Posted in Business Side of Writing, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, Writing Life

Creating during Anxious Times

Yesterday, a student who deals with depression and anxiety and, like all of us, now this pandemic, said that looking at the instruction manual felt overwhelming. Yet still she had sent in her assignment. In my letter back to her, I commended her for her accomplishment and then gave her some writing “work” advice.

Writing it made me aware of my own creativity. Or should I say lack thereof.  I’m finding it much easier to do a student lesson, critique someone else’s picture book or novel, than to actually create myself. It’s easy to jump on the news, Facebook (for socializing), etc. I need to take my own advice.

We all have upheaval in our lives right now with social distancing and worrying about the coronavirus. Some of you have children home full time now. You and/or your spouse may be working from home which is another adjustment. Or someone in the family has been laid off. It’s stressful. Perhaps these suggestions for making writing “work” easier will be helpful to you, too.

First, pick one task

Get that one done today and stop. Don’t worry about other writing things that need to be done. However, if doing one tasks leads you to wanting to do more, feel free. Just don’t agonize over those days when you can only do one thing.

But how do you know what task to do?

Set yourself a writing work schedule

1. Start by making a list of all the things you want to get done:
– read recent children’s books
– brainstorm ideas
– research for one idea
– work on first draft
– revise a short story, article, picture book, or chapter
– do market research
– listen to a podcast on ____ topic
– read blog posts on _____
– analyze feedback from others on my work
– write a cover/query letter for _____
– submit manuscript _____

Be as specific as possible.

See more sample task ideas at the bottom of this article and in the chart.

2. Commit to a time period whether it is a half hour or an hour or two. Pick three to five days a week.

3. Next, if you can, prioritize you list in order of most important. If none stand out, that’s okay too.

4. Then take your “to-do” list and plot them on a calendar OR during each scheduled time just pick one off of your list.

5. Add and cross-off items on your “want to get done” list.

Word by word, project by project, if you spend a little bit of time, you will make progress. Celebrate those accomplishments no matter how small.

Here’s a chart suggestion for recording what you’ve done so you can look back on it and be encouraged:

Second, remember you are not alone

We are all affected. Interacting digitally with others can help us not feel so isolated. My critique group is using Zoom to meet weekly. Don’t have a critique group? Offer to exchange critiques via email with other writers. (You can find them through SCBWI.org, on the Blueboard, through Facebook and Google groups, etc.) Talk to others in these groups. Comment on blog posts or podcasts that you found helpful. Share those links with others you know. And/or share on Twitter.

Third, encourage yourself

I’m finding myself doing a lot of what I call “comfort” reading—that’s rereading books that I know I’ll enjoy. Recently, it’s been the Harry Potter books. I’ve also connected with some old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years. I’m getting outside in the fresh air. What makes you happy? It’s necessary to take a break from all the bad news and uncertainty.

SOME RESOURCES:

“Turning Anxiety Into Creativity”

“What You Need to Know to Start Working from Home”

“10 ways to take care of yourself during coronavirus”

SAMPLE TASK IDEAS:

Subscribe to one blog post related to kidlit creativity. I don’t read them daily but spend time periodically to read posts. Some of my standbys are:

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/

Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge
https://gpattridge.com/

Susannah Leonard Hill’s “Perfect Picture Book Friday” https://susannahill.com/blog/

Institute for Children’s Literature blog
https://www.instituteforwriters.com/blogs/writing-for-children-blog/

Read recent children’s books. Whatever fits what you want to write. A novel. A handful of picture books. Chapter books. What did you learn?

Research one magazine market. Read about the magazine in the market book, go to the magazine’s website, read guidelines and editorial calendars, and sample copies if available. Take notes, if you like. I often write directly in my copy of a market book.

Search #MSWL on Twitter. Agents and editors give updates using this hashtag.

Brainstorm picture book ideas. January Storystorm posts on Tara Lazar’s site still up and can continue to be used. Here’s a link to day one: https://taralazar.com/2020/01/01/storystorm-2020-day-1/

Research agents on Manuscript Wishlist. https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/

Add sensory details to your short story or one scene in your novel. Taste, smell, texture, temperature, sound, and sight. What makes this setting unique?

Read an article on self-editing and practice one idea. Focus on a weakness. Do you have trouble with dialogue or punctuation? There’s help out there.

Read opening paragraphs in novels you like. Do you see a pattern? Can you apply it to your work?

Write up the backstory for one character. Then you can work in snippets of it throughout the novel. But beware of info dumps.

I could go on and on. All I know is doing something (like this blog post) makes me feel better than doing nothing creative. I bet the same will be true for you too.

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Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life

Discipline

Recently, I had a student say children’s writing was “more challenging and restrictive” than she’d thought, and she was considering changing to an adult audience. It may be true that writing for adults is more a fit for her.

Or it might not. With this particular student, we’d only done three lessons together. She hadn’t tried nonfiction, which might be her niche if she’d give it a chance. The real issue, however, is that many of the mistakes she was continuing to make would be a problem for adult readers. So, audience wasn’t the issue. Could it be discipline?

My mother taught piano lessons in our home. I heard her students play scales and play scales. No one learns piano just to play scales—they want to play music! However, scales are a necessary step in the process. Students moved on to simple melodies and, if they worked at it, they advanced to more complicated songs. My mother could tell when students hadn’t practiced in between lessons. They weren’t improving. Writing is similar.

We have to practice, practice, practice no matter whether our audience is children or adults. We must learn the basics of fiction writing: grammar, point of view, setting, characterization, plot, etc. if we are going to succeed.

Like most instructors, I will re-explain a grammar issue, point of view, etc. in a different way in hopes that will work for the student. But sometimes I wonder, did she read what I wrote in my previous letter? Did he even try?

In both courses I teach, we give the students deadlines. Deadlines encourage discipline. Often, the students that progress the fastest are the ones who meet or beat the deadlines. Each lesson builds upon the ones before. When too much time passes between lessons, students forget what they learned earlier. I have to reteach concepts. It slows their progress which can cause frustration for both of us.

All writing is challenging in one way or another. Sometimes it’s coming up with the idea or angle. Or making a character and/or setting come alive. Or perhaps the plot isn’t working. Or the dialogue. But once those frameworks are in place, we still have to check for flow, get rid of unnecessary words, add more detail or information when necessary, etc. And, of course, proofread. The first story I sold to Highlights went through two revisions with the editor before it was accepted. This was after it had been critiqued by fellow writers and revised several times.

I love this quote from Harper Lee, “To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not.” And as Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence, motivation, and discipline.”

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Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

One Danger of Electronic Records

 I often learn things the hard way. And again did so when I closed an account.

We’d moved from one part of the state to another and I set up new writing accounts (checking and savings) at a new credit union. After several weeks, I closed the accounts at the old financial institution. Then a few days later, I realized I wanted to look at an e-statement on the old account. However, no more online access! I called customer service to see if there was a way to get those past statements. Yes, for $2.50 each statement. Ouch. And they only had 6 months’ worth. I took them.

That got me to thinking. When we long ago switched from receiving paper statements to e-statements, it never occurred to me that I should download copies. I looked at our family accounts—there were e-statements back to September 2017 (28 months—length of time varies at each financial institution), so I saved all those copies. (Printing to pdf is my favorite method if the site doesn’t offer downloading as a pdf.) I need to do the same with my Visa account.

Why does this matter to us creatives? It may never matter. Unless you get audited by the IRS. Those statements substantiate that meal you bought while at a conference, the hotel bill, airline tickets, webinar and writing event fees, etc. You may have receipts for all these which makes the bank statement less critical, but it seems I always have something where I didn’t get a receipt. Those statements are a nice backup.

I also find them useful when preparing my taxes. I keep a spreadsheet of writing expenses, but sometimes have entered something without the amount. It’s quicker to look at a past statement than going through the receipts.

And speaking of receipts, many are in my email. I don’t usually bother to print them out or save them as a pdf. I think I should begin to do the latter. Not sure how far back I will go, but definitely for 2019. Perhaps there are other options. I’ll address those in another post.

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Posted in Before You Begin, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Why Are YOU Doing This?

Why are you writing? (Or illustrating or both?) Do you have an answer?

I have so many students who sign up to take one of the writing courses I teach, then don’t turn in assignments. Two things happen. They either get tired of being nagged and send something in, or drop out. Some do several lessons, then drop the class. Some are almost done with the course, then quit. (And this is a course they’re paying for!)

I get it. I do. Some find this writing gig is much harder than they thought. Many think that writing for children is so simple. Especially picture books. They look simple. Others have life interfere—something has to give and the class is easy to cut.

Mem Fox said, “We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.”

Writing as therapy is fine, but it’s different than writing for publication.

Hobby or Business?

For me, putting the words on a page is something I do. Yet, I don’t do it only for my own pleasure. I want to affect others, whether it is via entertainment, words of wisdom, or helpful tips. The latter is one of the reasons I blog.

I treat writing like a business. Just like a “regular” job, I show up. I get to work. I write. I read for research purposes. I do other parts of the job, such as record keeping, social media, critiques, etc. Look what Nathan Bransford has said, “The only way to stay sane in the business is to enjoy every step as you’re actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around the bend. It’s found in the present. Because writing is pretty great — otherwise why are you doing it?” I will admit that writing for me is a part time job.

Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence, motivation, and discipline. And the reason is that “talent” is as common as mud; what’s rare is the motivation to sit down and actually do something with it, the discipline to do it regularly, and the persistence to stick with it until it’s finished.”

“Being a writer and eventually a published author is no different than the pursuit of any profession. You have to pay your dues,” Pam Torres said. Treating your writing like a business is part of paying your dues.

I also agree with Vita Sackville-West: “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.“ I am most happy and satisfied with myself when I write.

SO, what about you?

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Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Stuck on Repeat

As writer’s it’s easy for us to get stuck in a groove or a track. Round and round we go. But unlike the view from a merry-go-round, we don’t want our readers seeing the same scenes or words over and over. If we repeat, it should be intentional.

So, what constitutes unnecessary repetition?

Repetitive Words

Reading the same word too close together or too often is boring. This doesn’t include really common words. “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it,” Brian Klems says. But for other words, it’s a danger. For example, there are many words to indicate eating. I might munch, crunch, gulp, slurp, etc. We bite, chew, swallow as part of the process. If every time my character eats, the word used is always the same, a reader may get annoyed. The more unusual the word, the more obvious overuse is. The shorter the piece, the more an overused word will stand out.

Overuse of Names

Be aware of how often you use a character’s name in dialogue.

“Bob, when you’re at the store…”
“Yes, Marge?”
“Will you pick up lettuce, Bob?”
“Yes, Marge.”
“And, Bob, don’t forget tomatoes.”
“Okay, Marge.”

Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? And there’s no action.

Repetitive Information

“This is redundant” is a note I put on a student lesson when the information has already been given. I often find it with the same wording. It’s like the writer forgot she wrote it. This means she is probably not spending enough time revising.

“Trust the reader to get it” is often in response to the writer showing the reader, then telling the same thing. For example:

            Jordan pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and tapped the screen. “Come on, come on. What time is it?” The phone lit up. “Four o’clock! Leo’s gonna kill me.” He shoved his feet into untied shoes, and laces flapping, raced out the door.

Jordan was late to work.

The first paragraph shows Jordan’s late for something. We don’t know what, but when he shows up at work, we’ll get it. “Jordan was late to work” is telling. Not as interesting, besides being unnecessary.

How do you find overused words or repetitive information in your own writing?

  • Check common overused words and see if they are culprits in your writing. Here’s a short list: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, next, practically, really, seems, simply, so, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, that, then, utterly, very, well.
  • Read your writing aloud. Or you can have your computer read it to you. You’ll probably hear a word or two that occurs too often, and hopefully information that you’ve already told the reader.
  • If your manuscript isn’t too long, use an online tool to catch words. You’ll copy the text and paste it in. I’ve found several options:
    • A word counter, such as https://wordcounter.com/ literally counts words and shows the results. You can ask it to exclude small words.
    • A word cloud maker. The larger the word shows in the resulting image, the more often it has been used. Here’s a generator I’ve tried: https://www.wordclouds.com/ Of course, you’ll probably see your main character’s name a lot as well as common words. But what else are you seeing?
  • Get feedback from others. Use a critique group or beta readers.

Fixing Overused Words

Some can simply be eliminated. A writer I knew called them “weasel words”—they slip their way into your writing. Removing them doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider taking an adverb and weak verb and replacing both with one stronger verb. Did she slowly climb the tree or did she inch up the tree? Same idea for adjectives and nouns. Is that big dog a Labrador or a Great Dane? See how these latter examples give you a better picture?

Think about other words you could use—we all know a lot! Ask yourself if you are using the best word. “It’s cloudy” could refer to an overcast day, a storm about to cut lose with rain, or a hurricane, but each would be very different to experience. A thesaurus is a useful tool if you get stuck, but choose words you know. Or consider how to say the sentence differently.

It can be difficult to find out where you’re stuck on repeat—that’s why using different methods is helpful. But once you become aware of your common patterns, you can use find or search in your word processor to track down the sneaky words.

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