Spring Cleaning

This weekend, we cut down a tree in our yard to make space for a new fence.

I knew this work was happening, yet when I pulled into the driveway and saw the tree trunk lying there on the lawn, limbs chopped away and leaves stripped, my heart dropped a little bit. This wasn’t an old tree, or even one we had planted. It was just a young tree that had taken root on its own, and sadly in the wrong spot.

Still, it hurt to cut the tree down, as it hurts to end any life, even that of an ant or a fly. I wasn’t the kind of child who killed insects arbitrarily. Usually, I sought to re-home them, returning them to where they belonged and myself to where I belonged so that we could each live on in harmony, our worlds separate and yet part of a greater whole.

What’s interesting about the idea of re-homing or relocating is that it can be applied to writing. When we write, we don’t usually put the words in the right order the first time. And yet, it can feel as bad as cutting down a tree to erase some of our hard-fought words. It’s very hard to throw your work away.

Childhood me would say it doesn’t have to be that way.

What if instead of erasing, instead of deleting or removing or throwing away, we just re-homed our words? Relocation is so much more palatable than extermination.

Removing a part of your work is still difficult no matter what you do with the words, but in the instance of relocation the pain seems to diminish. It’s not quite so gutting to take your words and place them aside, in a file or a pile or a folder where you know they will live on safely while you move forward in your own space, the space you have made within your work for improvement by setting the old words aside.

This spring, as we bring in the new, consider (rather than throwing away), setting aside the old for a later date or another time, even if that time may never come. Sometimes freedom is not in the outcome of our actions, but in the act of breaking away.

Sometimes, all we need is a bit of space in order to gain a fresh perspective.

Happy Spring, and happy writing to you all!

 

shrooms

 

The Key to our Hearts is Truth

Every author dreams of making a meaningful connection with their readers. We crave the phrases that make your hearts clench, that stir your deepest fears and unleash your wildest hopes. What is the point of reading if not to FEEL? As a reader, I feel deeply. As an author, I strive to make my readers feel deeply, too, but communicating a meaningful observation about the human experience is not just a matter of  heart–it’s a question of writing craft.

While there are many aspects of writing craft that help the reader connect with a story–voice, clarity, and meter, to name a few–today I’d like to discuss truth, and how delivering a story that rings true entices the reader to fall in love. Our hearts seek truth. In life, that’s our common goal: truth in purpose, in love, and in legacy. Without truth our victories ring hollow and our accomplishments feel thin.

The same is true of stories.

Truth in fiction requires all the complexity and nuance of life. If we leave our stories less than fully rendered, they cannot deliver the same gut-rending impact of real life events. It is our goal to make our stories connect, but how? In order to generate the sensation of truth in a fictional work, we need many different ingredients of story craft working together to create a semblance of reality. For me, the key components of this reality are specificity (or detail), originality, and complexity.

Specificity

Think of what you ate for breakfast. Say you had an English muffin. It’s easy to dilute your action into a simple expression such as, “I had an English muffin for breakfast,” but that’s not particularly engaging to read, now is it? We know the facts, but only at the summary level. There is nothing specific about this action that compels us to care about what you had for breakfast. Our hearts are not inspired.

If instead, we heard about how chilly the kitchen tiles were beneath your bare feet, and how you sat opposite another place-setting, its plate empty but for a scant coating of dust, we begin to wonder. We’re comforted by the warmth of each buttery bite of English muffin, but we sense an underlying sadness from that empty place. What happened to you? What is your story?

As soon as you have the reader asking questions, you’ve got them. They ask because they care. When the heart is engaged, we can’t help worrying, wondering, and waiting. Our hearts demand answers. In order to give them to your readers, you must first get them to ask the questions by including meaningful detail in each moment of the story. If your moment has no meaningful detail, cut it. We only wish to read that which engages our hearts fully and leaves us turning the pages in search of answers. Meaningful details make a scene come to life. Without them, our story is no more real than a cardboard cutout.

Here’s a wonderful example of detail from Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness:

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These details about Finley’s father give him a specific and very real identity. He is a human being composed of a million odd parts, and here, Legrand gives us one to latch onto. Now we know him, and once known to us, we cannot help but care about him.

Originality

I’ve been reading Cheryl Klein’s amazing writing craft book, The Magic Words, and in it she talks about how important imagination is to a writer’s craft. Imagination is flexibility. It is surrendering oneself to creativity with the full knowledge that you will fail many, many times before you succeed. It is knowing that you will feel pain, frustration, sorrow, and fear from those many failures, and that when the answer comes, it may be with a greater measure of relief than true joy. The imagination is a fickle, dangerous thing. It takes a brave writer to use it, and use it well.

I’ve shared this video from John Cleese many times, but it always warrants sharing again! Have a laugh and a listen. My favorite quote: “Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.”

The first time I listened to this video, I was gobsmacked by Cleese’s underlying message that creativity is a tolerance for failure–literally a tolerance for that twisting, anxious uncertainty that fills your gut when you’re searching for an answer.

The people who generate the most creative answers are very good at getting themselves into a particular mood in order to access their imagination, and then tolerating that awful sensation until they solve the problem at hand. This tolerance is the only thing that will get you to truly unique, original ideas. This matters because ideas that strike the reader as unique also ring with truth.

Ideas that we’ve seen many times before are cliche. They’re stereotypes. They’ve got a negative connotation that’s impossible to shake no matter how strong your voice or meter is. Fresh ideas, however, engage the reader’s imagination. They offer something new, something to understand and learn from–they offer new truths about the world that we have not yet discovered, and there is nothing more exciting for readers than discovery. After all, it is our life’s work to discover the truths of our existence.

Much the same way that detail makes a character or scene come alive, originality allows a premise to flourish in the reader’s mind. An original premise, an original expression of metaphor (see Lindsay Eager’s Hour of the Bees), an original turn of phrase, an original emotional insight, or an original connection to a commonly held belief–these fresh moments enthrall the reader and make it impossible for them to turn away.

Complexity

Let’s go back to that English muffin from this morning. Details allow us to connect with this breakfast in a particularly meaningful way, but we can get even more mileage from this scene if we understand the layers of decision-making that led to it. It’s easy to get caught up in plot and end up with a story that reads A to B to C and so on, but without much real excitement no matter how daring the plot points are. Telling a story is not about describing a sequence of events, but showing your character’s choices as they move through the events.

Did I choose to eat the English muffin even though it’s the last one in the fridge and my husband will likely lose his temper and possibly strangle me for it? That’s a much more important breakfast than before. Similarly, if eating the English muffin reminds me of someone I’ve lost but I do it anyway, my choice is a mix of joy and pain, which is both contradictory and true.

Choices ARE messy. They don’t happen in an instant–even in an instant, half a dozen thoughts can tear through a character’s mind. Their choices aren’t simple. They’re complex. The reader needs to SEE this complexity in order to feel the character’s truth, because no human makes quick, clean choices and no character should either.

Here’s another example from Some Kind of Happiness:

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Here, we see Finley’s full range of reasoning as she decides whether or not to visit the Everwood, the imaginary forest that has become real at her grandparent’s home, and is 100% off-limits. Finley doesn’t hide her thoughts from us. She confesses. She shares her deepest secrets. We see her worries about getting caught for breaking the rules. We see her concern for her cousin. We see her burgeoning desire to be someone needed and loved purely for what makes her unique. These truths all feed into her decision, and by showing them to us, Legrand wins our hearts.

My favorite rule of thumb to generate complexity within a character’s choices is to follow this pattern of decision-making:IMG_0041

First, the character feels. Then they think of their options. They anticipate what might happen if they make the wrong choice (or the right one). And finally, they make their decision.

This doesn’t mean that we need to see each of these steps with each choice our character makes–that would result in a novel far too long and tedious to capture anyone’s heart! Instead, pick the KEY moments. Where does your character need to reveal a deep fear? A wild hope? A secret desire? Allow us to peek behind the curtain of your character’s choices and we will feel the warm blush of a friend sharing a secret.

When a character trusts us, we care for them. We root for them.

We love them.

What is it about Middle Grade?

Whenever I get into a discussion with fellow fans of middle grade books, talk quickly turns into a love fest. We can barely breathe for scrambling to say all of the things we love about reading this special category of books.

It’s so genuine!
There’s honesty and sadness and hope and humor!
Middle grade hits the sweet spot in growing up!
It’s so . . . SPECIAL.

I couldn’t agree more with that last one. Middle grade IS special. I think for us grownup readers,  middle grade harkens back to a particularly resonant time in our childhoods. It is during the middle grade years (8-12 years old) that we get our first glimpse of the real world. Our first big heartbreaks. Our first brush with mortality. Our first considerations and worries about the future.

It’s not that younger readers or kids don’t share these same moments, but there’s something about that age–6th grade in particular–where the training wheels come off and you are facing the world less as a child of your parents and more as an individual. It takes many years for that transformation to be fully complete, but the rush of hormones and middle school ushers it in with a bang.

That’s why there will always be a special place in my heart for middle grade stories. They are some of my all time favorites: The Secret Garden, The BFG, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, When You Reach Me, One for the Murphys, and SO many more.

As part of a 2016 debut author group called the Sweet Sixteens, I’ve had the privilege of reading many 2016 middle grade titles ahead of time, and honestly, I’m impressed. The middle grade fiction coming in 2016 offers such a range of story content and such a high level of writing craft that I’m beyond proud to share the debut shelf with these authors. I am grateful.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming 2016 middle grade debuts, we have a series of flyers that will introduce you to the titles. Here’s the first one! Happy reading, everyone!

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On Breaking Things to Fix Them

Many strange and wonderful things have happened in the past few weeks: I received ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of Counting Thyme (!!!!), I took my kiddos out of the country for the first time, and at the end of that trip, I broke my foot.

That progression felt quite literally like the kind of rising action and climax from a novel. Now I’m left in bed, foot propped, medicine cutting off all functionality for stretches of time…but I’m also thinking a lot in between. I am a person who asks WHY.

Why do these words of mine look so different in book form?

Why did we end up taking a two-day detour through Atlanta and Miami to get out of the country?

Why did that bone in my foot snap?

I swear, all I did was take a step!

Well, that right there is the answer, I think. I took a step. That’s what we do every day in life. We move forward, and what happens next isn’t always what we expect. We write a book only to rewrite it twenty times. We forget that our children need passports too and end up spending the day at the World of Coca-Cola while those passports are printed. We break a bone and spend the hours waiting for it to heal as all the petty concerns fall away, leaving us somehow happier.

My busted foot

In life, as in writing, sometimes you have to break a thing before you can fix it.

When something breaks, we despair. We resist. We fight. And sometimes, we save ourselves–to a degree–but there’s often a moment of surrender. There is opportunity in that moment.

I like to think of this as the magical point when clouds part and the sun breaks through, bright and glowing and overwhelming–pure sensory overload. Surrender feels like that to me. Like I’m suddenly cut loose, awash in light, moorless but not lost. Instead, I’ve stepped into a more open space, a space where I can catch my breath and a glimpse of clear blue sky before the clouds close in again.

I’ve experienced this moment many times while writing. Often there are tears and yelling. I tend to yell when I’m at the house, working by myself. All of that fight and energy is me resisting letting go. When I finally do, instead of feeling like I’m drowning, I usually feel relief. Inevitably, the answers come soon after that. I think the letting go allows me to be more honest with myself about what matters in a story and what doesn’t–about what truths I am avoiding because I’m afraid I can’t fix them, and what changes I’m avoiding because they don’t ring true at all.

Me, breaking things

Truth is the goal we’re seeking in all of this.

We want our stories to resonate, to latch onto readers’ hearts and give them a squeeze. Sometimes, those truths become buried in all of the work we’ve done. That’s where the breaking comes in. We break what we’ve worked so hard to achieve, and when it heals, it comes back stronger. Better. Infinitely better than if it had never been broken in the first place.

Uncharted Territory

One of the cool (read: terrifying) things about writing is that you’re always striking out into uncharted territory. You might be on the road to publication and enduring the sinking-swimming sensation of querying or the ulcer-inducing reality of being on submission. Or you might just be writing, which is in itself gut wrenching enough, with the constant push to improve your craft and find your heart.

That bit about finding your heart is perhaps the most challenging.

I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn the craft of writing with enough study and practice. Writing is a skillset. That skillset can be enhanced by what we call talent–a natural propensity for the skillset–but writing is still just a learned skill. We all start out tracing letters and filling in blanks. Where we go from there varies. Some of us discover a passion for story early on, while others take a while to get there. The idea, though, is that at some point, it’s not our minds but our hearts that demand we write.

You hear a lot of writers talk about the “story of their heart.” I think that phrase is a bit misleading, because there’s not just one story of your heart. Just as you can love multiple people, or pets, or flavors of ice cream, you can love different stories. The key, though, is figuring out how to tap into that love in the first place.

When you’re early in the journey of writing craft, many stories call to you. If the puzzle pieces fit together, you’re hooked. They key is understanding that you might just be hooked on the fact that the story works, and not the content itself. That’s okay. That’s how you learn. That’s also how you end up querying a book that doesn’t pan out, or going on sub and coming up short. Your early passion for writing is productive, but it can lack that zing of emotional heart.

How do we tap into our own hearts?

I attended a workshop with Meg Rosoff last fall that keeps bouncing around in my head whenever I think about this topic. She talked about the unconscious mind, and how it holds onto the things that matter to us, the things that resonate in our emotional cores. It follows that tapping into your heart requires tapping into your unconscious mind.

There are lots of different ways to tap into your unconscious mind, the center of you. Some of them are as easy as shutting your eyes and allowing your mind to wander. In yoga, we call this shavasana. You assume a comfortable position and sit still. You shut your eyes, and listen to your breath. In and out, in and out. When the grocery list pops into your mind, you acknowledge it and send it away. You try to only hear your breath, think of your breath, and let your muscles sink into the earth. Your mind will slow down. It will start to wander. And after a while (it’ll feel like ages but only be about 5-7 minutes) little blips of light will pop through. These blips, these random thoughts, are your subconscious talking to you. By actively releasing your conscious mind, the boss who runs all the things, you allow those inner thoughts to come forward. When you reach this state, ask yourself: what matters to me? You’ll likely be overwhelmed by the emotion that surfaces.

For some people, this emotional release occurs when running or walking. For others, when they recount their dreams or listen to music. Give yourself the time and space to tap in. Practice it regularly. You will gain better access to your emotional core, and all of the distractions will fall away. Once those distractions are gone, you’ll know what matters to you. Is it the video of a police beating that went unprosecuted? Is it the memory of your grandmother? Is it the struggle of your oldest child, who cannot sit still, who won’t tell you their secrets any more, and who you fear for in the worst of ways?

There are things that matter, and there are things that MATTER. Find the things that matter to you. Follow them into uncharted territory to find the heart of your stories.

Plot v/s Story

I just had the incredible fortune to attend the Writer Unboxed UnConference, a unique gathering of writers in Salem, Massachusetts for a week long study of writing craft. I’ve attended several conferences in the past few years, but this one was like no other. Our entire focus, every single day, every session, was on craft alone. No pitching. No marketing. Nothing but WRITING.

Yeah, it was pretty much heaven.

Now that I’ve had a few days to decompress from taking in all of that information, I wanted to throw out a few notes on the theme that connected nearly all of the craft sessions: focusing on STORY.

It’s super easy to misconstrue plot for story, so that’s the first bit of info to note. According to the brilliant Lisa Cron (highly recommend her book WIRED FOR STORY):

Story is how what happens effects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal.

Plot is HOW that happens.

Story is change. It is the Inner Journey. It must be defined to choose a plot.

Plot is externalization. It is the Outer Journey. The specifics are flexible. In a way, it doesn’t MATTER what your plot is, only how it creates a sense of meaning and journey of change.

If you’re anything like me, it’s a relief to think this way. It’s a relief to LET GO OF PLOT. To know that what matters is nailing the emotional journey of your character, especially in the first draft. Now, of course I believe that certain external specifics are better choices than others, in terms of suiting your themes, maximizing your conflict, and maintaining the pace of your story.

How to put this connection into action?

There are two opportunities: before you write, and during revision.

Before you write, it’s key to identify the core elements of your STORY.

What is your character’s emotional arc over the course of the story? How do they start out? How do they change by the end? Even if you have zero clue about the plot mechanisms that will get you to your conclusion, you need to have this transformative process in mind for your characters. Note, that’s ALL of your characters. Ask yourself the same questions about your secondary characters. Let them star in their own complicated stories. If you begin drafting with some of this character backSTORY in mind, you’ll tap into the heart of the story more effectively.

Notice how I capitalized part of backSTORY? That’s because I see so many worksheets asking ten million questions about character traits that honestly don’t teach you much about your characters. Instead of figuring out their favorite flavor of ice cream, ask the heavy questions: what happened in your character’s past that changed his or her life? How was this moment a turning point in your character’s life? How did this event leave your character with a false self image, a falsity that they will not shed until they complete the journey in your narrative? Dig in for the tough stuff, and you’ll have your backSTORY.

Once you hit revision, you have another chance to evaluate your PLOT choices.

Look at the progression of the overall character arc, and examine the effectiveness of each subplot and scene. Do all of your choices support your core story? Is there a way to increase the conflict by choosing a different inciting moment? By shifting to a new quest or subplot? By changing the setting and characters present in a scene?

Once you have a draft to work with, you can hone in on the right plot choices, the ones that increase tension and raise stakes. Remember, changing your plot choices is OKAY. Your plot is just a series of steps from point A to point B. You can change those steps out for a yellow brick road. You can cut through the woods instead of following the stream. You really can steer that path where you want it to go, because plot is a function of STORY–and YOU are the storyteller.

Happy writing, everyone!

The Why

My younger son and I, reading MY TRUCK IS STUCK to his class

It can be easy to forget why we do this work, what with deadlines and doubts and all of the things we do in our own little writerly vacuums. The good news: All it takes is reading a book to a class of eager young readers to remember the why.

An Illustrated Guide to #MyWritingProcess

Thanks to the lovely Miss Louise Galveston (whose hilarious gross-out book BY THE GRACE OF TODD is not to be missed), I doodled something for you guys. Here’s my writing process, in one complicated, annotated, illustrated nutshell:

As you can see, a lot goes on inside my head. If you’d like to read more about my process (which I love to gab about), check out these posts on outlining and revision. You can also find a TON of awesome writing posts from other authors on Le Twitter, under the hashtag #MyWritingProcess.

Right now, I’m working on revisions for my debut novel, Counting Thyme, as well as drafting my second MG book and a YA contemporary about a boy who believes love is a delusion. I’m drawn to all kinds of stories (especially fantasy, which I grew up reading!), but contemporary characters (and families) are the ones who give me all the feels. There’s nothing quite like entering another person’s world. Which, come to think of it, is I why I both read and write. Books are the bomb!

Now, let me introduce you to three fellow writers, who are each so awesome, it’s barely acceptable to tag them all in the same post. They’ll share their process next Monday, May 5th!

There are some books you covet so much you can taste it. That’s how I feel about Becky. I mean, her book. No, seriously. SIMON sounds like exactly the kind of endearing, unapologetically intelligent story that I love to read!

Becky Albertalli is a child psychologist turned YA writer who lives in the not cool part of Atlanta with her husband, son, dog, and cat. Her debut, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, will be released in March of 2015 by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. Becky is represented by Brooks Sherman of The Bent Agency. Blog | GoodReads | Twitter

When it comes to heart and family, my good friend Ronni Arno is matchless, so I can’t wait to read her MG debut about a girl who hides her family’s celebrity status from her friends at boarding school.

Ronni’s debut novel, RENEE REINVENTED, publishes with Simon & Schuster/Aladdin in Fall 2015. Ronni stalks her kids and their friends for story ideas, kayaks, and eats chocolate…not usually at the same time. Ronni is rep’d by Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Blog | GoodReads | Twitter

When I read MY 7TH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS, I couldn’t believe how freaking funny it was–laugh out loud lines on every page! I may have wanted to smack Brooks (just a little), but really, I’m very happy for him (ie: unreasonably jealous).

Brooks Benjamin is a MG writer, filmmaker, teacher, husband, SCBWI member, and father to a 75-pound demented German Shepherd mix named LeeLoo. Represented by the fantabulous Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary. Blog | GoodReads | Twitter

A Shot of Inspiration

I was reminded of this poem today, when my critique partners and I were discussing words of inspiration. A poem titled “in Defeat” may not sound very inspiring on first glance, but ever since I read this in eighth grade for an English assignment, I’ve loved every word. It’s one of the very few poems I have memorized. I keep a copy of it hanging on my wall. Today, I share it with you:


in Defeat

Defeat may serve as well as victory

To shake the soul and let the glory out.

When the great oak is straining in the wind,

The boughs drink in new beauty, and the trunk

Sends down a deeper root on the windward side.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief

Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come

To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.

— Edwin Markham.






Save. Your. Energy.

There’s this concept that one of my yoga teachers talks about: the idea of saving your energy. What I mean by that is, you know that moment, right after everyone in yoga does a partner exercise, and a burst of chatter and laughter takes over the room? Or, if not yoga, perhaps the moment right after you finish a run, or a swim, or any other kind of physical challenge? That moment is pure energy.

Seriously. In my yoga class, our teacher often has to ring a bell to get our attention after one of these energy-blasting moments. That’s how jazzed we all feel. Smiling. Chatting. Being loud as heck. Basically, we revert to being a class full of wild child three year olds for about 3 minutes, until our teacher reminds us to SAVE OUR ENERGY.

At the moment you accomplish something (often a physical effort), your brain releases a rush of happy chemicals. You feel INCREDIBLE. You’re instantaneously more extroverted and ready to gab. You can feel the energy rush through your limbs like electricity.

You have a choice then: either let all that energy out by some means of release…OR, hold it inside, like a hot little ball of inferno, fully charged and ready to explode.

Of course, saving your energy is not easy. But if you can hold onto that energized feeling and direct it inwards, you can use that energy for another challenge. In yoga, I hold onto my energy by staying silent and focused. Then my next arm balance or handstand is so much easier, because I have that charge stored up in my muscles, ready to go.

The same principle applies to creative energy. You know that moment when you have a creative breakthrough, and you want to hop on twitter and gab gab gab? Or message a friend? Or text someone? Next time, try resisting that urge. Hold onto your energy. Feel the pressure of it in your chest, filling you up. Stay focused, and move forward with your work. You will delve deeper. You will roll through to another eureka. Or in the very least, the next challenge you face will be that much easier.

Save your energy, friends. Put it to work for YOU. Happy writing, all!