What do you say when someone asks, "How is your writing coming?" I always respond with "good," or, "making progress," or, "it's coming." But what exactly does all of that mean?
I'm currently getting to the end of a major rewrite. We're talking, only the skeleton remains from the original manuscript. Now she's almost fully clothed. But because it's such a huge revision, in some ways it's like a first draft anyway. Once I'm done, I'm really just starting.
Next the critique group will have a go with it. Lots of discussion, suggestions, thoughts. Then I'll dive in again with the next round of revision.
"How do you feel about it," you ask? I'm not sure how to answer that. Each draft has things I really like, scenes that click, places that still feel awkward. I'm pushing through, because that is what I do, and then I'll distance myself a bit and see if I can get a clearer look.
Still, it is exciting that I took on a huge job, and I'm now nearing the end of it. Hopefully, I've nailed it better this time. Hopefully, I've shifted the story to a more likable path. So I guess I'm making progress. It's coming. Doing good.
Here in Montana, our regional SCBWI chapter gets to put on some pretty cool retreats. Several years ago, we gathered at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch up Gallatin Canyon for several days of writing, critique, and discussion. This working dude ranch, with hundreds of wild rabbits, has a breathtaking setting, way up in the mountains just north of Yellowstone Park. Incredibly peaceful. The perfect place to really absorb some of the best writing advice I've ever received.
That year, Linda Sue Park came to our retreat. I think I learned more from her speeches and one-on-one interactions (yes, one-on-one. There were only about 30 of us there) than from any other retreat or conference I've been to. Sometimes good writing advice takes years to fully mature as it's marinating in my brain along with my stories. That was the case with Linda's words. She talked about learning how to try new things, and liberate our writing selves from what we 'think' is the only way to do it. During critique, as ideas or suggestions would come up, she repeatedly said, "Well, just try it. See what happens."
Since then, I've 'just tried it' countless times. Other times I've forgotten that advice, and locked myself into what I 'thought' was the best way to take a story. Eventually, I have the moment where I remember her advice. Then I pause and say, "oh". I can almost feel my brain chains relaxing and falling. Just try it.
I recommend the 'just try it' approach to EVERY idea that comes along. Just try it. If you hate it, throw it out. But so far in my writing, just about every time I've tried it, my story gets better. Right now I'm in the middle of a 'just try it' revision, and I think I like where I'm headed. Thank you, Linda Sue Park!
Both my sons have played football this fall. My older son is on the high school freshman team, my younger son the middle school team. That means lots of practices and games for us to coordinate and watch. I love watching football. It's a sport where the offense work very hard to make something happen - to push toward the goal line. They constantly try new methods, shifting sides or formations or players. At the same time, the defense is working very hard to read the play, to stop the progress, and thwart the efforts of the opposing team.
As I'm stewing about revisions to my writing, I've been thinking; Does my main character spend most of her time calling the plays, or is she more in a defensive mode, trying to read what is happening and stop it before it's too late? Is she choosing what is happening to her, or is it being thrust upon her by the opposing side? Which side of the game should she be spending the most time on?
We've all read books where the main character tends to spend all their time responding to outside forces, being pulled along by the plot. Sometimes those books have even won awards. But I tend to prefer the books where the main character is calling the shots. Sure, they make mistakes, fumble the ball, and then have to clean up the mess that follows, but they were the ones calling the play in the first place.
I like a proactive main character. The more I write, the better I am at recognizing when that needs to happen, and when it's time for defense. Usually, a winning football team spends most of their time on offense - with lots of drives and first downs - just keeping their wits ahead of the opposition. That's what I'm trying to do in my writing. At the same time, I can be my character's biggest cheerleader from the sidelines.
I heard at a writers conference once that the main purpose of a writers group is to teach us what rejection is like, so we'll develop a tough skin. I remember sitting there thinking that was very odd. That is not the main purpose of MY writers group. I guess each group has their own way of doing things, but I see a writers group's purpose as much more than skin thickening.
This week a few of us in my group ARE dealing with rejection, and we've each rallied around in support and encouragement, and I think most importantly, ideas. Being a writer of children's books in the current publishing climate is treacherous to say the least. Trying to find the balance between what the editor wants, what the agent thinks will sell, and the story you the writer want to share can be more precarious than a tightrope balancing act. At what point does the writer trump all?
Don't get me wrong here. Any critique or suggestions from an editor or agent should be very carefully considered, because they have a lot of experience at the business end where many of us have never been. And we do want our books to sell, and sell well. I'm a firm believer in listening to every critique, analyzing the 'what if's' of the suggested issues, thinking through the possible revisions entailed, and then honestly stepping back. Will this really make my story better? Honestly.
That's where the writers group comes back in. What a fantastic place to bounce these honest ideas around. Your group has read your story. They know the struggle you've had to get the characters just so, or keep the plot flowing in an interesting way. They've given their stamp of approval to the submitted draft. And now that the rejection has come, they want to know what's up too. What did they not see, or feel, that the agent did? Does what the rejection stated ring with them too? What ideas might float through their minds at the instant of acceptance?
I think there is a time when editors and agents are wrong. They are human just like writers. Again, this is where a strong writers group is invaluable. They know your work. They are your safety net. Their job is to work with you through all the ups and downs, to help you truly see your place on the tightrope, and to help you become the best writer you can possibly be.
And bring chocolate to writers group.
My husband is a vocabularist. I don't even think that's a word, but that is what he is. He loves to use odd, old, funky, unusual words and phrases. I have a notebook on my nightstand to write down the vocabulary he uses, because I love to look back and have a good chuckle. His interjections are the best. When he hits his thumb with a hammer, he says "Sweet Mother McCready!" If something is surprising, he will say "Sweet Land o' Goshen!" He calls our children 'vermin' in a very loving way. Some days they are 'miscreants' or 'ne're-do-wells'. Luckily, our kids know their dad well, and also enjoy his vocabularist status.
Once, after reading a book on the importance of teaching kids vocabulary, I decided to shake things up a bit around the house. Instead of hollering, "Time for PJ's!", I changed it to "The hour has arrived to don your nocturnal attire!" My children said, "What?", and then got their PJ's on. This continued for months, and always brought a smile. We encourage them to be creative in their descriptive word choice, and we discuss words that fit any situation best. Building vocabulary is not just a subject reserved for school.
My oldest daughter wrote a paper for her college English class. She used the word 'plethora' and her professor made a big deal of it in front of the class. A fine example of excellent vocabulary choice in writing, he said. She was surprised, and responded with "Sweet land o' Goshen! Thanks!"
Learning to navigate the world of publishing is like learning to survive in the wild. You can take your skills with you, but you never know what you'll actually find when you get there. My writers group got a taste of survival skills this past week. Sandra Brug, a wonderful poet and storyteller, has recently learned that her picture book Soccer Beat was going to be re-released in paperback form. She learned this after sending a letter to her editor at Simon and Schuster requesting information about having the ebook rights returned to her. She was considering launching a personal ebook release. Instead of returning the rights to her, they decided to relaunch the book, which has been out of print in America for years. Needless to say, Sandra was thrilled. So at our meeting this week, we were discussing when her book would be available again. She'd received an email from the editor stating that they didn't know yet when it would be coming out, but when it did, it would be in a print on demand format.
Maurene Hinds, another excellent writer and writing teacher, pulled out her Droid and looked up Amazon. Sure enough - Soccer Beat by Sandra Brug will be released on September 21, 2012. That was in just a few days! We found it interesting that the editor didn't even know when it would be released, even though it was already in pre-order standing at Amazon. And Sandra wasn't even told! This news has obviously sent Sandra into a sudden blitz of blogging and linking and promoting.
Writers, we live in a whole new world. Information can drag for months and even years,or suddenly shift in a matter of moments. No more steady plodding through the writing and publishing process. Now we live the jumps and jerks and waits. Who knows what might happen next?
I highly recommend Soccer Beat by Sandra Brug. My sons and I fell in love with Soccer Beat when we checked it out from the library years ago. A few weeks later, my roommate stranger at my first ever Big Sky SCBWI conference was Sandra Brug. What a wonderful surprise connection! The rest for me is writing history.
Writing for children is a passion - along with reading kid's books, writing plays for kids, and teaching kids how to write!