Monday, February 25, 2008

More From the SCBWI Meeting

Hey, I just got a digital camera. I decided to take it for a test run at the NJ SCBWI workshop last Sunday. Here's some photos from the day...

Kathy Temean, the RA of the NJ chapter is the one with the red scarf. There's Jeanne and Kim also in red in the background.

Before we get started - maybe some pre-critique jitters...

Peek-a-boo! I see you Leeza. Look how the sun shines on only you in the room like a beacon, the clouds part, the angels sing.... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh...

Most of us gals from my small critique group... Lynette in red, to the left, Hallee in the back Leeza, in pink Joelle, and in the front on the right is Marcie. Lisa was not present at the moment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

NJ SCBWI Workshop

Hello all,
This is just a very brief posting saying... I've been to the NJ SCBWI workshop today. I met some lovely ladies in my group. (Hello Joelle, Marcie, Lynette, Hallee, Lisa, and of course, Leeza!)

In case you've never been to such an event, here's what happens...

About a month before, you are assigned a small group. The ladies mentioned above were in my small group. Each small group is assigned an editor to receive a one-on-one critique with for 20 minutes. So in that month’s time, you have to mail your first 30 pages of your novel, or your entire PB MS to Kathy Temean, RA of the NJ chapter of SCBWI. AND... you have to email your pages to the members of your group.

Then over that month you read and critique all the stories as they come in (or wait until the last possible moment - whichever way works for you...) Then, on the day of the conference, armed with the critiques you have written for one another, you show up ready to share.

Everyone takes turns presenting their feedback while, one at a time, a member will quietly dismiss herself (sorry no token males were present in our group) and meet with the editor in a separate room.

Then, around, well... lunchtime, there is a lunch where we can all mingle and meet other writers or editors present at the event. Then we go back and finish our critiques.

At the very end is an open mic Q+A session with all the editors. We get to learn what they are individually shopping for, how long their personal turn around is with scripts, and their tips and tools of advice and suggestions. We, as writers, are eager to eat up every nugget of info they are willing to provide.

And at the end of the day you've made friends (or enemies – no, only kidding!) and you hopefully will walk away feeling energized, renewed, and ready to revise, revise, revise.

I, on the other hand, always walk away feeling exhausted! I need a few days to not think about it, while all the while my subconscious is percolating, and simmering, deep in thought. Then, in a day or two... or three... I read everyone’s comments. I print out a fresh clean copy and begin writing notes of what the others have said. If someone else says the same thing, I put a check next to the comment. If again, another person says it, I add another check and so on. If there are comments that don't ring true to me, that no one else brought up, then I let that comment go. I toss it, as Joelle said in her “Take it, or Toss it” philosophy. If there are comments that spark something within me, even if no one else said, I star it.

Then I open my computer, copy and paste the story onto a fresh document and save it as... whatever the title is, the draft number, and I give it a new version number. For example, my novel... is on its first draft, but 5th version - 1.5. (For me, a new version is when I make changes within a single draft. Once I get to the end, any other changes would begin my next draft. And then process begins all over again, 2.0, 2.1, etc.) So now, I save it as a new document as TITLE, 1.6. Next, I take the hard copy with all the converted notes and I place it in that story’s binder. All of my stories have their own binders. Then in the binder, I mark it, TITLE 1.5 NJ SCBWI Feb 2008 conference. The editor’s version goes in the binder too, of course, and I attach her business card and her critique, so it is altogether.

And that's my process!

Another benefit of the day is... a good number of the editors that come to these workshops do not accept unsolicited work. But once you've met the editor at an SCBWI event, you are no longer considered unsolicited for a window of time - usually a few months. So even if you met with editor A, you are still welcomed and invited to send you MS to editors B, C, and D, as well. And most promise that they WILL read your MS and WILL write a personal (rejection) letter (OK hopefully not a rejection letter of course! I was only being funny!!!!)

So if you haven't ever tried an SCBWI conference or workshop. I highly recommend it. Visit SCBWI to find your state's chapter. To have that 20 minute one-on-one wiht an editor is so worth it!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

If You Want to Make God Laugh...

Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, no sooner had I announced that I would blog only on Sundays and Thursdays, that everything went to pot! I got sick... really sick... and needed a long recuperation period. Now that I am recuperated and it is Thursday, I will try to make my fuzzy brain think in a somewhat logical and coherent way...

So, here's what I've been contemplating lately… living an authentic life with intention and purpose. Simplifying. As some of you might know, my day job is as a copy writer for a local real estate firm. While it is a cool job if you love to write and love looking at houses (which equals loving to write about houses, btw) it is not a job without its hazards. You have peak seasons when you are so busy, you don’t know if you are coming or going, and finding as many synonyms for “featuring,” as possibly so all your copies don’t sound the same. Followed by periods of nothing, nada, zilch, zero homes to see, which means no money to make. But the biggest downfall to this job by far is… (Drum roll please) falling in love from time to time with a house.

Yes, that’s right. I said falling in love with a house. (sigh)

So, I am smitten once again. My last house-affair wasn’t pretty. It was way too big and for way too much money. Honestly, it was more house than I could handle. But it was gorgeous. It was an 1880's farm house that was completely refurbished and remodeled to be Green - you know ecologically friendly... Green… earth first! I am all for earth first. My novel is about trees for crying out loud - ok it’s about a lot more than just trees or that would make for one boring novel, but I digress… So, I loved that house and obsessed over that house, and pined for that house, stalked that house, talked about it late at night with my husband and friends. I drove everyone crazy! I was in love.

I know what you're thinking... IT'S A HOUSE! GET A LIFE!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. BUT you didn't see it, and you didn’t have to write about it in a long, beautiful, salesy, descriptive pitch. My job is to make people fall in love with houses through my words (The photographer has it easy. You know… a picture’s worth…) It’s only natural, every once in a while, I actually am so convincing, I convince myself.

But... sometimes the love of a house comes before the words. It might begin the moment I drive down the narrow, wooded, windy, country road. Or pass the long, sweeping vistas of rolling farmland. Or wind my way down a long driveway canopied with trees and dappled sunlight (See I really do, do this for a living).

The house du jour is this kind of love affair. It had all of that and so much more. It was nothing like my former house-affliction. No. That house with its 4,000 square feet and bunches of barns and outbuildings (all of which were also completely refinished to perfection), made me realize, I could never keep up with a house that size and it’s many out buildings. I would spend my life cleaning! And who wants to do that? Certainly not me!

Well, in the wake of getting over that first house-affliction, I learned something - most of us need to downsize. That house might have been as Green as they come, but something about a family of 4 living in 4,000 square feet seems juxtaposed to living earth first. That’s a 1,000 sq ft per person! Is that really necessary? Is that really Green?

America has become a nation of EXCESS. Everything is in excess. Food, cars, the sizes of our homes, our spending, our bills, and so on and so forth. And we are passing that excessive living down to our kids. There are more overweight, bored, and depressed children in American than every before. I think it’s because they are trying, or we are trying, to buy love for them in all the toys, games, clothes, etc. And when the love is not in the toys, games, or clothes, they do something else in excess – become not only bored, but depressed. Not just put on a few pounds, but become overweight.

All this excess has got me thinking about my dream to live green. I took a few earth first tests online. I was sure it would tell me, “You’re great, Sheri! Look how you love the earth. You do your part. If everyone lived like you… But here’s how you could improve, yes even you…” But the test didn’t say that. It said if everyone lived like me, even with all I do to reuse, reduce, recycle, eat healthy, organic, yada, yada, yada… it would take 4 planets to sustain my lifestyle. Four planets! I felt discouraged. What could I do? Then I discovered that an average family of 4 really needs no more space than about 2400 sq feet. And if everyone lived like that, we’d be fine. If everyone stopped living in excess, the earth would heal and so would its inhabitants.

It got me to thinking... maybe we should go small, down size? Maybe my family and I should move… to a smaller house… less electricity, less to heat, less to cool. Hey, less to clean! We could maybe afford those solar panels I have been dreaming of, and maybe even geo-thermal heating too. And why not a wind turbine while we’re at it. We could live off the grid! Hey, the grid could pay US back, or we could donate our excess of mother nature’s power to a family in need… So the dream began.

And so that brings me to this new house I saw yesterday - my new house-love. It was nothing special from the outside. As a matter of a fact, it was quite unpleasant from the exterior. But still I was in love. Here’s why... First of all, you should never judge a house by its cover – you should all know that by now. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, and it’s your peace with life that really matters right? (Yes, I am still talking about a house.) So, number one this house “lives” smack in the middle of a woodland preserve. You would be living in a preserve! How wonderful is that? Well, for this writer who loves and writes about trees, I felt like Henry Thoreau discovering my Walden. And then it got me thinking about Thoreau and his pilgrimage to the woods.

When Henry Thoreau was asked why he went to live in the woods, he said. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

And I thought, ME TOO! Me too Henry. I want that too!

Then he went on to explain that he wanted to get the most from his life by determining what was really important. He believed this could only be done by removing himself from the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840's. For him, it was economic, too. He wanted to reduce his material needs by living simply, so that he would not have to spend much time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. But of course, he’s reason for living amongst the magnificent trees was for a spiritual connection too.

And then that got me thinking about a passage I just read in The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, that said many people in Eastern and Western religions, will strip themselves of all their belongs and live simply in the woods to find God and inner peace.

I think this would be good for ALL of us - maybe not the woods for everyone - some love the beach, the mountains, a meadow... but to live simply and with purpose.

By doing this, Thoreau and the great religious minds, were able to strip down their ego and be in touch with life - real life and what it's really all about. Not square footage, or the latest IPod, or a flat screen TV, or shiny, new car. But about you living your authentic life, loving the people in your life, being a messenger for them, and them for you, dedicating yourself completely to your talents, whatever they may be.

But how does one do this? It seems like it should be so simple. But selling a house in today's present market - believe me, I know - is no easy feat.

And so it brings us full circle - PLANNING!

Yes, I am planning. Oh this new house-affair too, shall pass. Some lucky new owner will buy it and spruce up the outside and live amongst the trees in a woodland preserve. But I don't think my need to simplify my life will stop.

So, I plan fully aware of what it will get me - a hardy guffaw from the One Above.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Business Cards and a Brief Interruption in our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

Here is the front of my brand new business card. The back is just as colorful, continuing the tree's branch into its trunk, and provides all my personal information. I had them made, by the ever-talented Leeza, for the NJ SCBWI workshop I am attending the end of this month. Leeza's feelings on business cards for children's writers/illustrators, and I couldn't agree with her more, is we can stand to be more colorful and creative then say... a lawyer's business card. After all, you want your card to stand out and be memorable to an editor, publisher, or agent.

And now I must write this, or I'll never do it... I am relatively new to blogging. And in this very short time, I am hooked! It is instant gratification. You write things, others read it, and let you know how it affected them. It is, very simply, a dangerous drug for writers. So I need to step back. I have been in a bit of a writer's slump lately, and this addiction is not helping matters any. I need to regain balance. So I feel if I say this here and now, tomorrow (...wait... it IS tomorrow...) will be a much more productive day.

So I am returning to blogging, and checking all of your wonderful blogs, twice a week. I am going to strive for Sundays and Thursdays, and I know it will be hard to break the gravitational pull I feel twards posting, reading, and commenting, but I MUST return to devoting the majority of my week to what I am devoted to - my MG novel.
Signing off until Sunday...

Monday, February 11, 2008

1,000 Word Writing Contest

Chris Eldin at ABenchPress is having a writing contest of sorts. In 1,000 words you have to tell a story in 4 parts with different criteria to reach each week. In week one we had to tell the first part of the story in 200 - 400 words where we had to create sympathy for our MC, have them meet a gypsy, and have the gypsy give a prediction.

As writer of MG novels, telling a clear, concise story in 1,000 was a real challenge. At first I thought, no problem. But it was much harder than I thought.

Here is my Part I:

It had been a horrible week. Every teacher piled on tests, a sure sign the end of the marking period was near. I studied. Really I did. Yet, somehow I wound up with mostly C’s.

Then, at lunch, they ran out of pizza, and I wound up with mystery meat on a bun.

Really, I shouldn’t’ve been surprised when my audition didn’t go so well either. I practiced my piece for months, ‘til my bottom lip had a perpetual indentation from my flute’s mouthpiece. Mrs. Greyson, my flute teacher, said I was ready. And I was ready. I was so going to get first chair.

“Number 127,” said the judge.

I was dead last, so I was pretty sleepy when I got up. I can’t tell you what I tripped on exactly, but I went flying – my crazy, wavy hair, in my face flying. I landed on my flute, denting the mouthpiece and flattening the pinky key.

The judge, who saw the whole tragic event, just looked at me like, tough break kid, turned and went back in the audition room.

Before the door closed, I heard him say, “We’re all done here.”

“What happened?” said another judge.

Then the door closed. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I did hear them roar with laughter. And people think Simon Cowl’s mean – they have no idea!

“Perfect ending to a perfect week,” I muttered through gritted teeth. “How’m I going to explain this one to Dad?”

And just like that, my moment came and my moment vanished.

I couldn’t take one more thing. I ran full force to the double steel doors, punched the metal arms to unleash them, and stood outside with my face to the sky, tears falling, arms opened wide and screamed, “WHY ARE YOU PICKING ON ME?”

“He always chooses the ones who need it most,” said a thin, wispy voice from the darkness.

The sudden voice made my heart head to my throat.

“Whose there?” I asked.

I heard her squeaky, metal cart before the old woman with wrinkled, translucent skin, stepped under a street light. The sight of her made me think, Disney from her tiered, layered skirt, to her tattered, blousy shirt that must’ve been white at some point, to the purple scarf around her head.

I didn’t think she would hurt me, but the sudden sight of her, made me place one hand on the door and the other on my cell.

“Beware of silver prophets who act like friends,” she said, turned and hobbled her way down the sidewalk, her cart squeaking rhythmically.

Crazy, old lady, I thought just as my Dad pulled up. Now I’ll have to tell him about my flute. Could this week get any worse?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sleep - Dreaming and Wishing

She danced like flowers in the rain
tiny droplets of water fell all around her
she was spinning around and around
the black atmosphere seemed to become her

She was the night
hold me tight
she said in a tiny voice
she was three again in her yellow rain coat gear

She dodged every rain drop as they fell
as they danced around her feet
she was a child again holding her tiny doll in her hand so small
she was spinning around and around

She became the atmosphere all around her
with thousands of tiny stars in her hand falling,
she fell.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Submitting to magazines: part one

Hey everyone, I just read this great and useful posting on Becky's blog. It is part one in a series providing practical advice about writing for children's magazines. It seems it is a bit quicker process to become published through magazines than through a book deal. Therefore, this is a really good way to build up your portfolio and resume. It can really help a new writer get a foot in the door. Then when an editor asks, have you been published, you can proudly say, YES! Great advice Becky!

This is something I always thought, and that little nagging voice in the back of my head has been telling me to give this a try, but I haven't. You know all those recent posts I have been doing about the Universe speaking to you... Hey Becky, did you know you are a conduit for the Universe's voice?? Perhaps from time to time we all are. That's what makes blogging so addicting.

So, check it out! Rebecca's Writing Journal; Submitting to magazines: part one

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hey Everyone, CHECK IT OUT!

My facilitators and I have formed a new blog! It is for, but not limited to, the writers of the Hunterdon County Children's Writer's Group.

I formed this group about 10 months ago when looking to join a writer's group and could not find one.

But I couldn't run the Hunterdon County Children's Writer's Group alone! We have about 40 members and 6 talented and dedicated facilitators who all run their own smaller groups, focusing on writing and illustrating for children.

It is a brand-new baby blog, so check it out. And please visit us often.

But I have to share...
Have you ever done something, you, at first, were terrified to do, but then you were so grateful you did? Forming this group is that thing for me. Without sounding too egotistical, I have to say, I am really proud of myself for the formation of HCCWG. I did something I thought I could never do.

In my last posting, I talked about listening to the Universe and walking through open doors. Well, forming this group was one of the initial doors that opened for me after joining SCBWI. And it had HUGE pay-offs. Once I made that first scary step, so many other things started to happen. Not to mention all the souls that it brought to my life that I needed to know and who needed to know me.

Now here I am ten months later, running this group, with the help of my wonderful facilitators, meeting with wonderful writers almost weekly, and blogging! Now that's something ELSE I thought I would NEVER do!! I didn't even know what a blog was and why one would need one. Now, I am addicted! I think I have a problem. Is there a Blogger's Anonymous, or a 12-step program for me to join? Like, right now, for instance, I should be making dinner for my family, but, instead, here I am blogging! I need to set my priorities!

Anyway, I want to hear from you! What are you proud of? What was a door that opened for you, that you might have been scared to step through at first, but now you are so happy you did? Let's discuss!

ks, ks

Sunday, February 3, 2008

When You're Too Busy Planning, You're Not Living Life

My purging is complete. Now it is time for some reflection... Two years ago, I went back to work again as a full time reading and language arts teacher for all the 4th graders of West Amwell School. I had been home on an 8 year maternity leave - yes, I said 8 years. I had a plan. I always had this plan - I would be a writer. Originally my plan was to teach for three years, learn what books needed to be written for elementary school kids and write them - simple, right?

But we all know how "...way leads on to way..." and before I knew it, 8 years had vanished. Then I left and had a baby. Then another baby. One year bled into another and before I knew it, another 8 years had flown by - again with a plan - to be a writer.

Not much writing happened during those years - those years of planning and not doing. Oh sure, I took a class for a few years on being a children's writer. And then I took a class on screenwriting in NYC for another two years. And sure I wrote my assignments, but I wasn't really living life as a writer. I was still planning to be one.

I wrote a lot of poetry in those days too. Actually, poetry was my first love as a writer. But I digress - So I went back to work as a teacher. I was teaching the great writers and not being one.

I was depressed.

I loved my students, don't get me wrong, and teaching was nice, but... I had no life and I wasn't writing at all. So when the position ended - the teacher I replaced while on maternity leave came back - life said 'no' to teaching and for the first time, I decided to listen to the universe and walk through whatever doors opened to me. Without question. Just walk through and see where it took me.

I also decided right then and there that I was no longer going to knock on closed doors because when a door is closed, universally speaking, it usually means, no one is home. So I started listening, really listening. The first thing I heard over and over was SCBWI, join SCBWI. So I did. I met a great friend there; Leeza. Then I tried to join a writer's group, but all were filled, or disbanded, or left no new information. So I asked Kathy Temean, RA of NJ's SCBWI what I should do. She said start your own. So I did. And the Hunterdon County Children's Writer's Group was formed. Sixty people showed up to our first meeting. Since then it has grown to a really unique group for children's writers. We have about 40 active members, and seven small groups, where we have all learned to critique without criticizing.

And as a result of listening to the universe, walking through its opened doors, and ignoring the closed ones, I have grown and learned so much.

I guess that's why this last bout of writer's laryngitis really hit me hard. It wasn't writer's block. To me writer's block is not knowing what to write next. I know what comes next in my story. It was laryngitis. I suddenly lost my voice. So I had to find a cure.

I cleaned. I purged. I went out to dinner with my extended family and celebrated our birthdays. I laughed. I lit candles. I meditated. I had plenty of sleep. I drank plenty of water.

But then today, thinking about this next posting and wondering what to write about, I decided to read my old poems. And I realized, well actually I realized a few things, some poems I used to think were really good, actually were quite bad. You might think this would be a downer. But it wasn't. Because through recognizing how trite some of them were, I realized I had grown.

I've walked through doors and listened to the universe, and met the people I need to know and because of it I've grown. I no longer PLAN on being a writer. I know I AM a writer.

One poem stood out to me though, and really illustrated this growth. I feel so far away from those words, those feelings right now and I am glad.

This might be a long entry and I try to keep them short - believe it or not - but here is that poem...

Unrecognizable, Even to Myself

Like a war veteran who still feels his amputated arm, I cling to a life, to the person, I once was, the person I wanted to be.

I search my face in the mirror, trying to find some part that I can recognize,
But I haven’t found it yet.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I value the people and things in my life; my family, my health, the roof over my head. I am not ungrateful,

Just lost.

I remember when I was younger dreaming of the life I would live when I grew up; daughters, a husband, perhaps an old farmhouse with horses and a dog. I would be a poet, a writer. My life would be simple and quiet, unfettered with obligatory friends and things to do. I would remain timeless in my beauty and thin - as I once was. I would be happy. The smell of wood burning in our fireplace. Unity of the family I had created with a soul mate of a husband; love, quiet, reassuring love, equal love, happy, fulfilling love.

I guess I am not so far, far away from that original painting in my mind; a Normal Rockwell oil painting of time frozen on a canvas with happy, content faces, living a simple life, in a simple time. Certain pieces of the portrait exist; a husband, daughters, dogs, a home, although not an old farmhouse and we don’t have horses. Still things are not as they seem, as they were in the painting of my life.

The quiet. The happiness. The very rare unfettered choices. The simplicity. The beauty and health of youth. The quiet, equal love. These are not here. The living life simply as a writer, alone time, time to write, alone, in quiet solitude, in an old converted barn, with the smell of wet wood and dust, sipping coffee, or maybe tea, with my dog asleep on the floor next to me, waiting

and watching as pages fly and fingers ache with the typing of words strung together like pearls on a graceful strand.

This life lives on only in my memory; the memory of a life not lived.

Instead, societal norms press my moves, marking my decisions, tying a noose around my neck.

Instead a paying job, I now seek, to fulfill my bank account instead of my soul, too weak to fight for what is right now, to write now no more.

Instead, I am a discontented, respected member of society, working for a living, at an honest pay, doing an honest job.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I, I took the one
more traveled by
And that HAS made all the difference.

It has tarnished my canvas, filtered the light, shifted the shades, discolored as they fade.

What is a grown-up to do with childish dreams and real bills to pay? How else can I do what I want and not what I must?

I teach children about the great writers instead of being one. I observe a symphony of sight and sound on the silver screen with my husband and children and tears are shed, not for the sentiment of the movie, but for the ones I will never write, see on the screen, for the awe that is inside of me, and remains to be seen.

Now I have papers to grade, and lessons to prepare, and writing is a not so distant dream of dreams I once had...
when I was young.

Young and unfettered from demands of grown-ups in a grown-up world. No time for dreaming, or writing. I might have to leave that for those who found there way in that yellow wood on that overgrown path, no traveler tramped.

I will have to leave that forked path perhaps for another day. When? Who knows now. Life passes us by as we make our plans of mortal man, immortal perhaps for others. Not I.

I took the other road. For not many understand the life of a writer, who sits alone and writes about the life you live, not for money, not for fame, not because anyone is knocking on her door asking her to... just because she has to. How can I justify this life now, now that there are mouths to feed, and backs to clothe, and a husband to help carry the load? How can I justify a life of writing for no one but myself?

I can not.

Not anymore.

And so I work, work for hire, work for pay, work so society can be proud of me.

Fettered, yes.
Chained, hampered, held back... you bet.

On my usual drive to work the other day, I drove past a field of sunflowers, bright and yellow. Their dark, undistinguishable faces trying to capture the sun. At first I was struck by the beauty in their uniformity, their neat rows and tidy lines. But then I noticed one flower grew taller and surer than the rest, as if reaching, reaching to be something more, something different, forging her way in a sea of sameness. One flower reached for the sun on a tepid August day.

She did not stop to ask if she had the right.
“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous