Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Varian: Tips on Planning a Writers' Retreat

For the past two years, my classmates and other alums from the Vermont College of Fine Arts have held a 4-day writing retreat. Planning a retreat isn't all that hard--although there are certainly some challenges involved. I figured it might be helpful to share some lessons learned from our past two retreats.

1) Pick a place: When we began planning for our first retreat, we quickly decided to hold the retreat at a place and time that allowed the largest number of us to attend. We chose a location outside of Detroit in 2011--a beautiful, three story house on a man-made lake. Flights were relatively inexpensive, and the house offered plenty of room.

The crew in 2011: Back - Amy Rose Capetta, Katie Bayerl, Rachel Wilson, Carol Allen, Sue LaNeve; Middie - Mary Winn Heider, Jennifer Schmidt; Front - Linden McNeilly, Ginger Johnson

While we loved the 2011 house, we decided to try something a little different in 2012. We wanted to feel more secluded, so we picked a house on a large, wooded, two-acre lot. We also chose a house in Beverly Shores, IN, about an hour outside of Chicago. Chicago was a less-expensive hub city than Detroit, and since four our our crew lived in there, we didn't have to rent any cars.
Ginger and Rachel outside of the 2012 House (Beverly Shores, IN)
"Can I get a hot tub?!"

While the 2011 house offered more room and was a little cheaper, the 2012 house gave us the retreat feel that we were craving. We didn't feel like were where held up in the suburbs--we felt away.

(The 2012 house also had a huge outdoor hot tub, which is always a good thing.)

2) Make a schedule: I can't stress how important this is. While we wanted to have a lot of fun, we wanted to get meaningful work done. We also wanted to hold small workshops. It easy to say that you can fit all this in over a 4 day weekend, but you'd be surprised how quickly the time passes without a little structure.

The crew in 2012: Back - Amy Rose Capetta, Mary Winn Heider, Carol Brendler, Katie Bayerl, Marianna Baer, Varian Johnson; Front - Ginger Johnson, Rachel Wilson, Jennifer Schmidt, Larissa Theule, Rachel Hylton

Mary Winn, hard at work
We set up a detailed but flexible schedule. We had quiet writing time from 9 AM to noon--it's amazing how productive you are when the person next to you is typing away. Because of the size of the house, we were able to spread out--some of us worked at the dining room table, other worked in the living room and basement, and others worked outside. We met back up for a quick lunch at noon, then immediately went into workshop afterward. By 3:30, we have all of our "work" done, allowing us to walk to the beach or hang out while we were cooking. We closed the day with readings, and even roasted marshmallows on the last night.

3) Think about ways to cut down expenses. Picking a large hub city certainly cut down on costs. We also cooked most of our meals. This not only cut down on cost, but it allowed us to hang out while working in the kitchen. All that being said--the bigger the kitchen, the easier it is to fix food. Our 2012 house had a much smaller kitchen that our previous house, making it that much harder for everyone to maneuver. We're already talking about contingency plans for the next retreat if we pick a house with a small kitchen. And be sure to bring a crock-pot or two.

Marianna, Katie and Mary Winn whipping up a meal.

4) Share the responsibilities. We not only shared in cooking duties, but we also shared with clean-up, planning, driving--everything. This way, it didn't feel like one or two people were doing all the work.

5) Have Fun! Sure, you're there to work, but don't forget to have fun. And wine and chocolate always help.

Sara's clients on the beach - Amy Rose Capetta, Rachel Wilson, Varian Johnson, Marianna Baer

Our 2011 retreat was extremely successful. Between 2011 and 2012, three retreat pieces sold--Amy Rose Capetta's Entangled, Rachel Wilson's Don't Touch,  and my own Jackson Greene Steals the Election.

I can't wait to see the results of our 2012 retreat, and I can't wait until 2013!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Daphne: What's in a Name?

I grew up Daphne Grab, Grab like the word grab, with a nice short ‘a’.  In elementary school the insult that came my way the most was Grab-Bag, one of those things that isn’t inherently bad yet when said in a certain kind of voice by nine year olds, becomes mortifying.  Back then I hated my name but over time it became just another piece of my identity and my experience, the way one’s name is.  I’ve been Grab, either stand alone or hyphenated for all of my forty one years.
But then last year I went with my mom and sister to my aunt’s funeral where we met a whole magnificent slew of Southern cousins I was barely aware we even had (my dad wasn’t so great at keeping in touch with his family).   And as my cousin Danny lead us in to meet everyone that first night I heard someone say, “The Grahbs are here.”  Grahb, the ‘a’ long and elegant, a word so different from the usual Grab that it took me a minute to realize they meant us.  We were the Grahbs.
And so over the weekend we learned that the family name had always been Grahb, spelled Grab but pronounced oh so differently, an elegant and dignified long ‘a’ for many generations of Grabs.  But somehow my dad, when he went off to college, decided Grab, with the short ‘a’ was easier and started introducing himself that way. And thus we became the short ‘a’ Grabs.
I flew home thinking about what it might have been like to grow up Daphne Grahb.  Would I have been more elegant and dignified?  Would the lack of teasing have made me a better student or lead me to focus more on chess or some other interest?  Would guys have thought me hotter with the more European sounding name? 
I’ll never know the answers of course, but it did get me thinking about character names and how important they are, how even the difference between a long ‘a’ and a short ‘a’ can tell you loads about who the person is.  Like when a character is named Luke Honeythunder (Dickens, master of character names) you don’t assume he is a quiet church mouse kind of a guy.  A name can also deceive, like Severus Snape seeming to fit his snakey name, only to surprise us at the end.  Names are an opportunity to reveal something about each of the characters in a story, their history and who they may or may not be.  Which is why in the end, anything and everything can be in a name!    

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marion: The First Thirty

Near my house is a canyon. Last winter, I went for several hikes up this canyon. As soon I as I was out of the car, the voices started up in my head. You've probably heard these same voices before. They whisper things like:

It's too cold.

You're not prepared. You don't have the right clothing.

The snow is too deep.

It's too far to the summit.

These voices have the most power in the first thirty minutes of a hike. The voices will tell you it's not really giving up if you've only just started. And since you've only invested a small portion of your time and energy, turning around is easy to do.

Sometimes the voices may speak truth. Perhaps you are not fully prepared. Perhaps the way is too difficult.

Mostly the voices lie.

And it's important to note that in the first thirty minutes you are the most vulnerable. Once I've left my car far behind--and the valley is spread out in my view--I find I can talk back to the voices.

The summit is still too far.

Then I will go as far as I can.

The snow is getting deeper.

I've walked through worse.

You cannot do this.

Yes, I can.

If I make it past the first thirty minutes of a hike, I can usually make it to my goal. I see through the voices' lies, I've invested significant time and energy, and I plow my way to the top.

I've discovered a similar truth in writing. When you begin a new story, the voices are quick to speak up.

These characters are bland.

The plot is thin.

You'll never get to eighty thousand words.

Again, most of the time the voices lie. But it's easy to stop when you've just begun. It's easy to tell yourself that the story isn't as compelling as you first thought. You haven't invested the time, so it's easy to close the document and move on to something else.

Don't believe the voices.

Lower your shoulders, pick a good pace, and plunge ahead. Write the first thirty pages. Ignore the voices and just move forward. Perhaps on page thirty-one, you can start to respond to those nagging doubts.

The characters are weak.

I'm getting to know them.

You'll never reach eighty thousand words.

Maybe not, but tonight I'll reach three thousand.

The plot is thin.

I can do this.

Ignore the voices until you've written thirty pages. Invest the time and effort that your story both deserves and demands. You'll find the next hundred pages will very likely come.

One last thing. When hiking, I've found that at the base of the trail there are dozens of footsteps. The farther you go, the thinner the tracks. One by one, those who have gone before turn around and head back. Eventually, there is an exhilarating moment when you see the last set of tracks come to an end. You look to the trail ahead and see nothing but unbroken snow.

In writing, it's not good to compare yourself to others. There are far too many variables. But sometimes I like to compare what I'm doing now with what I've done in the past. Maybe first the goal is to just finish a short story. Then the goal is to write something longer. Maybe you want to place in a contest, and then come in first. Then the goal may be as lofty as finishing a novel, submitting it, and getting good feedback. Then that happy day comes when you sign a contract, and see one of your books on the shelf.

If you ignore the voices, sometimes you can go farther than you ever thought possible. All you have to do is tackle the first thirty.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jenny: Interview with Editor Heather Alexander

Today, I'm sharing one of the most fun and engaging interviews I've ever had the chance to post. I get to interview my very own editor, Heather Alexander, who cultivates fantastic reads at Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin. Every author should have such a witty, insightful editor, and I can't wait for you to see her answers. Enjoy!

Jenny: I think many people don't fully understand what editors really do. To you, what is editing children's books all about?

Heather: I finally stopped trying to convince people that my job isn’t drinking tea in a chintz lounge reading rhyming stories out loud to the animal friends gathered at my feet. I suppose there is some truth to that scenario (I do drink tea). Most days, I feel more like an orchestra conductor, setting tempo, trying to pull out parts of a manuscript while pushing back on others, getting the whole thing to work together and sound amazing.  Combine this with contract negotiations, marketing material approvals, email avalanches, and about 200 meetings a week, and you get a clearer picture.

Jenny: In becoming a (marvelous) editor, was your path straightforward or were there detours? When and how did you realize this was the right profession for you?  

Heather: This is my second career, but I always thought publishing was a glamorous profession.  As a child, I realized by reading front matter (yes, I was that kind of book nerd) that most publishers were in New York, and since my main goal at age 8 was to live in New York, publishing seemed like a Job I Would Like, even though I had no idea what it entailed.  I read middle grade and young adult novels as a grownup, and when I went back to school, I took a kid’s literature class which sealed the deal.  I started off in Managing Editorial, and that was a great way to see the big publishing picture, but it was only a few months before I moved into Editorial.

Jenny: What's it like to read submissions? What do you look for?  

Heather: A lot of times, there is an instant gut reaction when reading submissions.  But once I know I like something or don’t, I focus in on the concrete reasons why.  Has this story been told before?  Who is the audience?  Is the character active or passive?  Is the plot unfolding naturally?  Can I clearly picture this world?  A great voice can trump everything else, and I’m always looking for solid characters that I connect with right away.

Jenny: In acquiring titles for your list, how do you know a book is right for you?  

Heather: I wish it were as easy as “I like this!” and stamping it “publish” but there are a lot of factors that make a project right for a particular editor.  It has to be something I love first and foremost, but it also has to be different from things currently on my (and Dial’s) list, and something we think the public will embrace.  I know a book is right for me when I can happily ignore my email inbox in favor of reading (in my chintz lounge, of course).

Jenny: What's the most exciting aspect of your work?  

Heather: One of the most exciting things is being able to call a debut author and say “you’re getting published!” and another is finally seeing that book in stores.  Reading good reviews never stops being exciting.  It’s a lot of hard work to put a book out into the world, so it’s nice to have that work recognized.

Jenny: What inspires you, in work and in life?  

Heather: I’m inspired by a lot of different things, but especially by just being in New York.  There are so many interesting things happening here all the time, and I feel like my brain works overtime to connect the overly serious gallery opening and the 1 train Mariachi band and the Chinese wedding in the park and the man wearing a tophat and riding a scooter decked out in bells.  And of course, getting to meet and talk to so many extraordinary people every day is like living in an inspiration factory.  When my brain needs a break, I like to flee to the woods where I remember what it feels like to think about one thing for a long time, and what air smells like.

Jenny: What books should our readers be looking out for?

Heather: Definitely pick up a copy of Nerve by Jeanne Ryan for a page-turning reading experience.  If you want to make little ones giggle, try I Know a Wee Piggy by Kim Norman and Henry Cole.  And if you want to cry a little (or a lot) while learning all kinds of things you didn’t know about World War II, give My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve a read.  And of course, keep an eye out for Tracked by Jenny Martin, coming soon.

Heather Alexander has been with Dial Books for nearly five years, where she edits books for all ages (board books through YA).  When she was a kid, she knew kids’ books were better than grownup books because her dad never laughed so hard he cried when he read his own books, just hers.  She was pretty sure there could never be a book better than Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and she’s been mostly right about that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Amy Rose: On Theme

Since it’s my first post here at the Crowe’s Nest, I feel like it’s the right time to share something it took me four finished, unpublished novels to work out. As someone who loves and writes sci-fi, I know the pitfalls (both paradoxical and practical) of wanting a time machine so I can go back and tell this to myself before I set out to write that first novel. So I’ll share it in the hopes that it can save another writer some time, agony, or hair that would otherwise have been pulled out or set on fire.

It’s okay to know what your novel is about before you start writing it.
I don’t mean the premise of the novel.  I don’t mean the beginning or the ending or even what the main character wants. I mean what it is ABOUT. Capital ABOUT. I mean the theme, or as some writers put it, the central question. Casting it as a question keeps me reaching outwards in lots of different directions—not expecting an answer but eager to barrel down all avenues that spoke out from that center, knowing that it will result in lots of chewy ideas, resonant subplots, engaged characters, details of setting and word choice that echo or subvert, circle or underline that central question.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with figuring out theme through revision. When I started writing, that’s what I thought novelists did—and many do. But I struggled and rough-drafted and revised myself into the realization that I am not one of those novelists. I get lost in the wonderful work of figuring out character, voice, world-building, exciting plot events. I have written entire novels (and sometimes rewritten and rewritten entire novels) only to have them come apart in the worst dry-cookie crumble. Knowing what the story is about binds it all together for me.

It is also utterly okay to use a theme to figure out the structure of your novel.
If your writer-brain has the same sort of geography as my writer-brain, you might even start to think of structure and theme as inseparable. To me, structure is what happens when I strike the match-head of character against the nubbly stuff of theme. All of a sudden, plot events are racing to happen. I don’t feel the need to force them that used to dampen early drafts. Rather than feeling forced or gimmicky (a big concern when writers approach structure first and writing second,) to me these events feel organic, because they feed off the same central idea, connecting to each other and falling into a chain of causality, often in ways that surprise me.

So, HOW does a writer get from theme to story structure? There are lots of ways, and all I can share are some basic steps and questions that help me.

What is your central question?
Have one? Good. Don’t answer it. Think about it as hard as you can, in every direction that you can, but don’t answer it. What you’re looking for isn’t an answer, it’s a series of events: the events that could only come from the specific combination of character, setting, and theme in your story.
How does the central question connect to the premise of your novel?
If it doesn’t, you might need a different central question—or a different premise.
What happens when you put your characters, in the setting you’ve picked, up against this theme?
I brainstorm a list of events, usually starting with ones that are driven by the main character. Then I pick one that would seem to fall at an obvious point in the book, whether it’s the beginning, the end, or an act climax. (I usually use a three-act structure, sometimes more.) Once I pick one or two of these points that feel “obvious” and natural, I start to see how the other points I’ve brainstormed could fall into the remaining spots, maybe as climaxes for other acts. If they don’t, I brainstorm some more! I try to come up with a balance of charges for these events—not just whether they’re “good” or “bad”, but whether they’re positive or negative in terms of this character’s relationship to the theme.
What happens once you have your main points set up?
Fill in or as much or as little of in between as you like. That’s one of the nice things about this method! There’s a lot of flexibility, and things can change from writer to writer and story to story. It’s up to me how much I want to think about beforehand vs. discover through writing. This also makes it easier for me to deviate from early choices and outlines and take it back to the basics of the story when things need some tweaking.

This is just a start, of course, but it often launches me into a story. All writers are different in how they approach story and structure, and these are just some of my favorite questions. I’d love to know more about how you approach the process!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Evan: Mental Illness Awareness Week

I teach literature to college students. Often, we talk about the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Edith Wharton and Tim O’Brien, authors who wrote about and experienced mental health issues. My students play the role of armchair psychologist well, applying terms they’ve learned from antidepressant medication advertisements, movies, or the General Psychology course from the prior semester to fictional characters. I try not to over-correct them because sometimes their knowledge is from direct experience with mental health issues. (Though, I will object when someone claims the famous Hemingway character Nick Adams is a sociopath, since the argument's usually supported by evidence from Showtime's serial-killer show Dexter.)
In many discussions, I highlight depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and stress in the characters or plots because I believe there’s value in analyzing how illness travels from a writer to the page to the reader. But for Mental Illness Awareness Week, I take time to discuss mental health as a real world issue, not as an artistic theme. Initially, I give my students information about the mental health services offered by the university. They have been told this information before -- the hours, the services available, etc. They’ve been assured of things like professionalism and confidentiality. Some of them have considered taking advantage of the services; some of them actually speak up to promote the serves. But I have no idea if telling students the hours of the on-campus therapists will encourage those in crisis to actually seek help.
So, I also talk about how mental illness has affected my life and my work
I tell my students that I am a writer and a teacher who was diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder many years ago. I am medicated. I have been in therapy. I am not cured. I am better now than I was at their age. I describe, in reasonable detail, the ways my anxiety and depression affected my life as a teenager and then as undergraduate and still as an adult. 
I tell my students that I spent a long time trying to hide my mental illness and trying to “treat” myself. I tell them that, eventually, I had to accept that trying to tough it out was not possible. Curing myself was also not possible. Getting help, however, was possible. 
I confess that I wish I’d gotten help sooner. 
I reveal the insecurities and concerns I once had about therapy. 
I explain that a close friend and my would-be wife eventually guided me to therapy and that it saved my life. 
What has actually had more of a profound effect -- in terms of triggering private conversations with students about their mental health -- is literature itself. Because of protagonists battling violent impulses or short stories about depressionstudents have approached me to talk about how they suffer in ways that mirror the characters. 
For some of you, this might be surprising. For someone who writes and teaches fiction for a living, it is not. Stories offer perspective and, in some cases, validation. When someone champions the abstract "power of reading," one of the things they’re referring to is the power stories have to make a reader feel less alone, less weird, less weak. A story or character can validate a reader's emotions. Students can be told "you are not alone" by parents, friends, teachers, but reading something that illustrates that sentiment feels different. It’s processed differently.
Sometimes stories give a reader the necessary vocabulary of mental illness. Or the courage to admit to pain. It’s not about seeing a character that’s just like me -- instead, it’s seeing a character that suffers like me. The difference is key and profound. If a character had to be just like me to inspire me to talk about my depression, I’d read for a thousand years and never speak. In truth, we only need to see familiar suffering, familiar worry, familiar fears, familiar manias in order to build strength. Or to just find the words.
In my novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, the protagonist James Whitman tries to treat his own depression by reciting poetry by Walt Whitman, hugging trees, and talking to an imaginary pigeon therapist. (You read that right.) I did none of these things as a teenager, you should know, but I had all sorts of other things I attempted to battle panic attacks and depression. Like James, I didn’t know what was wrong with me except that I felt depressed. (The word felt right, but what did it truly mean?) In addition to depression, I paced around nervously; my heart raced. I was having panic attacks for years and didn’t know it. I avoided social gatherings. I had a few friends whom I didn’t even confide in about my funky brain. I spent lots of time sleeping, reading, listening to music, and convincing myself that I was an emotional, self-sufficient person. 
James and I are not the same, but we share similar feelings.
As for James, he believes he has no reason to be depressed, chides himself, and dismisses his own emotions. But when James discovers that his sister might be suffering even more than he is, his anxiety and depression become unmanageable. I reached the point of unmanageable depression later in life than James. 
But I didn’t write Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets as an act of self-therapy. Nor do I expect the novel to cure people of depression and anxiety. No book can accomplish such a thing. What I hope is that -- aside from being interesting and emotionally engaging and funny -- it can give certain readers strength and help them to realize that they don’t need permission to get help or speak up. (I also hope it makes people laugh because even those of us that suffer from depression can -- and need to -- laugh.)
The stigma of mental illness is weakening, at least in my sphere of experience. Students talk about it imperfectly but with more understanding, often because they know someone who suffers from depression, panic attacks, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, or other serious conditions. I believe it will continue to get better. Those of us who suffer can continue to be advocates for those who cannot speak out yet. People who suffer shouldn't be left huddled together, hoping not to be dismissed, chastised, mocked, or ignored.
For more infomration on Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct 7-13 2012) visit http://www.nami.org/template.cfm?section=mental_illness_awareness_week

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Amy: Creating a Sense of Place

I have been thinking about place in fiction, research, and how we as writers create a setting or sense of a place that works to build the world of the story. I set my novel Lovely, Dark and Deep in northern Maine having never been to Maine. I had an imagined Maine within me, one that seemed as developed as my protagonist the moment she appeared. I knew little about the actual state, details from a friend raised there and some from reading. As I got deeper into my writing and realized how important place was to the story, I kept photos from the internet open on my desktop, peeking at me around the edges of my manuscript for subliminal inspiration. Some of the images I sought were snowy woods, others were wild, brilliant, thunderous coast shots from places as far up as Nova Scotia. The Maine I was writing was fiction through and through.

Once I had a solid draft I decided I needed to see the place. On a record-breaking snowy weekend in New York City, this former Minnesota girl packed up her car, grabbed fellow Midwesterner and drove through a blizzard to see if this imagined place, this Arcadian Maine, had anything in common with the real one.

I was pleased to see, at least from an outsider’s eyes, it did. We drove to Portland and further north, shooting photographs of snow-covered firs, skinny islands, craggy black and grey lichen-rich rocks at the edge of the ocean, and some of the small towns dotting Highway 1. I was so happy that the atmosphere of the place seemed to match what I’d imagined that I found myself looking for my characters as if I might actually be able to catch a snapshot or two of them.

After a great long weekend of poking around, talking to people, taking a ridiculous number of photographs, and eating at crazy good restaurants, I came home with my images and changed my desktop background so I had them ghosting around in the background for subliminal inspiration.

Then something strange happened. I had to take them down, replace them with my earlier finds, the ones I’d selected to match what I’d already imagined. My images of the real Maine, as felicitous as it seemed to find and discover them, pulled me out of the story, disoriented me a bit, anchored me to my own life rather than the lives I was dreaming up. Maybe it was something about how literal they were, how connected to my trip—whatever it was, they prevented me from easily accessing the Maine I’d already invented for my characters.

It wasn’t until after working with my marvelous editor that I decided to look at the photographs again. They’d changed. Or more likely, I had. Somehow, over time, they'd shrugged off the literal. Perhaps this was a result of having taken so many pictures I could no longer remember specific details about where I was when I shot this one or that one. Because looking at them, months later, I saw my story. It was as if my eyes, while I was writing the novel, had led me to the shots I wanted and needed, but it wasn’t until I could forget having done the looking that they assume the imagined. This taught me something important about research: I can and need to feed my imagination from the world, but my trip to Maine was really more a confirmation of the power of story than a requirement for tapping into it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dianne: The Do's and Don'ts of Launching a Book

Eight months out from the launch of my second book, I’m starting to think about promotions.  It’s a task that must be done, even though it makes me uncomfortable. I’m always embarrassed promoting myself. (In fact, it’ll take all my guts just to stick my book’s cover image at the end of this post.)  Luckily, I learned a lot from the launch of my first book – and from watching other authors launch theirs.

First, DO be part of the conversation on social networks, not a one-track self-promoter.  DON’T comment on people’s blogs by mentioning how their post reminds you of your book and providing a buy link. (I’ve seen this done!) Participate in conversations without dropping your book title all the time. Just get yourself out there and be visible.

DO thank every blogger who hosts you with a guest blog or interview. You may have provided content for them, but they took the time to set up the post. When my first book launched, I couldn’t decide whether or not I should comment on blog reviews that I stumbled across through Google Alerts.  Did it make me look like a stalker if I did?  Did it seem aloof if I didn’t? In the end, I came to the conclusion that no one can take a simple “Thanks!” amiss. 

DO respond to people who contact you about your book or mention you in FB and Twitter posts. The months before and after a book launch are super busy – especially if you have a family and a full time job as well.  But it’s important to block out time to respond to the readers who reach out to you. 

DON’T respond to negative reviews by arguing with the reviewer. Not ever. No matter how hurtful, inaccurate, or unfair the review is, DON’T do it.  Even if the reviewer gives you a 1-star rating because the UPS man ran over her dog while delivering the book: Just. Look. Away.

DON’T judge the success of an author appearance by how many people show up or how many books you sell.  An experienced author once told me that connections you make talking to people (readers, store owners, other authors) are often more important than the signed books that walk out the door. One time, a 20-minute conversation with a woman who did NOT buy my book that night resulted in her book club choosing to read it four months later.

And finally, DO remember that no matter how important your book launch is to you, it’s not the center of everyone else’s life. DON’T be hurt by family, friends, and co-workers who fail to rush out and buy the book on the release date. Of course, the ones who do will hold a special place in your heart (and sometimes you’ll be surprised by which ones they are), but everyone else wishes you well too, no matter when (or if) they read your book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lisa: The Clock is Ticking

Whenever I get together with other writers and we talk shop, there is one subject that seems to come up more than any other.


How we spend it, how we waste it, how we wish we had more of it.

I find it fascinating how much writers think about time. Maybe it's because a lot of writers are juggling their writing around other things, and so it's a constant source of frustration. I certainly get that. For a long time, I wrote early in the mornings and on weekends, because I worked a day job and I had a family who needed me as well.

But even authors who call writing their job are often looking for ways to do it better, faster, whatever. Or they get mad at themselves for spending way too much time on facebook, twitter, pinterest, tumblr, etc.

Since I've been writing for over ten years now (about half of those as a published author), I've figured some things out for myself, and I thought I would share a few tips that help me with my productivity. In case you're curious, I have two teens who don't drive and need rides to various places. I have a dog who needs to be walked every day. I am the only person in the house who does any serious cooking, and I like to eat decent food, so I spend a fair amount of time on grocery shopping and meal preparation. I'm currently trying to write and publish two books a year. I do not work outside the home anymore, thank goodness!

1) It's best to schedule your writing time for when you have the greatest chance for success.

 Some might argue this shouldn't matter, when you have time to write, you should write. And maybe that's true, but I also believe if we plan to write at the time(s) we feel most energized and awake, we'll probably have a more productive writing session. I know a lot of writers who can't write until it's dark and everyone else in the house is asleep. That would NOT be me, by the way. I'm up early and once I get my kids to school and have gotten a workout in, I am ready to write. Mornings are my best writing time, and that is especially true on the weekends. I get up early on the weekends, and while everyone else sleeps in, I write.

2) Set daily goals.

When I'm drafting a book, my goal is 1,000 words a day. Every day. I tend to revise as I go, so sometimes I spend an hour on previous pages before I finally get to adding more words, but even taking this into account, if I'm focused, I find that goal is very doable for me. If I'm having trouble getting into the writing on a certain day, usually that means I need to take a time out and figure out where the plot needs to go. When I'm doing editorial revisions, I'll give myself a certain number of pages to get through (usually ten to twenty).

This is really no different than making a to-do list when you are working a regular job with tasks that have to be completed. I made task lists all the time when I worked in human resources. Treat your writing like a job and then do the work that needs to be done.

I also want to add that I think it's so, SO important to keep the momentum going when you're writing a first draft. Try not to take a day off. Even if you can only fit in 100 words some days, open the document and write.

3) Have a plan and make your re-entry into the document as easy as possible

When I'm drafting, I try not to leave off at the end of a chapter. I love leaving off in a place where I'll be excited the next day to get back to that scene. I also leave notes for myself in the document, to remind myself about what I imagine happening next. Maybe something new will come to me, but in case it doesn't, I have a place to start. I really think half the battle is opening the document and just starting in again. There is so much we are afraid of (that we don't even realize), but if we leave off in a place that makes it fun to get back to the story, we'll forget about those things we are afraid of and just focus on the story.

The other thing to think about here is that there's been lots of talk on the internet lately about how productivity increases when you know what needs to happen in your book. I think this is the original post that inspired all of that talk. So if you've always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, and you're frustrated by how slowly you write, you might want to try mapping out where you book is going, and see if that helps.

4) If social media is your problem, figure out if you need to get drastic or not

If you are spending more time on social media sites than you are writing, you probably do need to get drastic. You might want to download Freedom, which locks the internet away so you can write without distractions. It's only ten dollars, and it allows you to specify the number of minutes you want to be kept away from the internet. If you don't want/need to get that drastic, try using social media sites as a reward. Maybe you allow yourself 5 minutes of social media time after 45 minutes of writing time or something.

5) Keep your eye on the prize

For me, finishing the book is the biggest motivator there is. I've never been one to take months and months or years, even, to finish a book because I want to sell it and have other people read it. If you have some underlying fear about all of that, and it's keeping you from being productive with the writing, have a heart-to-heart with someone you trust about your fears and figure out what you need to do so you can make the writing a priority! One of the reasons I like the 1,000 words a day is because I know that if I stick with it, I'll have a draft of middle grade novel done in about six weeks and a draft of a young adult novel done in two months or so (obviously, I don't write very long books).

6) It's okay to NOT write all the time

In fact, I think it's healthier if you don't. Make time for friends. Go see movies. Exercise. Read. I try to have my 1,000 words done in a few hours, at most, so I have time for other things. I WANT time for other things. This is another huge motivator to get the word count done. When I'm revising, I'll have some long days, but I still make time to exercise and make dinner for my family and read. I always make time for reading. I've also found that, for me, I have months that are good for drafting a novel and months that are not good. I don't try to force it during the months that aren't good (like the month before  a release, for example. Or December. Or July and August, when the sunshine calls to me.) For the past four or five years, I've written a new book every fall. And then, after the holidays, I start up again and write something else in the winter months. It's not only my days that have a rhythm, but my months and year do too. If you feel like you're constantly swimming up stream, maybe you're trying to draft a novel at the wrong time. It's okay to take a month off if you need to - I certainly do!

And if life gets in the way - it's okay. Don't beat yourself up. Yes, your writing is important, but so are a lot of other things.

Okay, time to wrap up this blog post and get back to work. If you have tips or ideas for people around time-management or productivity, please share with us in the comments!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Carolee: The Making of a Book Trailer: Behind The Scenes

The writing of a book is a very private matter, but the publishing of a book is a group effort requiring the collaboration of agent, editor, cover designer, publicist, booksellers and a host of others.

The making of a book trailer can also be a very collaborative effort. I was extremely fortunate to have a talented young man create the trailer for my upcoming verse novel, FORGET ME NOT. Watch the book trailer HERE.

You can find talent in the most surprising places. I found Josh Stuyvesant (seated to my right in the photo above) at Monroe's restaurant where he was working as a waiter while studying film and media arts at the University of New Mexico. I was out with a large group of friends and Josh was our server. While I was busy talking, my husband was asking Josh about what he was studying in college.

One thing led to another and before I knew it, my husband was handing me Josh's phone number and telling me that Josh could make a book trailer for TAKE ME THERE, which had been released a few month's prior.

My husband figured that since Josh was such a good waiter he would naturally be able to produce a good book trailer. Ironically, that turned out to be true. I wrote the script, music, and song lyrics and Josh found musicians, actors, and film equipment. He put it all together on a shoestring budget and came up with a fabulous trailer. Check out the TAKE ME THERE book trailer HERE..

When it came time to create a book trailer for FORGET ME NOT (coming October 2, 2012), I naturally thought of Josh. This time I simply gave him the advanced reader copy. He created the script and storyboard, and then approached his friend Kyle Ruggles about creating the music. Kyle is the male vocal on the sound track for the TAKE ME THERE trailer. Josh then asked his friend, Jesus Ordóñez (who also worked on TMT) to handle photography and Jessica Garrett to take care of makeup.

Next he set out to find a girl who resembled Ally Cassell, the protagonist of the story. That's when he asked Haleigh Chwirka, a friend of his girlfriend, to play the part. Little did he know that Haleigh had gone to elementary school with my oldest daughter and that I had worked with Haleigh's mother at the same elementary school, she as an occupational therapist and me as a speech-language pathologist. It was wonderful catching up with Haleigh at the cast party at La Cumbre and finding out what a wonderful young woman she has turned out to be. Haleigh just finished a teaching degree and will be leaving soon to spend a year teaching English in Thailand.

The multi-talented Josh played the part of Elijah, the boy you see running down the street and holding the forget-me-not bracelet. Jeremy Kinter played the Hangman, the creepy guy in the hall, and also served as production assistant. He's actually a very nice guy in spite of his role in this video. When Josh and I got together for the final stages of production, we met at one of my favorite coffee shops, the Satellite, where Jeremy happens to work as a barista.

Nate Steinberg played Davis, the football stud. He also helped with set up. He is sort of semi-famous, having played an extra in "The Social Network." His father is David Steinberg, book reviewer for the Albuquerque Journal.

Speaking of forget-me-nots, Josh and I were both distraught to find out that they were out of season. We couldn't even find plastic ones at the local craft store. I went hunting for blue perennials and was lucky to find something similar at the Jackalope.

Like I said, it takes a real collaboration to create a book trailer!

These kids all did an amazing job, so if you like what you see, pass it on. Find the FORGET ME NOT book trailer HERE.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Workhorse Speaks

So, I’ve got this little problem: I’m not writing. It’s not that the watering hole has run dry or that I’ve lost my sense of direction. Neigh. It’s Life, getting in the way.

Summer of 2010 I stepped away from an intense, full-time fifth grade teaching position with the goal of writing part-time and running a business, what would eventually become W.O.R.D. Ink (a tutoring and editorial services company.) My whole life I’ve earned continual paychecks, so the wobbly ups and downs of tutoring threw my husband and I for a loop. Still, we managed to figure out the pattern by the end of the first year in preparation for my second, and I worked through a nine-month program to earn a certificate in digital journalism, so I could expand my business services into print and digital media. All the while, Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Sunday, I was working away on a revised incarnation of a WIP that I was excited to show Sara.

Around August of 2011, my main Life pipeline began to clog up: my husband and I dealt with several complex medical issues, and he hired me (I, being the resident copywriter), on our tight budget to write the content for his new company’s website. Meanwhile, it became clear to me ¾ of the way through my WIP that I needed to return to research and story development once more. I would give myself from November 2011 to February 2012 to sort out the backend of each story component. My certificate degree program now over and the winter lull carving a deep crevice in my tutoring income, I began to write the content and conjure the design for my new business website, having now both time and intense need. The goal was to finish by February (coinciding with the culmination of my WIP research), with the site up and running by April. Then, I thought naively, I can finally get back to Just Writing. My new WIP goal was to finish a polished draft and submit by August.

But, Oh…the unforeseen soul searching that ended up going into the website process, the constant decision-making, tweaks, add-ons, gathering, and revisions! The site was to be a representation of me, and what I stand for, of my business and personal mission, vision, values, and promise. It was, I realized, an encapsulation of the best of me, out there for people to see. So where do you think all my creative energy was redirected? And do you think all that could be achieved by February?

By April, I finally had a website I was proud of, but it had cost me now two months of lost momentum in writing time. All the while, my characters wandered aimlessly around in my head, waiting for me to do something clever with them, but I didn’t have the time or creative energy to make decisions. Then came the miscarriage, after waiting so long. If there’s ever one thing to throw your entire life into a depressing tailspin devoid of motivation, it’s one of those. Add to that, three of my best friends were pregnant and I would be helping to plan their baby showers. *Sigh* -- Life. May through August have been a slog of commitments, compromises, and crazy emotions. I got stuck in the endless loop of the Busy Trap. Kissed my writing time goodbye, and felt like a total failure, bait for bad-luck. Ah, the grieving process.

Eventually, I started acupuncture to find some balance and to reclaim my Chi. After bottling up all my experiences, ashamed, thinking how no one on earth wanted to hear me wail about my woes, I finally started talking. Wow. We all have s*#?t going on in our lives, don’t we? We’ve all been through something. And apparently, we all have something to look forward to, as well. Listening to others, I found myself relieved, and laughing behind the tears. When I broke down on my critique group and admitted I needed some time off, they revealed their own struggles with their novels right now, and we decided to reframe our meetings for the time being, to support where each of us is at, to help each other find our creative spark again.

In another month, I can actually breathe a sigh of relief and sink back into the patterns I created so diligently two years back. My tutoring business is expanding, and I’m in the process of hiring a small team of educators, along with an assistant. I’m excited not only for the expertise that they’ll bring, but for the relentless work they will take off my plate. Soon, I’ll be able to justify “sitting around,” and creating in the middle of the day. I’ll get back to the business of writing, and more than anything, I want to write. But my anticipation wears two faces: one the one side, Joy! Splendid Reward! On the other, Fear. All the usual sorts. Am I deluding myself? Will my best-laid plans continue to get sabotaged by the pressing distractions of Life? Will I, in this workhorse form of myself, be the ironic undoing of my own fairytale vision of balance? What if I can’t gain momentum again, can’t jump back into this fictional world, can only view it from a grimy window in my memory? Am I worthy? Am I good enough? Will I trust myself? Be kind to myself? Remember to have fun?

      A blog post on “Write At Your Own Risk” by the lovely Leda Schubert, faculty member at VCFA, kindly bonks me over the head:
“The work of the writer is to write. The work of the writer has not necessarily been—until recently-- to blog, tweet, post, or travel about the world promoting the work of the writer […] Why is it that we write? […] We write because we can’t not write. We are driven by mysterious forces. […] What I really want as a reader are superb books, and those don’t get written when writers are doing other things. Which brings me in a roundabout way to today’s topic: rules for writers. There are none for how to write a great book. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to check off ingredients one by one and bake at 350 until done?” 
A list of writing rules from famed authors follows. Here is my favorite that Leda quotes from Henry Miller:
  1.  Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2.  Start no more new books. [… add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’]
  3.  Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4.  Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5.  When you can’t create you can work.
  6.  Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7.  Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8.  Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Returning over the past month to the very simple revelation Leda laid out, I begin to chant: The less you write, the less you write. The more you write, the more you write.
“Back to work,” Leda reminds me.
I nod, accept my fate in the Chinese horoscope (yes, I’m a born Horse), paw at the ground, and get ready to charge ahead.