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.

What Did I Do in 2017?

The end of the year is close. When I changed the calendar from October to November, I felt as if I wasted the entire year. Of course I spent too much time on social media, binge-watched several TV shows, and stood for what seemed like hours in front of the coffee machine waiting for the cup to fill, but as far as writing, what exactly did I do this year?

Photo: Estee Janssens

I didn’t want to dwell on my procrastination, but I thought if I took a good look at what I did – or didn’t do – this year, maybe I would learn something about myself as a writer and as a person that could help when making my goals for next year.

I know it’s scary, but play along with me. (Don’t make me do this alone!) Take out a pen and paper and start your list. First, what did you do and second, what did you learn.

Here’s mine:

  1. The first five months of this year I revised my YA contemporary novel. Every time you revise and open yourself up to critiques, you develop your craft. With this particular novel, I learned about dialogue, specifically what’s boring or repetitive, and how to make dialogue fun.
  2. I spent several months this year forcing myself to write a novel that clearly didn’t want to be written. A friend suggested now wasn’t the time to write it, but how could that be? You have an idea, you write. If I’d looked at the novel objectively, as she did, I wouldn’t have spent so much time forcing it.
  3. I wrote three rough synopses and four rough outlines for new books. I don’t just write for The Winged Pen, I read and cherish the writing tips. This year I took those tips and changed the way I start manuscripts. This helped me see the complete idea and the direction it needed to go.
  4. I wrote sixteen posts for The Winged Pen. The key here is writing. Some write for their jobs, some do fifteen minute writing warmups. The fact is, the more we write, the better we get.
  5. I critiqued six manuscripts and short stories (including my first paid editing job!) Critiquing is one of the best ways to grow as a writer. When we read and critique others, we identify mistakes we make in our own writing. And personally, reading good work from others pushes me to become a better writer.
  6. I wrote and revised one short story. Just like reading different genres, experimenting with different writing styles, genres, and lengths can open up new strengths and passions.I had attempted to write several short stories in the past, but finishing one gave me a new level of confidence.
  7. I read novels, short stories, and craft articles. Reading is necessary for all writers because it helps you grow as you learn new tips and develop new ideas. Reading also supports other writers, and for me, it is therapy.

As this year ends and we set goals for 2018, forget the times of procrastination and focus on what you learned this year. The Winged Pen wrote many posts to help and entertain you on your journey. Below are a few of my favorites.

The Winged Pen took writers from the big idea to the final product in the novel writing Master Your Craft series.

Need help finding critique partners? Here are a few tips. Another Magic Formula and How to Give a Good Critique.

The Pennies are big readers. Check out a few of our favorite books. Shannon Hale’s Real Friends and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe.

Have trouble navigating social media? These posts can help. Creating Your Social Media Platform and Twitter 101 For Writers.

The Winged Pen looked at diversity this year. Writing Other with Sensitivity and Writing About Native Americans – A Diversity Conversation.

And don’t forget our monthly Four on 400  contest. Four critiques on your first 400 words.

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.

 

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MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

Halfway through 2017 (GASP!) — Let’s Do a Goal Check-in!

Let’s climb that mountain!

Waaaayyyy back in January, I wrote a New Year’s post about goal-setting. A few of my fellow Pennies were inspired by that post to write down their goals with me – remembering to be specific, set deadlines, stay flexible, and above all, not beat ourselves up if we didn’t quite hit our marks.

Now that it’s June, about halfway through the year, I wanted to check in with everyone. And with myself.

My top-of-list goal was to finish drafting my WIP in March. I ended up finally typing “THE END” in mid-May, about six weeks late. I met a few other goals – launching our MYC series, for one! – but thanks to missing my initial WIP deadline, I’m a bit behind on everything else.

I checked in with a few of the Pennies and discovered that we were all pretty much in the same boat. Most of us had set and met a few goals, completely dropped the ball on others, and changed priorities dramatically as the year unfolded.

So the purpose of this post is two-fold.

First, I want to hear how your year is going? Did you set goals? Have you made progress like you thought you would? Let me know in the comments!

And second, I want to lay out some mid-year goal-setting dos and don’t’s:

DO reflect on the past six months. We all have to deal with the unexpected, which can interfere with our writing. From early November through February, I did not have one full week of work without kids, thanks to some crazy winter weather and a series of plagues that descended on my family. Those unexpected events messed with my productivity big time. Looking back in light of that, my six-week delay in finishing my draft was actually a pretty great achievement! Take some time to consider the reality of the first half of 2017 – you might find that you achieved more than it felt like you did.

DO reassess your priorities. That YA idea that seemed so hot in January might have started languishing in May. If you feel bogged down by a goal you set months ago, take a closer look at it. Is the project still calling to you, or are you slogging your way through it because you said you would? Did you pledge to attend an expensive conference, but are now realizing that the manuscript you’d hoped to pitch is far from ready? Consider a conference later in the year when your work is more polished. Or try a more economical conference instead. Life is not static, and neither should your goals be.

DO recommit. Are you right on track with your goals? Fantastic! Promise yourself that you’ll keep going and not coast on your successful six months. Not quite tearing through your goal list for 2017? Don’t toss it out just because you haven’t made the progress you’d hoped. Use this time to get back on track. You can still pull it out if you get busy now!

DON’T forget to have fun. January is a serious month, full of winter-deep thoughts about where we’re going and where we’ve been. (At least it is here in the Northern Hemisphere!) But June is a lighter month, where the call of the outdoors is strong. Get out there and enjoy it. Just bring your notebook and a pen!

Sound off in the comments and let me know how your goal-setting has gone. Let’s go climb our mountain — and fingers crossed we’re all a bit closer to where we want to be!

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. 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.

My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

The Four C’s — Yoga Rules for Writing

Back when I took my first yoga class, the teacher warned us to avoid “The Four C’s” – comparing, competing, complaining, and criticizing.

balance-1107484_640I can still vividly remember feeling so chastised – I had committed every single one of those sins!

In the years since that first class, The Four C’s have popped into my head at various times – while taking yoga or other gym classes, while going about my daily life, and while writing fiction.

But while The Four C’s are big Don’ts, they can lead to some even bigger Do’s.

DON’T Compare

It’s so, so tempting to look at other writers and wonder why you don’t have the same success they do. How does she write so fast? How come he is getting a multi-book deal? How did she sell so many copies if everyone thinks she’s a terrible writer?!?

But here’s the thing: comparisons don’t move you forward. All of your observations about other writers could be 100% true (although they’re probably not), but they have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re writing. In fact, wasting a bunch of head space on how another writer is progressing just gets you mired in picking apart your flaws and all the ways you can’t measure up.

DO Study and Learn

Where it’s damaging to compare, it can actually be really helpful to look at what another writer is doing to achieve such success. That writer with the killer output? Maybe she’s getting up at 4am to write every day or another productivity technique you could use in your own work. And the best-sellers? Study what they do right rather than picking apart what they do wrong. People are buying them for a reason – can you see what that reason is?

DON’T Compete

I was at a children’s soccer game recently where a parent was so upset that his son’s team was losing that he lost it. He began yelling at an eight-year-old child on the opposing team and had to be escorted out of the park. It didn’t help his son or his son’s team play better, it didn’t increase anyone’s enjoyment of the game, and it didn’t change the outcome. While some drive to win is a good thing, in general, competing with your fellow writers isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

DO Collaborate

hands-1445244_640Instead, try collaborating. My fellow Pennies have given me fantastic writing and life advice. They spot my weak spots and celebrate my strengths. Different minds have different takes on the same situation, and working together can help everyone succeed…and make this often lonely journey a whole lot more fun.

DON’T Complain

I like to complain as much as the next person. But let’s face it: whining about a situation isn’t getting you any closer to fixing it.

It’s OK to have a venting session if you need it. Get that frustration out with a trusted friend. But once you’ve purged the bad feelings, try to remember what an incredible privilege it is to have the time, energy and ability to create art.

DO Embrace Challenges

Writing — like life — doesn’t promise to be easy, comfortable or fun. Instead, it promises one challenge after another. So embrace those challenges. Come up with creative ways to solve them. Sometimes, the knocks we take in writing end up pushing us to heights we never would have reached without them. (And sometimes they’re just knocks. Sorry.)

The bottom line: the sooner you embrace writing’s challenges, the more joyful the time you spend writing will be.

DON’T Criticize

Criticism has no place in yoga, where the idea is to do the best practice you are capable of doing at that specific moment. But what about in writing? Shouldn’t we criticize in order to produce the best possible work?

Well, no. Criticism is inherently negative. Criticism is that voice in your head that tells you you’ll never be able to do justice to this story, you are a terrible writer, and you should probably just set your laptop on fire to save the world from your pitiful attempts at fiction. Criticism hurts.

DO Critique

Unlike a good critique, criticism doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for what’s you’re doing right. And I actually think that is often just as important — if not more — than what’s going wrong.

In their fantastic book on change, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about one of the key steps that people who successfully change situations take: they follow the bright spots. By looking at what is working and trying to do more of that, we’re usually more successful than if we look at what’s not working and try to change it.

In other words, endless criticism is not going to get you where you want to go as fast as thoughtful critique. Try to look at where your current story gets your heart pounding. Why? What are you doing there that you can do in the rest of your story?

In my Saturday morning spin class a few weeks ago, the instructor ended the class by telling us, “I want you to go out today and remember: You showed up, you tried, and you didn’t quit. That is something to celebrate!”

That powerful message – and my mantra for whenever my writing gets a little tough — is the opposite of The Four C’s.

Interview with Kelly Barnhill: Author of THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON and THE WITCH’s BOY

I had the COMPLETE PLEASURE of chatting with Kelly Barnhill, author of THE WITCH’S BOY, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON (which I reviewed here last Friday), and many other beloved middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is my ✨Favorite Middle-Grade 2016 Read ✨ so far, and I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate #NationalBookLoversDay AND THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON’s book birthday than to share our hot-off-the-presses interview with you.

 

Kelly, welcome to The Winged Pen and thanks so much for chatting with me! Your prose is like a lullaby, so smooth and lush. When I read your enchanting words, the rest of the world slips away. I don’t get it. How do you do that? Am I truly being enmagicked? Or would you possibly share some of your craft secrets to those of aspiring for the same type of effect? Do you read your work aloud? Do you spend hours making each lovely sentence?

photo credit Bruce Silcox
photo credit Bruce Silcox

So, here’s a thing about me: I’m an aural thinker. I don’t “think in pictures” and if I want to try and get a visual in my head, it is a tremendous amount of work. I think in words and words and pretty words. For me, landing on a sentence that pleases me — that feels good in the ear and the mouth and that resonates in the body when you say it out loud — that’s the fundamental basis of the story. Everything else builds around it. When I’m writing and when I’m editing, I do an embarrassing amount of work out loud — so much so that I can make myself hoarse after a long day. I will read a section over and over and over again out loud — often standing and performing to no one but the guinea pig and the dog — until it feels solid and correct and true. 

Love the visual of you performing for your furry friends! What is your work/writing schedule? 

Typically, I get up, get the kids ready for school, go for a run, and then write until they get home at the end of the day. Assuming my day isn’t disrupted by doctor visits or teacher visits or volunteering or cleaning the house. On a good day, I can get four hours of writing in a row. On a less good day, it will only be fifteen minutes. I do try to do something on the book each day – whether it’s writing, note taking, researching or laying flat on my office floor, just thinking.

It’s inspiring to know that you find a way to make the most of even fifteen minutes!

You’ve published short stories, nonfiction, and middle-grade fiction. Whew! Do you work on multiple projects at a time?

Always. I am restless, impatient and easily bored.

What is your most difficult craft hurdle?

Self doubt. Crippling, nasty, mean, and near-constant self-doubt. It can stop any decent story in its tracks and can send any deadline hurtling into the emptiest reaches of the universe. My third book, The Witch’s Boy, almost didn’t exist at all. I had completely given up hope on it and erased the whole thing – poof! Fortunately, I have a very excellent writing group who are all very bossy, and they just emailed the draft that I had sent them back to me and told me to stop being such a dummy. For those of you who struggle similarly with crushing self-doubt, I suggest getting a critique group — the bossier the better.

So glad that your writing group saved THE WITCH’S BOY from the emptiest reaches of the universe! You are so right about bossy critique partners. Here at THE WINGED PEN we often peel each other off the floor, dust each other off, and give a swift pat on the you-know-what when necessary. I couldn’t imagine trying to write without a community of supporters. (Sending out love to all my CPs right now. ❤️)

Which writers inspire you? Is there a recently published book you’d heartily recommend?

My reading tastes are all over the map. I recently read A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, which was fantastic, and The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli was mind-blowing. I finally forced myself to read The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett’s last book, and it broke my heart just as I thought it would — and mended it right back up again. Good old Pratchett. The world is a gloomier place since he left us. And I am re-reading Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, just because.

Oooh! Just hopped on Goodreads and added those to my TBR! Thanks!

Do you have any strange writing habits?

Not really. I think my writing life is actually very dull. I wake up early, get my kids ready for school, walk the dog (his name is Sirius Black), and then get to work. If I get stuck, I do push-ups until I can’t stand it anymore and then return to the page. Sometimes I go for a run, and write in my head, stringing sentence after sentence like beads on a string, writing it all down when I get back. Mostly, though, it’s just banker’s hours, every day, me and the page, sentence after sentence until the thing is done.

❤️Sirius Black. Don’t love push-ups! Wow oh wow! Push-ups ’til you drop. *flexes bicep, sighs* You’ve inspired me. I’ll try to learn to love them.

Why do you write for children?

I write for kids because the world is strange, and children like strange things. I write for kids because I like kids, and I like how they think. I write for kids because childhood is, by its very nature, expansive, exploratory, and utterly wild.

You just did it again. My heart did this weird wiggle thing that felt so good. ❤️ Kids are…the best. Your books truly read like a love story to kids and kids at heart.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

A couple of things. I am finishing up a book called The Sugar House, which is a modern re-telling of Hansel and Gretel — with a little bit of the old Mother Hulda tales added in for good measure. Also it takes place in Minneapolis with a main character who can’t seem to do anything right, and who has been expelled after he accidentally almost blew up the school — not really, but that’s how it played in the media. Anyway, it’s a story about a kid who can’t seem to escape his own narrative — people always see him as a screw-up and a “bad kid.” And when he discovers something truly terrifying in his neighborhood, he has to decide what he’s going to do about it — since people will continue to see him as a bad boy, even when he’s trying to do something good.

I’m also working on a new story that is requiring me to do research into alchemy, poisons, the Holy Roman Empire, ship building, piracy, Euclid’s Elements, Euler’s Mechanica, and a particularly devilish composition for the mandolin. Also the nature of death.

Both of those sound amazing. CAN. NOT. WAIT. to hold those books! And I’m a geek girl, so Euclid/Euler…whoa, be still my heart!

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

I already have one. I have the ability to make people feel completely amazing about themselves. This is true. I can send GIANT LOVE BEAMS inducing feelings of well-being and hopefulness and general efficaciousness to anyone I choose. I do it all the time. I’m basically Other-People’s-Self-Esteem-Man. Or Woman, I mean.

GIANT LOVE BEAMS! *soul melts  You wield your power so well. We can feel it in your stories, like a megaphone right to the heart.

Here comes the lightning round. *hands you a slice of warm blackberry pie*

Wooden pencil or mechanical?

Wood. Always.

Coffee or tea?

Tea. Now, then, tomorrow, yesterday, one minute ago, one hour from now, and forever.

Sweet or salty?

Salt. Unless it’s sweet. And then later, salt.

Dog, cat, or other?

I love cats but my husband can’t stand them, as his heart is, alas, a cinder. We have dogs. I love dogs. I miss cats.

Plotter or pantser?

Pants. All the way. Mostly because pants is a funny word.

Whew! Alright, last question. Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

Don’t be afraid to write lousy words. Don’t be afraid to write lousy pages. Don’t be afraid to write lousy stories. Sometimes we have to write the lousy stuff in order to get to the good stuff. It works. I promise. (Also you are amazing. Amazing. Every single beautiful sexy genius one of you. What you’re doing is important and wonderful. Keep being amazing.)

Swoon. Aww…thanks so much for the encouragement! We hope all our blog readers take that advice to heart.

THANK YOU so much for taking the time to chat with us, Kelly! We can’t wait to devour your next book!

For more info and links related to Kelly Barnhill’s latest release THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, please click here.Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 9.46.28 PM

Connect with Kelly Barnhill at www.kellybarnhill.com

IMG_2370MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

 

 

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Keeping the Words Flowing

Back when we were the age of the kids we write for, summer used to mean long, hot, lazy days filled with reading, outdoor fun, and friends. But for writers, summer can be a huge time of distraction.

hilarity-1349125_640Schedule changes like vacations and having kids home from school for the summer months can really eat into my writing time. So I asked my fellow Winged Pen members how they keep writing through the summer chaos – or any big schedule changes like moving, a new job, a new baby or family visiting.

Here are their creative suggestions to keep the words flowing.

Julie: After basically not getting to write a word for a couple of summers, I vowed last year that I’d make time for writing. Then I overdid it and spent too much time at the computer and not enough with my kiddos. This year, I’m hoping for a bit more balance. First, I’m going to keep up my early morning writing habit. Second, I’m going to scale back my expectations a bit. I’m lucky this summer because my son needs to do an entire school year’s worth of math so that he can enter an accelerated program in middle school next year, so I will be able to slip in writing time while he’s busy with Khan Academy, but that still leaves my daughter. I’ve got some art and writing projects lined up to keep her entertained and both are avid readers, so hopefully that will be enough time to help all make it through the summer with smiles on our faces.

Laurel: I’ve used the 15 minute plan a lot. If you have a brainstormed scene list (however sketchy!), you can pick a scene to draft, mind-map the characters until you find the conflict, set the timer for 15 minutes and write like mad. If you don’t have a scene list because life is tooooo crazy, you can try a prompt. Once you have enough “sand” you can review it and see if there’s a castle in there somewhere. My most effective book for prompts (to use with or without a current project) is Roberta Allen’s THE PLAYFUL WAY TO SERIOUS WRITING.

My kids are older so it’s more of a people suddenly need me for something and interrupting myself. I had really good luck with Joanna Penn’s calendar method earlier this year. And then we went away for a week and I’ve never quite gotten it back on track. I’m trying to get back in the groove before school gets out for my youngest.

Gita: I’ve been struggling to get my work done and the 15-minute plan (or, for me, the 500 word plan) works because it’s just enough writing to keep my head in the game. And I don’t judge the quality of the work when I’m only writing 500 words. It’s just getting words on paper until I feel better/have a longer chunk of time to work AND not letting myself get psyched out that I’m not writing. If I skip a day I’m lost and it’s twice as hard to get back into it. Timed writing also works.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf says, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” And I think if she’d had children, she would have said that some of the money is for summer camp or babysitters.

When my son was little, I pooled resources with another friend and hired teenagers to play with him and his buddy in the mornings so I could work. Now that he’s older he sleeps in, so I force myself to be productive at that time. This year: 3-week sleep away camp, a gift from his grandparents. Really, though, it’s about finding bits of time and defending them—not letting them get used for anything but writing.

Rebecca: I know I do better with a couple big blocks of time then a lot of small ones. So Tuesdays and Wednesdays are my writing days. The benefit is not just that they are big blocks so I can make some significant progress on a revision, but also that they are easy to defend. These are always my writing days, so I might schedule a tradesman that needs access to the house (reluctantly) but I push off any guilt about bills, groceries, laundry, etc. For drafting, I switch up to shorter chunks of time over the summer because I can’t write new stuff for 8 hours straight.

Halli: I also try to fit in 15 minutes a day at the minimum. Whether the kids are home or we are on vacation. Sometimes it has to be something completely new if my current WIP is on the computer and I can’t get to it (for example screen time is shut off for the whole family) then I will write something with pen and paper. It also helps with keeping my mind active and the creative juices flowing. I find that in the summer when the kids are sleeping in and husband is at work, I get some good productive time in.

Karin: Summer camps = writing time! All four kids are going to sleep away camp this year for the first time! Okay, it’s only for a couple of weeks, but still it will be exquisite. I won’t have to worry about cleaning and cooking and entertaining them. Of course, we will do fun stuff but it will be great to have this quiet time to write. Then they have a couple of weeks of local sports or music camps. The older ones (8th and 10th grade) can bike to their friends now and even hang out at the community pool on their own.

Kristi: I wish I had a suggestion… I just end up throwing my hands in the air and passing out i-pads and typing in the password on the computer and telling them leave each other alone and give me an hour…

Sometimes life really does demand that you take a break. But if you’re struggling to stay in your writing groove this summer – or any time during the year! – try out one of these suggestions and let us know how it goes! And if you have any other ideas, comment away!

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. 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.

8 on Eight: June Contest Feedback

Theight on eight 2ank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on June 30th. Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Halo and the Boomerang Effect, MG Fantasy

Halo held her hands in front of her face, fascinated as each finger faded in, then out, reminding her of those holograms used in space movies. Flicker. Flash. Flick, flick. Zap. Her whole body shifted into solid form, and once again, she became a resident of Loblolly Pines.

After each eleven-month disappearing act, she loved her magical homecoming within the Christmas tree. Materializing never got old.

Ten cartwheels along the branch brought her to the trunk. She leaned in and sniffed. Pinewood with a damp muskiness…best fragrance ever. Halo nudged a finger under a sliver of bark and tugged. Snug. The sap’s tackiness confirmed a healthy tree.

Julie: I love the title–it’s perfect for middle grade and instantly made me want to learn more. You’ve created a lot of mystery around Halo in these first few lines (What is she? Why does she disappear for 11 months out of the year? Why does she reappear in a Christmas tree?). You do a great job of showing us that she’s tiny (if she can do ten cartwheels along a tree branch!) and I love the sensory details of the sticky sap and the damp muskiness of the tree. But I’m not as grounded in the opening paragraph as I wish I was. I love the image of a hologram, but I’m wondering if focusing on what materializing feels like (which is internal and unique to Halo’s experience) would be better than focusing on what it looks like (which is external, like we’re watching a movie instead of experiencing it from Halo’s perspective). Best of luck–this sounds like a great story!

Laurel: Thanks for sharing your story! Here’s a bit of feedback from my reader experience. Of course, every reader sees things differently, so if I’m the only one going off on that tangent, feel free to ignore. I felt Halo’s fascination with her fingers and tripped when I got to hologram. After reading this first paragraph three times, I got a “Beam me up Scotty!” image. Hologram says 3D-projection to me, rather than flickering. Halo and hologram are close in sound but very different in meaning. Is there a connection or am I looking for one in the wrong place? The zap puzzled me. (Were there zaps in Star Trek?) I start out very solidly inside Halo, looking at her fingers, and then I’m outside her body watching it flash. A bit more of Halo’s reactions might clue me in to the direction you want me to go. I love the specificity of loblolly pines.

The next paragraph made perfect sense until I got to “within the Christmas tree.” Why a Christmas tree? Whose Christmas tree? Or is Christmas tree short-hand for any kind of conifer? Is it a live tree in the middle of the forest? Or a cut tree in a house in the town of Loblolly Pines? Was she “within” the tree or did she materialize on the branch? “Materializing never got old” made me smile. Is there a cost to materializing? Maybe that will come up later in the story. 🙂 There’s a tiny speed bump for the eleven-month disappearance because Christmas falls in the 12th month. It’s all correct, but it made me stop and subtract for a second.

The third paragraph tells me Halo is outside of the tree because she’s doing cartwheels on the branch. I liked the cartwheels and felt a bit nervous about being scratched, since pines often have so many sharp twigs. It didn’t occur to me that Halo was small until I read Julie’s comment above.

The last paragraph was easy to follow as a reader. I wondered if you needed “pinewood” instead of “pine.” Halo checking the health of the tree hints at an intriguing caretaker role for the forest. “The sap’s tackiness” surprised me because I expected to read about the bark. Is there a connection there that’s important for the reader to know? Or is it enough to say that “Snug bark meant a healthy tree”? Or that her finger is sticky? I love that you engage the senses of smell and touch in this very small passage.

I love the loblolly pine setting and “the boomerang effect,” whatever that turns out to be! Lots of interesting hooks in the opening of your story! Best wishes for success with it!

Gabby: I think the title is great, and I like the first sentence as well. I’m not wild about the one word sentences that follow though, for two reasons. One, you’ve already told us her image is fading in and out, so it feels redundant. Two, as Julie points out, it takes me out of the action, instead of pulling me in.

You’ve got some great intrigue in the next sentence, but no stakes yet. I think you could maybe leave the fact that it’s a Christmas tree for later, as it will certainly need more explanation. String us along into her world with breadcrumbs as they become relevant. Let it just be a tree, for now. Focus on her having been gone eleven-months and what that feels like. She loves materializing, but give us more. Her body language/actions in the last paragraph imply she’s really glad to be back (to be home?), but is she wondering what’s she’s missed? Maybe she knows what she’s missed, and can’t wait to catch up. Maybe she’s wishing she could be in two places at once.  Maybe she’s keeping one eye open for the cat/snow/fall/friend/whatevs.

You need there to be some tension in these first lines. Micro-stakes is fine, but give me some conflict. You’ve done well with the sensory descriptions, but I’d cut the “snug” line, and I’m not sure why we need to know about the health of the tree here. It feels like a jump. An intriguing beginning! Best of luck.

Michelle: This is very intriguing! When I read the first sentence, (which I really like) I wanted to know how it feels to materialize. Bring in some more senses. Is it cold? Hot? Tingly? Fizzy? Like Gabby said, I don’t really think the one word sentences add much. You could say something like, “Each time her fingers flickered,…(then add how it feels).”

I don’t think the second paragraph adds anything that we need to know just yet. Having it where it is seems like backstory. I’d save it for later. Love the sensory details in the third paragraph. They make me want to read more!  Good Luck! Keep us updated on your progress!

Kristi: I LOVED this! Your 1st line had me thinking about Search for Wondla. Then, the 10 cartwheels to the trunk line really drew me in. Everything kind of solidified in my head and I could start picturing it all. I agree with Michelle that you can get rid of the 2nd paragraph at this stage and use that to add a hint of what’s to come or a hint of danger or stakes. It’s never too early to add those kinds of things. Otherwise, I’d for sure keep reading.

Gita: An intriguing beginning! This feels fresh to me, which makes me eager to read on. There’s a lot of mystery: I don’t know who or what Halo is, where she comes from, or even where she is (at a tree farm or in a house). But that’s ok with me. Still, I’d be even more willing to follow Halo into this story if I felt a little more emotionally connected to her in these opening lines. We learn that it’s a “homecoming” for her to materialize onto the tree, but I don’t get a sense of how she’s feeling. It makes me wonder: is the place she lives the rest of the year different from Lobolly Pines? In what ways? Do these differences matter to Halo (I hope they do)? Which does she prefer? If Halo travels between these places, is there any tension for her in the process? What does she want? When I fall in love with a character, it’s because she’s a thinking, feeling, wondering being who’s at odds with her world—even if only a little bit. I’d love to see more of what Halo’s feeling/thinking right up front as a way of bringing out the tension that’s going to keep your reader reading. As an example, here’s EB White’s opening to Charlotte’s Web:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You can check out the earlier, less tension-filled versions here.  Happy writing!

Rebecca: I love sci fi and fantasy, so this story is right up my alley! I also like your start with very cool magic, but as others have said, you could slow down here to introduce the sensations that accompany her fading and appearing at in new place and how she feels about it. When you create a new world, it is very important that the reader can visualize is so that they can experience it with your characters. Because this means of transport is so far off from our poor, muggle experience, you want to take the time to really get the reader grounded in it and bring them along. That will get them more invested in the story.

Great start! Best of luck with your story!

Halli: Thanks for entering the contest! As just about everyone said, I love your title. I have been known to choose books on titles alone. I think you have some wonderful detail and descriptive sentences here. For some people, that is the hardest part, so job well done! The first paragraph is very interesting and definitely grabs my interest. I agree with the other critiques about needing to be more in Halo’s mind by describing her feelings and internal thoughts and not external observations. For me, sometimes that comes down to wording. For example, you wrote: reminding her of those holograms used in space movies. The words “reminding her” remind me that a narrator is speaking. Try the sentence without it and see what you think. I do love the last sentence of paragraph one.

The second paragraph threw me just a bit. I see it is a transition between materializing and the tree – which I assume her checking to see if it is healthy will be significant. It may be because there are several different thoughts in this short space: materializing, an eleven-month absence, and the Christmas tree, and one of the biggest ones (the eleven-month absence) is not explained.

Paragraph three goes back to the wonderful details: ten cartwheels on a branch, the damp muskiness. Wonderful!

Great job! Hope these comments help.

Karin: This sounds lovely and different! I think Halo is some kind of fairy or ghost, but then why is she watching space movies? Also, space movies pulled me out of this world into a very different world. Not sure if you did this intentionally. Anchor us into Halo’s world by giving us a sense of her size, and whether the tree is inside or outside, decorated or not. Also, maybe an aside after “snug” to indicate that this is a good sign. “Good. very good.” Then she can say, “And the sap’s…” By increasing the build up, we know this is a very important part of Halo’s job and we’re intrigued to learn more!

Good luck!

 

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Up Your Game with the Write Fashions from THE WINGED PEN

closed Mac laptop with fingerless purple mittens and sparkly jewelry
Essentials for the productive writer: laptop, warm hands, and bling. Sweatpants not shown.

Can the right clothes inspire writers?

In a word, yes. My Winged Pen fellow, Michelle Leonard, pointed me to this article about how clothes affect our performance. Get your red sneakers now before there’s a run on them!

So what do productive writers wear?

Lucky socks? Writer’s baseball cap? NaNoWrimo Winner t-shirt?

I once had a beloved writing sweater with a monk-like cowl with pom-pom and deep pockets to keep those typing hands warm.

I asked the other Pen fellows about their writing soft-wear. Here’s what they said:

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Kristi Wientge: “My clothes don’t matter (although I can’t be in PJ’s), but I do NOT write productively without eye makeup. It’s true.”

 

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Halli Gomez: “I do have a baseball cap that says Writer on it but I don’t wear it to write. I wear it run to keep the sun off my face. I can write in pajamas, jeans, shorts in the summer. Anything.”

 

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Jessica Vitalis: “Anything as long as I’m warm. That usually means I’m writing in a fleece hat. In the winter, I add a down robe to the mix. It’s quite a look.”

 

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Rebecca Smith-Allen: “Slouchy jeans that my husband is always telling me to replace (um…but the point is that they’re slouchy), a comfy, old t-shirt, and slippers that are on when I’m cold, then off when I’m hot. Then I’ve forgotten where I left them when I need them again because I’m cold.”

Photo credit: Gail WernerJulie Artz: “I almost always write in wild socks. I have knee high fuzzy IMG_2762purple/hot pink striped slipper socks for when it’s cold, a pair complaining about the rain that Matt got me when we decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, and a variety of rainbow colored stripes, polka dots, and argyle socks. I also usually wear a kitten for a lap-warmer.“

Photo credit: Gail Werne

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Michelle Leonard: “What I’m wearing isn’t nearly as important as holding a bag of warmed cherry pits, even in the summer. I get so cold when I write! I have to warm them in the microwave every 30 minutes or so. Getting up to do that is exercise, right?”

 

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Kate Manning: “I’m usually in a soft, warm sweater and, of course, my fox slippers.”IMG_2763

 

 

 

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Gabrielle K. Byrne: “Slouchy for the win. Sweats and a robe or long sweater. Oh – I have two rings I don sometimes as inspiration. One’s a giant fossil and the other is a dark blue droozy that sparkles like the night sky. There’s definitely a kind-of “I’m fancy” illusion that’s going on between the bathrobe and the jewelry.”

 

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Jennifer Brister Park: “I always wear workout clothes so I can remind myself at some point I have to get up and exercise.”

 

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Hilary Harwell: “I wear workout clothes too, and I’d like to think I do so for the same reasons as Jennifer Brister Park, but it’s mostly because they’re comfortable and stretchy. My hair is usually up in some wild knot and my clothes are rarely matching. I like to think of it as the crazed writer look.”

 

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Mark Holtzen: “Fleece early morning. When I venture to coffee shop I up my game. Trying to be more professional and treat it like the work that it is. I guess I’m maturing? (Nah.)”

 

 

So now you know how to up your writing game–with these fashion tips from THE WINGED PEN! Do you have an inspirational writing get-up? Share in the comments below.

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she’s not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.