No Pain, No Gain: Are You Making Your Characters Suffer?

Think about all the things you don’t like in real life. Sharks. Spiders. Earthquakes. Bullies. Public speaking. Chances are, if you expose your characters to what you fear, your fiction will flourish because of it. Writers can’t afford to be nice. We’ve got to throw rocks at our characters, as Nabokov famously said. Get them into terrible trouble and hold them there, feet to the fire, until the very end of the story.

Why? Because witnessing other people’s pain and observing how they deal with it keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully, it teaches us something too.

I don’t mean that we should create unrelenting misery; our characters need to experience both ups and downs. I’m no masochist, but since it’s January, I thought the topic of pain was appropriate. For many, this is a month of deprivation and dieting after the holiday excesses. Or a time to force ourselves (again) to start working out at the gym. Just attempting to carry out our new year’s resolutions—and the guilt we feel if we don’t—can cause angst.

Given that this past year has been a challenging one for my family, it helps me to remember that hardship can actually benefit us in the long run. Light can’t exist without darkness. We must experience sorrow to truly feel joy.  So in fiction, a dearth of pain can be a problem. When tension fades, so does reader interest. One of my students has a tendency to protect her protagonists, just as she’d do for the people she loves in real life.  Her instinct is to keep them happy and safe from harm. Boring. “Stop mothering your main characters,” I tell her, but she still finds it hard to hurt them. She’s not the only writer who struggles with this.

It may be helpful to think of it in exercise terms. Physical pain, the kind we feel when we push ourselves playing sports or working out, is a necessary part of getting stronger. Athletes can’t get to the next level without it. Tearing microscopic muscle fibers helps the fibers rebuild more densely into bigger muscles—scientific evidence that discomfort can be beneficial (as long as we don’t overdo it).  I’ve always found it ironic, of course, that in order to flood my system with those bliss-producing endorphins, I have to embrace pain first. But every time, the aches and agony lead me to the ecstasy.

Emotional pain can strengthen us in the same way. Writer Jeanne Weierheiser calls “embracing pain the gateway to growth.” How can you not gift your characters this kind of opportunity? I’m exploring what it means to be a hero in the book I’m writing.  To do this, I’m forcing my characters to make mistakes and endure some really bad things. That’s because their journey to transformation is not based on success. Winning isn’t always the best teacher. Setbacks are what make us stronger. Think about your own experiences. Isn’t positive change more likely to occur after periods of heartache and despair? In the end, my protagonist comes to see that she’s learned more from her missteps than her triumphs. It’s through struggle that she discovers who she is.

The hazards writers create don’t have to be huge and life-threatening. But there should be plenty of small stuff for characters to sweat. Even minor pain can cause emotional upheaval and growth. Things like—

  • Change. This is something people tend to be wary of. As Sol Stein writes in Stein on Writing, “Changes in life are fraught with peril. If the perils of major change happen within the covers of a book, the reader will be absorbed.”
  • Surprises. There are good and bad surprises. Bad ones in life bring “hurt, sadness, misfortune,” says Stein. “But in books readers thrill to the unexpected. A new obstacle, an unexpected confrontation by an enemy, or a sudden twist of circumstance all start adrenaline pumping and pages turning.”
  • Embarrassment. Even in humorous fiction, characters should experience some suffering. Embarrassing situations are a perfect vehicle for this, and they will almost always create interesting plot developments.

Failure is also a reliable source of pain. Most of us have experienced some incidents of failure in real life. When I think of all my unfinished stories and abandoned novels, for instance, I tend to start feeling bad… And yet, my advisors at VCFA taught me that nothing is wasted, every word we write (good or bad) prepares us for what comes next. So, I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress, and that Jane Fonda was right when she brought the phrase, “No pain, no gain,” into prominence to promote her exercise videos.

A protagonist in pain can help us answer the following key story questions: Does this person have a goal? What is the purpose of this scene? If your character isn’t suffering, trying to keep from suffering, or trying to make someone else suffer, scenes can start to drag. In fiction, too much happiness can become humdrum.

So, embrace the pain when it comes knocking at your door. Learn from your fiascos and flops. And do something nice for your characters—inflict some misery on them. One day, they’ll thank you for it.

 

 

Sarah Johnson’s New Novel CROSSINGS!

We’re so proud of Tollboother Sarah Johnson. Her new novel, CROSSINGS, a Young Adult fantasy, is out in the world.

Eliinka, a young, orphaned harp player, was born with the gift of influencing people around her with her music. But in her home country of Pelto, she’s forced to hide this ability to avoid persecution from government authorities. When she contracts to work for Jereni, a woman from the neighboring country with whom Pelto has been at war, she soon finds herself trying to reconcile the two countries. Can Eliinka use her musical gift to bring peace to Pelto and Viru while protecting the people she loves?

You can purchase CROSSINGS herehere or wherever books are sold. Congratulations, Sarah!

Brigadoon Is Back– VCFA Writing for Children & Young Adults Winter Residency

LATE BREAKING NEWS!

YOU REALLY CAN “BE” AT THE RESIDENCY via LIVESTREAM!

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

ON MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY, MONDAY, JANUARY 16 AT 10 A. M. Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith will discuss Kekla’s book X: A Novel.  Written for young adult readers, the book follows the formative years of Malcolm X, one of the most influential African American figures of the 20th Century. Kekla co-wrote the book with Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcom X’s daughter. Released in 2015, the book won the 2016 Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens, among other honors.

It’s that time of year. Eager authors flock to the Burlington airport, then share cabs and shuttles on to Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Montpelier campus.

Brigadoon is reborn. The children’s writers are back!

This year’s winter residency runs from January 11 through 20.

We’ll welcome visiting faculty member Martha Brockenbrough.

Martha is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers and adults. Her novel The Game of Love and Death(Scholastic) was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and a winner of the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association and Washington State Book awards, as well as a YALSA Top 100 Readers Choice Award. Best- or scariest- of all Martha is a grammar guru and the founder of National Grammar Day.

We also welcome A. S. King and Uma Krishnaswami back to active faculty status! HIP HIP HOORAY! And congratulations in advance to their lucky new advisees.

Every winter residency features a visiting Author/Illustrator and a Writer-In-Residence. This year’s guests are stellar.

Don Tate has illustrated or authored numerous books for children.He is the illustrator of the critically acclaimed Hope’s Gift (Putnam Juvenile); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); She Loved Baseball(HarperCollins); and Ron’s Big Mission (Penguin), among others. Don is the author of the award-winning It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books). His other titles include The Cart That Carried Martin (Charlesbridge, 2013, Illustrator) and Slave Poet(Peachtree, 2015, Author/lllustrator). Don’s illustrations also appear regularly in newspapers, magazines, and on products for children such as wallpaper, textiles, calendars, apparel, and paper products.

Kathy Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Badger Knight, a Junior Library Guild Selection. Mama Africa, her first picture book, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, will be published in fall 2017. Also coming next fall is a middle-grade novel, The Incredibile Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us.

Erskine draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.

Of course the schedule is packed with workshops, meetings, orientations and readings. But what about the lectures? The winter residency will feature some great ones! Look out for these superb faculty lectures:

SCIENCE, MAGIC, AND NEOTENY by Will Alexander, FISH TALKS WATER by Tom Birdseye, LANGUAGE, LITERATURE, AND RESPONSIBILITY by Martha Brockenbrough, ON THE ORIGINS OF THE PTERODACTYL by Alan Cumyn, GOING DEEP: AN HOUR OF PRACTICE AND DISCUSSION by A.M. Jenkins, FEMINISM IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE by Amy King, FINDING THAT ZING: LIFTING OUR CREATIVE EFFORTS OUT OF THE ORDINARY by Jane Kurtz, THE NEW SINCERITY by Martine Leavitt, I SEE THE MOON AND THE MOON SEES ME: THE NATURAL WORLD AS THE ULTIMATE UNIVERSAL by Liz Garton Scanlon, A CONVERSATION WITH KEKLA MAGOON ABOUT X: A NOVEL by Cynthia Leitich Smith and Kekla Magoon, PLAYING WITH AMBIGUITY: OFFERING OPEN INTERPRETATIONS AND OPEN ENDS by Nova Ren Suma, A SECOND IS A HICCUP by Linda Urban

AND THESE JAW DROPPING STUDENT LECTURES:

GETTING UNSTUCK: HOW TO WRITE WITH ABANDON by Kate Angelella, MAKE THE READER YOUR ACCOMPLICE by Jennifer Cameron Bailey, NOT JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM! CREATIVE APPROACHES TO PICTURE BOOK BIOGRAPHIES by Donna J. Bowman Bratton, CRAFTING CONNECTIONS: THE BENEFITS OF LITERARY TECHNIQUES IN NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS by Beth Brody, STRONG IN THE BROKEN PLACES: CRAFTING SATISFYING HEALING JOURNEYS by Rachel Coleman, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: SUBVERSIVE ENDINGS IN PICTURE BOOKS by Kristy Everington, LARP: LIVING, ACTUAL, REAL PEOPLE WRITING TOOLS I’VE LEARNED AS A LIVE-ACTION ROLE PLAYER by Julia Heller, THE CURSE OF GROWING UP IN FICTION. PERIOD. by Yamile Méndez, WHY SHOULD READERS CARE? HOW TO RAISE STAKES AND BUILD TENSION IN YOUR NOVEL by Laura Melchor, USING HUMOR TO ENGAGE YOUR READER EFFECTIVELY AND EMOTIONALLY by Colin Murcray,  WAR. WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING: WAR AS SETTING, MOTIVATION AND CHARACTER by Anita Pazner, WRITERS AS PUPPETEERS: CRAFTING CHARACTER AND STORY THROUGH THE PRINCIPLES OF PERFORMANCE by Janine Pibal, BUILDING AND SUSTAINING AN ARTISTIC LIFE by Denise Santomauro, THE MAKINGS OF A MONSTER: CRAFTING THE HUMAN MONSTER IN YOUNG ADULT ZOMBIE NOVELS by Schuyler Elizabeth Sorensen, ANIMAL-HUMAN CONNECTION by Suma Subramaniam, NOT BY BREAD ALONE, BUT NOT WITHOUT IT EITHER: TAPPING INTO THE EMOTIONAL POWER OF FOOD IN OUR WRITING by Eric Taylor, WORLD-BUILDING ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE:TECHNIQUES FOR MAKING THE UNFAMILIAR ACCESSIBLE TO YOUNG READERS by Diane E. Telgen, A CONVERSATION WITH LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Tina Vivian, BATHROOM BREAKS & POTTY STOPS: USING RESTROOMS AS SECRET SPACES IN MIDDLE GRADE AND YOUNG ADULT FICTION by Jennifer Whistle

!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t wait to listen to them all!

Everyone who knows and loves VCFA gets a bit wistful when a new residency rolls around.  We hate missing out. But if you’ve graduated don’t despair. Lectures will be available for streaming soon and Zu Vincent (who’s back at the residency again, with her inspiring writing-based yoga sessions) will be here in the Tollbooth on January 29 making recommendations for DON’T MISS LECTURES.

Until then join us virtually at the VCFA commons. Don’t know how to log on there? Contact us here at the Tollbooth at ThroughTheTollbooth@yahoo.com and we’ll guide you through the process.

(gorgeous campus photo of VCFA in the Snow by Ingrid Sundberg)

As always there are several Tollboothers embedded at the residency ready to fill you in on all the comings and goings fit to print and share. What do you want to know? What do you wish you could hear more about? Let us know and we’ll bridge the gap from where ever you are all the way back to Brigadoon.

Doesn’t it feel almost as if you never left?

~ Tami Lewis Brown~

New Year’s Resolutions and New Projects

2016 is gone. It is over. Like it or not, it is time to accept that it is 2017.

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I tend to make my resolutions in the fall during the Jewish High Holidays. I try to look at my last year with introspection, reflection, humility, and objectivity. It’s not easy. For me, it’s easier to do while spending hours in synagogue trying to think of something other than food. But this year, given the year that it’s been, I’ve done some self-reflection at the more traditional time. Here are my resolutions:

  1. Be happy.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be thoughtful.
  4. Appreciate every day as a gift.
  5. Appreciate everyone who touches my life.
  6. Act against those who, no matter how hard I try I cannot appreciate, by making phone calls, sending emails, signing petitions, unfriending, or flat out ignoring.
  7. Read stories that make me happy, stories that make me think, stories that are inclusive and filled with tolerance and love.
  8. Write stories that show happiness, thoughtfulness, inclusivity, tolerance, and love.

As of a few days ago, my most recent project went out into the world. It is gone. It is over (until, knock wood, an editor asks for revisions). It is time for me to move on to the next project…And boy, do I have a doozy in the works! It is dark, ugly, historical, frightening, and timely. I am SO friggin’ excited to write it!

When I am working on a project, my desk tends to look like Albert Einstein’s.

As I finish one project and move on to another, I need to reboot my brain and my office.

I’ve spent the last month getting my brain organized to tell this story. I’ve even made an outline (not something I have ever done before and which may be the subject of some future blog post).

Most importantly, I’ve cleaned my office.

 

I’ve printed out maps,

created a playlist,

read a stack of books,

tracked down newspaper articles,

and printed out photos of what my characters will look like.

 

 

Now I am ready to write!

Like it or not, it is 2017. We are entering a new era. I am determined to hold to my resolutions. I am determined to write this story AND sell it because it needs to be told.

 

 

“I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.” Chirrut, Rogue One

May the Force be with you.

 

 

Do You Mind?

Today I’m writing the post I need to read, and more importantly, believe.

As we reach the end of year, and look back over the last twelve months, it’s natural to evaluate one’s progress. Or, perhaps, lack of progress.

I’ve worked on two novels this year. Despite my efforts, they both continue to be messy, untamed, flawed, frustrating, etc. etc. etc. It’s done a number on my confidence. It’s quite possible I don’t know how to fix them…

YET.

That word is fundamental to the psychology of growth. Carol Dweck, PhD, psychologist and professor at Standford explains the differences between a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset” in her book, MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS.

A FIXED MINDSET assumes I am who I am. There’s a defeatist attitude inherent to this kind of thinking. The surprising thing is the limits set once a certain level of success has been achieved. This kind of thinking leads to a desire to want to look smart. After all, if we did it (wrote and published a novel, for example) once, certainly we can do it again – more easily! 

In comparison, a GROWTH MINDSET assumes I can do better – this kind of thinking leads to a desire to learn.

A growth mindset embraces challenges, while a fixed one avoids them. When obstacles appear, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to give up while someone with a growth mindset will persist. This growth mindset sees effort and hard work as the path to mastery, while a fixed mindset may perceive it as pointless. Criticism prompts learning for a growth mindset while a fixed mindset is more likely to ignore feedback. People with a fixed mindset will see the success of peers as a threat, while a growth mindset sees these instances as inspiring and motivating.

Do you need a mindset-reset as much as I do? Let’s try these ideas… And please, share any tips you may have as well!

REVISING ONE’S MINDSET FOR REVISION

  1. Defeat doubt with YET.
    1. I can’t finish my novel…YET
    2. My novel isn’t working…YET
    3. I’m not smart enough to be a writer…YET
  2. Avoid trap of thinking never-always-every
    1. We can grow and change
    2. Each new work is an opportunity for surprise
    3. Writing is an organic process, never static
  3. Own the fear of failure
    1. Working is progress, regardless of output
    2. Struggle is a sign of growth
    3. Failure is proof of facing a challenge
  4. Visualize each step of growth
    1. Visualize big picture achievement – allow yourself to feel the success
    2. Break the process down into small, doable steps – visualize those, too
    3. (Remember to celebrate those steps)
  5. Journal for reflection 
    1. Keep track of process
    2. Expect ups and downs
    3. Revise goals and expectations
  6. Remember to play
    1. Find joy in the process, complete with struggle
    2. Explore along the way
    3. Even wrong paths can offer moments of beauty and inspiration

Here’s to a growth minded 2017 and onward!

Cheers!

Sarah Tomp

Writing–and Living–in the World

I’ll start with a confession: I’m writing this blog post at midnight the morning before it’s due, and not because I’m intentionally reverting back to my high school work ethic. It’s been a tumultuous and overwhelming few weeks in recent world news, and staying engaged and informed and emotionally stable as we process all that news has often felt like a full-time job for me and several of the other writers I know. All of us seem to have the same questions: How do we write in an environment like this one, when all the other stuff of life demands so much from us? How do we maintain our creative energy? How do we sit down and focus? (How, in a world as busy as ours, can we possibly remember that we have a blog post that’s supposed to go online tomorrow?)

I don’t yet have many good answers to these questions. I’ve found so far that writing early in the morning is helpful; I sit down to work before I read the news, before my train of thought drifts too far away from my draft in progress. If I’m tempted to skim the headlines instead of writing, I turn on the software that disables my internet connection–a useful tool for all those times when sheer willpower isn’t enough. Sometimes I think of my writing as an escape from an exhausting world; at other times I try to weave my concerns and hopes into the thematic fabric of storytelling. And I aim to get words on the page each day because no matter what’s happening in the world, there are kids out there who need our stories, and I don’t want to let them down.

I’d particularly like to hear from Tollbooth readers today: Have you been distracted or overwhelmed lately, and if so, how have you been coping? How do you write (or carry on with your work in general) when large and small life events threaten to pull you away from the page? How do you balance living in the world and writing about it?

Message to the Void: You Don’t Own Me

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We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” John Steinbeck

I wrote my first novel in a small room next to the kitchen during teacher vacations. I sat alone, day after day, week after week. Though I had written a couple of short stories and many poems before, I had never written a novel.

I had never been alone with myself that much.

I grew up with four siblings. My childhood friends had large families. As a teacher, I spent my days with thirty or more young people, and as many staff members.

Novel writing means sitting in a void of silence and solitude. It is painful. For me it can feel nonhuman. Making up pretend people who do pretend things seems, at times, beside the point. Why not be with living people who do real things?

Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god. –Aristotle

But still, the need to write tugs.

At first I found all sorts of reasons not to sit in that small room alone. The dog needed to go out. I should call my mother. The bills, the dishes, the laundry were unfinished. Voices called me, helped me make excuses, helped pull me away from the hardest thing about writing: The struggle of isolation.

I forced myself, my eye on the prize of getting a novel written. Gradually I got attached to my characters, and interested in my story for its own sake. By some miracle, I finished the book. It was in no way polished, but when I finished the draft a few people read it. I revised it and sent it to an agent or two but it eventually took up a space on my shelf, gathering dust.

The second book was about the same. I wrote while wrestling with solitude. When the draft was done, I think three people read it, including me.

The third book was a NaNoWriMo novel that I drafted in a month. No one, thankfully, ever read that book, or most of the subsequent revisions.

I submitted revised opening of the third book with my application to Vermont College of Fine Arts Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Attending VCFA was like waking up to find myself in an enormous, multi-generational family the likes of which I’d never seen.

I met people. Writerly people. Fun, kind, interesting, brilliant, stimulating people. Suddenly, I was part of a far-reaching human collective that didn’t go away, even when I was alone.

Now when I wrote at home, I no longer felt like I was in a little room, writing into a grey fog. I had an advisor expecting my work. I had to submit to the critique group. Fellow students shared work with me. At each residency, I made new friends who loved writing for children.

Facebook widened my circle of writer buddies: I had friends to cheer for and who cheered me on. Attending conferences and retreats added more folks to my network that includes writers and readers from around the world. I joined a regular critique group.

Most of my friends are writers, teachers, artists or a combination of these.

Most of my friends care about my success, as I care about theirs.

My daily news is filled with new books, author visits and possibilities for writers. It’s also got reality checks, like how many zillion times you need to send work out before it gets bought. Or sad news of publishers leaving, or fine editors and agents quitting, or books going out of print.

Every single day I learn something new from a friend that I didn’t have when I began my first book alone so many years ago.

I still struggle with the poverty of solitude. I avoid my writing. I act like an orphan, alone and afraid. But I am not.

As I stare at my screen or my journal, loneliness does not take me over.

In this very bleak time in American history, when the void flicks an evil finger at me, I can say resolutely: You do not own me. I have my people. And they have me.

We are here holding our places in the creative world.

This saves me every moment of every day.

Linden McNeilly

 

Writing Retreat Review: Loon Song

 

img_6197This past September, I had the honor to attend the inaugural Loon Song Retreat in rural Minnesota. It was amazing. Inspiring. Life changing. Want to know more? I thought so. Without further ado, here are Ten Things I Loved About The Loon Song Writing Retreat (In No Particular Order)*

1. Katherine Paterson. I’m not sure I need to say more. Her talk. Her humor. Her candor. Her wonderful sense of writing, stories, and the social responsibilities of being a good author and good human. I soaked in everything she said, and the page of notes I wrote while she was talking has already been revisited many, many times.
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2. The setting. Okay, at first it was a little spooky. Delta decided to delay my flight for, oh, seven hours, leaving me alone in a terminal who’s repertoire of food options included: bagels (that’s it). So, I arrived at dark o’clock, driving a rental car about fifteen miles outside of the teeny tiny town that’s nearby. A very long, windy dirt road indeed. Luckily, friends were waiting to help me find my cabin when I arrived, otherwise I might have slept in my car and made friends with the wildlife. And there is such wildlife! After my turbulent travel day, I awoke for a sunrise pontoon ride on the most idyllic, peaceful gorgeous lake. Between the cabins and the quiet and the lake and the loons, Loon Song is where you want to go write, trust me. img_6138

3. Kekla Magoon. I’ve had the great fortune to know Kekla over the years, and her lectures always open up my mind in a new direction. For this weekend she discussed outlining as breathing in and drafting as breathing out. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that just feels so natural. And actually explains a lot…

4. Marion Dane Bauer. Marion gave a talk about staying relevant in the swiftly evolving world of children’s publishing, and what’s more, she talked about sustaining happiness through a long writing career. This is something I needed to hear. I’m only a few years into my writing career and for too long I’ve been sprinting. Marion talked about how a writing career is a journey and imparted the message that I should enjoy the scenery and not keep my head buried in my work.

5. VCFA and non-VCFA. I was pretty delighted to not only see old friends from VCFA at Loon Song, but to meet other writers from other circles. There is an instant connection that can be made when you and another person love children’s literature, and it was so wonderful to meet new kindred spirits.

img_61246. Readings, lectures, talks, workshops, time for writing/inspiration. I think this note explains itself, but I was particularly jazzed that on top of the talks and panels, we had free time to relax and converse. I even did a bit of writing which has never happened at a writing conference/retreat before.

7. Structure panel. There was a panel on structure! Which is awesome. You know why? Because it’s just too easy to believe that there’s one way to plot, to outline, to craft a book. This panel illuminated how several different incredibly talented and decorated writers all use different methods.

8. Will Alexander. Will talked about science fiction and fantasy with the kind of passion that inspires. He explained, illuminated, and ruminated. All of which has left my new science fiction story idea bubbling inside of me.

img_61799. Winding Oak’s marketing expertise and positivity. On top of having authors from all walks of life, an agent and an editor, Loon Song also brought in Winding Oak—a marketing duo that are rife with positivity and informed straight talk about how authors can take their careers, readerships, and websites to the next level and beyond.

10. Expanded horizons. Picture book discussions by Kathi Appelt! So I have been sticking my toe into the pool of picture books for awhile, and I’ve finally decided to try my hand in earnest. This is entirely because Kathi shared her process and journey for several of her books.

Sometimes you just need to see the road that someone else traveled to have the courage to set out on your own…

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*Yes, this is a shout out to Kekla Magoon’s fabulous book 37 Things I love (In No Particular Order).

Cori McCarthy is the author of four YA books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more at CoriMcCarthy.com

How to Win (or Lose) Writing Contests: Tips from a Judge

img_0538Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.

I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.

When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.

So how do you survive the first cut?

  1. Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
  2.  Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
  3. Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.

Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.

Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.

So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.

4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.

5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.

6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.

7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.

8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.

Author photo and book jacketCatherine Linka is the author of the series A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more advice from Catherine at her website: www.catherinelinka.com

Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own. 

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch

from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.

We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.

A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?

Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.

A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.

How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.

I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.

Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

If I am the room I have good, solid floors,

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent