Author Archives: Rondi Frieder

Feeling at Home

IMG_3578By Karen Deger McChesney

Time: 8pm on a Tuesday

Place: Whole Foods

Characters: My critique group

It was my turn. I placed on the table – 5 pens rubber-banded together and a pile of 7 spiral notebooks. I didn’t need to say a word. My critique group knew exactly what this was: My handwritten first draft of my YA novel. I announced, “60,574 words” and showed them the fun that I had – from pages filled with cursive in different colors of ink to pages containing a labyrinth of printing. I’ll remember this moment forever, because they were the ones that nudged me to write longhand when I mentioned that it was my inclination.

Flashback:

Over 15-some years, I did all my writing at home on a big computer on a desk. I constantly tried to quench my desire to wander, move around, daydream, doodle… I started sessions with prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. I tested different chairs – an office chair, a kitchen chair, an exercise ball. I tried different lamps. I wore sweats, sipped chamomile tea, taped inspiring quotes on the wall, did Downward Dog… Everything I tried felt the same: not me. BUT, I kept thinking, this is what I should do.

Two years ago, I surprised myself when I sat in our comfy-cushy Adirondack chair in our living room with my laptop on my lap and wrote…and wrote….and wrote. This WAS different. I completely disappeared. It’s hard to describe. I felt at home.

Today:

My writer home is my Adirondack chair, surrounded by notebooks filled with longhand drafts and notes. They’re my confidence. When I pause, I see shelves of books and musical instruments. They’re my confidence. As I write, I feel perfectly fresh air through the windows and hear birds and squirrels chatter. I’m completely at home. I wander and write outside by our garden, or in my studio by my camera lights and art, or, I lay on the floor with paper and markers to draw my way through a plot point, characters, etc. I’m energized.

Every day, I light a candle before I sit in my chair. Once the candle is lit, I can’t walk away. It calls me, it’s the doorway to my writer home.

(By the way, I drafted this blog longhand using two different pens and then I wrote on my laptop outside and in my chair.)

 

 

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The Value of Critique

photo (29)By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

As writers, we often live in the imaginary worlds of our books. Our stories are so compelling, we find ourselves daydreaming about them as we walk the dog, luxuriate in the shower, or gaze out a window. We agonize over every word and make sure to create unique characters, intriguing settings, and twisty plots. But will our readers get it? Will they feel what we feel, see what we see? Maybe – but maybe not. This is why all writers, especially those who write for children, must enlist the help of others.

There are MANY times when I think I am being perfectly clear in my writing. I am absolutely positive that I’ve given my reader important information, crafted witty dialogue, and conveyed emotion in a way that will captivate my audience. But after sending my work out to my critique group, a brilliant bunch of children’s writers who are well-read and experienced, I almost always discover that this is not the case. Not only will they suggest I rework my plot, deepen my characters’ emotional responses, and make my ending more satisfying, they are confused and have lots of questions. The truth is, we lose perspective as we revise, cut, and polish. I don’t always agree with everything my group says, but they do make me think  about my writing. And more often than not, by integrating their suggestions into my work, my story will improve.

This is why I strongly recommend that you find a group of dedicated writers to help you. Before you ever send a cover letter, query, or manuscript to an agent or editor, or enter it in a writing contest, you must revise with feedback. You can find this type of support in the form of a critique group, a trusted and experienced writer who knows your genre, a  mentor, a published author, a writing coach, or an editor. Many of the professionals will charge a fee, but it is well worth the investment. There are resources online for these services, and if you write for children, the SCBWI website: www.scbwi.org is a good place to start. If you want to join a critique group, author Hilari Bell recommends a group of 6-8 members. This ensures that you get a wide variety of opinions so you can hone in on common threads. For example, if three or four people think your main character is unlikeable or you don’t tie up loose ends, it’s probably something that should be addressed. The other advantage of a larger group is that there will always be a critical mass at your meetings (online or in person) when life gets in the way (sick children, vacations, other job obligations, etc.).

But not all critique is created equally. Award-winning author and  fabulous mentor, Claudia Mills, has said that it takes a village to write a book. In working with her, I learned that getting professional help is invaluable. But in her blog, “How much critique is too much?” she also advises against too much feedback. “It’s so easy for a writer to feel despair at the volume of negative comments on one little book.” In other words, a discouraging critique that deflates you, rather than spurring you on to improving your manuscript, can be counterproductive.

It’s also important to differentiate between negative comments and constructive criticism. There may be times when your critique group says things that might require you to do a tremendous amount of revision. That’s when you have to choose the comments that resonate with you. Some feedback may seem bizarre and you can’t even conceive of implementing the changes. But, rather than discount the feedback immediately (especially if you usually trust and respect the critiquer’s opinion), let the suggestions sink in for a few days before ruling them out.

It is also crucial that you reciprocate by spending time critiquing others. Not only will your colleagues appreciate it, you will learn a great deal about your own writing along the way. In our group, we use the “add comment” feature in Word, which gives the writer very specific notes alongside the manuscript. A written page of general comments is also helpful. Start with positive reactions and things you loved about the story. Follow with constructive criticism; citing specific places that need work and why. And third, lavish the writer with encouragement. An important role of a writing group is to provide support. We must be cheerleaders for our peers and celebrate their process! Oh, and I almost forgot… my critique group, The Story Spinners, highly recommends combining critique sessions with weekend sleepovers that include going on long walks, watching silly videos, eating amazing food, and drinking lots of wine.

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Finding the Time

By Susan Wroble

alarm-clockFor the past two decades or so, I’ve struggled with that all-too-familiar question: How do I find the time to write? I’ve pretty much tried all the tricks: scheduling writing on the calendar, going on retreats, the 15-minutes a day plan, writing at night when the kids went to sleep… They all failed, but that last one was the worst. It turns out I really need my sleep. I got extremely mean and nasty when I didn’t get enough – to the point where even I didn’t like being around me, to say nothing of my husband and kids. In short, in twenty years of struggling to find the time, I never won.

But while I haven’t found the time, I also haven’t given up. I’ve managed to do some “low level” writing – a few stories that I’ve written and filed without submitting, some short articles for on-line magazines. I keep going to SCBWI conferences. I read. I edit for my writing group, the wonderful women of In The Writer’s Web. And I’ve studied this group closely. The ones with children older than mine have been my real inspiration. I’ve watched what has happened when their kids left for college, and their job of active parenting wound down. It has been edifying and heart-warming to watch their craft improve and their writing blossom.

I think that each of us comes to this planet with some lessons we have to learn, some pieces that our soul needs to work on. Everyone is different, but for me, it has felt like one of my pieces was acceptance; acceptance in putting my loved ones first, acceptance that the time for my writing will come, and acceptance that waiting for that time did not mark me as a failure.

Now, with our youngest heading off for college soon, my quest to find the time to write is nearly over. There is not much more I can do to mold our children’s personalities, or teach them more knowledge and skills and techniques in dealing with the world. That time has passed. I may have lost twenty years of skirmishes in the battle to find the time, but I’ve held on.

And in simply holding on, and not giving up on this dream, I feel like I’ve finally won the war.

 

 

image by rg1024 on Openclipart

 

 

 

 

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The Stories Behind Our Stories: Why We Write

Finally, our first blog post! Going forward, only one person will write, but for the “launch,” we decided to all chime in. At a critique group meeting, someone posed the question: “Why do you write for children?” Hmm, that took some pondering, especially when containing our musings to 150 words. Here are our responses:

E. E. Duncan

The place where history and individuals meet is what I explore in my biographies and historical fiction writing. As an elementary school teacher, I write to help young people understand the real human connection they have with the past. The writing process combines my interests in history, human nature and storytelling. Whether my characters are real or fictional, the process of placing people in a specific time and place allows me to discover their emotions and actions. As I examine a historical topic, I create characters whose personalities emerge given their specific set of historical and individual challenges. For me, my books provide the opportunity to link history and personal choices, through the use of a compelling and interesting story.

Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I love stories. As a child, I told them, drew them, and listened to them with rapt attention. Whether it was Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Charlotte’s Web, or Johnny Tremain, I was literally pulled into the lives of the characters and their worlds. When I became a reader and writer, my experience expanded. I kept journals, wrote songs and poems, and even illustrated my first book in fifth grade. Then, when it came time for a career, I chose teaching and reveled in the joy of reading and writing with my students. After many years in the classroom, my principal  pulled me aside and said, “When are you going to do something with your writing? It won’t be easy, but you should go for it.” So here I am, deep into the writing life, creating my own characters and worlds for others to discover.

Karen Deger McChesney

It’s my go-to.

Always.

In hundreds of spiral notebooks,

black ink cursive, blue Sharpie doodles.

Locked diary of secrets in my sock drawer,

lists of dreams.

Letter to my Dad after he died;

notes I tuck in my husband’s wallet,

journaled images of my stepson.

Receipts scribbled with observations.

Searching for one word to describe the sound of a dew drop slowly sliding from the tip of a leaf on to cement.

My prayers, my connection to a God-thing.

Revives me in a split second,

pumps me up,

returns me to the little girl picking green beans in Grandpa’s garden.

Permission to let loose, imagine whatever I want.

My best, worst, raw, pure self.

It’s my hand holding a pen,

my confidant, my empowerment.

Me mining deep riches.

Me.

                                                                                                                                               

Denise Schurr

At a point in my life when everywhere I looked my friends made time for special interests, I felt I had none. My girlfriends baked, sewed, or crafted. I tried it all. But after failed attempts at recipes, cross-stitch patterns, and DIY decorations, I threw in the towel.

Then, in a children’s literature course for my teaching certification, it happened. I read Newberry winners, fractured fairytales, a plethora of picture books, and finally found my passion, writing.

Learning to write was different than my other endeavors. When I finished my first draft, I didn’t toss it in the trash because it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. I met with other writers for critiques, took courses, read books, and returned to revise and make it better. I’ve made peace with knowing I’ll never be a Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart, but I’m proud that I am a writer.

Carrie Seidel

My dollhouse people didn’t cook and clean and put the baby to bed. Instead, they rode wild stallions, hunting down kidnappers who held baby hostage in a boat (stolen from my big brother) that was being tossed about in treacherous bathtub waves. I timed my playtime once: eight hours without a potty break. At ten years old, I was already being teased for playing dollhouse. By fourteen, I drew the shades and said all the dialogue in my head so no one would know. That same year, a magical thing happened. A brand-spanking new, 1984 Apple //e sat on my kitchen table. Suddenly it was okay to make up stories. Classmates now thought I was cool because I wrote novels. The thing they never realized was that I was still playing dollhouse. And I’ve never stopped.

Susan Wroble

In a high school English class, we were quizzed on our favorite book.  At the time, I was too embarrassed to admit the truth – that I loved children’s books but couldn’t stand adult ones. And for the past four decades, I’ve had one dream – to write children’s books. Life works to get in the way, but the dream hangs on. I write because I have stories that only I can tell, and I write because I want to share those stories. But mostly I write because, like a basketball player with a hot hand who is shooting in a zone where he can’t miss, the experience of weaving words together has sometimes been so perfect, so magical, that it is impossible to give up. 

Why do you write for children?  We would love to hear from you!

-The Story Spinners

 

 

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