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SOWING STORY SEEDS FOR KIDS

Her smile is as wide and natural as the 103-acre farm in the background. Clad in a flannel shirt, the woman tells viewers, “Alright, well, we’re inside the tractor now.” After she introduces the two cats watching from outside, she holds up her book cover, THE WISH AND THE PEACOCK; she opens it and announces, “Chapter one, hide-and-seek…” pauses, then reads, Finding lost things on the farm is the world’s hardest game of hide-and-seek. I’ve been searching for Dad’s favorite shovel for weeks.

Meet farmer and children’s book author, Wendy Swore. For the next 15 minutes, Swore reads the chapter, acting out sentences with gestures and animated faces, and changing her voice for each character. Viewers get acquainted with 12-year-old Paige, who lost her father and wants to save her family farm, located on an Idaho reservation. Swore knows her setting. For the past 20 years, she has lived and farmed on the Sho-Ban Reservation, where her husband and five children were born and raised.

Sponsored by her publisher, Shadow Mountain Publishing, Swore’s online read-aloud isn’t just for kids. “They’re for everyone stuck in quarantine!” says Swore. I recently interviewed her about her books and how she juggles farming and writing.

Was farming part of your childhood?

My dad was a crop duster and we moved all around. I got to sit on his lap while he flew his crop duster plane. That was my introduction to agriculture.

What is your first memory of writing?

In elementary school, I had a teacher who was extraordinary. She used to tell us things like, start writing about the color brown without using the color brown. As a fourth grader, that was really mind-blowing! She told me, ‘you’re really good, you should really write more’. I wrote about a Hunter Cheetah. My teacher made me feel like it was as amazing as I thought it was.

When did you start writing professionally?

About 15 years ago, my husband said, ‘you should write a story about the farm’. I sat down and wrote a 90,000 word young adult (YA) novel about this farm thing. He said, ‘no, I meant a little flier-coloring book thing to hand to kids.’ I said, ‘too late’, and I’ve been writing ever since! No one will ever see the 90,000. It was just for fun.

You kept writing. What motivated you?

I went to a writer’s conference and suddenly, my world opened. On a farm, I’m totally by myself, especially during off-season. And…when I started writing A MONSTER LIKE ME, my youngest was 10 years old. He would come home from school and ask, ‘do you have the next chapter ready’? He liked finding typos and wanted to see the screen.

Describe your writing rituals or habits.

I write while sitting on a ball and plug in earbuds, because I have narcolepsy. I don’t struggle with it while farming, but as soon as I stop moving. The ball lets me move around and helps me stay awake while writing; and, I listen to movie soundtracks without words.

Did the Covid pandemic affect your writing in any way?

My son who has Asperger’s wasn’t able to do his schoolwork, unless I was with him all the time. My writing time went out the window and pushed the writing of my new novel into farming seasion, so I was trying to write and farm at the same time. We do 12-hour farming days. When I only had one hour, I needed to get into the zone fast. I used music to pull me into that (mental) place that I need to be to write.

Five kids, plus farming, organizing a popular pumpkin patch and farmers markets… Egads, how do you make time to write?

I call winter my writing season. I average a minimum of half-hour a day and a couple weekends a month. If I only write in winter, then I’m having to re-learn it. So, I do a little in summer. But, my days are very full, so it is difficult to write for long periods. Early in the season is easier, because I can go out and water, then go home and write for several hours. If there is a day when I am not wiped out from farming, I go next door to my best friend’s house on Friday afternoon and we might write till one in the morning. Next door for us means half-a-mile away! We sit next to each other, so we’re totally absorbed in our imaginary world; we stop and brainstorm. It’s fun.

Do you think about your characters and plot while farming?

It’s a creative outlet that can go with me into the field. If I am farming with my children, I’ll say, ‘what do you think about a character who is like this. Then I ask, what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to this character. If I am thinking of a certain part of my story, I’ll say, so this is the situation, this is the character, how do you think this character can get from point A to B’.

You have published two middle grade (MG) novels. Do you have a favorite?

Each one satisfies a different need. A MONSTER LIKE ME was me as a child, a kid with hemangioma (a golf ball-sized protrusion on my face) who was bullied by kids and adults. I like to ask what-if questions when I write. A MONSTER LIKE ME was born because I wondered, what if I believed the people who called me a monster? THE WITCH AND THE PEACOCK was meaningful, because it captures what our life is  like now. Most farms around us have gone to houses. I needed a happy ending.

Congratulations on your new MG coming out in May. How is it different from your others?

STRONG LIKE THE SEA is my first contemporary MG; it’s not directly based on my world. The main character likes codes and figuring things out. That’s the furthest from me right now.

Any advice for writers?

Writing is hard! You have to love the things you’re writing about. I’m interested in people you might think are broken, but you get to know them and there’s more to them. I want kids to learn to love themselves. Even when you don’t have time to write, you can write stories in your head for when you do have the time.

Note: Original prose and photos were printed with the permission of Wendy Swore.

 

 

 

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ACCOUNTABILITY: A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

“I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”

That’s what I say if I’m talking to someone, and it’s time to show up in my studio and write. The time is blocked out on my calendar, like any meeting or appointment. I got the idea from a writer friend while sharing our routines – and how we show up to our writer job.

Oh, the tricks I play on myself! But, they work. Well, okay, not always – especially during this pandemic, when my teaching and personal schedule are topsy-turvy, and my self-motivation is wavering. But, I keep trying. While sipping morning coffee, I turn on my studio light and open the curtains, so my office shouts, “I’m ready and waiting”. I set my alarm for writing sessions. I put my cell phone in another room, so I can’t hear the buzz of incoming texts or calls (which are perfect distractions when I’m stuck on a scene that I’ve re-written a dozen times!).

Unfortunately, the demons of distraction and procrastination still like to hang out in my office. Ugh! Good news is, I know my own worst enemies really well. Gradually, I’m learning to negotiate with them, so, my favorite co-worker, accountability, can kick them out and pull up a chair!

Here’s what accountability and I have been up to – and what’s really working:

Setting a timer. I try to follow a rigid routine during my scheduled writing time: For writing, I set a timer for one hour, take a 10-15 minute break, repeat. For research, I set a timer for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Monday accountability group. Every Monday, I do an email check-in with a group of kid-lit writers. We submit our goals for the week and report briefly on progress made the previous week. Wow! Keeps me honest and realistic! In our brief format, we manage to celebrate, challenge, and remind each other to keep plugging away, and that it’s okay to take a break.

Text-writing. Once a week, I have a writing “date” with another children’s writer. We text a few minutes before our start time to share what we’re working on or what we want to accomplish. Usually, we do two 45-minute rounds. Then, we briefly check in. We’re always amazed at how much we get accomplished in such a short time.

SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter critique group. Once a month, my SCBWI critique group meets in person. We’re the Story Spinners and we’ve been meeting monthly for 20 years. We email our work in advance, then, when we meet, each writer has 20 minutes for their work to be critiqued. When members don’t submit work, they can use their time to update the group on projects, invite brainstorming or advice on a project, share notes from workshops/classes, or etc. They’ve helped me think through SO many critical bits and pieces, such as how to end a pb or write a hook for a YA synopsis, a book title, an angle for a nonfiction article, and the list goes on. We hold separate meetings, as needed, to critique a member’s full manuscript.

Story Spinners are my rocks! Without their passion, drive, support, professionalism, desire to learn, confidence, nudges, wisdom and wit, I would have given up on my projects a long time ago.

SCBWI British Isles North East critique group. While living short term in England (twice), I met weekly with the same critique group. Through email, we continue to: exchange same genre manuscripts for overall feedback, check in bimonthly on current projects. We’re considering holding FaceTime meetings, as needed. They, too, are my rocks, my support group!

Oops! My alarm is going off. I have to get back to work on revising my YA. Goodbye!

 

Writing is hard, hard, messy work. Going out and doing talks and signing books is all wonderful, but a writer has to return home and go back to work.   

Julia Alvarez, author of AFTERLIFE, BEFORE WE WERE FREE, ALREADY A BUTTERFLY

 

 

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Panning for Gold

I’m a huge fan of any kind of professional development, and now that I’m focused on writing, I love finding all different kinds of ways to help expand my craft. I find real pleasure in looking through course catalogues (in particular the one for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop for those in the Denver area) to see what class sounds like it will be just the right key to unlock some question I have. I can’t wait for the conference schedule to come out each year for the SCBWI Letters & Lines conference. I browse the 800 section in my local library. I listen to a slew of podcasts. I love learning and hearing and thinking about writing.

Whenever I walk into some type of professional development, and that classification can be broad, I try to consider them along two layers – the understood benefit and the underlying nugget of gold. Everything has an immediate impact– I took a class on book mapping to bring another level and nuance to my ability to edit full-length novels. I learned just what I thought I would – how to choose the elements to map out a book, mapping it out, and subsequently using that map to develop an editorial letter. It was a great online class that gave me a new tool that is aligned really well to my analytical left-brained side that is a part of my revision and editorial process.

But a class almost always has more to offer than what is listed in the course description. This second layer is the underlying nugget of gold. Some of the gold from this class was that I am now connected to an experienced children’s book editor, and it got me thinking about how I might expand some of my own editorial services.

The nugget of gold can be obvious, or subtle, singular, or numerous. I received a critique where one of the comments was that my protagonist was coming off as a little quiet. A few days later someone called to ask if I was interested in a class on voice. Yes! Yes, absolutely! So the immediate benefit I expected from that class was obvious. But the class was also full of nuggets of gold. It got me thinking about my writing practice, and how I was incorporating it into my daily life. In hearing others read their work in class, I learned from what they were doing. And, the best nugget of all, I got a burst of motivation to continue on my own draft.

Not every class, or course, or podcast, or book feels worth the time or expense. Sometimes it repeats information you already have, sometimes it isn’t as applicable as you thought it would be. These are the times when it’s especially critical to pan for that gold. If you take the ownership to search deeply for the underlying value, not matter how big or how small, then it will increase the benefits of every way in which you engage with your craft. It will ensure that you have spent your precious time wisely.

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Finding the Positive – Conference Edition

I was recently asked what piece of advice I might give for new conference goers. Lots of things came to mind but the most personal experience I had could be boiled down to, “It is to your benefit to find the positive.” The fact is, you are likely to sit in a session where you think, “I know this.” You may end up in a session where you think, despite the fact that you read the conference description, “This just isn’t for me.” But I highly recommend that when you are in those situations, you do the best you can to find the thing that is relevant, that you didn’t know, that will make it a good connection and a good use of your time.

At one conference, I straight up messed it up.

What I heard: “Everyone clear out of the room while we set up lunch tables. We will reopen the doors when we are ready.”

What I didn’t hear: “And when we do, each agent, editor, and author in attendance will be sitting at their own table and you can choose to sit with whoever you want, first come, first serve, no adding chairs to tables.”

So I wondered why everyone was rushing back into the lunch room, but I had decided that what I needed was a little bit of sun and a stretch of my legs, so I went for a quick walk outside around the hotel parking lot, called a friend, and relaxed before coming back in.

And then I realized my mistake. The only seat that I saw that was left was for an author who wrote historical middle grade fiction. I was at the conference focusing on picture books, and while I had contemplated writing fiction, my genre would be fantasy. No clear connection here.

But there are no lemons at conference! I sat at the table with the intention of talking to my fellow creators (authors and illustrators) and having a nice lunch. And then I dug a little deeper. There are connections between historical fiction and fantasy. For example, world building is key in both, as you seek to introduce readers to a place they have never experienced. We had a great conversation that I found to be valuable.

My determination to make everything I experienced something positive immediately paid off – at that table I met a woman, we hit it off, and she invited me to join her critique group. THIS very critique group, in fact. My missing out on being able to choose a table, and having a table chosen for me, gave me new insight and a critical piece to my writing journey.

So when at conference (and I hope to see you at this year’s Letters and Lines!), don’t leave it to the presenters and lecturers – I encourage you to find the relevance, the connection, the link to your own work and process even if it isn’t immediately obvious, to make it the best experience it can be.

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