Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Segment - Writing Buddy Goals

So, as you know, a friend of mine and I have decided to become writing buddies for each other.

Each week we phone conference and talk about any triumphs or tribulations, brainstorm where needed, and help set weekly goals for the up-and-coming week.

After each conference I am going to post my weekly goals. I find that when I post something I become accountable for it. So, here are my weekly goals for this week...
  1. re-read my middle grade novel to become better acquainted with it. It's been a while since I've read it from page 1 to page 85. It's also been about a month since I've worked on it seriously and I feel reading it will help freshen things up.
  2. While reading, take notes for improvements for the next draft. But no messing around with it this time. I keep changing and making big edits and I believe this is why I haven't finished.
  3. Make a daily schedule with my kids so I can include time to write my novel, time to view houses and write my copies (the freelance work I do), and time for us to have fun together or with their friends.

So far I have already tackled number three. It felt good to have the girls be a part of this planning and they felt good to have input into our summer. A win-win situation.

I always struggle in the summer because there is so much I want/have to do. I want to write. I have to work. I want to be with my girls and have fun together. When I write, I feel guilty I am not with them. When I am working I feel guilty I am not with them. When I am with them, I feel pressure I am not writing or working. So coming up with a schedule showed all of us there is plenty time in the day to do all three.

I am going to be waking up early and getting my creative writing done while they are still sleeping. They have a more relaxed bed time in the summer which means they are sleeping later in the morning. Plus, it is vital for us writers to know what time of day we are most effective. I write best in the morning. I must write as soon as I wake up and keep at it till lunch - during the school year, that is. In the summer I won't write until lunch, but this way, at least I still write in the mornings for two and a half hours and the house will be still and quiet - another necessity.

The bonus is, I won't be riddled with guilt that I am not with the girls because they will be sleeping anyway.Then we decided on a two hour chunk of time they would want me to do my copy writing and what activities they can do while I work.

Once all this was figured out, we found we were left with the whole afternoon and evening to be together so we can do all the fun things we love to do together in the summer... go on bike rides, go on adventures, have friends over, throw a pool party...

Life lesson #679: it's never fun to go through the pain and struggles of life, but you always come out the other side with the most growth and learning. Afterall this is what we do to our MCs too, right?!

a flower from my garden...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Your Story Starts Here

They say write about what you know. They say your story starts at home.

This is a picture of the house I grew up in. It didn't look 100% like this when I grew up there. Some things have changed. Some might be an improvement, some maybe not.

There used to be purple rhododendrons in front of the house that reached the second story, definitely at least the porch roof.

I once told my mom I was running away from home. I was about 5. She said, "Pack a sweater." I took a red bandanna and filled it with a bunch of stuff I thought was important and attached it to the end of a stick like I had seen "hobos" do on TV. And not knowing where I could run away to and not wanting to leave my home, I ran to the protection of the rhododendrons and hid there until my mother came looking for me. Which, by the way, took all of five minutes but felt like a lifetime. I am sure she wrapped her arms around me and made me feel very loved and very missed for those five minutes.

The house was built in 1900, the turn of the century. It is called a 'poor man's Victorian' because it didn't have all the fancy ginger breading. Those rhododendrons were planted by the original owners when the house was built. I guess the present home owners felt 100-year old rhododendrons took away from the curb appeal. We loved that they completely sheltered the front of our house from a busy and well-traveled road.

Looking at this picture now, I see how small this house is by today's standards. But then, it felt as large as a castle to me. That is except my bedroom.

It was the smallest room in the house and had only one window which conveniently had the roof of a side porch right under it. I used to climb out that window and sit on the roof. Don't ask me why. My parents respected my privacy and I had nothing to hide, but something about sitting on that roof made me feel "bad" and for some reason, in my teenage years, that felt good. Silly now.

The front porch with all the white columns... that used to be a screened-in porch. I have lots of memories on that porch. Like I said, it was sheltered and shaded by the giant rhododendrons. The columns are 108-year old mahogany. I can't believe they painted them white...

There was a hammock on that porch we used to love to while away the hours in. My father used to make delicious omelets for Sunday breakfast- he still does today and now my kids look forward to them every summer when we stay at his beach house - anyway, we used to eat Sunday breakfast out there in the summer on a drop leaf table. And every summer, my sister and I would dress in cut-offs and a bikini top ready to scrub that porch from top to bottom and all the wicker furniture inside it as well. We used to hate it, but secretly, I think we loved it too. It meant summer.

We had ducks. Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They were black. My father built a home for them and a wading pool. It was supposed to be my job to clean up their bed each day and feed them and give them fresh water in their pool. I hated this job. It was smelly and dirty. I remember one day my father telling me I needed to take care of the ducks. It was a Sunday and we were probably having one of his famous omelets for breakfast. When I let down the hatch, one of the ducks fell limp. She had died in the middle of the night. I screamed. Everyone came running to see what was the matter.

The other two didn't stay long. They waddled across the street to the lake and stayed there the rest of their lives. They were happy there actually. The mated with some white ducks and then we had multi-colored ducks for the rest of my days living in that town. I wonder if they still do...

I can go on and on and on about my happy childhood in this house and the many fun memories I had. But really it would only be interesting to me.

The reason for this stroll down memory lane? As writers we need to stay in touch with where our stories began. We need to remember what it felt like to be five with a bandanna suitcase, or 13 and cleaning the porch with your sister. Or 28 and sitting on that porch and sharing a kiss with your fiancé (now my happy husband).

I was a writer first in this house. Sometimes looking at old photos can bring you right back in touch with a feeling or a smell or a sound that you can use in your stories.

Try this... Think about your childhood and some event. Right down the first ten things that come to your head. Don't censor yourself. Just right as quickly as you can. Try to include as many of your five senses as possible. Circle the three most descriptive. Then rephrase the fragments into questions. For example - being kissed on my mother's porch. I might have brainstormed these words, soft, gentle, crickets chirping. Then rephrase them into questions... Why was the kiss soft and gentle? Was it because it was the first kiss? Were the crickets chirping as a sign of summer, or approaching fall? And so on. Answering these questions will help uncover even more memories and make them richer and more detailed.

Then ask yourself if you can you use these details some how in your story. Does your MC experience her first kiss? Being in touch with how you felt when you were first kissed will help you write a fuller, richer scene.

A fellow writer friend of mine once said, no matter how I try not to write about myself and my life, I am always surprised to still see myself in my stories. I answered, where ever you go, there you are.

Embrace your memories. Relive them. Right about what you know. Write about who you are. If you do, then you will be writing from your heart, your home...

where your story began.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summer's not even Here and my Kids are Bored Already!

Today is the last day of school and I'm a little nervous and I'll tell you why... See, normally my country-bumpkin kids stay home all summer. We hike down to the creek and we... well... just hang out all summer long. But this year they are coming of the age where that will NOT be good enough and who will suffer???


I will suffer because they will be bored. And when they're bored they bicker and whine. And understandably, there comes a time in every kid's life when hanging out with mom just isn't enough. But what's a struggling writer to do? Camp's expensive! Only the rich can afford to entertain their kids with really cool sleep away camps or even some of these posh day camps... I have no idea what I will do with a middle schooler and an almost middle schooler all summer long!

Summer officially begins today at 2:00 for his household and my kids are already bored and bickering. Like I said, I'm a little nervous. OK, I'm a lot more than a little nervous!

My goal this summer is to complete my novel once and for all, but now I am wondering how realistic that is with two kids who will need me to constantly come up with new and exciting things to do and places to go because they're own backyard just isn't cutting it anymore. And I will need to come up with things that won't break the bank. Even going to the movies these days is a ridiculous expense. How can I entertain them without killing my summer budget AND still finish my novel???

There should be a book for mom's just for this purpose. I can see it now... Seventy Fun and Inexpensive Things to do with Your Kids This Summer in Your Area. We can each take a different territory and write a little booklet about what these things are with a rating scale for affordability, fun-o-metor, restroom cleanliness, and more. I have been scouring the Internet looking for cheap day camps, or things like this and not much is coming up. Even horse back riding lessons for a half an hour comes to $80 a pop for two kids!!!! And with the price of gas soon reaching $5 in my neck of the woods, I don't want to have to drive too far. Plus with all that driving, I'll need a laptop so I can drop them off someplace fun for them, park it under a shady spot and type away...

Summer's not even here yet, and I am already looking ahead to the fall...


Let's change the topic slightly, now that I've gotten my whining out of the way, I want to tell you a bit more about my brainchild idea as of late - Writing Buddies. I wrote about it at the end of my last posting... a friend of mine and I will be writing buddies for each other over the summer.

This Friday will be our first phone conference where we will set "new page" goals and talk about how our writing is going, and brainstorm any areas in our stories that need it. Say my goal is to write 10 new pages, the following Friday we will phone conference again and check in... did we reach our "new page" goals, why, why not, brainstorm, etc. We will continue this process until we both complete our MG novels. We are both very excited and hopeful (but now I have this little thing called "kids" to possibly throw me off).

Drat! Retrospective perspective strikes again! I remember the good ol' days when you could plop them in for a nap, or in front of the TV, or on a blanket with some toys and still get some work done.... Not anymore! Welcome to the 'tween age!

So, how do you deal with kids, summer vacation, and your writing goals? Let's hear the ideas and let the brainstorming commence!

PS We weren't actually hit by lightning btw, but it sure looks like it, doesn't it??? This was when I was doing my evil experiments in the basement of how to silence children for a few hours each day so a writer-mom can get some writing time in-between the whining chant of "we're bored... there's nothing to do..." Wha-ha-ha-ha-ha.....

Sunday, June 8, 2008

It's a Matter of Perspective Take Two... And Writing Buddies

Ahhhh life. It's interesting and sometimes messy and sometimes painful. And when we go through those times of pain, our perspective can sometimes get stuck inwards so we can tend to our wounds. And only when a hard, crusty scab develops, and the throbbing has ceased, can we then focus outwards, towards the bigger picture. Some of us move through this transition more gracefully and faster then others. Some do it with tears, some without, and some never make this transition at all and remain stuck inside themselves.

I can spend this time writing about the NJ SCBWI June conference and tell you how star struck I was to meet Regina Griffin, Ted Malawer, Dan Lazar, Stephen Barbara, and Jerry and Eileen Spinelli (a real highlight of the weekend). And sure, I can share how great Karen Haas' session was on incorporating humor into your stories and all the other insightful sessions I attended. And yes, I can write my notes diligently here so I can share with you what I learned.

But what I learned was not found in those speeches or discovered in those sessions.

What I learned came after my hard, crusty scab formed, and only after me and my bruised ego decided not to jump from the ledge after all, (thank you Laurie).

Interestingly, what I learned is what I've been blogging about lately... It's all about perspective and truths.

The Truths about my Life:
True, I need a paying job to help support my family and I while writing. True, I have turned over almost every stone looking for one and nothing yet seems to fit. True, nothing about that situation has changed, at least not for now. True, things will still be hard for a little while longer and there really is not much I can do to change this immediately. OK. I accept but I don’t have to like it.

The Truths about Writing:
True, I am new to writing novels. This is my first one in fact. True, there will be those agents/editors out there who hate it. But it's also true, there will be those out there who love it. It's true I will have to weed through many, many, many painful rejections and it's true, I will stand on that ledge again, I am sure. But it's also true, that I will eventually find that one agent/editor whom I connect with. It's true, I am not done writing this novel, and that at times writing is hard, and at others there’s nothing in the world like that feeling when the words are flowing and your fingers are flying to keep in time with your racing mind. And I DO know it’s true that at some point in time I will finish this darn blankety-blank novel, even though at times, I think I never will. True, when I do I will celebrate like there's no tomorrow because, it's also true, that finishing will be a HUGE milestone in my life. And in typing THE END, it is true as well, that I will only be just beginning. Because we all know, truer words have never been spoken when I say, my road to being published will include many re-writes and revisions, be arduous, painful, and full of elation.

But here is the thing, the one earth-shattering-but-perhaps-not-so-new thing I have finally learned from this weekend's conference: While all of these things may be true, one thing that was not, was my ability to believe the little voice in my head. Not the one that said jump, quit, you suck! when my pain was real, but the one that I heard before all that, before I sent in my money and forms to attend the June conference. The one that said, This is not your year to attend. Stay home. Stop getting critiques until you’ve finish your novel.

It’s true, I didn’t listen to that voice even though I 99% believed that was probably the right thing to do. Now, I know listening to yourself is not really new or earth shattering. But, how often do you hear that little voice in your head and you talk yourself out of it? You say, You're just being pessimistic, or You're just being silly, or Try to be more positive.

Maybe you've already learned and mastered this life lesson and you no longer do that to yourself. And as soon as you hear that little voice, you perk up, listen without question, and your life is better for it. And to those people I say, Good for you! And I mean it because this is the greatest disservice we do to ourselves – not to listen to, or dismiss, that inner voice.

See, I think we get caught up in all these conferences and critiques and feel we are missing out if we don’t attend. But the truth is, at least for me, if you are not done, you are not ready. Period. What is the sense of showing an editor your first three chapters if you are not done? What if she loves it and says send me the rest (which I have had happen and I've had to say, I'm not done with it yet). That's not so bad. But what if you were done and they offered you a contract? You still need an agent, in my opinion. A novelist is not going to sign with an editor without representation.

My opinion is once you are done, then you need an agent. Once you have an agent, you're going to rewrite it anyway. Once your agent finds an editor, you're going to rewrite it yet again. And again. And again. Yes, it should be polished and well developed, and have distinct voices before you send it out to an agent, and a critique with an editor can help you get there, but if you are not done, making major changes before you are, really doesn't make sense. Not to me. Not anymore. In fact, I think it can become downright distracting, overwhelming, and potentially debilitating.

So what did my inner voice tell me that I finally listened to?

Writing Buddies.

You’ve heard of running buddies, right? Someone to push you to that extra mile, just one more step, you're almost there, through rain or shine... you get the picture. Well a Writing Buddy is the same concept. Writing Buddies don't critique each other. As a matter of fact, during this time, no one is allowed to look at your work. No one. It goes underground for a while, that is, until you have crossed that finish line called THE END. What is shared instead is the goal to cross that finish line. Writing Buddies’ goals are not to perfect pages at this time. In its place, Writing Buddies set a common goal - to write ten new pages this week, for example. Then they have a conference, via email, phone, or face-to-face and they talk about their progress. They talk about if they reached the goal, why or why not, what worked, what didn’t, and they brainstorm together new ideas for their stories, if stuck or needed. Then Writing Buddies set a new goal. And so on and so on and so on until both write THE END. And again, all the while, never actually sharing pages, just goals, progress, and brainstorming sessions.

Remember I began by saying; it's all about perspective... So, I didn't want to go to this conference. I didn't think my story was ready for a critique. I didn't listen to myself because my perspective of that inner voice was off. I thought that voice was being depressed or negative when in fact it was being protective and intuitive. In the end I learned. Yes, I learned to listen to myself but also maybe I needed to go down this route in order to once and for all respect my process. I tell writers all the time to respect your process and know it will be unique to you but I never allowed myself that same perspective of my inner voice.

And, in the end… isn't it all about perspective?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

It's a Matter of Perspective and the Universe HAS been Speaking to me After All...

So the interview with the school went very well and not so very well.

Thankfully, the demo lesson was the part that went very well. The girls all swarmed me in the end saying they had so much fun, and that it was a really fun lesson, and then wanted to chat with me about my summer plans. This was all great because I have been thinking about adopting some lesson plans into a package to send to schools as a supplemental writing program. I could be hired for say a week to a month and the school could select the writing program and I would then get paid to teach it. Some schools call this a writing residency, or artist in residence, or just plain a supplemental program.

Anyway, so I think I've maybe made it kind of clear - I don't want to go back to regular classroom teaching - so I told myself not to think of this as a demo lesson for a job interview, but instead as trying out a lesson plan for my artist in residence program. So I was ecstatic when the girls said they really enjoyed it.

The part that didn't go so well, was when the two fourth grade teachers interviewed me and basically said, We have been teaching together for years. We like what we do and the way we do it. Can you be a team player? (My thoughts: doesn't sound like a team to me??) What I said: Sure. And... We like to stay on the same page in class. We like to plan together, test together, and make sure we are doing the same thing on the same day. How do you feel about that? (My thoughts: YUCK! And... that sure makes it easy on the adults, but not really what's best for this kids.) What I said: Well, that can work for LA, science, and SS, but not so much math. If my students don't understand today's math lesson for example and yours do, I am not turning the page just because yours are ready. And likewise, you shouldn't have to wait to turn the page for me either.

Then I met with the Dean of Faculty and Head of Lower School, when I was told... ready for this one... that they don't read novels. They, instead, read leveled readers (we used to call this basals. Most schools stopped teaching basal about 20 years ago!) and may allow one, I will repeat myself, ONE novel to be read aloud to the girls but not for curriculum, grading, or teaching reasons. (My thoughts: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? No wonder why the students in my demo didn't know what an antagonist was! No wonder they had never heard of Sharon Creech, or Lois Lowry, etc. What a Chandra!) What I said: (and this is probably when I started praying they wouldn't offer me the position) You will never be able to teach foreshadowing, personification, and character arcs from basal readers (they didn't like that I called them "basal" readers), just to name a few. You will never teach the love of amazing writing or the love of reading from basals. My philosophy (I probably should have stopped but I went on.) is teaching from only one program is never a good thing. It doesn't give a well rounded education (OK maybe I shouldn't have said that - but this is fourth grade we're talking about and the year is 2008 for crying out loud. AND parents are paying $25,000 a year to send their daughtrers to this private school and they DON'T read novels!!!) Well, we feel some students would struggle reading a novel while others would soar. Some just wouldn't get it. (My thoughts: Seriously?) What I said: But that's the beauty of it. When you always only group students to their level, they never rise above it. When you vary it and from time to time all read a book together, the higher students inspire the lower students in ways adults just can't. They learn from each other. They teach each other. Would you consider allowing me to do one novel with them? Yes, you can read it to them, not assign pages, or work from it. (My thoughts: Can I leave now?)

OK so I was not at all sad when I received the phone call a day later saying, We're sorry, but we're not going to be able to offer you this position. I answered, in probably too chipper a voice and said, Oh OK. Sure. Yeah. That's fines. Yes. OK. Bye! :) (My thoughts: THANK GOD!)

So here's what I was thinking.... did you ever hear the one about the man who drowned waiting for a sign from God? It goes like this. A man sits waiting in his house while warnings of a severe flood appear on his TV screen. A knock is heard at the door. Excuse me Sir, but we are evacuating the area. A severe flood is headed your way. That's OK, says the man, I'm going to stay here. I am waiting for a sign from God. But thank you.

A little while later, the water is rushing in through the windows on the first floor. So the man climbs the steps to the second floor to wait for a sign from God. He sits by his window and sees a Coast Guard boat. Over a megaphone he hears: This is the Coast Guard. A severe flood is headed your way. We are evacuating the area. Please let us take you to safety. No thank you, says the man, I am waiting for a sign from God.

The waters continue to rise, filling up his second story and forcing the man to climb out onto his roof and wait for God there. A little while later a helicopter hoovers above him. Sir, we are evacuating the area. We will send down a ladder. Please climb up and let us take you to safety. No thanks, says the man, I am waiting for a sign from God.

A little while later... the man drowns.

He goes up to Heaven and meets God. He says, God, I waited for your sign. Why didn't you save me?

God says, What, a television report, knock at your door, Coast Guard boat, and a helicopter weren't enough!

And so I say to you... I have heard the signs... a miserable year when I did go back to teaching two years ago to fill a maternity leave possition (I was downright depressed!), the teacher came back leaving no available positions for the following school year, a prospective position this year that dissolved before my eyes (You're perfect for this job. We all wanted to hire you, but you won't believe this, the position dissolved!), and now this 1950's stringent, completely uncreative way of teaching...

Universe, I hear you loud and clear! So, I am off to discover new horizons to support my junkie writing habit!!!

Now, I leave you with a smittering of what we did in the demo lesson. The students, as you know from the previous posting, learned about shifting perspectives... They had to read these passages aloud with feeling (great actresses, btw) and then guess what story it was from and whose shifted perspective it was before coming up with their own....

I just can’t get a break. In every story, I am portrayed as big and bad. But hey, maybe you’re a meat eater too. Do you like steak, cheeseburgers, pork chops, BBQ chicken? Yum, delicious! So, why am I so big and bad then? All I wanted was a little breakfast, lunch and maybe dinner… Is that too much to ask?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Shifting Persepctives

Perspective is an interesting thing. My girls and I saw these little bark-like cocoons growing on several of our trees. Wondering what was growing inside, and having a respect for life, we decided to leave them alone and wait and see what would emerge with growing excitement.

A few weeks ago, I had a tree expert come to my property to talk to me about a few of my trees when he noticed this interesting sack and said, "See this? This is a bagworm. It will kill your entire tree. You need to remove these and get rid of them every season as winter turns into spring."

So, what at first seemed like a promise of a gift of some beautiful butterfly, is now the fear of saving my trees and so my girls and husband removed scads and scads of them from our trees over the weekend. What once made me think of beauty, now makes me feel disgusted. A shift in perspecitve.

And so, that brings us to my present situation... I am going in to teach a demo lesson to a 4th grade class for a possible teaching position at an all-girls school. I thought I would teach a lesson on shifting perspectives in literature. I would present well-known stories in a sentence or two, told by a secondary character's POV.

Then I would have them take a story of their choosing and shift the perspective by telling it in a few sentences from a secondary character's POV, thereby shifting the story's perspective.

So what do you all think? Have any comments or suggestions? Any ideas pop into your head???
“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