Author Archives: Rondi Frieder

The Joy of Writing

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By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Twenty-five years ago, my co-teacher Liz gave me a birthday card that said, “This card is printed on recycled paper. Please return it to me when you get the chance so I can send it to you again next year.” I smiled and dutifully handed the card back to her, totally forgetting about it in a few weeks. But when March rolled around the following year, there it was on my desk, complete with a new note inside: “Here it is again! Have a great day! Soon you’ll have someone else around to share a birthday.” My second son was about to born. I returned the card to Liz and you can probably guess what happened next. The back and forth of the card became a yearly tradition. Little did we know it would continue for at least a quarter of a century.

Five years after I first received the card, Liz and her family moved to Texas. This meant we would need to use the United States Postal Service to transport the card back and forth between Denver and Dallas. We developed a system. Liz sent the card to me in March, and I sent it back to her in October, along with a new card for her own birthday.

After ten years, every inch of possible writing space on the card was filled with Liz’s newsy greetings, meticulously dated. So by year eleven, she began typing her messages on the computer. She added a birthday graphic on top, printed the note, and tucked it inside the original card before mailing it to me.

By year fifteen, the spine of the original card was beginning to fray. Its blue envelope was also split into two pieces. I’m not sure why, but neither one of us felt the need to tape it back together. We just stuffed the entire pile of paper into a manila envelope, stuck two Forever stamps onto the top right-hand corner, and dropped it into a nearby mailbox. It was around this time that Liz’s notes were becoming longer and more literary. Maybe it was the large, blank space on the computer screen, aching to be filled. Or perhaps she (and I) had reached an age that made us prone to nostalgic ramblings. One thing was for sure. In a world of abbreviated texts, flashing Emojis, endless emails, and Facebook photo postings, Liz’s notes had become full-fledged letters. Letters that chronicled our lives with meaningful reflections and joy. Great-big-smiley-joy.

Next week, I will be throwing a huge party for my dad’s 90th birthday. After sending out a slew of invitations, the RSVP’s began to pour in. Our guests had the choice of calling me or sending an email. Although most of the respondents are in their 80s, many chose the email option. I was amazed at the touching words that flooded my “in” box. “With happiness in our hearts, we look forward to joining you and your family in celebrating Harold at this momentous time. 90 years is special – how appropriate for such a special friend!” And this one: “We can’t wait to celebrate this occasion with our friend Harold whom we love.” Also: Judy and I are delighted to accept the invitation to this milestone event!” The people who called me were more matter-of-fact in their responses. It was either “we’ll be there” or “we can’t make it.” But the writers – the writers were filled with joy.

Writing enables us to express ourselves deeply. We often write what we cannot say out loud. So when you open your journal or turn on your computer to compose, edit, revise, cut, rework, or scream… take a minute to remember why you are doing this in the first place. It brings you joy. Really, it does.

 

 

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NaNo On!

nano_logo-830912ef5e38104709bcc38f44d20a0dBy Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

“Writing is slow. If you want fast, bake a cake.”   Linda Sue Park

Crafting a book takes a very long time. As writers, we agonize over word choice and sentence structure, delete paragraphs, (and put them back in), change points of view, flesh out characters, and do tons of research. We write and revise, get feedback from fellow writers, revise again, submit to editors and agents, and revise some more. We spend weeks, months, even years doing this with no promise of publication. To quote Karla Kuskin, “It’s not so much about the writing as it is about the rewriting.”

For the past three years, this is exactly what I’ve been doing with my two middle grade novels. I’ve been intensely focused on the “re’s”: rereading, rewriting, researching, revising, repeat. And although I enjoy this part of the writing process, I desperately needed a break from the slow sculpting of my stories. I wanted to race, to fly, to write non-stop with sheer abandon. And so, in November, I took the plunge and signed up for that world famous writing marathon, NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month. Its challenge: 30 days, 50,000 words, No excuses. It was time to hunker down, leave the laundry to pile up, and crawl into the speed-writing cave.

I know it sounds crazy. Why would someone like me, a total “planner,” not a “pantser,” spend an entire month spewing out words that might be twisted, tweaked, and possibly eliminated in the revision process? Why take my carefully plotted, five-page, single-spaced, 27-chapter outline and punch out a first draft in only 30 days? Hmm… why not?

Let’s face it; first drafts are messy. Whether it takes 300 days or 30 days, all manuscripts morph and change. But first, you must get that story out of your head and onto your computer screen (or on paper if you’re more old-school). So why not opt for the 30 day version? After all, it’s only ONE month of your long, slow life as a writer. What do you have to lose?

Many of my fellow writers think this manic activity is pure lunacy. But I say, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. (I’ve never run  a marathon, but I think the NaNoWriMo adrenaline rush might be just as satisfying.)

Okay, so now that I’ve convinced you to give this thing a try (maybe), here are a few helpful tips:

1. Go to the  www.nanowrimo.org website and look around. Watch out, there are graphs!

2. Read the pep talks. They are INSPIRATIONAL AND HILARIOUS.

3. Find some brave writing souls to join you in this madness (I mean writing endeavor).

4. Have a story somewhere in your brain that is screaming to get out.

5. Have a general idea of your book’s beginning, middle, and end. (Remember my 27-chapter outline?) And have a problem for your main character to solve (this may change).

6. Make plans to attend a “Write-In” near your house (or virtually) to meet other wild and wacky NaNos.

7. Do some timed word sprints to get into the speed-writing mode. My favorite is 40 minutes, timed on my phone, which actually gets me to crank out 1000 words!

This is what happened to me and might happen to you if you do this:

1. I was totally immersed in my story, night and day, for all 30 days.

2. My characters came to life and led me to surprising and unplanned places.

3. Everything in my story was more emotional than I had anticipated. I laughed, gasped, and even shed a few tears along the way.

4. The laundry  got done.

And here’s the best part. Because I finished before midnight on November 30, I am a WINNER! A group of NaNos even sent me a congratulatory video. (I also bought the tee shirt.) So now what? What am I going to do with this 50,000 word-ramble about worries, dream journals and friend problems? Go back to my “re” life, of course. I will reread, revise, research, and repeat. NaNo On!!

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Scrapbooking Your Novel

Hayley journal

By Carrie Seidel

While attempting to revamp a flat, secondary character, I had a conversation with him that went something like this:

Me:     “So, what do you look like?”

Secondary Character: “I have, uh, salt-and-pepper hair, and … um … gray eyes.”

Me:     “Really? That’s all you have to offer? Lame.”

SC:      “How about … oh, I don’t know … maybe a cool scar across my face?”

Me:     “I’m liking this. Keep going.”

SC:      “And it’s a sexy scar!”

Me:     “But you’re old!

SC:      “I’m changing my hair, too. Let’s go with sandy-brown. And scrap the gray eyes—too creepy. I’m young, hot, and dangerous! Google me under ‘sexy facial scars.’”

Me:     *eye roll*

           *types*

SC:      “There. That’s me!”

Me:     “That’s Bradley Cooper.”

SC:      *relaxes against tree, hooks thumbs casually into belt-loops of tight-fitting jeans. Winks.*

“Not anymore, babe. Now it’s me.”

This revelation forever changed the dynamics of my novel, and more importantly, brought descriptive depth to my characters, settings, and all things visual—down to the most incidental props.

After discovering the true identity of SC, I unearthed photos for every character in my book, scouring internet sites, magazines … and photos from personal scrapbook albums. That’s when the “ah-ha” moment happened. Scrapbooking!

Novel scrapbooks come in handy from early beginnings to final revisions. By referencing full-color character pages, I’ve discovered deep wrinkles, droopy socks, and eyebrow shapes I wouldn’t have thought to describe. Not to mention background details. I’ve even scanned an exit sign and a bra. Plus, the characters’ unique voices stay on track with a page glance: spotting the gleam in their eye, the curve of their lips.

If you’re not into stickers, colored papers, and delightful trips to the craft store, collect pictures in computer folders—adequate, but not as accessible. For everyone else, break out the paper cutter!

Find a blank journal or photo album, perhaps one that suits the mood of the novel. Gather photos, memorabilia, clipart, stickers, craft paper, scissors, writing utensils, and tape. Next, utilize Google. Example: Type “middle school dance” in search bar. Click “images.” There’s the setting, dresses, and even awkward moments! Right click “save image as” and bingo! Instant scrapbook photos.

There’s no wrong way to organize your novel scrapbook. Mine starts with a decorated title page. A main character headshot fills page two. Page three displays her name, a head-to-toe photo, a slice of pizza, a soccer ball, and a ticket stub—stuff that’s important to her. But let’s say your setting is vitally important. Consider kicking off with pictures, drawings, or maps of your world.

Give all characters equal attention. Focus on detail! You may have to patchwork a character together for the desired result. Find close-ups of eyes and pictures of clothing. Leave blank pages between character profiles in case you need to add or change something. You can always rip them out later.

And what to do with the craft paper and stickers? Decorate! Frame photos. Add color to white spaces with paper scraps. Place kissy-lips stickers on a love interest, and “BFF” stickers on the friend’s page. Your character loves horses? There’s a sticker for that! Journaling and notes only enhance your project.

The end result is a tangible scrapbook to reference and admire, a window into what makes your novel tick.

SC:      “You know the photo you Googled for my page? That awesome leather jacket?”

*gazes expectantly with cerulean-blue eyes*

Me:     “What about it?”

SC:      *lifts an eyebrow—a thin scar that cuts into thick, sandy-brown hair nearly disappears*

“You want tangible? eBay has the real jacket for sale. Just one quick click …”

 

 

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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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