A worship of writers

Surely there’s a better collective noun for writers? If a group of ravens or crows can be a ‘storytelling,’ why not writers? I’ve not found a better group name, but perhaps you have one.

“Critique group” is the most common collective of writers. And when most writers think of critique groups, they think of a small group of people drinking coffee (or other beverages) and going over each other’s pages.

Well, that’s one helpful function of a critique group. But constructive criticism isn’t the sole function of such a group.

Many people use their groups to brainstorm story ideas. Or help plot out a story. Or resolve thorny plot points. Often it helps just to talk about your story with folks who understand you’re not complaining, not really. Or who know who you’re talking about when you call your characters by name.

A writing friend told me that a well-known romance writer spoke about her critique group at a conference. This writer and a few close writing friends hold a short retreat once a year. Each writer gets two ninety minute sessions – and at the end, each writer has the plots for two new books! The group then meets monthly to check in, and at those meetings, writers can ask for feedback on pages, hash out plot tangles, or discuss progress. It’s up to the individual writer.

This process sounds great to me! My own group is thinking about trying it. We’re pretty flexible, and two of us have decided not to submit work to the others unless it’s a finished draft. (I personally get caught up in the merry-go-round of revision frequently.)

Do you have something special you do with your critique group? Any wonderful ideas for keeping the group fresh and energetic?

One last note – L is for Literary will be on hiatus at least through the end of summer. I’m working on a draft and making plans to revise last year’s book. I’m also doing a lot of reading for the agency – requested manuscripts are in, and I’m looking at a few in hopes of getting my first client!

 

In the doldrums?

Lately I’ve been having very vivid dreams. This morning I dreamt I was floating on a surfboard or boogie board in the sea near Hawaii. I could still see land, but just barely. The waves kept swamping the board. Not choppy, not big kahuna waves, just enough to keep me cool as I floated along.

Oddly, I didn’t feel worried. I knew I needed to get back to land, but no matter what I did, I never got any closer. Drifting along in the doldrums…

Sometimes we find ourself in the doldrums of our stories. Ever had one of those days where you write and write and write – and then realize none of it actually moves your story forward?

No development of character, no action for the plot, not even a great setting.

Yep, that’s the doldrums. Sometimes it’s pages of description and sometimes it’s pages of dialogue. Either way, your story is drifting. Going nowhere.

For your first – or zero – draft, you might want to just keep going. Pantsers often need to write themselves into the story, producing lots of pages they know won’t be used, but that give them great backstory.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of B.I.C: Butt In Chair. You’re writing, trying to meet your page or word goal. Doesn’t matter that you’ll end up cutting most of it; your rear is firmly in gear and you’re keeping it that way.

Maybe you need a break. No shame in taking a timeout from your story to digest what needs digesting in order to produce better quality pages. I often find that if I’m writing in circles, it’s because I need more time to consider the story or the character.

Meditation – Laurie Calkhoven’s workshops are great – can be helpful. Plenty of writers swear by a good walk, with or without your dog. This time of year, a retreat is always appealing, too.

What do you do if your schedule doesn’t allow for a retreat – or even a quick break? I sneak some long peeks at my outline. Even though I tend to the pantser side of the pantser/plotter spectrum, I do create a plot summary and brief outline to give me a map. Many times I’m stuck in the doldrums, it’s because I’ve given up on my map and am just rambling along a dusty byway.

Don’t be afraid – you can always get back. Recently I got up from my chair KNOWING the 1,200 words I’d written were useless. Not bad, just useless.

I gave myself permission to stop writing. Spent a little time meditating and some more time getting chores done.

And you know what? The next morning, I woke up, cut the chapters – and wrote more words. Enough words to replace what I’d written and then some.

This time, the pages were getting my protagonists where they needed to be. Things were happening. Characters were revealing themselves. I knew where I was in the story.

What do you do when you’re drifting?

 

Writing other voices

At NJSCBWI’s summer conference this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a session by Emma Otheguy and Andrea J. Loney, “Writing Marginalized Voices in Children’s Books.”

What a fantastic presentation!

Given the current – and much-needed – focus on #ownvoices, many writers have questions about writing characters that do not resemble themselves. Andrea and Emma had useful, practical, and wonderful advice about writing diverse and marginalized voices.

Perhaps the most practical piece of advice they shared was that #ownvoices writers should do the same things as writers outside their particular community. After all, everyone’s experience is unique. Not all African-American or Latinx writers share the same experiences and backgrounds, just as not all White writers are the same.

The most important piece of advice was to engage with the community you want to write about, especially if you are writing about history or culture that belongs to someone else. You have to do the research,Β but even the most thorough research has limitations.

“Do you live a diverse life?”

Or are you a tourist, using someone else’s history or culture for your own ends? Your work is less likely to be criticized if you are active and engaged with the specific diversity you write about in a long-term and meaningful way.

Sharing your work is great advice for all writers. Emma and Andrea recommend working with critique partners and sensitivity readers appropriate to the voice you’ve chosen. Ideally, you should share your work with more than one sensitivity reader to gain multiple perspectives.

Finally, above all else:

CONSIDER THE CHILDREN READING YOUR WORK.

Is your work a “clear reflection”? What is a child of the community you write about going to see in your work?

A little tip from me: read widely. Read OUT and read ACROSS. Read as many diverse voices and stories as you can. Make it a habit to choose books that are windows instead of mirrors showing you yourself.

P.S. Check out Andrea and Emma’s books! Such great additions to any children’s library.

 

 

 

Harsh?

Are you harsh on yourself? Harsher than on your critique partners, hmm?

I’m getting into the groove of a new novel, and this article from The New York Times couldn’t have come at a better time. πŸ™‚

Setting yourself free of your worst critic – YOU – is a great idea. Especially in that tender time when you’re settling into a first draft. And while my writing partners are so helpful and much more supportive than critical, I’m keeping this one to myself for a while longer.

Maybe even till it’s done.

Fewer false starts? Probably not in the long run.

A quicker sprint to the end? I sure hope so.

Getting words on that page every time I plop my bottom in my chair? Oh yeah!

We’re our worst enemies when it comes to writing. As Sketch Guy Carl Richards recommends, set yourself free.

See what happens.

 

Pyramid scheme

What does revision have to do with the pyramids? Or suspect money making schemes?

Nothing.

But Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA does have a wonderful way to get you started on revising your work:

The Revision Pyramid.

One of the best sessions I attended at this years NJ-SCBWI conference, Gabriela’s “Rock Your Revisions” gave me a sure-fire scheme for successful revision. Resembling Maslow’s theory of needs, Gabriela’s scheme lays out a roadmap for revision that should keep you from floundering around, rewriting, redrafting, and creating more work for yourself.

Oh, how I related to this. My last attempt at revising one of my novels lasted several months. Worse, while I wrote more words in revision than existed in the first draft, I never even got to the middle of the manuscript! I wasn’t using what was already good and I never fixed what was wrong in the first place.

I gave up and decided to let it digest for a bit. I’ve started work on Β a new novel, but Gabriela’s presentation gave me confidence that, as soon as I’m ready, I can tackle that revision and make a good story great.

For specific details,Β buy her book and/or sign up on her website (see above). The gist of her advice was to approach revision in a systematic manner.

  1. Write a draft! Get a complete draft on the page.
  2. Don’t start with copy or line editing. Leave the little details till last. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t touch up your makeup if you were about to go in for a facelift, would you?
  3. Approach the most basic level of your story first: narration. What POV are you using? Is it consistent? Does the voice change? Can you distinguish between the narrator and characters and between the different characters?
  4. That leads you to characters. What does your character want? Is he or she proactive or reactive? Are your secondary characters stealing the show?
  5. On to the story. Is something actually happening? What’s your pacing like? Do you have too much – or too little – backstory?
  6. Moving on to the scenes. This is where you examine your world building, descriptions, dialogue, and theme. Yes, theme.
  7. Now you can get into the nitty-gritty of details! Word choice, sentence rhythm, typos, errors, and of course, “killing your darlings.”

Possibly the most important advice she gave was to write fresh. When fixing something, don’t just edit it. Delete the scene, dialogue, whatever, and WRITE FROM SCRATCH.

But if something’s working, leave it alone. Don’t start the whole novel afresh from page one. If you need to play around, do it outside of your manuscript. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. πŸ˜‰

Find an outline method that works for you and use it. Before you start writing – and after you’ve finished.

Finally, Gabriela advised using more than your critique group. Working with beta readers outside of your group and freelance editors will help you make your work shine.

I’ll leave you with a thought. Everything she advises for revising. . . can also work for your beginning draft. Thinking about the pyramid just might help you get to your zero draft quicker.

And then you can put it into practice revising. πŸ˜‰

 

 

Bookish subscriptions

Now that I’ve caught up from BookExpo and NJ-SCBWI and the weird summer flu my husband gave me, I’m back in my chair, working hard.

One of the bennies of working for a literary agency is getting to attend events that my bosses can’t. One of those was a Lunch and Learn hosted by PJ Library during BookExpo.

Not familiar with PJ Library? Neither was I. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t know nearly enough about them. PJ Library is a philanthropic organization that sends FREE Jewish children’s books to families in the United States and around the world – every month.

That’s right. Every month, Jewish children – no matter their background, family make-up, knowledge, or observance – can receive free books after signing up with PJ Library. The original program is for children 6 months to 8 years old, and there is a follow-on program, PJ Our Way, which provides books to children 9-11 years old.

Pretty great! Of course, for us as writers, this means there is also a steady demand for books with Jewish themes, values, and stories. This is a very broad spectrum, inclusive of intermarried families too! (Jewish values? Think tikkun olam – making the world a better place ORΒ tzedekah – charity.)

PJ Library sends out over 165,000 books each month. That’s a LOT of books.

You can read about how they choose books here. I was happy to learn that PJ Library is committed to working with agents to fulfill their consistent need for these stories – they have special incentives and a dedicated contact for agencies. (And the incentives go to THE AUTHOR.)

If you’ve a Jewish story you’re working on, keep PJ Library in mind as a possible submission. Remember, authors do not need to be Jewish themselves. (Though as with all diverse voices, #ownvoices are great.) Β πŸ™‚

Another great service I noted at BookExpo was Owl Crate. Need a great gift for teens? (Or that YA librarian in your life?) Owl Crate is a subscription service (from 1-6 months) that ships a box containing a brand-spanking-new YA novel AND other bookish goodies – even author notes and such – right to your recipient’s door. (Or your door, as the case may be.) Each box is centered around a theme. July’s is WANDERLUST.

(They are also offering a middle grade service, Owl Crate JR. for readers ages 8-12. )

I’m thinking I’m all set for summer birthdays and my niece’s holiday present this year. Friends’ children get the single box, my niece gets a three-month or six-month bundle of reading fun. Less shopping for me, more reading for them. Yay! More time for my MG novel draft. πŸ˜‰

 

All fired up!

Last week was a little crazy – I left BookExpo and headed straight to NJSCBWI 2017! My suitcase was literally & literarily stuffed full of books. And I didn’t take nearly as many galleys as usual. For the first time ever, I may actually have TOO MUCH to read. I didn’t think that was possible. Good thing I can read while watching baseball…

What a weekend!

The Middle Grade Editor’s Buzz Panel was wonderful, and I was so excited to get galleys for three of the five books being promoted:

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Sadly, I don’t have galleys for GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION! by Jake Burt or UNICORN QUEST: THE WHISPER IN THE STONE Β by Kamilla Benko. I’ll be borrowing those from co-workers. It was a nice mix of fantasy, contemporary, and historical fiction. Can you guess which title of the five was repped by the amazing Rebecca Stead?

Even more exciting was catching up with writing friends and enjoying the wealth of workshops at NJSCBWI-17, including keynotes by Steven Savage and David Lubar (who also gave a great workshop on revision).

My next few posts will go over what I gained from the workshops, so watch this space! Middle grade mysteries, revision, emotional resonance, online presence, and two – count ’em, two! – wonderful sessions on barriers and marginalized voices. I’m taking a few days to review and digest all the information.

And while it was great to catch up with old friends, I always make new ones. πŸ™‚ Both at BookExpo and the conference, I put my tips on networking to good use.

I’m unpacked, my notes and information are organized, and I just need some time at my desk to start putting what I’ve learned to good use. So if you’ll excuse me…

Wait. You wanted to see how much is TOO MUCH to read? Okay:

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And this doesn’t include the manuscripts for work and e-books on my Kindle. (Add another 20 or so to-reads.) Might just have to renew those library books!