connect with other writers.

Live life fully. Susanne Langer wrote, “Imagination must be fed from the world: by new sights and sounds, actions and events and the artist’s interest in ways of human feeling must be kept up by actual living and feeling.”

What other activities do you suggest when creativity is having a slow day or a slow month? We’d love to hear your ideas.