Why Attend a Writer’s Conference?

>I leave Thursday for the SCBWI National conference in LA. Inevitably when I tell someone I am going to a Writer’s Conference, they ask “So do you bring your manuscript around and give it to agents and editors?” And when I say “No. In fact that is a sure-fire way not to get published,” the response is usually, “So, why go?”

Why? Because:

The first writer’s conference I attended was the 2000 Write on The Sound conference in Edmonds, WA. It wasn’t specifically children’s writing, but it did have sessions on YA and it was in Edmonds, where my sister lives, so it worked for me. Even though several of the sessions I sat in on were about writing I didn’t necessarily plan on writing – memoirs, magazines, nonfiction – I learned a wealth of knowledge about the business and even more about the market. But the most significant thing I came away with were contacts – I met so many people, writers like me, that I could stay in touch with via email. This actually shocked me. This networking thing. I had always been (and still am!) the shy one – never speaking to someone until spoken to, afraid of social situations because I didn’t know what to say – and yet, there I was talking to people about writing, my writing, and talking to them about their writing. So why go? BUSINESS and MARKET INFORMATION and NETWORKING.

I went the following year to the same conference – this time submitting a manuscript for critique. It was scary. It was one thing to have friends or classmates in workshop read it, but have an actual publishing professional read it and comment on it? YIKES!! The experience was amazing. My writing grew in leaps and bounds just from that one critique. As I started attending more conferences, I made it a point to always submit something; in my opinion, it is a wasted opportunity if you don’t. You’ll never make it out there if you don’t let those who work out there read your stuff. So, why attend? CRITIQUES

That next year I also attended my first SCBWI National conference. It was February, 2002. Five months after September 11th; five months after the birth of my third child. I traveled all the way from Alaska, by myself. And it was NEW YORK CITY. It was hard to leave my newborn, hard to go to New York after the terrorists had devastated it, hard to go alone, but I had a completed manuscript I was ready to publish and I wanted to meet editors and agents. So I went. I listened to editors talk about what they liked, what they were looking for, what to do and not to do – and the best part was many of them were handing out “golden tickets” – the opportunity to submit to them as a conference attendee even though they were closed to unagented, and/or unsolicited submissions. So why attend? SUBMISSION OPPORTUNITIES.

Coming back from that New York conference, however, I also realized that despite those golden tickets I held in my hand, my manuscript wasn’t ready to submit, mot yet. I had listened to what those editors were saying about common mistakes and I had committed most of them in my novel. Time to revise.

We moved to Michigan shortly after that and I found A WRITING COMMUNITY, something I hadn’t had in Alaska. (Alaska has a SCBWI, but in case all you in the lower 48 didn’t realize, Alaska is a pretty big place. Very spread out. Hard to get together. Although they do try!) I found in the Michigan SCBWI an awesome group of writers who kept in contact through conferences, a very active list serv, summer schmoozes (thanks to Shutta Crum!), and various author support events like book launches. I attended my first Michigan conference, got hooked up with their list serv, and found a critique group – the same group I am with now, six years later. That again moved my writing up volumes.

So, to recap, why go to a writer’s conference if you can’t chase an editor into the elevator and sling your novel at her? For Business & Market Information, Networking, Critiques, Submission Opportunities, a Writing community, and let’s not forget FUN!!

I promise to blog about what I took away from this conference, but it won’t be until mid-August. The day after I get back from LA I will be heading on a quick vacation with my husband and kids to Cedar Point and Put-In Bay (okay, not sure if that’s how you spell it; I can spell Koyukuk and Matanuska and Ninilchik, but not so sure about those Ohio names!)

Hope to see some of you in LA!!

You Can’t Hide Those Writer-eyes

>My 16 (and a half) year old daughter left this week for a ten day CSI:Forensic Science seminar at John Hopkins University. The ten day camp is her first experience with college life – living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom with three roommates she doesn’t know, on her own with meal cards and room keys to keep track of, a schedule to keep, etc.

We flew with her to Baltimore to help her settle in to her dorm. I saw her excitement as she unpacked her things into her wardrobe closet and desk. I saw the apprehension when she realized there was only one toilet and shower to share between four girls. I saw the nervous fear as we kissed her good-bye and left her on her own. And, I hear the homesick, lonely edge in her voice when she calls. She’s experiencing the social and emotional woes of a college freshman as a high school junior, and I can’t do anything but tell her it will all be okay. It breaks my heart to know that I can’t be there to help her or give her a hug.

But I am so using this in a future novel. What a great set-up for a mystery or coming-of-age plot, don’t you think?

My writer-eyes see potential everywhere I go. I can’t help it. So often I hear people say they have nothing to write about, and I can honestly say that is not a problem for me. Everyday life puts us into situations that can become part of a great plot later down the line. These experiences don’t make a plot by themselves necessarily, but they can inspire a storyline, enhance a character or drive a plot in a new direction. All you have to do is take the time to observe them – and as an added bonus, observing them through your writer-eyes can also save your sanity – something I realized on my way to Baltimore.

While sitting in the Detroit airport waiting for our flight, I found myself getting very annoyed with my kids. We’d arrived way early, like two hours early (I wasn’t sure how many people would be in that security line so I thought early was better) and they were already stir crazy from weeks of being together at home, let alone *TRYING* to behave in an airport terminal. As I sat there getting increasingly irritated by their behavior, I decided to take off that mom-hat and put on my writer-hat. This is how that hat-switch saved my sanity:

When my ten year old shoved three pieces of Hubba Bubba bubble gum into his mouth and then blew a bubble so big that when it popped, it connected his mouth to the food container he was holding with a thick pink string at least six inches long – I laughed rather than yelled.

And when he played the *Random game with me every time I asked him a question, I made random statements too. (*he and his younger sister play this by stating random things either in answer to a question or as an ongoing conversation. The point is to sound the most sincere, as if you actually make sense, while, saying some ludicrous, nonsensical thing, like “The elephant is pink.” “Yeah, but I ate the frog.” “Run to the hills.” “Jack Frost is an amoeba”, etc, etc.) As I played along, I started thinking, “I could use this . . . “

When I visited the restroom with my seven year old twenty-two times in 45 minutes (I assure you, that is no exaggeration) I tried to note things about the bathroom and those using it each time I visited. Like the five year old who informed his mother he would not eat any salad today because it gives him gas, or the woman who slid on a wet section of the floor and went careening, head first, into the toilet. That was rather scary, I have to admit, and as we made sure she was okay, I couldn’t help thinking, “What if she had hit her head?” Which then led to “What if she’d hit her head and passed out and while she was passed out someone stole her purse and her boarding pass? And when she came to she had no memory of who she was or where she was going?” That scenario actually kept me going for quite a while.

As did the dark hotel we arrived at when we finally got to Baltimore. We arrived around seven that night in the middle of a thunderstorm. After trying to contact the hotel’s free airport shuttle by phone for almost an hour while standing outside in the rain with very agitated, restless children, I decided to scratch the shuttle and grab a cab. I was glad I did. The power was out at the hotel. Ever check into a pitch dark hotel? It’s a very eerie feeling.

The staff was standing around with glow-sticks and flashlights. Several patrons stood huddled in the lobby. Since it was now almost nine pm, I asked if there was any way we could check in. I was told they could put us in a room, but we would have no keys until the electricity came back on (the van driver let us in with a master key) and would have to take the stairs (very dark, service stairwell, led by the key master aka van driver). So armed only with a glow-stick to light the way, we did just that. I sat in the pitch black hotel room with my three kids and our little glow-stick (my husband was meeting us the next day) for the next hour, waiting for the power to be restored. It was a freaky, scary hour, but the whole time my mind was spinning with ways to make that part of a story.

The point I am hoping to make here is: when you are in need of inspiration or are stuck with an area of your plot and unsure how to proceed – drop your hat, arm yourself with the question, “What if?” and step out of your box. You may be surprised what you find lurking around you when you let yourself view life through your writer-eyes.

Yes, I’m a Pathetic Blogger or Summer Sucks for Mom’s Who Write


Okay, yes. I see that my last post was May 20th. Today is July 11 – what is that, like 52 days ago? I admit it. I suck. I’m pathetic. Whip me now. Throw wet towels and whip cream pies at me. I have no business saying I have a blog when there is no blogging going on.

Can you forgive me?

I have no legit excuse except that life has continued to happen and I have been way behind in everything – writing and blogging included. I am still trying to figure out how people who work outside of their homes get the housework done since I work IN my home and can’t seem to find time to get it clean, let alone find the time to write, read and blog!

Summer seems to be when I find the most inspiration for my writing, and yet it is the busiest time of my year with the kids home and I can’t seem to find the time to work on those inspirational thoughts.

Anyway, I thought I would write a quick blog-apology and leave you all with a photo of author Jacqui Robbins at her July 7 launch party for TWO OF A KIND. My daughter bought the first copy sold and was all smiles.

I promise to be less of a stranger this summer!
Happy writing!

Musings of Second Graders

>Often at conferences, I hear writers say that if you want to make your characters’ dialogue authentic, you should eavesdrop on conversations of kids and teens. I have also heard writers complain that they don’t have access to kids and teens and find this hard to do. I guess I am lucky in that regard; I have a constant feed from three distinct age groups: 16, 10, and 7.

So, for those less fortunate than I, I thought I’d share some random things I heard yesterday while traveling to and from Jackson on a field trip with my second grade daughter’s class:

**Please note, they were studying colonial times and were all dressed in 1800 garb, so keep that in mind if some does not make sense.

BOY 1: I would not be a girl, that bonnet would mess up my hair.
BOY 2: My hair would be CRAZY! (messes up hair)
BOY 1: (giggles) No, like this. (messes up his hair)
BOY1: If both my arms were cut off, I could get robot arms.
BOY 2: Robot, Robot.
BOY 1: And I would have lollipops come out of my elbows.
BOY 2: I’d have water guns in mine. (Burps then giggles)
BOY 1: (giggles at burp also)
BOY2: I like to burp.
BOY 1: I like to fart.
(giggles from both)
BOY 2: I’d have fart gas come out of my arms.
GIRL 1: Gross! Did you hear what he said? He wants farts to come out of his arms!
GIRL 2: Ewww!
BOY 1: (annoyed, corrective tone) Out of his robot arms!
BOY 2: Yeah, so I could stink you up!
GIRLS: Ewww!BOY 1: My stomach is eating itself! Are we there? (looks in lunch) Mmm, beef jerky. (to BOY 2) Do you have Dragon Ball-Z? Or Ben 10?
BOY 2: For DS?
BOY 1: PSP is way better than DS. You can download movies, go on the internet, wi-fi.
BOY 2: DS can do wi-fi.
BOY 1: But it can’t download movies.
BOY 2: What movies?
BOY 1: Any.
BOY 2: Which ones?
BOY 1: Any I want.
BOY 2: Like what?
BOY 1: I don’t know. I’m not allowed. Ugh, my stomach is eating itself again! When will we be there?

GIRL 1: Hey, **(Boy 1 name withheld) are you in love with **(name of girl withheld)?
BOY 1: No! Why do you help her chase me?
GIRL 1 (ignores Boy 1 and says to Girl 2): He is in love with her.

BOY 1: My stomach ate itself five times. I will die! This museum will kill me. Why can’t we go fishing?

That concludes my quick peak into the dialogue of second graders for now. This is only a ten minute snip-it of the non-stop conversation that occurred in the 45 minutes it took to drive there. I could write the entire thing, but I won’t! And I assure you, Boy 1 did not die, nor was his stomach actually eating itself!

Newberry According to My 10 year old

>My 10 year old son was reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin in his Lit Circle at school. As it is one of those books that I hear about all the time, have been meaning to read, but have never actually read (yes, I know, even after getting my MA in Children’s Lit I am not fully literate in the ‘classics’ of children’s books!), I was interested to hear what he had to say about it.

After the first few pages, he complained that it was boring. I thought, okay, he’s reading it and the fifth Percy Jackson book at the same time. Hard to compete with Rick Riordan, Newberry medal or not. But as he continued reading it, his dislike grew. I have never had to force my son to read anything (well, okay, that’s not true. In first grade he wouldn’t read any of the fiction stories his teacher gave him – he only read non-fiction – so I did force him to read a Magic Tree House book to get him into some fiction that had non-fiction elements, and I boast, it worked!) but I had to make him sit down and read The Westing Game, even threatened to (gasp!) take away Percy Jackson if he didn’t.

When he’d finally finished, I asked him “So, what was it about?”
His answer: “I don’t even know. It was so boring, Mom. You would fall asleep. I bet everyone fell asleep reading it. They probably said ‘hey this book is boring. It put me to sleep. Let’s give it a Newberry. ‘ They give all the boring books Newberrys.”

I quickly pointed out that Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book won it this year, which my son enjoyed. But, I had to laugh at his comment because I’d heard it before. My oldest daughter had said basically the same thing when she was in fifth grade. She was assigned Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and hated it. In fact, after that book, she wouldn’t touch another that had that pretty gold seal on it. To her, Newberry award = boring.

Before I continue, let me say that I am not putting down any Newberry book. I am not saying The Westing Game, Island of the Blue Dolphins, or any other Newberry winner is boring. That being said, I bet if we had children doing the choosing, the winners would be vastly different.

It sort of comes down to that age-old argument of literary versus commercial, reading for education versus reading for pleasure, writing to enlighten versus writing to appease the masses. Children’s books, although written for children, are not published, purchased, or awarded prizes by children. As parents, we try to oversee everything that our children put into their bodies and minds, and literature is no exception. Let them have that cookie (Goosebumps), but make sure they balance it out with some vegis (Old Yeller), right?

As an author that tends to write more on the cookie-side than the vegi-side of the spectrum, I would be a hypocrit if I fed my children only vegis. Too many kids HATE reading because they aren’t allowed the cookies. Where is the fun in reading if you don’t read what you enjoy?

But, the teacher-mom in me also sees the value in reading the vegis. I have a great many vegis I love – my BA is in English after all, which would have been torturous if I hadn’t enjoyed reading all those classics. And for that reason, we have well-meaning adults rather than children choosing the Newberry and other literary prizes. Recently, those choices have come to reflect more of what kids are enjoying than what adults think they should be enjoying – which is how it should be – so I truly commend those who sit on the committees and make the tough choices.

I tried to tell my son all this, even launching into a history of the penny-press and the whole bad rep novels had when they first were introduced to the masses. I was met with glazed over eyes. I think that must be how The Westing Game felt when he was holding it in his hands. So I ended my lecture with a simple, “Everyone has different tastes. Your sister loves fairy books and you can’t stand them, right?”

This was met with a grin and a nod and then he asked, “How many fairy books have won a Newberry? (groan) I hope we don’t have to read them next.” 🙂

Ahhh, did you miss me?

>As Staind would say, “It’s Been Awhile . . .”

I wish I could say I’ve been tracking man-eating piranhas in the Amazon or ghost hunting in Gettysburg or even sipping wine while touring the ruins of Pompeii, but I can’t. The only thing with teeth I’ve been tracking are my three children; the only ghosts I’ve been chasing exist in my plots; and the only ruins I sip wine in these days are the rooms of my sadly unkempt house.

My blog-absence is due in part to the business of life, but also I’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster with my writing of late. Writing is both exhilarating and depressing for me. I love the creative part of it: getting so involved with my characters that they are chatting with me while I make dinner or do the laundry, bugging me in my dreams, chastising me when I’ve left them stuck in a scene for too long. I love the revision process too: getting feedback from my peers, ripping apart my plots, adding layers to my characters, hacking away at unnecessary words and events. But the part that comes next – sending my work OUT THERE- can be so scary that sometimes I forget what I love about writing and consider quitting.

Writing is a personal thing. Like a child, even though you know your book is its own thing, you can’t help but take its failures and accomplishments personally. For this reason, it is sometimes very difficult to separate yourself from it and see that the person rejecting it is not rejecting you. Through the years, I have mastered that ability. I have a thick skin. I can take criticism and process it, find the value in it and apply it to my writing. Yet still, rejection is rejection, and after enough of it, you can’t help but question your abilities.

I have never been very confidant. I guess if you wanted to psycho-analyze me, you could say it stems from my visual impairment and the inability to do things most people take for granted – like driving. I so often feel like a failure as a mom because I can’t drive my kids to and from school, to and from practice and games and birthday parties like every other mother. Instead, I have to coordinate cabs or buses or walking routes or rides with other moms. Sure, people in places like New York do that all the time, but here, everyone drives. So when I show up at flag football carrying a car seat in the pouring rain, I get weird looks from the rest of the parents while they sit in their dry cars. I tell you this not for sympathy – I hate the sympathy – but to show you how idiotic my mind is. Who cares if I show up two hours early for a baseball game because of the shortened Sunday bus schedule? I honestly don’t mind the walking or the getting there early (well my kids do I guess) but I still feel like a failure because I’m not like everyone else.

This feeling often carries over into my writing. I see so many others successfully making it in the published world and I think: what is wrong with me? Am I kidding myself? Am I that idiotic mom standing in the rain while everyone else looks on and thinks I have no clue?

The answer is no. Or should be no. I should be saying who cares? Who cares what one person thinks about my writing? Writing is subjective; one man’s best seller is another man’s stinkbomb – look at the varying opinions among friends in a book club. But even though I know this, every once in a while, rejection threatens to bring me down. How can it not? We all need reassurance that we are okay. We all want someone to tell us we’re capable. We’re social, emotional creatures, right?

So, how does a writer keep that rejection-downer at bay?
Other writers.
Yes family can rub your ego, but only another writer who has been there, felt that, can truly empathize. I have a great group of writer friends who have all pulled me up by my boot straps (well, flip-flops) the past month or so, brushed off the rejection, put the pen in my hand and shoved me back into the game. I thank you all for that.

In fact, since I may not have much brain matter left when I do finally get published, here’s a shout out to all of you on my triage team: Jen, Libby, Su, Patty, Jacqui, Todd, Diane, Katena, Sharon, Alicia, Viki, Steph, Kristin, LInda, and Renee. Thanks for being there always!

Okay, enough of the soap opera. I’m back and I promise not to let so long go between blogs!

Ode To My Critique Group

>In honor of Poetry Month, I thought I’d write an ode to my critique group.

(And Diane, our Queen of the Meter, and all you other poem-extraordinaries, I apologize in advance, for I know this only-one-stanza, slightly-stretched-rhyme, a-little-off-in-meter ode probably doesn’t pass your poetry litmus tests!)


Writing is a lonely craft
Filled with rejection and doubt
But never do I feel daft
With my critique buds about.
Armed with coffee and a smile
You read with respect and poise:
Characters, plot, arcs, pace, style,
Bullies, bombs, and booger-boys.
Even when it’s not quite working
You find something worth praising.
So let me raise my glass to thee
Oh awesome peeps of kid-story!

Love you guys! And don’t worry – a book of poetry is definitely not on my horizon!

Literary or Commercial? Character or Plot-driven?

>At conferences, I would always hear authors, agents, and editors talk about ‘character-driven’ versus ‘plot-driven’ stories. Character-driven are the stories where the character dictates the action, and the reader cares more about what happens to the character than what happens in general. More often than not, they are the stories that get labeled as ‘literary’.

Plot-driven, on the other hand, often labeled ‘commercial’, are fast-moving. The plot, not the characters, dictate the action. Readers tend to care more about what is happening, than what is happening to a specific character.

This whole categorization between literary/commercial, character/plot-driven used to bother me because as I would sit and listen, I’d always come to the same conclusion – I am more of a plot-driven writer, and that seemed to be wrong. Editors were always saying they wanted literary, character-driven stories, not plot-driven, commercial stories. I felt like I was somehow unworthy of publication.

When I paid a published author for a critique of one of my manuscripts several years ago, she drove the point home by saying: “This is too plot-driven and your characters under-developed; if your goal is commercial fiction, this is ready, but if you want to be published in any of the big NY houses, you have a lot of work to do.” She went on to separate out her comments, based on whether I wanted to be a commercial or a literary author (the literary suggestions being the more lengthy of the two sections). My reaction was, “ugh, I must really suck if she thinks it’s commercial” and I abandoned the story.

As I sit down now to begin revising that novel after some five years, I see what she was saying. I do agree with 99% of what she said (after all back then I was still quite the newbie writer) but I also think she missed the boat on the whole commercial vs literary separation.

First of all, who cares if it’s commercial? That stuff sells; being commercial is not a bad thing. We all like to read a light book once in awhile, a quick read, especially after slogging through a heavy literary novel.

But more importantly, who says a book must be one or the other? I think you can have a literary AND commercial book. The suggestions she made based on whether I wanted to go the commercial or literary route, when combined, would make a brilliant book.

Too often people equate ‘literary’ with ‘quiet’ and ‘internal’, downplaying the plot – they think you have to be writing in a first person narrative with lots of internal dialogue for it to be good, worthy stuff .

It doesn’t.

Plot is not a dirty word. I love plot. I love having things happen on the sidelines, seemingly unrelated to the story, and then having all the strands meet in one big catastrophic collision. I love planting seeds that sit quietly growing underneath the surface or that tumble gently along between scenes, unnoticed, until BAM! They pop into the picture, sending things stumbling out of control. What better way to orchestrate these sideline events or plant these seeds than through the development of your characters? I love creating characters who make choices that send everything into a tailspin – choices you know as the reader, were wrong, but you also know were the only choice that character could have made.

In my opinion, that’s literary AND commercial. That’s what I like to read, and that’s want I want to strive for in my writing. So the next time I hear someone ask “literary or commercial? Character or plot-driven?” I think I’ll just smile and say, “Yes, please.”

Deciding What To Write — Revisited

>Okay, so after my last post I was all gung-ho. I was going to stay with what I was writing, see it through to the end, stick with what I was passionate about, what I was hearing in my heart. And I did – I wrote two more chapters and was really getting back into it.

Then . . . I received the March 2009 issue of HipLit, HarperTeen’s e-newsletter featuring new books, series, etc. I read about a new series they are releasing that sounds WAY too similar to my book. UGH! In an already saturated market, I am afraid I don’t stand a chance with my plot as is.

Thus, I have decided to shelve my manuscript – at least until I can come up with a way to make my plot drastically different than anything out there right now. In the mean time, I think I will focus on my MG ghost story that has been sitting patiently awaiting revision for about five years!

So, I bid farewell (for now) to Simon and Kat in Wendigo Blood, and say hello to Julia in Nana’s Ghost. Please, no tears or dirges, they will return again – I can never leave my stories shelved for too long!

Deciding what to write

>Over the past few weeks I have been a bit stuck. It isn’t writer’s block exactly because I have several things I could be writing. My problem is which one I should be writing.

I had been revising a novel that I am passionate about – in love with the plot, the characters, the new twists I’ve built in to the old plot, etc. Problem?

I went to Barnes and Noble and saw how many paranormal/urban fantasy books are out there right now. I think my story is unique, but is it unique enough to stand out from an already saturated market?

I don’t know, so . . . now I am stuck. Should I continue writing it and not worry about the market that may not be there when I complete the novel? Or should I instead work on the MG ghost story I also could be revising? Or, how about the two plots I have outlined using the characters of the novel I just finished? But, there again, do I even want to delve into the whole series thing when I don’t know if that book will even get published? Nothing like spending time writing a series of books about characters no one cares about.

When I sit down to write everyday, I start asking these questions, and I end up in the same argument with myself:

Inner Me: Write what is calling to you right now; what you are passionate about right now; don’t worry about the market.

Me: But with limited writing time, I’d hate to be spending hours and days and months on something that potentially will go nowhere.

Inner Me: So, you’re in this just to get published?

Me: Heck no, but that is a goal, nonetheless, and I’d like to be working on something I am passionate about AND is marketable, you know?

Inner Me: Yeah, I see your point.

Me: ??? !!!

Any suggestions to resolving this uncertainty? Advice? Words of wisdom? Anyone? Anyone?