Introducing Windows & Mirrors

The phrase “windows and mirrors” has become a catch-phrase of the movement for more inclusivity in children’s literature. Borrowed from a scholarly paper written more than twenty-five years ago by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the words remind us why children need to see themselves, and others who are not like them, in books:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. –Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990, p. ix

And yet, the statistics around who is telling children’s stories are sobering. Even with the ongoing discussion on social media and at bookish conferences and gatherings, the numbers have only slightly budged and are not even close to representing the actual demographics of our country.

Early last month, a few of us at The Winged Pen took a moment to discuss our reading goals for 2018. Several of us had goals specifically around reading more from marginalized voices and in the process of comparing notes, we realized we could share the books we’d found with our readers in hopes that you, too, could read more of these amazing books in the coming year.

We hope that someday, all book lists will represent the beautiful diversity of our world. Until then, we’d like to introduce Windows & Mirrors, a new series of book recommendations from The Winged Pen. Three Fridays per month, we’ll feature a mix of new and upcoming releases, as well as some favorites from the past few years that you might have missed, all written by writers who come from marginalized groups in need of having their voices heard.

 

Although this is a new series, this topic is not new to the bookish community or to this blog.

While you wait for tomorrow’s first recommendation, check out these past posts from The Winged Pen:

And here are some additional recommendations from other groups who are leading the way on this important topic:

To kick things off, we’ve teamed up with Libro.fm to create this list of amazing audiobooks by black authors to celebrate Black History Month! Purchases at Libro.fm support your favorite Indie Bookstore. Please check it out!

Black History Month Audiobook Playlist

Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

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Book Birthday: THE UNICORN QUEST by Kamilla Benko

Today we’re celebrating the publication of THE UNICORN QUEST, a middle grade novel that Bloomsbury describes as, “An enchanting, exciting fantasy about a real-world girl searching for her sister in a land full of magic and strange creatures, blending the timeless feel of The Last Unicorn and Wildwood with Frozen‘s powerful themes of identity, enchantment, and sisterhood.”

Those of you who follow me through Pitch Wars know that I have a *bit* of a thing for unicorns. (Shout out to #TeamUnicornMojo!) So the minute I heard about a book that combined three of my favorite story elements (Sisters! Magic! Unicorns!), I requested an advanced reader copy, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. Before I get to my thoughts, here’s the publishers description of the story:

Claire Martinson still worries about her older sister Sophie, who battled a mysterious illness last year. But things are back to normal as they move into Windermere Manor . . . until the sisters climb a strange ladder in a fireplace and enter the magical land of Arden. 

There, they find a world in turmoil. The four guilds of magic no longer trust each other, the beloved unicorns have disappeared, and terrible wraiths roam freely. Scared, the girls return home. But when Sophie vanishes in the night, it will take all of Claire’s courage to climb back up the ladder, find her sister, and uncover the unicorns’ greatest secret.

And now, for my thoughts:

I’m happy to report that THE UNICORN QUEST lived up to my expectations, combining a fun, magical world with interesting characters and a sister relationship that feels very much rooted in real life. The fast-moving plot drove the story forward and I flew through the pages eager for each new development. I especially enjoyed the way Claire’s passion for art shaped the way she filtered the world and tied in to her adventure.

I agree that fans of THE LAST UNICORN and WILDWOOD will enjoy this story.

Copies are available at your local bookstores as well as online. Continue to learn more about the book (and author) by following THE UNICORN QUEST blog tour (dates and sites below).

Kamilla Benko spent most of her childhood climbing into wardrobes, trying to step through mirrors, and plotting to run away to an art museum. Now, she visits other worlds as a children’s book editor. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives in New York with her bookshelves, teapot, and hiking boots.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Canada, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

Road Trip!

We spend a lot of time writing our own thoughts here at The Winged Pen. But there are a ton of other blogs and sites we visit for inspiration. So we wanted to give a shout-out to some of the informative, motivating and moving articles we’ve read in the last few weeks.

Join us on our first-ever blogosphere road trip!

On Craft

Tips on writing multiple POVs…three ways to harness your reader’s curiosity…helpful hints on editing and revising…five tips for writing antiheroes…and a post from the legendary Donald Maas on creating legendary characters

…All (and more!) made our list of must-read craft articles this past month.

On Publishing/Marketing

Did you see this Twitter thread from Agent Mandy Hubbard about what happens during book deal negotiations? Great info for writers.

On the Writer’s Life

To go with Richelle’s recent post on surviving a tough draft, here’s a great article on the benefits of taking a break, from publishingcrawl.com.

And if you’re itching for something new to work on, here is a whole mess of contests for 2018.

On Books/Authors

Epic Reads has an epic list of #ownvoices new releases for 2018! We. Can’t. WAIT!

Audiobook Indie bookstore Libro.fm put together an awesome playlist based on Julie’s audiobook post — check it out!

This is a good list of children’s books to help you talk about race with the children in your life — or read them yourself to spark new ways of thinking about some tough issues.

For Fun!

Must. Subscribe. Immediately.

And to warm your heart, how freaking awesome is this???!

Our Winged Pen Twitter fairies are AMAZING at finding and sharing informative and fun posts about writing and publishing, so be sure to follow us there.

And be sure to give a shout-out to your favorite writing blogs and resources in the comments below…we’re always looking for new places to get inspired.

Indie Bookstores (The Lifeblood of Our Communities), Jumping Into Black Holes, and New Picture Books

Back in July, just before my daughters headed back to school, I decided to try something new. A position had opened up at our local independent book store for a part-time bookseller. What booklover hasn’t dreamed of working at an indie bookstore, at least for a day?

My expectations for being hired were low. I hadn’t held a “real” job since I’d stopped working as an engineer over ten years ago. I couldn’t think of a way to make my experience developing nitride epitaxy for electronic materials or my experience running an engineering process and large high-tech manufacturing department with dozens of direct reports seem relevant. My only retail experience was working as a bag girl at Winn-Dixie when I was sixteen. And there were several others filling out applications when I stopped by the store to fill in mine.

😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

But what did I have to lose? I’m a writer. I’ve been querying, so I have plenty of experience with rejection and sending dreams and wishes out into swirly black holes.

By some miracle, I got the job. It’s been a steep learning curve for me and a huge adjustment for my family, but being a bookseller is tremendously rewarding. The smiles from kids, parents, friends, and relatives when you recommend the perfect book for a child are like rocket fuel for my soul.

Grandparents are THE BEST, because they remember what it was like to raise kids before iPads and video games, and they desperately want their grandkids to love reading. Send me all the grandparents!

Though I’ve always loved bookstores, the more fiercely independent and quirky the better, I’d never really thought about their importance in the community. With my behind-the-scenes glasses, I see how hard we work to support our local schools, bringing in amazing authors to inspire and grow empathetic, knowledgeable readers who will be tomorrow’s leaders and innovators. I see the devotion to our community, supporting local literacy projects and our commitment to scheduling a wide range of author events to appeal to every human interest. I see the joy we bring to the community in customers’ faces by providing true hospitality.

My coworkers inspire me! I’ve found a cohort who love books as much as I do, and together we can share that joy and our reading experiences with our community, sort of like here at The Winged Pen, but face-to-face. All our booksellers wants to inspire reading, and, unlike Amazon, it’s not just to make money.💵💵💵💵💵💵

Also, I’ve learned A LOT about the book publishing industry and discovered books outside of the scope of what I assumed was good based on my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feed. In future Notes from a Bookseller posts, I plan to talk about favorite books that might not have hit your reading radar and tips for authors for developing a good relationship with your local bookstore(s). Stay tuned for that!

On that note, I’ll end by mentioning a few favorite new picture books. Picture books are wonderful because they can make you feel happy in mere minutes! Painfully only listing three here, my favorites from last year are Dan Santat’s After the Fall, Baabwaa and Wooliam by David Elliot, and Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater. I absolutely adore LOVE by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long, a new favorite in my life, and it’s gotten a lot of wonderfully-deserved press thanks to Matt de la Peña’s beautiful essay in Time and Kate DiCamillo’s equally heartwarming response.

But I also have a NEW forever favorite…

My Pillow Keeps Moving by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Christopher Weyant

Homeless, clever, enterprising puppy +

lonely nearsighted man +

pillow shopping =

a new best friend

This wonderfully silly story with charming illustrations and hilarious visual cues is guaranteed to make you giggle with delight and want to read it again and again. Perfect for fans of Officer Buckle and Gloria, animal lovers (no spoilers here, but there’s a fantastic twist with a cat at the end), and fans of Christopher Weyant’s New Yorker cartoons (click, because they’re fantastic!).

Enjoy! See you at the bookstore!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

 

ICYMI: Winged Pen Highlights from 2017

The other day, several of us Pennies realized that it is now, in fact, 2018. Where did 2017 go?!?

If you’re also wondering just what happened to 2017, welcome to our club! And to help you reorient yourself, we thought we’d revisit some of the Winged Pen 2017 highlights.

If you missed a post last year, this one’s for you. (And feel free to sign up for our mailing list so that doesn’t happen in 2018!) If you read them all but forgot what they said, revisit ’em here. And if you have it in your mind that we once posted about something, but you can’t be bothered to search through a whole year’s worth of content to find it, well, we’ve got you covered.

Four on 400

We debuted our Four on 400 contest in January of last year, giving MG and YA writers the chance to win feedback from four Pennies on the first 400 words of their WIP. We’ve had a ton of fun reading your entries — so much that we’re keeping Four on 400 going into 2018.

So polish up your stuff and enter on the 4th of each month…with luck, we’ll be reading your first 400 next!

We Set Some Goals

In January, we wrote about the importance of writing down your writing goals — a great way to get motivated and see how much progress you’re making. We also explored what happens when you don’t meet your goals from the previous year and how to recover.

In June, we took a look at how we were doing with our goals, and then we looked back on all of 2017 to see what we’d accomplished.

Goal-setting and review are great ways to honor your commitment to writing and celebrate the progress you’re making on long-term goals. We’re working on our 2018 goals right now!

We Read Some Great Books!

We love to share our favorite reads with you. Click on the Book Review tab for a comprehensive list of all the fantastic books Pennies reviewed this year — from a dark and creepy YA, to fun chapter book, and a series of adventurous MGs, among many others.

We Explored the Business Side of Writing

If you’re ready for some in-depth information about the publishing side of the novel-writing game, click on our Publishing & Promotion category tab for a bevy of informative and inspiring posts about what it’s like to get the call, how to market your writing, creating a social media platform, and more.

We Conducted Some Fascinating Interviews

From talking to Pennies Kristi Wientge and Jennifer Park about their debuts, to discussing writing Native American diversity with Kara Stewart, checking in with Nic Stone, author of the acclaimed DEAR MARTIN, chatting with John Bemis about the second book in his Pinocchio retelling series, and more…we had some incredible talent stopping by the Winged Pen in 2017. Check out all of our interviews using the Interview category tab on the right.

We Launched Master Your Craft

Our months-long series on everything you need to know to write a novel — from pre-writing exercises, drafting woes, and editing tips and techniques — was great fun to work on for all of us. Search the Master Your Craft category tag on the right to see all of these informative posts.

We Wrote Some Love Letters

Penny Kate Hillyer started a new series of Love Letters to the books that made her the writer she is today. Check out this beautiful and ongoing series that started in 2017 with this post about ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.

Of course, there were many, many other great posts about the writing life, including posts about yoga and writing, making a bullet journal and more.

Thanks to all of you for making 2017 so great here at the Winged Pen — and we know that with you by our side, 2018 is going to be even better!

Learning to Love Audiobooks

We do a lot of book recommendations here on The Winged Pen because between the lot of us, we read all. the. books. From MG fantasy modern classics to hot new releases to Native American literature for young readers.

But recently, a fairly intense Mom Taxi schedule left me considering something new: audiobooks. I never got into audiobooks because I mistakenly imagined myself fidgeting while I tried to sit still for HOURS listening to a teetering tower of books on tape. This is probably due to the sheer length of such audiobook favorites as Harry Potter (Stephen Fry’s rendition of these is worth the extreme length!) and The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I listened to while perpetually nursing a baby years ago.

So this winter, I sent out feelers to friends in the bookish community and got a bunch of recommendations. I checked out a half dozen or so from the local library and have been happily binge-listening on every basketball or choir pickup, every run into Seattle for SCBWI activities, or even during drudgery like laundry-folding and dish-washing. Folks, I think I might be hooked.

Here are my favorites so far:

The Crossover and Booked by Kwame Alexander

I am a huge basketball fan, so I read The Crossover quite a while ago. But last month, I listened to the audiobook and fell in love with the story, and basketball, all over again.

When I heard that Booked was narrated by the author, I knew I had to listen to it next.

I’m hoping to listen to more verse novels on audiobook, including revisiting Brown Girl Dreaming, Inside Out and Back Again, and Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

This was one of the titles that bumped way up my TBR list after multiple bookish friends raved about it and now I know why. When two 18th century best friends and an annoying younger sister head to the continent for a year, major hijinks ensues.

A great love story, complicated family dynamics, alchemy, and pirates. How can you go wrong?

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Listening to fiction is great, but catching up on craft books is an added bonus of my new audiobook habit. Not only is The Art of Memoir a definitive discussion of the form, but it has applications to anyone who writes story arcs.

And Mary Karr is hilarious, so hearing this in her own voice is totally worth it.

 

It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm

This audiobook is a little different because it’s told with an ensemble cast. That’s because the story itself is a fictional history project in which the main character, nicknamed AD, documents her romantic history from kindergarten to senior year of high school.

A deliciously voice-y romp of a book, this one’s enough fun to make me glad that I’m commuting into Seattle four times this week!

Other Recommendations from the Pennies:

I haven’t listened to these yet, but other Pennies also recommended:

  • Sherlock Holmes (Kate)
  • The Book Thief (Kate)
  • His Dark Materials (Kate)
  • Dracula (Michelle)
  • Secret of Nightingale Wood (Michelle)
  • Scorpio Races (Rebecca)
  • The Graveyard Book (Rebecca)
  • Between the World and Me (Richelle)
  • American Ghost (Richelle)

And if you want to try out audiobooks, but also want to support indie booksellers, consider a subscription to Libro.fm or see if your local library has an online subscription program like OverDrive. Mine has a pretty sizable collection that I can listen to right from my phone without dealing with pesky CDs.

Thanks to Libro.fm for making a playlist based on our book recommendations! Find it here.

Do you listen to audiobooks? Which one’s your favorite?

Book Recommendation: Shadow Weaver

The shadows that surround us aren’t always as they seem…

Shadow Weaver, by MarcyKate Connolly, is a middle grade fantasy story of family, friends, belonging, and betrayal – all woven together with beautiful magic.

Goodreads

Emmeline has grown up with a gift. Since the time she was a baby she has been able to control shadows. And her only friend and companion is her own shadow, Dar.

Disaster strikes when a noble family visits their home and offers to take Emmeline away and cure her of magic. Desperate not to lose her shadows, she turns to Dar who proposes a deal: Dar will change the noble’s mind, if Emmeline will help her become flesh as she once was. Emmeline agrees but the next morning the man in charge is in a coma and all that the witness saw was a long shadow with no one nearby to cast it. Scared to face punishment, Emmeline and Dar run away.

With the noble’s guards on her trail, Emmeline’s only hope of clearing her name is to escape capture and perform the ritual that will set Dar free. But Emmeline’s not sure she can trust Dar anymore, and it’s hard to keep secrets from someone who can never leave your side. Goodreads

This novel is one of the most beautifully written stories I’ve ever read. The author spins and shapes her words as smoothly as Emmeline weaves shadows. Her descriptions make the shadows come alive and leap off the page. The plot is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as it weaves good and evil in unpredictable ways as Emmeline prepares to bring her best friend back to life and find where she belongs.

The story is filled with interesting characters, some with special abilities, who play a part in Emmeline’s growth and the larger plot. It’s an adventure we feel privileged to take.

Shadow Weaver can be found at all major bookstores including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores. For more information on MarcyKate Connolly, check out her website.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. Her middle grade science fiction novel is represented by Kathy Green of Kathryn Green Literary Agency. You can find Halli on Twitter.

Our January Four on 400 Feedback!

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Sotome, Japan

1614

 Tomoe Hasegawa stood on the porch of her home, sweeping up leftover beans with a thick-handled broom. That morning the villagers of Sotome had celebrated Setsubun by tossing roasted soybeans outside their homes to chase away the demons that brought bad luck. The annual festival signaled the coming of spring, a pleasant thought for Tomoe who wanted nothing more than the sea to grow warm enough for swimming.

She glanced up from her chores at the sound of horse’s hooves. A single horse and rider broke through the tree line, followed by twenty attendants on foot who paraded into the village carrying a wooden palanquin. Her broom paused mid-sweep.

Tomoe recognized the man on horseback as their daimyō, the local warlord who often met with the village elders, but she wondered about the mysterious visitor inside the palanquin. Could he be a messenger from the royal court? In her eleven years, she could not remember anyone of such prominence arriving in her village.

Papa was outside tallying sums with the other farmers. At the sight of visitors, he slipped off his spectacles and joined the other men to formally greet the procession.

The daimyō  addressed the villagers. “Citizens of Sotome, I present to you, Regional Deputy Enya, loyal servant of the esteemed Shogun.” The door of the palanquin slid open and Deputy Enya emerged, his silk robes brushing against the ground as he disembarked.

The villagers knelt and bowed low, touching their foreheads to the ground. Deputy Enya accepted their greeting with a nod of his head. Then the women and children resumed their prior activities while the men sat back on their heels awaiting news from the royal court. Deputy Enya unfurled a scroll of parchment and began to read.

Tomoe strained to hear the announcement. She sensed Mama behind her, hovering at the door like a leaf clinging to a branch. Her six-year-old brother Yoshi jostled noisily against Mama and a muffled baby’s cry escaped from the house next door. Tomoe inched her way off the porch. The moment her foot touched the dirt, Mama’s reprimand—sharp as a bird’s cry—stopped her in her tracks. Dutifully, Tomoe stepped back onto the porch.

A whine rose up from Yoshi, causing Mama to move inside to shush him. Tomoe glanced toward the house, weighing the certainty of Mama’s fury against the pull of her own curiosity.

Michelle: Beautiful, beautiful writing. I’m totally hooked and want to read more! My only suggestion would be to slow down the paragraph where Mama reprimands her. I wanted more detail here. What did she say or was her sharp reprimand with her eyes alone? Does Tomoe know why her mother is angry? Lovely metaphors and a great sense of time and place. Best of luck with this!

Halli:  I second Michelle with the beautiful writing. The words and style capture the time and place and truly puts us in 1614. You do a nice job of describing the scene as it flows. We know her father’s job, Tomoe’s age, family dynamics, and the gender roles of that time period. All through this I’m wondering what news Deputy Enya is bringing, and just when my curiosity is overwhelming me, I see I’m not alone. 🙂 Excellent job! Thank you for sharing.

Gita: I love the beginning of this story and wish I could keep reading! You’ve beautifully set the stage in a time and place most of your readers will not know, but you’ve done so in a way to make it feel very real. You use detail to create great texture—I’m thinking especially of the sounds you evoke—though there are a few places I feel there could be more detail to ground us in this world. For example, when you write that “villagers resumed their prior activities” it feels a bit thin to me—can you briefly say what were they doing before the deputy arrived? Similarly, I’m curious as to why the farmers are tallying sums.  I’d love a hint as to why they’re doing this, instead of farming—is it important to the story? Best of luck—I hope to see this story out in the world!

Gabrielle: You paint beautiful visual images, and I love the tension you create between her longing to know more, and her mother’s rules. I’d love to see more detail, as Gita said–some dialogue, and I think it could be very powerful to work in some different sensory details. I also think that it could be very powerful and telling to let us see some of the reactions to the announcement. It feels like such a rare occurrence should mean it’s important and impactful to the people it’s being read to, so seeing them react would be great, and would tell us a lot about how they see their leadership. Good luck with this!

How to Survive Your Toughest Draft

For the last couple of years, every time one of my writer pals would ask me what I was working on, the answer was the same breezy, “Oh, I’m still plugging away on that rockstar mom book I told you about ages ago.”

I’m pretty sure that more than a few of them wondered if I shouldn’t just give it up and move on to something else. Something that would actually get written. And if they didn’t, they were stronger, better writers than me because that was something I wondered every time I sat down with my laptop.

But I persisted, mostly out of sheer stubbornness, and I completed a very, very messy first draft in April of last year. In November, I finally had it shaped into something resembling a novel.

FINALLY!

I’m not sure why this draft took so much longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I could cite a busier-than-ever family life, or a robust year of paid freelance work. Maybe it was because most days, I can be best described as a “ball of anxiety with fingers.”

But I can tell you how I got through an interminable draft (and managed to avoid quitting writing entirely!).

I Was Selfish. My mantra this past year has been “eyes on your own paper.” I withdrew from social media, avoided contests, and spent a lot less time engaging with other writers. It was difficult, and I felt like a jerk, but I knew that my top priority needed to be getting my work done. I am thrilled for my friends who have been out in the world this past year, but I knew I would not be with them. Not right now. Right now, my entire focus had to be a bit selfish. Eyes on my own work.

But Not Too Selfish. Instead of focusing on what *I* wanted – to finish the draft, to write a great book, to get an agent, to get a publishing contract – I made a choice instead to focus on service. We’re writing books for people, specifically children and/or teens, to read. So while I wanted to tell the story of my heart, I kept in mind that, ultimately, that heart-story needed to be in service of the teenage reader. That guiding star helped me re-focus when my way wandered and kept me writing when it seemed I would never get done.

I lowered my expectations. For years, I wrote 1,000 words a day, five days a week. I had reasonable expectations of finishing a draft in a couple of months, of being able to query a book every year, of catching the attention of an agent in the near future. But this year, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible. I spent some time looking over those expectations in a bright light, and I realized that they weren’t doing me any good. I’m a goal-setter and a rule-follower, but that doesn’t matter much in the wider world. No one is lining up to give me a cookie because I did things in the right order, in the right way, at the right time. So I made 2017 the year of NO expectations, other than that I would keep my head down and keep writing.

I used a timer. In order to take some pressure off but still keep getting words down, I started writing for 15 timed minutes each day. That was it. When the timer went off, I stopped. If it was the middle of a sentence, so much the better! That way I had a starting point for the next day. There were days when I only logged 5-10 words on a tricky scene. But I counted those as writing sessions and just kept going.

I relinquished control. Years ago, a colleague of mine listened to me rant about how other people were failing to do their jobs and it was ruining what I was doing. She said, “Well, you can’t control the outcome. You can only control what you put in to it.” That rattled through my head this year. I can’t control what happens with this or any piece of writing. All I can do is control what I put into it. So that is all I worried about.

I reached out. A few times over the course of the year, I did reach out to other writers to share what was going on with me and to reconnect with their work. Getting out of my head was important, but even better was the chance to share in others’ creative processes, successes and challenges. I went out and saw art and live music, too, feeding my own creativity. Writing is so solitary that it’s nice to remember there are other artists out there traveling a similar path.

I looked for joy, not results. I won’t sugarcoat it: for months I was pretty sure I was going to quit writing entirely. Writing for me is a singular joy. Word counts and pursuing publication and developing platform are not joyful. Letting go of the results side of writing for goal-oriented me was painful for my ego, but it was manna for the creative part of my soul, the part that just wants to play with words and stories and doesn’t actually care if anyone reads them. That play without pressure was revitalizing in a way that I desperately needed this year.

Some might call what I experienced this past year Writer’s Block. But I don’t think that’s what it was, even after taking two years to draft a novel. After all, I wrote all the time, and the words flowed fine, when I could find the time to let them flow.

But something happened with this year, with this manuscript that tested me – and I was reminded again that writing fiction is not for the faint-hearted!

If you find yourself facing a similar time of slow production mixed with a bit of despair and a burning desire to quit the game entirely, I have some advice:

Take a deep breath.

Then: Head down, do the work however you can, don’t worry about the mess, keep your eyes on your own paper.

Find your joy.

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.