The Tuesday Writers

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Every Tuesday morning, I clear off my dining room table, plug in my laptop, and wait for the writers to arrive. They bustle in around 10:30 carrying cups of coffee and bottles of water along with their computers and notebooks. After putting their lunches in the fridge and setting containers of nuts and assorted baked goods on the table, we settle in. Mostly, we sit in the same chairs. Some add a pillow, while others lower window shades to block the sun’s glare. Then, after a bit of schmoozing and noshing, we set the timer. Our chattering stops and the room becomes quiet. It’s time to write.

Three of us met a few years ago at a “Write-In” during NANOWRIMO – National Novel Writing Month. Although we were complete strangers, we were all determined to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. Then, on the last day, after we had all become “Winners,” someone suggested we keep going. We hardly knew each other’s names. We certainly didn’t know much about each other’s books. But we had something very important in common. We were passionate about writing.

We decided to continue working at our local library every Tuesday morning. We reserved a conference room for two hours, kept our voices down, and got to work. It was wonderful. So wonderful, that when the library decided to do a major remodel and close their meeting rooms, we knew we had to find another location. I volunteered my dining room table.

Our group of three has now grown to five. Other writing buddies pop in now and then, but the core group is extremely reliable. Frigid temperatures, snowy roads, and needy relatives cannot keep us away from our beloved writing projects! And, when I’m out of town, others host at their dining room tables. On some days, we even write remotely, and text each other when timed writing sessions are about to begin. We typically get in three, forty five-minute sessions. And here’s the best part: the discipline of writing consistently has spilled over to other days of the week. I now find myself carving out short writing sessions almost every day.

Our projects span the genres. Two of us are writing MG fiction and picture books, while the others are focusing on women’s fiction, murder mysteries, and science fiction/fantasy. Although our content is widely varied, we often share information about local classes, conferences, webinars, and books on craft. We sometimes read paragraphs aloud, give each other immediate feedback, revise, and read again. We talk about query letters, character arcs, plot twists, even murder suspects! One member has been independently published and we all cheered when her cover designer came up with Book Two’s gorgeous graphics.

But most importantly, we write. Every Tuesday, no matter what, we set aside other commitments and scribble “10:30-2:30-NANOS” on our personal calendars. We put our work ahead of doctor’s appointments and lunch dates. I even had my hairdresser stop me when I was about to set up my next visit on a Tuesday. “Isn’t that your writing day?” she asked. “It is,” I replied. “It most definitely is!”

 

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Submission Schedule

With the start of a new year, comes resolutions. One of my writing resolutions was to be more consistent with submitting my polished stories. To help me achieve this goal, I decided I needed an organized way to manage submissions. That is when I first developed my submission schedule and broke it down into three parts.

First, I decided that since I had put time and energy into writing my manuscripts, I owed it to myself to set them free into the querying world. I picked a time frame that felt comfortable for me and put it on the calendar. Submission Sunday was born. That is when I either spend an hour researching or writing queries to send out.

Next, I needed a way to track my submissions. There are many resources that writers can use, Query Tracker, spreadsheets, or a simple spiral bound notebook, which is what I decided to use. I’ve tried to maintain tracking on the computer in the past and I haven’t followed through. Using a simple spiral bound notebook that I keep close to my computer is something I will be more diligent in maintaining.

Finally, I set goals. It was important to me to decide on a number of queries I wanted to send out each week which felt attainable. Two weeks in, I am right on track. I know there may be weeks where I won’t be able to send as many or weeks where I may send more.

Do you have a submission process?

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My NaNoWriMo

“You’re a WINNER!” I entered my official work count into the NaNoWriMo website on November 30 and was treated to triumphant music and a blinking WINNER message.

I had done something I was sure I could not do. I had written whole novel in one month.

Friends in the writing community had participated in National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, which  is a national movement that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word novel during November. I listened to them and shook my head. No, I write too slowly, my ideas don’t arrive fully formed and I get off-track too easily. After all, it took me over two years to complete my 40,000 word middle grade novel and it still isn’t quite what it should be.

No, I could never do NaNo.

It was in mid- October that I wrote and rewrote a sentence in my new novel. I had been working on the sentence for days. I realized that I hadn’t moved my book forward in over two weeks. I wished that I could free myself up from the constant perseveration that dogged my writing. My need to make things perfect before I moved on. My discouraging experience of spending so much time on an interesting scene that even I was bored.

People around me were deciding whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I had never really considered it. Dejected, I thought, why not give it a try?

I set aside my current novel and spent the rest of October outlining a book that I had thought about writing for years. I needed to have a whole new book for  this frantic, blast-out-the-words NaNo style of writing.

To complete a 50,000 word novel in a month, I needed to write 1,667 words a day. I am certain that I had never written 1,667 words in one day. In fact, there had been days when my daily word count was in the teens. I usually wrote a couple days in a row, then took a break for a day or two. There would be none of that with NaNo. It would be 1,667 words every day or failure.

But I didn’t want to fail. As I prepared, I realized that I wanted, more than anything, to write a whole novel in a month. Just to prove to myself that I could do it.

I woke up early on November 1st. I honestly had no idea how long it would take me to write 1,667 words. I figured it could be anywhere from an hour to four hours. I had set aside the entire day.

I set an alarm for one hour. I started to write. When the hour was up, I had written about 1,000 words. At the end of the next hour, I almost had 2,000 words. Only 48,000 more words and 29 more days to go. And it was just 8:30 am. I entered my word count into the NaNoWriMo website and went about my day, just like usual.

Except that I thought about my story and characters all day long.

The next day, I knew exactly what I was going to write. I’d move the story forward by writing the scene that I had thought about the day before. And I did.

So it went. Every day I’d write, two to three hours, then I’d imagine all day long what could happened next. The next day, I’d consult and revise my outline, read the last page that I had completed the day before and just write. All I needed was to find two hours to spend on my novel, one way or another, before I went to bed. Soon enough I had written close to 200 pages and was drawing the story to an end.

Doing NaNoWriMo felt like being on a long and challenging hike that took me to a place I had never been before. Sometimes, I was astounded by my own ability and energized by being in this unexplored territory. And sometimes I felt lost and exhausted and didn’t want to take another step. But like the hiker, I continued to put one foot in front of another and kept on going. When I was finished, I was thrilled to have had the adventure and wanted to do it again.

Participating in NaNo taught me that I could write faster. I needed to learn that if I felt paralyzed, I needed to keep going and not to stop. Sooner or later, I found, I could write my way out of stuck.

Realistically, I only wrote a DRAFT of a 50,000+ word young-adult historical fiction novel about a young woman and her friends growing up during World War II. It certainly is not a polished word-perfect story, at least not yet. But, I have something, something large and complete, a book with a beginning, middle and end that embodies the story I want to tell.

There are parts of the novel that are just what I want them to be. There are other parts that need a lot of work. And there are entire parts missing that still need to be written. But what I wrote for NaNoWriMo in November, 2016 was a whole book.

I don’t know what I will do with the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I may decide to leave it in its draft stage forever while I focus on other projects. Or I may decide to recommit to it and do the hard work to revise it and bring it to completion.

Either way, I’m glad that I did it.

As November drew to a close and Thanksgiving arrived, I found myself brimming with thanks that someone out there had the idea to challenge writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in one month. The experience set me on a better course as a writer and taught me lessons about myself that I could not have learned any other way. NaNo on!

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Giving Away Treasures

By Susan Wroble

I love thrift stores. Once a month, I choose one and treat myself to a long perusal of its shelves. I love the excitement of not knowing what I may find. But I do know that having explored the rest of the store, I’ll always end up in the book section. Like all children’s authors, I can’t get enough of books.

And when that perfect award-winning book sits forlornly on the shelf, I buy it. How could I not? At thrift stores prices of a quarter for a paper-back, or two-for-a-dollar hard-covers, I’ve found true treasure. My own bookhelves, of course, are bursting. I can’t keep these books. But I’ve found a solution. I give the books away.

My thrift store treasures go into one of three boxes. One box is for a small library in rural Indiana, a library my great-uncle helped build. At the start of each summer, I mail this library a box of books, from readers to middle grade, that they use as rewards for their summer reading program. Each year, I’ve gotten a card signed by all the kids in the program, and I’ve been thrilled to see the list of names get longer each year. It is because they are getting great quality books at the end of their program? I don’t know, but I can only hope…

The second box is the hardest, but the most satisfying. To fill this box, I need to find, on my thrift store adventures, twenty-four pristine, un-marked holiday books – books like The Polar Express or The Night Before Christmas. Typically, it takes a few years to fill this box. And when I’ve finally found the last one, I wrap each book and tag it with a number, 1-24. The collection becomes a magical advent gift for a special child, with a different book to unwrap and read each night on the count-down to Christmas.

The third box is new, and its contents will stay closer to home. My own street is too quiet for a Little Free Library, so my church is allowing me to set up a Little Free Library on their grounds, near a city bus stop. This Little Free Library won’t be installed until this spring, when it’s warm enough to dig and pour concrete more easily. With an inner-city location in a primarily minority neighborhood, I’ve been able to start collecting books for a different demographic and age spectrum than those aimed for school kids in the mid-west. I can’t wait to become this library’s steward, and see which types of books will best serve the community.

 

 

 

 

 

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NaNoWriMo – 2016

nano_logo-830912ef5e38104709bcc38f44d20a0dNaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it happens every November. One novel, one month, fifty thousand words. For all of you who completed NaNoWriMo this year, including one of our very own Story Spinners, congratulations!

This was the year I was going to do NaNo. I had a genre, and a working title. A concept for a story. A beat outline I had shared with other writers for feedback. I had set up my story in three acts, knew my main characters and knew the major plot actions. The turning point! The climax! The resolution! An inciting incident, a problem with stakes, and everything. A setting that I really liked and was going to have fun exploring. NaNo, here I come!

And then I started. So far, so good. Slight derail due to a stomach bug that whipped its way around the house, taking down my kids and my husband consecutively. I was still writing, still working my way through. But then I realized that my outline wasn’t as complete as I wanted it to be, that I actually needed some more things to happen before I hit my inciting incident (or what I thought was my inciting incident). But I still needed to write – write something. Write anything. NaNo!

As I kept going, I started to realize that I was just writing for speed, and while my word count was increasing, I wasn’t really sure that my book was developing the way I wanted it to be. I was afraid that if I kept writing what I had, I would look back and need to change an awful, awful lot.

So I stopped, and reassessed. Did I want to succeed at NaNo? Yes, I did. But what I really wanted was a strong, well-written, first draft that made sense logically. I realized that the planning I had done wasn’t actually enough. I didn’t know enough about some of characters, and while I had plot goals and motivations, I didn’t have enough of the emotional arc figured out to go along side it.

So I didn’t finish NaNo this year. But I did get three great things out of it. The first is that some of my free form writing was really helpful. I journaled as one of my characters, and getting their voice and having them talk about the other characters actually brought out some nice mannerisms and physical descriptions. And it was fun! I will look to do that more as I work on this next project. The second is a much stronger understanding of how much I want to plan in advance before I start writing. While I want room for discovery writing, I also want the major threads to be determined and available to me, to give me focus and a path. Even if I then choose to veer from it. And the third is that if something doesn’t feel right, I can figure out what is better for me and move on in that new direction.

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My Writing Log

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By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

After assigning a page of math homework to my first graders, one of my students said, “I might not be able to do this tonight.” When I asked her why, she said she had soccer practice and play rehearsal after school. I told her it sounded like she had too much going on in her life. She smiled and said, “Oh no, I love being busy.” I smiled back. I totally understood. I love being busy, too.

As a teacher, I usually operated on high-speed. My classroom was a bustling whirlwind of dynamic lessons and activities. We always got a lot done. And I had my plan book and assessments to prove it. At home, my family kept track of our plethora of commitments on a large, color-coded calendar. I also made personal to-do lists on yellow legal pads, scribbled reminders to myself on post-it notes, and rolled into bed each night, ready to do it again in the morning. It was a fast, over-scheduled pace, but I reveled in it.

Today, I have a new life. I’m a full-time writer. My children have flown the coop, and except for hanging out with my retired husband, my time is my own. I can slow it down, write for hours on end, read books on craft, drink lots of pumpkin lattes. My only problem is that the over-scheduling person inside me is still there. She constantly nags me to get more done, check things off my list (I still make them), get published already. Hop, jump, repeat! Man is she annoying. But I can’t get rid of her. She is a big part of who I am. I just have to figure out how to deal with her.

At first, I tried integrating techniques that worked for me as a teacher, into my life as a writer. I made schedules, set goals, took classes, read books, attended conferences, workshops, and writing groups. I still do these things. But something was missing. I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing enough. Especially when I veered from my “plan” or failed to achieve my goals.

One morning, as I sipped a homemade latte and stared at my computer screen, a radical idea popped into my head. Instead of planning out my week of writing, I would reflect on it. I would  do something EVERY SINGLE DAY (even for a short amount of time) to further my life as a writer and record these activities in a daily log. Not a plan-book, a logbook. I immediately went out and bought a calendar/notebook with large 1½ inch squares and decided to get started. (You can also use the new RMC-SCBWI calendar if you order your copy ASAP!) And here’s the key: I only record writing activities in it. No dentist appointments or lunch dates allowed.

I’ve been logging for a month now and I’m pretty excited about how it’s going. At the end of each day, I jot down anything I’ve done that relates to writing for children. I’ve included: worked on my novel, did a character exercise, talked with a picture book collaborator, listened to a webinar class on revision, read a book in my genre, went to hear an author speak at Tattered Cover, sent emails to SCBWI volunteers for an upcoming conference, attended a critique group meeting, made notes for my works-in-progress, wrote this blogpost, and did research at a museum. It’s amazing. I can now see, in black and white, that I am living a writer’s life. Every single day. Well, almost.

Becoming a great writer takes time. And there is more to the journey than the actual writing component. But now, when I look at my writing log, I see that I’m really trying. I’m doing all kinds of things to move this new life forward. And when that ever-present “busy teacher” is nudging me to get things done, I open my logbook and say, “I am. I totally am.”

Author’s note: If you try using a writing log, let me know how it goes!

 

 

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5 Ways to Work Through Writer’s Block

write-800pxStaring at a blank screen or page can evoke a similar response from me, unproductivity. What is the cure for lack of inspiration? For me  it can be different things on different days. Here are a few suggestions to help you work around writer’s block when it strikes.

1. Walk if off

Often times my best ideas come to me when I’m not sitting down to write. Take the dog for walk, go for a run, or hit the gym. The benefits are twofold.

2. Talk it out

Two heads are better than one! If you are a part of a critique group, you can put your creative minds to work and overcome the obstacle. A spouse or trusted friend can provide the same support.

3. Read! Read! Read! 

Take a trip to your favorite bookstore or library and fall into a good book or check out a book on the craft of writing. Browse the web and visit other writing blogs. Hit up the newsstand for something unrelated.

4. Write something else

If you like to journal or keep a diary, write a new entry.  Visit a website for a daily writing prompt. Write the same scene in a different point of view.

5. Change the scenery

Bring your laptop along to a coffee shop, park, or your back porch. Sometimes, seeing new sights, smelling new smells, or tuning your ear to new sounds can help to jump start creativity.

What about you? How do you overcome writer’s block?

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Bedtime Story


blog-graphicAs a writer, I hold tight to the belief that the stories we tell our children help shape them and teach important lessons. The ways that adults and children share the stories- bedtime and naptime stories, post-recess read-alouds, road trip audio-books or the retelling of family lore, influence their lives. Stories and the way they are told help children know who they are and who they can become.

A Memory:
We were snuggled together on the yellow flocked sofa. Steve, wearing his spaceship pajamas to Dad’s left, Martha clad in frilly yellow babydolls on his lap and me, leaning in on his right, wore a pink acetate nightie. The new baby Paul had finally stopped screaming from his daily bout of evening colic and he lay peacefully in Mom’s arms. His angelic presence defied his rather loud and demanding daytime personality.

Mom had settled into the rocking chair and had closed her eyes, wearing weariness, but also contentment, on her face. Dad smelled of pipe smoke and wore his plaid smoking jacket- a robe-like wrap with satin lapels and deep pockets. We settled comfortably in… it was time for our bedtime story.

“Chug-a-rum,” croaked Grandfather Frog. Dad’s rich baritone brought the character to life. Old Mother West Wind’s children, the Merry Little Breezes, flitted through the moralistic tales and we lived vicariously in the land “when the world was young and all.”

Dad’s voice changed with each new character. His theatrical nature, subdued at his 50’s style doctor’s office, found a perfect stage in the well-lit living room of the little suburban house.

The antique pages of the book, shared from Dad’s own childhood, took us all on an adventure, to a place where problems were huge, but it all worked out in the end. In the course of a chapter, wrongs were set right and errant creatures got what they so deeply deserved.

That memory defies the darker times that lay ahead. Even then, I knew that life’s challenges were never summed up neat and tidy at the end of a chapter. As the family ventured beyond the familiar vistas of the Smiling Pool and the Laughing Brook for the Great World Beyond, life became much more complicated.

For now, I bask in the warm glow of that living room, in that atmosphere of love and imagination, where Reddy Fox is out-tricked and Hoppity learns a valuable lesson, where mothers snuggle their perfect babies and where little heads fall comfortably against a Daddy’s broad chest.

I believe that the lessons my siblings and I learned so long ago on that couch infused each of us with the belief that, no matter how bad it seemed, it could perhaps, all work out in the end. And from that brief time we spent snuggled on that yellow couch, we also know the mystery of love and what being a family can be.

As children’s book writers, what we do is important. We should persevere with our calling and tell the stories that will influence the lives of children and their families

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Multiple Tools for Revision

Highlighters

I started my current novel with an idea, a scene, and a sense of an ending, and then began writing. I finished that draft and while technically I could label sections as beginning/middle/end, I knew it wasn’t strong enough structurally. It didn’t feel done. So I outlined what I had, and then worked to devise new plot points, scenes, characters, motivations, to bring it into a more classic three-act structure.

And then I did it again.

And then I did it again.

But I finally got to the point where I felt like the big moves were all there and it was time to tighten, refine, and revise. My novel was created and lives electronically (I heart Scrivener), but I printed it out for this last stage.

Because I felt like I wrote the drafts of my novel in a slightly haphazard fashion, I wanted to be very methodical in the revision process itself. I used, will use again, and advocate for, a dual process – one on paper and one on computer. Because while there are many things you can do on either platform, there are some things I believe you can do so much better on one vs. the other.

I began on paper with a small pile of highlighters and a pen. I decided there were certain things I wanted to look for, and by highlighting I could see at a glance how often various things were occurring.

  • Orange = adverbs, because I had too many
  • Green = sounds and smells, to make sure I had different senses included in description
  • Pink = related to the world-building (my novel is a fantasy)
  • Blue = use of figurative language

After reading a section, I flipped back through the pages. This gave me a strong visual as to how often things were appearing, how much white space appeared between repeat highlights, and what I needed to change based on what I was literally seeing. For example, I often saw instances of orange tightly grouped. I would reread that section, determine which adverbs were most important to the reader understanding how people were moving, talking, or feeling, and replace or cut the others.

When I found something I wanted to revise electronically, I didn’t pause and turn on my laptop. I didn’t want to disturb the flow of my reading, and I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself – changing things that appeared later in the book and therefore having my paper copy already be out of date. So this is where another form of paper came in handy – my notebook, to jot down items on my ‘to do’ list.

The main tool I used on my computer was word search, not only to find where I was in the text but also how many times a given word or phrase appeared. A simple Find (crtl-F in Word, the search bar or Text Statistics in Scrivener) can tell you how often you use a word, or phrase, and where it appears in the text. I used this function a few times.

Sometimes I used it when a word or phrasing jumped out at me. As I read through, I realized that more than once, something in my novel was ‘perfectly still.’ The phrasing stuck with me, so I decided I could use it only one time. I used search to quickly find where it appeared and zipped out the extra occurrences. I also used search to distinguish character voice. For example, I decided one character would be the only one to say “just” or “practically.” Rather than keep that in my head as I read on paper, at the end I found every instance and replaced it if had hopped into other characters’ speech.

I also used it to look for instances of “I look,” “I see,” etc. This novel is in first person, so I don’t need to write “I see an apple tree.” That type of writing is distancing, and the readers knows the character saw it (or else how can they tell them about it). Rather than trying to find it as I went, I used the find function to locate those places in the text and then decided what edits to make.

I may have gone a little overboard. Although it is satisfying (to me) to create a list and check things off one by one, looking at pages and pages of things you still need to do is overwhelming. Revising via highlighter is not for the faint of heart. It is a slow process (cap/uncap, cap/uncap) and, surrounded by colors, at times I needed a cheat sheet (what was green for again)? But I will always plan to review my novel in both mediums, paper and electronic, to create new ways of looking at and revising my work. And I should be done soon…

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What Makes a Great Book?

By Susan WrobleIMG_0579

I picked up Leila Sales’ amazing book Once Was a Time at the library last week. Immediately, I was engrossed in its themes of history and time travel and, above all, friendship. It made me start thinking about what makes a book great. I know what I do when I read what I think is a great book (and what I did with Sales’ book) – I fall in love with the language and the characters and the intricate weaving of the plotlines. I cry towards the end, hug the book when I finish, and finally turn right back to page one and voraciously start the whole thing all over again.

But, as I said, that’s what I do. It isn’t what a great book is. Author and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski tried to answer this same question in the context of the Man Booker Prize, the annual award for the best book written in English and published in the United Kingdom. In a 2011 article for The Guardian titled What’s the definition of a Great Book?, he wrote “When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.”

Shift, change, movement, transport… My definition of a great book would be one that transports the readers — in both meanings of the word. Readers should feel first that they are in another place or time, and second that they are overwhelmed with emotion. For me, that feeling initially came when I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Reading Wrinkle gave me insight into concepts of advanced physics, and changed my beliefs of what is possible and what is real. The book transported Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace and me across space and time, but more importantly, it transported me to a place of happiness in the knowledge that love will always triumph.

I narrowed my question, no longer concerned about what makes a book great, focusing instead on what makes a book great for me. It’s a book that transports, that carries me away, that lifts me up. And when you find a book like that for you, give it a hug from me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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