Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.


We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017


Happy Release Day to The Outs!

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend and critique partner E. S. Wesley to The Winged Pen to talk about the release of his debut, The Outs.

JA: Congratulations on your debut! Can you tell us a little bit about The Outs’ journey toward publication? 

ESW: Sure thing! The Outs was the culmination of other work I’d done in the past, developing this idea and exploring what a world like this would look like. When I finished it, I threw it into the mix with an online contest called Pitch Wars, and the manuscript landed me an awesome mentor (JA Souders—go read her stuff!). Throughout the process, I got some really great agent interest, but Curiosity Quills saw the pitch as well, and asked to have a look. I’d heard great things about CQ, and when they offered on the book, I was happy to take them up on it.

JA: This story is a great mashup between a psychological thriller and a comic book-style adventure story. Can you talk a little bit about what gave you the idea and what other works from those genres inspire you?

ESW: I love, love, LOVE psychological thrillers. Something about having an author toy with my mind really adds a nice punch. As the story of The Outs began to form, I knew that it was the perfect vehicle for something like this.

As for the comic-booky thing: Kitzi (one of my two main characters) pretty much demanded it. In fact, Kitzi made herself come to life and demanded stage time. When I wrote my first draft of the story, she wasn’t even in there at all, but once she entered the scene she took center stage. And she demanded to be a superhero all her own, with her disability forming the core of her superpowers (can’t say much more about that, because SPOILERS!). From there, it was just a matter of seeing where she took the story, and I couldn’t be happier with her.

I’ve always loved the idea of people whose weaknesses double as their strengths anyway. There’s something so amazing about seeing someone take a rotten deal and turn it into something good that gets me where it counts, you know?

Also, if you love superhero stories and haven’t read Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners series (starting with Steelheart), then you’ve got some catching up to do. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

JA: You also write middle grade. How is MG different than writing YA and which do you prefer?

ESW: I totally love both, but for different reasons. Writing YA, I get to explore what it’s like to step into adult decisions for the first time, and take your life into your own hands. Middle grade can get some of that, but only so far. The strength of middle grade writing lies in the freedom to explore EVERYTHING. I think YA readers tend to have certain expectations—romance, angst, sequels—but middle grade readers haven’t come up with those limitations just yet. And besides, who doesn’t love stories about friendship?

The Outs does that, too, though. It shows a grittier version of life, more like what we discover when we see for the first time that our actions can have far-reaching consequences. And Caleb and Kitzi’s actions have really far-reaching implications.

JA: I know you work with children and teens. How does that reflect in your writing, and in the voice of your characters?

ESW: I think a lot of people have this idea that teens don’t have deep thoughts, or they don’t look beyond themselves. Having spent time with them and heard their deepest struggles, I know that’s a load of garbage. Teens think about all the same things adults do, but their thoughts and feelings about those things are heightened because they’re learning to handle life for the first time. Adults are jaded; teens are fresh. They see the world with new eyes. They allow themselves to feel their fears and make mistakes, and there’s something cool and honest about that.

JA: What does your writing day look like? Any tips or tricks you’d like to share with our readers?

ESW: For me, it’s all about routine. Getting up at the same time and putting my butt in the chair to work is all it takes to get started, and I won’t let myself whine about writer’s block or anything like that. Always move forward, you know? I typically work from around 7:30/8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. Sometimes I go a little longer, but not often. Gotta rest sometime!

JA: Congratulations and thank you for joining us!

E.S. Wesley is an author and advocate for the safety and mental health of young people. A long-time mentor and counselor, Wesley has worked for years to protect, encourage, and empower young adults to navigate a life that rarely makes sense. He believes all people are just waiting for someone to relate to their stories, so he makes up stories in the hope that someone will read and find a home there.
His stories are often strange and twisty.
Wesley lives with his wife in Texas, where he’s always writing. Texas has a lot of things that he likes, but Shelly is the best of them. Second best is his son, who introduced him to his wife. Sometimes we do things out of order—that just makes life more interesting.
Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, or subscribe to his mailing list.



Our Holiday Wish List – Craft Books!

Many of us will spend at least two weeks in December hiding from our children with our nose in a book. At The Winged Pen, our wish lists are full of books that inspire our creativity or deepen our craft. So here’s a peek at the writing books we loved and the books we hope to receive this holiday season. If you have a writer on your gift list, you might just find the perfect gift below:


Rebecca: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks pushed my writing to the next level. It impressed upon me the importance of plot points in the structure of a story. Moreover, I love the framework it uses for tying your main character’s arc to the plot points so they are learning and growing into a hero over the course of the book, and their heroic win at the climax is earned.

And Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole is next on my TBR list.



Julie: My favorite discovery this year was definitely Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. We teach this method to writers at Author Accelerator and I now use it every time I plan a new book or story.


And I’m hoping that I’ll get to read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg sometime soon because so many of my writing pals have recommended it!!!




Laurel: Libbie Hawker’s Making It In Historical Fiction is a very straightforward discussion of tropes in historical fiction.


Lately, I keep finding myself turning back to Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, Writing More of What You Love.



Halli:  I recommend On Writing by Stephen King because it not only gives great writing advice and tips, but reminds us all even famous authors were once where we were.

Note: Another Penny pointed out that you could read the transcript of the speech King gave when he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American letters, which is like a condensed version of On Writing.

And Story Genius is on my Christmas list! [See, I might have been evangelizing it just a wee bit–Julie]



Sussu: I love The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, absolutely fabulous. I love the way he tells us to write the first chapter as a short story independent of the main story. Light bulb moment!



On my wish list, I have The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein.




Karin: I love Story Genius and Story Engineering, but as they have been already accounted for, I will add one that isn’t heard about so much but had a big impact on me: From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. He brings his former experience as an actor to the writing process and calls it “method writing.” Writing is about dreaming your way into the character and the scene and feeling the underlying yearning.






MichelleThe Plot Whisperer was the perfect companion read for a PlotWriMo class I once took on revision. The book is a bit philosophical, which appealed to me, and I highly recommend it because of Martha Alderson’s thorough explanation of how to integrate plot with character transformation.
I’m a fan of Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan blog for writers, and I’m excited about his new craft book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers.




Gita: My favorite take-away from Robert McKee’s Story is his “principle of antagonism,” which is guaranteed to deepen and complicate your WIP.


Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is for my wish-list for writing craft and wisdom.







JessicaWriting The Breakout Novel & The Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. The workbook is a terrific resource to turn to when you’ve completed one or more rounds of revising and know your story needs work but can’t figure out what’s missing.


And I’m planning to read Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins next.




Kristi: I love Plot vs Character because I can never write my first draft from both perspectives. Once my first draft is done, I crack open this book to the page where the author has made a two sided map showing how the emotional plot and the action plot ebb, flow and merge. It’s magic!

And I want Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words.




Readers, what craft books are on your must-read or holiday wish lists? Weigh in via a comment below–we always need more recommendations when it comes to craft books!

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:


1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips? 

#Scrivathon16 – Writing for Syria Relief

There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world. It’s part of why I spend such a huge amount of time fleeing into the fantasy realm with a book, a movie, or with my own writing. But last month I heard about an opportunity to help a good cause WHILE fleeing into that fantasy world: #Scrivathon16 on Saturday, November 12, 2016.

#Scrivathon16 image



A 24-hour word sprint, #Scrivathon16 will raise money and awareness for Syria Relief, a registered UK charity whose aim is simply to ‘relieve the suffering and support the future.’ It has a solid network of committed management and logistics staff on the ground inside Syria—currently numbering at around 1,600—which means they can deliver humanitarian aid in all areas, including the hard-to-reach rural and some besieged areas. In the short space of time since its inception, Syria Relief has established its reputation as a trusted and efficient humanitarian aid agency on the ground, with a track record of the highest level of transparency and feedback.

If the images of children being pulled from the rubble have touched you the way they’ve touched me, perhaps you’ll consider joining #Scrivathon16, donating to Syria Relief through the #Scrivathon16 JustGiving page, and entering to win one of the oodles of raffle prizes A.Y. Chao has put together for this event. You can even win one of several query/critique packages from authors at The Winged Pen:

ENTER HERE with code “Winged Pen Query & 1st Page” for a chance to win one of TWO query and first page critique from The Winged Pen’s contributors

ENTER HERE with code “WP 1st Page Crit” for a chance to win one of FIVE first page crits from one of Laurel Decher, Gita Trelease, Halli Gomez, Jessica Vitalis, and Kristi Wientge

ENTER HERE with code “Winged Pen Query & 1st Page” for a chance to win one of TWO query and first page critique, from either Gabrielle Byrne or from Julie Artz.

Check here for even more amazing raffle prizes!


Because the world needs a little extra love this week, The Winged Pen will be matching Syria Relief donations made Saturday through our Winged Pen #Scrivathon16 page (up to $500). So consider making a donation.


Don’t forget to join us on Twitter on November 12 for 24-hours of word sprints, camaraderie, and writing for a most worthy cause.

Happy NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMoToday marks the beginning of the frenetic bundle of amazingness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This month, thousands of writers around the globe will try to write a 50,000 word first draft of a new story.

With an all-star line-up of NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, and hashtags on Twitter for both writing tips and daily sprints, this month is a great time to start writing that novel that you’ve been meaning to write for ages.

Here’s what the some of the Pennies have to say about their own NaNoWriMo experiences:

Julie Artz: I first learned about NaNoWriMo in 2012. And even though my story that year unraveled at 22,000 words, I was hooked. I came back in 2013 with a little bit more advanced planning and claimed the winner’s badge a few days before month-end. In 2014, I used the month to finish a story I started earlier in the fall. And in 2015, that manuscript made it into Pitch Wars. It was that 2013 story–a middle-grade post-apoc with steampunk elements–that first caught my agent’s eye. She offered a revise and resubmit on the manuscript, but, with her permission, I sent her my newest story instead. And the rest is history. This year, I’ll be cheering you all on from the sidelines as I revise for her instead of drafting, but it will be with a pang of envy, because I’ve got this new story idea that’s just itching to be written…

Jessica Bloczynski: In the fall of 2013, I ran out of every episode of Star Trek Netflix had to offer. I even suffered through Enterprise. I was bored. Climbing the walls bored. Honestly, finding NaNo was a fluke. I stumbled upon a Facebook group of folks doing NaNo together and an idea that had been riding around in my head for about a year spoke up and demanded to be written. And I figured, why not, might as well put my creative writing degree to use. I started writing, did writing sprints with friends and shared snippets of my WIP with other newb writers. Basically, I found this amazing, encouraging community and instead of writing my book alone, I wrote it with thousands of others. That’s a powerful feeling. At the end of November I had a very messy draft, that would, in the fullness of time, become the sci-fi novel that earned me a spot in PitchWars 2015. My advice? Do it. DO IT. Do it for the confidence it builds, the community you find and 50,000 words you can shape into something wonderful. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. Go Nanokids!

Mark Holtzen:  I first participated in NaNoWriMo when I was stuffed in a room with gobs of swarming third graders five days a week and I had two kids under five at home. I had no time and even less energy, but I figured if I was ever going to write a children’s novel in a more efficient way than my first one, I’d have to find the time somewhere in the day. O’dark thirty seemed as good a time as any. The timing wasn’t great–after three days of getting up early I’d pass out at 8:30pm, but that month did get me into the habit of staring at my computer screen for an hour each day. Sometimes I only managed forty minutes, sometimes ten, but I learned the important part was visiting the story once every day. It turned out to be a great thing to share with my students as well.

The Shadows We Know by HeartJennifer Park: My up-coming debut, The Shadows We Know By Heart, was a NaNo project in 2014… I didn’t win, but it jump started the draft and I got a lot of work done on it… I’m going to use this Nano to finish possible book 2. Definitely start strong and surpass your daily word count when you can, because I always lose the week of thanksgiving because of kids and traveling and just being busy… we’re moving this month, so I’ll be surprised if I make the 50k… but there’s always hope! And what I love the most about NaNo is that the momentum really carries through into the following months… I probably get my highest word counts in the months following NaNo because it’s so motivating, and you get to the point where 3000 a day is easily attainable. And I’m competitive, so if friends are doing better than me, I’ll work that much harder. And, no matter whether you win or not, we’re all doing it together. So it’s good to know that when you sit down to get that word count out, so is everyone else.

Kristi Wientge: I’ve participated in NaNo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. I won each of those years. Part of it I attribute to my inner drive that will NOT let me NOT do something I say I’m going to do. The other part I attribute to organization. I use notecards to map out my days. I also jot down notes and names and things I know I’ll forget later on, but don’t want to waste the time to scroll through finding. Usually, I have the first seven cards mapped out. So, my first week goes smoothly. Then, I do the next week and so on. It gives me structure, but still allows me to be flexible. Typically I use a Save The Cat type of beat bullet point to keep me on track and to ensure I actually complete the story. But, if I really find myself stuck, then I take the day to free write from one of the character’s POV’s. It’s words and it counts!

Happy NaNoWriMo writing friends! Share your NaNoWriMo story in the comments below.

The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief

Writerly Grief By LaurMG. (Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By LaurMG. (Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You’ve heard of the seven stages of grief, but did you know that writers go through those seven stages of writerly grief when they receive feedback on their work? Well they do. Here’s how it happens (and how to survive it).

We all know how important beta feedback is to the writing process. And we’ve all heard that getting “thicker skin” is part of writing as well. But what does that look like? When I first started writing, I imagined that I’d build up a thick skin, like the callouses I build on my toes each time I get into a really good running routine. But the reality hasn’t been like that at all. Instead, each time I get feedback, it hurts. The shock, the denial, the anger, the depression–they’re all there each time, stirring up doubt demons and kicking my imposter syndrome into high gear.

Like any other kind of grief, I go through all seven stages. Maybe I’m morning the imperfect way I’ve implemented the story that exists, in all its perfection, in my mind. Or maybe my expectations, which are constantly disappointed by the reality of my output. But no matter what the cause, I do grieve. And my skin doesn’t seem to be getting any thicker. The only thing that has changed is the amount of time it takes me to get from shock to acceptance. And maybe that’s what getting “thicker skin” is really all about.

The Seven Stages in Detail

Still don’t believe me? Here’s the writerly grief that happens the second a marked-up Word doc hits my inbox.

Shock – What do you mean my words are not perfect as is? You must hate my work. You must hate me. I must suck worse than any writer has ever sucked in the history of the written word. *opens wine* *cries*

Denial – No, you’ve got it all wrong. You just don’t understand my genius. Why did I ever ask you to read for me, you graceless, incompetent cave-dweller? *cue righteous indignation*

Anger – NO REALLY, YOU’VE GOT IT ALL WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. And if you weren’t such a big troglodyte, you’d totally see that!

Bargaining – OK, you might have an eensy-weensy point. Sorry I called you  a cave-dweller. Sooooo, if I change items a, b, and c from  your list, that will be enough, won’t it? Then I can just ignore (much harder to implement) fixes d, e, and f? Right? Right? This just needs a spit-shine, not a rewrite!

Depression – I really do suck more than any other writer has ever sucked. How could I possibly think I could do this? How could I have sent my words out into the world without seeing this OBVIOUS GLARING ENORMOUS error. I quit. *pours wine* *eats chocolate* *cries*

Reflection – What’s that glimmer on the horizon of my grief-stricken chocolate-addled writerly mind? A solution? Sure, the feedback was wrong about how to fix this problem, but there is indeed a problem. I’m almost there. And I’m not going to give up, because I love this work. *eats last of chocolate, but this time for energy, not for depression*

Acceptance – I know what I need to do. I know how to do it. And I’m so, so thankful that I have writing partners with me on this journey! Time to get to work.

Do you suffer from writerly grief? What have you done to thicken up your writerly skin? Share your Jedi mind tricks below!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!


Creating a Daily Writing Routine

I'm creating a daily writing routine at an ungodly hour! I am not a morning person. At least, I didn’t use to be. But I need a daily writing routine and morning is the best time for me to do it.

A lot of writers participate in #5amwritersclub on Twitter. I’m taking baby steps toward that, but to be honest, I think I need to start my own #6amwritersclub because, well, mornings. Bleh.

I started working as a freelance editor in February of this year and by March, I knew something in my routine needed to change. Although I’m keeping myself very part-time in the editing department, between playing Mom-taxi, my volunteer work at the local food bank, blogging, and, well, writing my fourth novel, I didn’t have enough hours in the day to get it all done.

The lack of forward momentum on my novel frustrated me. Having to do something to pay the bills instead of just blissfully writing all day long frustrated me. Not having a clone or 32 hours in a day frustrated me. So I beat myself up agonized drank heavily pondered what to do about my predicament. And, like a gift from the Muse herself, a writing friend mentioned that she only ever writes for one hour each day, but that she writes for one hour every day. That sounded doable to this stressed-out, overwhelmed writer.

My husband gets up at 6 to go to the gym almost every morning before work, so I decided to start getting up with him. Before I check in on Facebook, Tweet to my writing pals, or check email, I drag my tired butt out of bed, sit down at my laptop and write until the kids get up (around 7:15). The results have been miraculous.

The work-in-progress I was beating myself up about is now a finished first draft. Now the morning writing sessions have transitioned naturally to morning revision sessions. I no longer agonize over the time I spend away from my computer because I start each day having already met my writing goal. Somehow that feeling of accomplishment, and lack of guilt, frees me up to sneak more writing in later in the day. That’s a good enough feeling to make up for the lack of sleep.

And there is lack of sleep. I have not yet managed to get my bedtime earlier, try as I might. My evening time is my reading time, so I blame Maggie Stiefvater for a few late nights (at least I did last week).

Others Weigh in on a Daily Writing Routine

Of course, as soon as I checked in with the other Winged Pennies, I found that I wasn’t the only one sneaking in morning writing sessions:

Mark – “Words cannot come out of my mouth at that hour but they do tend to flow from my fingers. Even if I’m not really productive I feel like interacting with whatever project I’m working on lets me think about it the rest of the day.”

Kate – “I found that the ideas flowed really easily in that dreamy early morning time (or maybe I was just too tired to self-edit!). The key for me was that I couldn’t do anything else first. Truly. I would become dimly aware that I was awake, feet on the floor, grab the laptop from the bedside table, and sneak downstairs to write. No tea, no Facebook or twitter or anything, only writing.”

Other well-known creatives from Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King have weighed in on this topic as well, but this fan-girl wants to close with a quote from Joss Whedon:

“I always was an early-morning or late-night writer. Early morning was my favorite; late night was because you had a deadline. And at four in the morning, you make up some of your most absurd jokes.”

What about you? Have you ever tried to get up in time to sneak in an early morning writing session? Did it work? Do you write at some other time of day? We’d love to hear from you!

Photo credit: Gail Werner
Photo credit: Gail Werner

Julie Artz writes speculative middle grade far too early in the morning with help from a couple of cute kitties and a peaceful view of the forest in Redmond, Washington.

Happy Book Birthday – A Ticket to the Pennant

A Ticket to the Pennant by Mark Holtzen I’m thrilled to help my friend and critique partner, Mark Holtzen, celebrate the release of his gorgeous new picture book, A Ticket to the Pennant. Featuring beautiful retro-style illustrations from John Skewes, the story recounts Huey’s adventures as he searches his diverse Seattle neighborhood for his missing ticket to see the Seattle Rainiers play in the big game in 1955.

Tell us a little bit about what led you to write a book about baseball.

There’s an old, dilapidated sign in my neighborhood that reads “Former site of Sicks Stadium.” I drive, walk or bike past it literally every day. Sicks Stadium was a central landmark here in Seattle for decades. The idea of attending a baseball game a few blocks away has intrigued me since we moved in years ago. The idea of writing a children’s book with some local historical flavor was just as intriguing. I got to include businesses that have been here since the 30’s and reference people of ethnic groups who have compelling local history. This book is a love letter to my neighborhood. I have to add it was amazing to watch John Skewes layer his visual story over the top of mine.

In addition to writing, you are also an elementary school teacher. Can you talk about using books like yours in the classroom? What more can we do to get children interested in local history?

Kids aren’t hard to engage if you’re honest and present intriguing content in a compelling way. Show them the real side of humanity. Don’t patronize. Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower comes to mind. As a teacher, I can think of a ton of connections to this book and who wouldn’t want to read about a con man? Aren’t kids the best little con-people when they want something? They can handle the truth and it makes for great, meaningful discussion. I love seeing all the amazing nonfiction coming out now. Picture books are so visually interesting and publishers seem to be getting bolder with subject matter. Make a good, honest book and the talented teachers and librarians will find them and find creative ways to connect them in lessons.

I’ve been asked to come do a couple school talks regarding weaving nonfiction within student-created fictional tales, so it’s nice to have a stack of diverse topics (and characters) to share. I spoke with a high school science class who were assigned to write children’s stories to teach a biology topic. What better way to show you know your topic than to summarize it in a concise, interesting story? So tough. Like Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Can you tell us your “getting the call” story with Sasquatch?

As usual in this publishing business it was timing, luck and persistence. I had spent about seven years working on a contemporary middle grade novel while teaching eight-year olds full time and raising two babies. Needless to say my writing time was not consistent. I queried that first book, The Pig War, but didn’t find an agent, so I decided to self-publish due to the regional flavor. Local librarians had expressed over and over how much they needed/wanted more local NW history written for children. My school librarian loved the book and urged me to make it available.

I took a risk, hired a professional editor and self-published. It was terrifying. But I did get it into a fair number of local bookstores and libraries. It taught me a lot. I started to take my writing more seriously. In the end, one of the booksellers I’d developed a relationship with took a job as an editor at Sasquatch. At some point she asked if I had some ideas for what else I’d like to write. I did. She loved the thought of doing a baseball book and here we are. Timing and luck, sure, but if I hadn’t taken those risks along the way I wouldn’t be here. It’s about putting yourself out there as a professional.

What does your writing day look like? Any unusual habits you’d like to share?

Ever since National Novel Writing Month about four years ago I started waking up at the crack of dawn. I write for an hour before making lunches, bike commuting, then teaching. About every fourth day I’d pass out after dinner, but my writing and stories improved with that commitment. I found it vital to visit my project daily. I’m now on a teaching “hiatus” to dedicate more energy to my family and my writing, but I still write early. I like that hour in the bank.

What is your favorite writing quote?

One of my favorites is taped in front of my nose at my writing desk. “Begin Anywhere,” by composer John Cage. It rips away millions of excuses immediately.

What was your first favorite book?

I think I might have connected strongly to The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. As a kid I loved the idea of driving around on a motorcycle by myself, powering it with mouth sounds. I remember yearning for that freedom.

That was one of my favorites too, Mark! 

Interview Speed Round

Coffee or tea?

Coffee: dark, strong and delicious – just like my favorite books.

Pie or cake?

Pie – Gravenstein apple via Grammie’s recipe or Marionberry grown in Oregon. Both are lip-smacking good.

Cat or dog?

Dog, though my wife is all about cats so we’ll see who wins. I’m betting on me since I dealt with her ancient, barfing cat the first years of our marriage. Also, I have the kids on my side so really she doesn’t stand a chance.

Sounders or Seahawks?

Mariners [Should have seen that coming!!–ed.]

What’s on your bookshelf?

Books of all genres and for all ages. My wife and I each have a “top shelf” of books near our fireplace. Those shelves are reserved for books that have readjusted my soul. Lately I’ve loved Pax, by Pennypacker, and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan for middle grade. A YA I recently loved was Six Feet Over It, by Jennifer Longo. Another MG I found gorgeous was The Thing About Jellyfish. My kids and I really enjoyed Tricky Vic for a nonfiction picture book, and for adults, All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews still haunts me. Beautiful, heartbreaking book.

For a list of upcoming events in the Northwest and how you can get a signed copy, visit MarkHoltzen.com and check out reviews of A Ticket to the Pennant on NW Book Lovers and Kirkus Reviews

Writing Prompts to Spur Creativity

When I get blocked on a project, I sometimes use writing prompts to spur my creativity. It helps me come back to the daunting task of drafting with a sense of energy and purpose.

Free writing like this often starts with something that happened in real life. For example, this week I wrote a flash fiction piece about anxiety after spending a nerve-testing hour in the dentist’s chair! Sometimes I let an upcoming contest or call for entries determine the topic, genre, or word count of my writing. But when neither of those inspires me, I turn to writing prompts.

Writing Prompts from the Master

Donald Maass's Writing 21st Century Fiction is full of good writing promptsOne of my favorite recent craft books, and a surprisingly good source of writing prompts, is Donald Maas’s Writing 21st Century Fiction. 

In addition to providing a great overview of the current market, Maas ends several  chapters with a series of questions and exercises that generated a flurry of ideas as I read through them.

Here’s an example. This month, spend a little time listing the common tropes in your genre. Then see if you can take one or two of them and write something that is the opposite of the trope. For example, the “handsome prince saves the princess” gets turned upside down when a feisty princess saves herself, and a useless prince, in The Paper Bag Princess. Another recent example is the way Sarah Prineas questions whether the “fairy godmother” is really the good guy in Ash & Bramble.

Additional Resources

If this prompt doesn’t appeal to you for whatever reason, check out some of these other great resources. Remember, the important thing is to keep writing!

Did these prompts inspire you to write something? Tell us about it in the comments below!


Photo credit: Gail Werner
Photo credit: Gail Werner


JULIE ARTZ blogs at Terminal Verbosity, writes about local Washington history for Gatherings, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.