Laura Ellen’s debut BLIND SPOT, an edgy murder mystery romance that explores what happens to a good girl whose simple wish of fitting in and attracting, then keeping, the hottest guy in her school, compels her to make way too many wrong choices, to Karen Grove at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s, for publication in Fall 2012. (North America)
I just returned from a truly inspiring vacation in Disney World. It wasn’t the first time I’d been – in fact I think it was about the fourth time we had visited the park as a family – and since all three of my children (18, 12, and 9) have long outgrown the “magic” stage where seeing princesses and cartoon characters come to life brings stars to their eyes and a giddiness to their step, I was rather shocked when all three actually requested that the theme park be our vacation destination. I’m really glad we obliged!
Now I have heard many a critic bash Disney for the commercialization of fairy tales, the capitalistic pursuits at the child’s expense, etc. etc. (all you need to mention is Jack Zipes in a children’s literary criticism course and you’ll get an ear full!) – and I get that, I do. Any parent does who has tried to escape the park without purchasing something, from fairy wands to mickey-shaped ice cream bars, they get a hold of that wallet. But despite all that, I have to hand it to Disney. They know how to bring the magic to everyone who visits.
Before we arrived, my 12 year old son was in a bit of a depressed funk. He has been struggling this year with school despite the fact that he is one of the most intelligent kids I know; he’ll blow you away with his historical and scientific knowledge and if ever you are lost, you’ll want him navigating you. He’s like a human compass. But he struggles with getting the work turned in and gets overwhelmed with the amount expected of him sometimes, and he just shuts down rather than push his way through. He’s one of the youngest in his class; his classmates are all turning 13, while he only just turned twelve – and he is painfully conscious of his heighth or lack thereof. Rolled all together, you get a kid who rarely smiles. By the end of out first day in the sunshine, not only was he smiling, he was laughing. Disney broke through the glum and found my son again.
My 18 year old too. About to graduate and head to college, she’s usually off doing her own thing. It was fun to see her goofing around with her siblings, spinning in the Tea Cups, flying above Neverland, waving at Belle and the Beast, her and her 9 year old sister oohing-and-ahhing at every little girl dressed head to toe in their princess dresses and tiaras.
My husband and I had worried at first when we decided to go because as frequent visitors to Cedar Point, a roller coaster park in Ohio, we knew that the rides at Disney would not compete in thrill-value to those the kids were used to. But they actually had more fun because as my son pointed out, “it’s the experience more than the ride.” He was right. At Disney, it is about the stories behind each ride; and just like a really good book, the rides let you become a part of that story. You become a part of the magic.
So thank you Disney for helping my family return to those parts of themselves that make them children, for helping them find the magic and the fun, and for reminding me that as I sit down to get back to writing – it is the experience, the magic, the story that makes a reader love a book. It is what keeps them coming back to it again and again and again no matter how old they are.
I attended the SCBWI NY conference this past weekend and was inspired, as usual, by the awesome speakers. While everyone I heard left something with me, it was Lois Lowry and Linda Sue Park that really resonated with me the most.
Lois Lowry talked about the question so many people ask: Where do you get your ideas? To answer, she shared the “stories” – some funny, some very sad – behind several of her books. It got me thinking about my own writing and the stories that have shaped each one.
Linda Sue Park talked about how sometimes you must take yourself out of your writing, to make it about the work and not about yourself. This too got me thinking about my own writing, specifically my novel Blind Spot, which my agent, Jill Corcoran has begun submitting to publishers. I decided to blog about the story behind Blind Spot, and how I had to take myself out of the equation, to write it.
I’d always been a shy, introverted girl. I had glasses since the first grade but despite yearly upgrades in my prescription, I never really could see with them on. I kind of bumbled around a lot, and always felt stupid and out of it, even though I wasn’t stupid. Most of the time I was at the top of my class.
When I was in eighth grade, I had an infection in my eye. Nothing serious. I’d started wearing contacts the year before and due to improper cleaning or eyestrain or whatever, my eye got infected. While sitting in the waiting room, I overheard my mom and the doctor talking about my dad’s vision. I knew he didn’t see very well either, but I’d never heard any talk of him having an eye disease. As they described how he saw – how he couldn’t see things straight on and had to use his peripheral vision instead – I started to get scared.
That’s how I saw. Little colored dots moved around in front of my eyes blocking my central vision. I’d had them so long, I’d learned to accommodate by focusing them on something and then using my peripheral to see. I assumed everyone did; I thought that was how everyone saw.
Well it wasn’t. I had macular degeneration. They explained my eyes would continue to get worse (like they’d been doing since I was in first grade). They explained I would struggle with reading regular print (which I already did). They explained I probably would never drive a car (which would’ve been a big deal, except I knew my Dad drove so obviously that wasn’t going to happen to me. I didn’t realize he’d been driving illegally for years). Basically, from my viewpoint, they were telling me things I’d already been dealing with for years, so besides having a reason now for always bumbling about like an idiot, nothing had changed.
To my private Catholic school, however, things had changed. It was the early eighties. Special education, IEPs, 504 plans, etc. didn’t exist – not in Fairbanks, Alaska. We had resource classes. A teacher would come during class and pull out those kids who had trouble reading or doing math to give them extra help. My school hadn’t had to deal with a girl who was considered ‘legally blind’ and in their attempt to accommodate me, they decided I too should be pulled out of class for extra help. Suddenly I was separated from the rest of the class and pooled in with the kids I once upon a time had helped with their reading. I know, looking back, the school was trying to help. But as a freshman in high school who had always been the one excelling in reading, I took it to mean something was wrong with me.
This sudden change, tilt, in my world didn’t fair so well with the already insecure, self-conscious introvert that I was. And because of it I made poor choices. Did stupid things. Got myself into trouble. A lot. I wasn’t trying to rebel. I was just battling that image of who I thought I was versus who everyone else seemed to want to think I was.
When I decided to write Blind Spot, I wanted to write something that wasn’t an issue book. I didn’t want to write about a visually impaired girl with macular degeneration and what people with that eye disease go through.
The book I needed to write was about a girl who happened to have a visual impairment. A book about the reality of being a teen coping with something that shapes who you are and who others think you are. I wanted to make what my character went through real, make her pissed off, hurt, ashamed, so wrapped up in her anger that she couldn’t see everyone around her, losing friends because she couldn’t see the forest through the trees.
I needed to write about the girl who was self-destructive because she thought she was not normal, not worthy, not able. The girl that wanted to love herself but couldn’t. The girl that was me.
I found as I began writing, however, that my own story was too close to the one I was writing, and I was struggling. I had a critique with author Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why, who said he had a similar problem when writing his book. His story, stemming from a suicide in his own family, was very personal and he found it hard to separate himself sometimes too. But separate was what I needed to do because I was limiting my main character, Roz, to my own characteristics; my plot to my own story.
To fix this, I rewrote the novel in third person. Took a while, but the result was worth it. It enabled me to put some distance between myself and Roz. I was able to add to her and to the plot things that needed to be there but I hadn’t myself experienced. By the time I was ready to rewrite again in first person, I’d completely severed myself. I had done as Linda Sue Park suggested in her talk. I took myself out of it and focused on the book.
Blind Spot. The story of sixteen year old Roswell Hart who, because of her macular degeneration, is too wrapped up in her own messed up life to notice what’s going on around her. When her classmate Tricia Farni is found dead and Roz was the last person to see her alive, however, Roz needs to know what she missed that awful night by Birch River. Problem is, she doesn’t remember, and she must piece together what has happened to find the truth.
So, that’s what is behind my novel, and I hope, with any luck, some of you will get to read it someday 🙂
One of my most favorite things about being a writer and reader of children’s books is being able to share and discuss books with my children. I love when they come to my ‘library’ – the wall-to-wall bookshelves in my home office – looking for a book to read. I love when one of them discovers a book I haven’t read yet and tells me I should read it. I love when one of them has a book report to do or simply is looking for a book and asks for my help in finding one – and love even more when they, in turn, recommend that book to a friend. I love that, when I see one of them reading something I know has some issues they may struggle with, that I can facilitate a discussion because I have read the book. But most of all, I love that all three of my children love reading; they love the story that a book promises.
Of all three of my children, my youngest is the most voracious reader. She is also quite a talented writer and I have no doubt she will be a published author someday. The love of story that she and I share is something I cherish. We can spend hours coming up with plots and characters and settings. This past summer we took a family vacation to Boyne Mountain in Northern Michigan. My husband and other two children did a three-hour zip line hike while my youngest and I spent those three hours sitting deep in the woods, writing. My husband thought I was crazy when I suggested it. He suggested swimming at the water park instead because writing in the woods, in his mind, did not rival a three-hour zip line event. When he asked her though, she was adamant about going on our ‘retreat’. And I am so glad we did. We both wrote pages and pages of stuff and had an amazing, imaginative time that I will never forget.
At age 9, she amazes me with her perceptive insight into books. She was reading The Witch of Black Bird Pond the other day and commented that “instead of starting in the action like most books” the author took the time to “introduce the main character first.” My daughter liked that about the book. Another time she complained that the book she was reading “didn’t really have a plot, just random stuff happened.” My favorite though was the day she came to breakfast in tears because “Blue Fur said she’d never leave her kittens and then she just took them into the forest and left them!” (from one of the Warriors books.)
She recently told me that she is glad that she has a Mom that is a writer because it helps her be a good writer. 🙂 I love that she said that, but I know I am only a small part of the equation. It is her absolute love of story and the bazillions of authors out there that also share that love of story that has made her and will continue to make her an awesome, perceptive, insightful writer and reader. The love of story is a cyclical thing that has been around for ages. Authors inspire authors who in turn, inspire authors.
So a toast and a thank you to all the authors out there who have inspired us through their love of story!
You’ve heard it before. To be a better writer, you need to share your work with others IN THE FIELD i.e. a writing group. But so many people don’t. They try it, personalities clash, things fall apart. Yes, critique groups, like any other social situation, can be work – but oh so worth it. I was reminded of this fact this past weekend at the weekend-long SCBWI-MI Fall conference , and I returned with a whole new appreciation for my critique group.
Four of us, including myself, attended the conference together. They all had a critique with an editor and – as critiques often do – felt less than ecstatic about the feedback. We sat around and listened to the feedback, gave each other much needed ego boosts by pointing out the positive in the feedback, and then attacked the negative head-on. We knew each other’s characters and plots so well, we were able to point out ways to fix things, and we knew each other so well, we felt comfortable doing it and safe receiving it.
I couldn’t ask for a better group. There are six of us total. We’ve had members come and members go over the years, but for the most part, have been the same group for years. We are an eclectic bunch – writing poetry, picture books, middle-grade, and YA; romance, boy books, and fantasy; humorous, edgy, and dark – we run the gambit. We all have our strengths; we all have our hang-ups, our pitfalls, our overly used words, our crutches. Best of all? We all know it and aren’t afraid to point it out.
It is a safe environment where we can be ourselves, which is so important when you are a writer – the world doesn’t always get us but we get each other.
Our critique clique clicks – and I am such a better writer now than I was seven years ago when I found you all!
To those of you who do not have a critique group – get one! To those who do and it doesn’t work – find another one! For those who do one and it does work – you know what I am talking about.!And to those in my group – cheers! I love you guys!
Of course, none of it helps if you aren’t writing, so ……………. butt-in-chair mates!
I’m guilty. I watch reality television. Not all of it; some shows are simply a flimsy platform created for idiots in search of quick fame. I do have my favorites though, like Survivor, Amazing Race, and Project Runway. My husband rolls his eyes when I say one of those shows is about to come on. I tell him I have to watch – I am doing research. “Research? Really?” He says. “Survivor?”
Yep, a wealth of character sketches and dialogue and human dynamics on that show. Amazing Race? All the places they go and challenges they must complete are interesting details to enrich plots and settings. Project Runway? Hands down, the best place to learn about the craft of writing.
What? I hear you saying – my husband too. How can a bunch of wannabe fashion designers making dresses for models teach you anything about writing?
Let me show you what I’ve learned from watching the show:
1) In the fashion world, everything has been done before – pants, skirts, shirts, etc. The designer’s job is to make what has been done, new and fresh by mixing materials, colors, styles, etc. It is the same in the writing world. You’ll find similar themes and premises in all literature – your job is to morph what’s been done into something innovative and new through plot, setting, characters, etc.
2) The ideal in fashion is to create something clean, fresh, and sophisticated while still being wearable, new and fun. The same is true in writing. Publishers want well-written, ‘literary’ stories that will stand the test of time, but have a commercial hook that will appeal to the masses.
3) In writing like in fashion design, when we begin executing our ideas, sometimes something doesn’t work. You have to be willing to change it up, alter it, or scratch it and start over , even if it means losing something you really liked. How many fashion designers have we seen fall out of the competition because they got too attached to their idea and lost sight of the big picture? Don’t lose sight of what your goal is – if it isn’t working, take it out and save it for another project.
4) Learn to listen to yourself and others. All artists have a little voice that tells them when something isn’t right. Listen to it – don’t get lazy and ignore it. Same with professionals in your field. If people are telling you the same thing about your work, listen. Sometimes that means a major overhaul – and we tend to ignore the comments if that means the work will be hard – but don’t. Listen, listen, listen.
5) And ignore, ignore, ignore! You also have to learn to ignore yourself and others! We all doubt ourselves. Learn to recognize which voice is talking to you – your professional voice or that insecure child. Ignore the child. Same with people who mean well. You are the person who understands your vision the best. If what people are saying to you doesn’t make sense for your vision, ignore their advice. Learn to identify what is good advice and what is not.
6) Never get too cocky. Everyone has talent, but no one starts a project perfectly. When you get complacent, so does your work. Push yourself every time.
7) Even the best ideas can fall apart with the wrong choices You’ve seen it happen on Project Runway before – a safe dress costs a designer the competition because she/he chose the wrong accessories. Make sure all the pieces of your story work together.
8) Stay current, but don’t get trapped into creating yesterday’s trends. Nothing worse than writing with shoulder pads and big belts, i.e. outdated devices and dialogue. Try to stay classic while being fresh and thinking out of the box.
9) Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you think all you can make are dresses and you never try to make pants, you may be missing out on a talent you never knew you had. Don’t let the fear of using chocolate or paper napkins scare you out of the race. BE OPEN AND INNOVATIVE!
10) The most important thing I have learned from Project Runway: Don’t give up. You may be at the bottom on one project, but at the top the next. Don’t let rejection cut you out of the pack. Learn from it and move on.
Today marks the last full day of writing time before my kids are home for summer break, and I thought I would use it to update my sorely neglected blog.
It has been nearly eight months since my last post – which is embarrassing, considering so many of my writer friends post every day. I haven’t quite figured out how to juggle the household, the kids, and the millions of extra stuff that comes up, with my writing, my research, my agent/editor queries, and my blog. How do you all manage it?
During my blog silence, I finished a major overhaul of my novel. It was a huge undertaking. I switched the POV from third to first, cut 18,000 words, and pulled a few plot threads, which meant some tedious re-plotting of things. The actual overhaul took about three months of thinking about the changes, and six months of actually making those changes. Once the hardcore writing began, I couldn’t focus on a blog or anything else beyond my household. In fact, every day, I fought hard to come out of the catatonic, zombie-state I found myself in after writing before the kids came home. (Is that normal? Anyone else get that way? I forced myself to walk – it helps!)
How DO you all do it? I thought my 7 am to 2 pm, five days a week schedule devoted to writing was pretty good – so many of my writer friends work outside of the home and complain they never have time to write – but I see people writing books and blogging, doing author visits, etc. and I wonder – HOW?
I stressed about not blogging for a while. Every time I would go to my critique meetings with my AWESOME writer’s group and saw Jacqui and Diane, the champion bloggers in my group, I’d feel inadequate in my ability to juggle stuff. But I have realized that I have a sort of writing cycle that works for me. I blog when I am in the thinking stages of a work – when I am doing research, or plotting, or trying on character voices – this is usually during the summer months and early fall when the kids are home or just getting settled into the new school year and so much ‘stuff’ is going on. Then, right about October/November, I hit my hardcore writing groove, and nothing but that novel gets written because I have a goal – to finish in May before the insanity that is the end of the school year begins. With summer comes a new project, more thinking than writing, and, therefore, more blogging.
Probably not industry standards, and if I get published, I will probably need to change that because I will need to have a more regular blog – but for now? It works for me.
So, here’s to summer days, reading books, writing blogs, and just plain hanging out while characters run rampant in my head (I love that part).
Every time I send an email out to someone lately, I cringe at my perky little “Check out my blog!” note that automatically attaches to the end of each email. I have even erased it several times to avoid being seen by the recipient because I know if they actually DO check out my blog, they will be sorely disappointed.
Writing has been hard for me lately – not just the blogging, but the actual writing, working on my books. I’m not stuck. I think about my revision all day long; I know exactly what I need to do and how to do it. But when I sit down at the computer to work, I shut down.
Why? What’s stopping me?
Things have been busy around here. My daughter started her junior year in high school and a job at McDonald’s, so she’s juggling work schedules, PSAT/ACT/SAT prep, and AP classes. My son started middle school and is adjusting to the increase in tests and homework plus playing flag football for his school. My youngest started third grade and has an increase in homework too plus basketball. Put that together with my husband’s full-time job and his part-time National Guard job that may as well be a full-time job and dentist appointments and doctor appointments and school functions – and well, yes, life has been over-the-top busy.
But while that has contributed to my lack of productivity, that’s not totally it. My life is always ridiculously stressed like that. Whose isn’t?
I think my productivity problem has more to do with me trying to justify the time I put into writing. It is something I enjoy tremendously, but I don’t get paid to do it – and who is to say I ever will be? How do I justify all the time I spend on it when it is not something I ‘have’ to be doing and there are chores to be done, a household to run, kids to attend to? I look at other stay-at-home moms and all they do at their kids’ schools, at home, etc. and I feel like a failure. I volunteer, but not as much as others do, and half of them have REAL jobs. I don’t. I have nothing critical going from 7 AM to 3 PM five days a week.
This past June my stepsister lost her battle with cancer. She fought hard for about four years and all the while she was giving her seven kids and husband a hundred and twenty-five percent in addition to helping people in her church and community. She was one of those rare people that makes everyone a better person just by knowing her. I look at Leslie and how much she did for everyone, how she was going all the time, doing for others while fighting her own battle inside, and quite frankly, it makes me think, what the hell am I doing? How is spending hours a day writing a book helping anyone? How is sitting at a computer creating fictitious characters and fictitious worlds doing anything constructive for the rest of the world?
I know that a happy mom makes happy children. And, writing isn’t something I am doing to make money anyway – it is a part of me, like breathing, and when I am not writing, I get depressed and stir-crazy. But how do I justify writing instead of say, cleaning house? How do I justify shutting that door to the world outside to immerse myself in a fictitious world when there are real chores and real problems to be dealt with?
This is what has been stopping me from being productive lately, so I thought I’d share. Maybe if I still have a few readers out there who haven’t given up on reading my consistently non-existent blog, you’d care to share how you justify the time you spend on writing?
Yeah, I know I promised a debrief on the SCBWI LA conference, but this does sort of relate. While at the conference my friend Su brought her kindle and I got to check it out. Pretty cool. I especially liked how one can change the font size – for someone like me who can’t read small print without a magnification device, it is awesome.
While she was showing it to me and our friend, Libby, the three of us talked about how the kindle may change publishing forever. You can download a book for less than $10 versus an average of $17 for a new hardcover. It’s lightweight – no breaking your back carrying a bunch of books with you.
But what about the illustrations of a picture book? The cover art? The smell of the paper? The feel of that book in your hands? There is something intimate about a book – curling up with it, just you and the characters, falling into the author’s world – can you feel that way with the generic look and cold feel of a Kindle? I haven’t tried it, so I can’t answer that, but I do know that I hate reading books on my computer. I read it differently, more mechanically or something, than I do when I am holding the paper in my hands.
Video didn’t kill the radio star; audio didn’t kill the book when it became popular- nor did the penny press kill literary works as predicted when it brought literature to the masses. But, yeah, Kindle could kill the profits. Publishers may resort to only printing the classics, the proven sellers. Why spend the money to print a new release in hardcover when you can spend less and wait to see if it will be a seller on Amazon? And perhaps this will cause a re-kindling (pun intended) of the picture book industry when money once spent on hardcovers is freed up. (I mean, I don’t care how cheap it is to publish work on the internet, no parent is going to let their baby drool all over a Kindle while reading a picture book, right?)
Let’s look into the future for a moment though. Imagine the world of books has been diminished to the ‘classics’ and mass quantities of books downloaded onto mass quantities of Kindles.
Now imagine a mega virus has wiped out all that is Internet, machines have been trashed and discarded, life as we live it now has been destroyed.
Okay, now fast forward a century or two later, when someone like Tally from Scott Westerfield’s Uglies is wandering the abandoned city streets of Old America. What will she find? An abundance of books like Moby Dick, The Odyssey, and The Scarlet Letter, perhaps The Outsiders and Good Night Moon – but none representing our time right now or our tomorrow. Whole generations of books will be gone forever. How sad that Tally won’t be able to read the brilliance of today’s and tomorrow’s authors because their work is trapped inside a broken piece of plastic, accessible no more.
So, will the Kindle kill the publishing house? For the sake of our dystopian future, let’s not let it. Let it be an industry tool, an industry advancement, but not an industry end.