Often, in a conversation, the quiet spots and silences are just as important as the words themselves. A conversation needs to breathe, to develop organically. Otherwise it’s just two or more people babbling frantically at each other until they run out of things to say, like old-school mechanical wind-up toys.
I find the same thing happens in my work, and that the non-writing moments, where I can let my story breathe, are crucial to my progress.
I see plenty of advice out there saying stuff like ‘just get that first draft done, you can fix it later’, or ‘power through the parts you’re unsure of, leave placeholders for things you still need to figure out’. And the one that’s everywhere: ‘writers should write every day’.
I’m sure that’s sound advice for some people. We are all different, and every writer needs to find the tools and working style that speaks to them. Personally, I find that if something just doesn’t feel right, or I can’t quite see how to get from A to B, I can’t just let it go and put it down as ‘fix later’. I need to mull it over and find a solution before I can move on. And that’s where the non-writing comes in.
Whenever I hit a bump (and don’t we all?!) it helps to step away and leave my story simmering on the back burner, on the lowest possible heat. I won’t consciously worry away at the problem, but it’s there, in the background, never quite forgotten, until the solution suddenly emerges. In the meantime, I get on with life. I work on other projects, and read, and catch up on all those TV shows.
Sometimes that ‘a-ha’ moment is only a dog walk away (I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking the dog!). Other times it might take a week or two, or more. When, after a month of obsessive non-stop writing, my current project hit a huge plot snarl, I had to put it aside for a good couple of months before I was ready to tackle it again.
Taking a break until I figure out my way past a plot issue works for me; it might not work for you. But If you’re stuck, and find yourself guilty for stepping away for a while, don’t be: the non-writing can be every bit as important as the writing itself.
Last week, our local group of SCBWI members (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) got together for our monthly meet up with a very particular theme in mind: to share our favorite craft tools. Books about writing, websites, podcasts… There are so many resources available nowadays — both free and paid — that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Hopefully, the list we compiled will help!
Disclaimer: I’m only familiar with a few of these resources. These are not personal recommendations, but a group effort that I’m sharing because it may be of interest to other writers.
Writing Children’s Books for Dummies – Lisa Rojani Buccieri
The Anatomy of Story – John Truby
Take off your Pants – Libbie Hawker (a short CliffsNotes-style book on outlining)
Second Sight – Cheryl B. Klein
Story Engineering – Larry Brooks
Story Genius – Lisa Cron
Rules for the Dance/ A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver (on writing poetry)
The Ode Less Travelled – Stephen Fry (on writing poetry)
The Practice of Poetry – Robin Behn and Chase Twichell
The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron (on creativity)
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (on creativity)
Also, one member recommends learning lessons directly from published books – if you want advice on characters, for instance, or chapter openings, pick up a pile of books and flip through them to see how the authors did it.
Podcasts: (many of these websites also have blog posts on writing)
Additionally, one member recommends YouTube for tutorials on self-publishing.
Most of the group recommends attending writing events for networking and inspiration. There are events of all sizes and for all prices — find one that fits your personality and bank account. Large conventions and conferences are wonderful, but can be overwhelming. But there are smaller events, like retreats, or places such as the Highlight’s Foundation which offer space to just hide out from the world and write. Alternately, many organizations such as the SCBWI often hold webinars. Webinars can be a low-cost and low-key manner to get involved.
Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.
In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.
A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.
From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.
When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.
Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.
Book news! Well, anthology news, actually. Tomorrow my short story King Swan comes out in a brand new collection — Gorgon: Stories of Emergence (Pantheon Magazine).
From the official blurb: “Be changed. GORGON: STORIES OF EMERGENCE contains 42 transformative stories spanning all genres from both emerging and new voices alike, with all new stories by Gwendolyn Kiste, Richard Thomas, Annie Neugebauer, Eden Royce, Beth Cato, D.A. Xiaolin Spires and more, and featuring 10 illustrations by Carrion House.”
I’ve had a peek at some of the stories and they’re awesome! You can buy Gorgon on Amazon in ebook and paperback, starting tomorrow…
It’s been two years today since HEART BLADE was published! Happy bookversary to the Blade Hunt Chronicles!
I don’t do dark. I don’t do scary, or heart-wrenching. My writing is fun and happy, and full of sunshine. Until it really, really isn’t.
The first thing I ever wrote was a light-hearted middle grade novel about a group of friends in small-town Brazil trying to stop a rampaging gang of ghosts. There was a bike chase, and meetings at the local ice cream parlor. Not a sliver of a shadow in sight, right? But now, looking back, I see there was an underlying theme of the price of magic, and of good magic gone very wrong.
Another middle grade novel had themes of PTSD and abandonment. My first foray into YA was about genetic experimentation on teenagers and forced seclusion from society. Are we beginning to sense a thread of darkness in all of this? But I still had this illusion that I was writing upbeat happy stories, probably because the dark bits were interspersed with enough action to mask them, at least to my own eyes.
(Although the torture scene in my first published book—which got a special mention from Fantasy-Faction—should have clued me in…)
I got into short stories. These tended to be a lot darker right off the bat. Probably because I felt these were somewhat separated from my usual stuff, and gave me more room to play. Published stories include an alien willing to kill to remain on Earth, a trio of cut-throat teen mercenaries on a desperate mission, and murder by flesh-eating fungus. Nice and cheerful!
But there’s a beauty to the shadows, to the gray tones and the storm clouds. We can only appreciate the light when the story has contrast. And for that, it often needs to go down dark paths.
At the moment, I’m working on something brand new. It’s my darkest novel yet, with some pretty tough subthemes. At first, I wondered who the heck the person commandeering my brain was, to be coming up with this stuff. Then I took a good hard look at my earlier writing, and realized the shadows have been there all along, from the very beginning.
In a way, this came as a relief. It’s good to know my work has actually had some consistency from the start. Until I began this latest project, I was worried that there was a huge disconnect between my short pieces and my longer stories. This new thing of mine not only seems to pull all the different sides of me together, but it also made me take a good hard look at my past work, too. And maybe embrace the dark.
Here we are, on the brink of a brand-new year. Yes, it’s an arbitrary calendar division and one day is the same as the next, etc, etc. But personally, I’ve always loved the concept of celebrating time passed and a new year ahead.
A quick look at 2018!
One novel written, another with a solid start
Two short stories published; a third sold but not yet out; and a fourth written, edited, and approved for an upcoming collaborative anthology
Writing events: one Con as panelist (participated in 3 panels), one retreat, a one-day workshop, and two library events (one as panelist)
A successful number of SCBWI meet and greets organized and held in our area (thanks to all my co-organizers!)
Fave books this year include The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Man O’War by Dan Jones, Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, the Magisterium series by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, The Empyreus Proof by Bryan Wigmore, and Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom
Some of the movies I loved were Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. Yeah, those superhero movies are still topping the bill for me…
TV shows! Marvel’s Runaways was an unexpected delight. The Expanse is still one of my favorite shows. Into the Badlands and Midnight, Texas continued to deliver good storylines. In terms of animation, 2018 saw the final seasons of Voltron Legendary Defender *sobs* and Star Wars Rebels *sobs harder*. But it also kicked off The Dragon Prince and the new She-Ra reboot, both extremely enjoyable, so plenty to look forward to in 2019
Personal bits and pieces
We have a new rescue pup! Misty is seven months old, and both a delight and a tiny terror. We love her!
We visited family in Brazil in July/August and got to spend time with old friends, too. We returned to Brazil briefly over Christmas week, for much more difficult reasons. It’s always hard to face the brutal finality of burying someone you love, however much you think you’re prepared
On the other hand, and because life tends to do this: brand new baby nephew! He lives on a different continent, so I didn’t get to go all grabby hands, but thankfully Facetime and WhatsApp are a thing
I passed the one-year milestone of working at my town library and am so grateful I get to do this. I love my job!
Coming in 2019
ALL THE CONS! Well, three. I’m a panelist again at Boskone in February, and I’ll be doing my first reading, as part of the Broad Universe program. In August I’m off to Ireland, first to Dublin for Worldcon, and then to Belfast for Eurocon. It’ll be a great chance to connect with some of my UK writer friends who I haven’t met in person yet
Book release: some of us ladies over at the SFFChronicles.com have been working on a science fiction anthology with an all-female line-up of authors. Out in 2019
Star Blade! Hopefully this new year will bring the last installment of my YA trilogy. I’m working hard to make that happen…
THANK YOU FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT IN 2018. SEE YOU IN 2019!
Adapted from a guest blog I originally wrote for fantasy romance author Suzanne Jackson.
Anyone who’s been hanging around the Twittersphere lately will have seen writers sharing their ‘rules for writing’. Now, I’m not that big on ‘rules’ (what works for one person might backfire splendidly for another!), but here are a few things I figured out early on and which keep me going. Hopefully, they’ll help you too!
Three things I’ve learned about writing:
1. Take Your Time. As the saying goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. When I started writing ‘for real’, one of the first things I did was read a lot of bios and websites of authors I admired. To my surprise, there were very few true ‘overnight success’ stories. One author took ten years to be published, another five. Another more than that combined. Some writers didn’t become household names until their third, or fifth, or seventh book.
Beginner-writer-me found this hugely reassuring. If other people could do it, so could I. If I had to put in the time to learn the craft and get it right, then so be it. I wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to take a deep breath and tell myself, “As long as it takes.” I knew this was something I loved, and that I was prepared to be in it for the long haul. I just had to jump in, and keep going.
2. Make Mistakes. Also known as: you have nothing to prove. When I was younger, I’d always planned on becoming a writer ‘someday’. Perhaps when I ‘grew up’. But somehow, I never got around to it. Probably because I had this weird notion that writers sat down at their perfect writing desks and dashed out the Next Big Classic all in one go. Yes, I really was that naive! I knew nothing about messy first drafts, or that it takes rewrites, revisions, and a whole lot of elbow grease to produce something halfway decent. So of course, with that sort of self-inflicted pressure, inevitably I was terrified of starting and failing.
When I figured out that the writing business was a long-distance event (see number 1), this led to the realization that nothing had to be perfect right away. I could allow myself time to work things out, to back my story into corners and fall into plot holes. I could get it wrong, and dust myself off, and rewrite, and get it wrong again, as many times as necessary. The only thing I couldn’t do, was let the fear of failure hold me back from trying.
3. Have Fun! Along with realization number 2, came the awareness that I didn’t actually want to write the Next Big Classic. I wasn’t fussed about literary immortality, or having my books on required reading lists. I couldn’t care less whether my prose was gorgeously poetic. Instead, I wanted to enjoy my writing. I wanted to fill my pages with fight scenes, and daring escapes, and fireballs. Maybe a breathless first kiss or two. I was an 80’s teen, and all those hours spent watching the likes of Star Wars, Die Hard, Back to the Future, and The Goonies had to impact my writer’s soul somehow. Once I figured out the sort of things I enjoyed writing, the stories took off and the words just flowed. I was having fun, and I never ever wanted to stop.
Of course, these discoveries may have worked for me, but may not work for you. Find the small bits of wisdom that inspire you, personally, and use them to keep going on the dark days. We all have those days – beginner writer or seasoned pro – and sometimes you just need to remind yourself of why and how you got started in the first place. And then get up, dust yourself off, and jump back in with all your heart.
It’s almost November, and if you follow writers on social media, you’ve probably come across at least some mention of the National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s known, challenges writers to reach a stretch goal of a 50,000-word novel by the end of November. You can find more info on it here.
But the truth is, NaNoWriMo isn’t really about writing a book in a month; unless you’re writing middle grade, or maybe younger YA, 50k words isn’t enough for a full-length novel. But it is enough for a rough first draft, or to lay down a solid foundation for something you can develop on your own time, later, when the month is up.
What NaNo does is challenge you to make writing your absolute priority for an entire month, even if you need to wake up earlier or sleep later to do so, or DVR your favorite TV shows for a while. This complete focus on writing can be the push many people need, in several different ways.
You don’t even need to do the official NaNo challenge; make up your own if you prefer. For example, I have a Facebook group of writer friends who get together every November to cheer each other on and to exchange beta reads and critiques once the month is up. Most of our group don’t sign up on the NaNo website, relying instead on each other for companionship and support.
The NaNo concept works for me, for a very simple reason: it gives me a deadline to focus on. I’m always setting myself personal goals, like ‘finish this revision by September!’. But self-imposed deadlines are easy to push back. There’s always a good reason to delay things a little. However, if I use an ‘outside’ deadline like the one NaNo suggests, it gives me that extra incentive to get things done.
So, what should you do if you are planning on participating in NaNoWriMo, either officially or unofficially?
For a start, determine your goals. You can use NaNo as a push to:
Start something new and build writing momentum, so that after the month is up you can continue, or revise, or rewrite what you started.
Finish something old; dust off that stalled WIP and see it through to the end!
Revise and rewrite something you had written previously.
Set yourself other writing goals, such as draft three picture books, or do a writing prompt every day. It doesn’t have to be about one single book; NaNo can simply be an excuse to focus on all things writing-related for a solid month.
Once you’ve decided what you’re using the month for, the next step is to plan out your roadmap. Are you focusing on picture books? Brainstorm ideas beforehand and make a list of the most likely ones. Aiming at finishing a stalled WIP? Get it out and read through what you’ve got, familiarizing yourself once again with the rhythm and voice of the story. Starting something new? Do some prep work, so you know the basics about your characters and world before starting. Some NaNo writers outline everything before going in, but not everyone works that way. Do as much as feels right to you, to save yourself time in figuring things out when November rolls around and the blank page is waiting.
Carve out your writing time. Decide when the best time of day is for you. You might normally only be able to snatch small portions of time here and there, and that’s fine but, for this one month, perhaps try and find a routine that works. If you need to talk to partners and children, do it: you may find they’re excited to be part of the challenge in this one small way.
What happens when you get to the end of November? One thing is for sure: you’ll still have a lot of work ahead, whether in finishing the story you started, or polishing up that first draft you powered through. So now it’s time to take a moment and look back at what you’ve achieved. Maybe you didn’t hit your 50,000 words, or finish your rewrites. But hopefully you got a good solid chunk of work done, and perhaps pushed past that writer’s block or slow patch. Celebrate it!
And remember: NaNoWriMo is set in November for one reason, and one reason only: leftover Halloween loot*. So, now you have words and you have chocolate, and really, what else does a writer need?
*Disclaimer! This is probably not true. Or maybe it is, who knows? It’s a valid enough reason…
**Please consume your Halloween treats in moderation.
I have kids. Two of them, teenagers now, which allows for plenty of ‘me’ time, since they’re often occupied with their private worlds of school and friends, YouTube and online gaming, and books of their own choosing. But still, I have kids. This means that, twice a year, my carefully set up writing routine gets turned upside down.
Winter break is easier. Although December is usually a blur of things to do and places to be, the school hiatus itself is unreasonably tiny in the USA. They’re out for around ten days and then it’s back to school. The routine hits a small bump in the road, but rightens itself quickly.
But summer… Summer is hard. Summer is long. Summer is frequent breaks for day trips to the lake or the beach, cousins staying over, kids asking for rides to the mall, or to friends’ houses. Summer is slowing life right down to a comfortable crawl, and enjoying a last-minute barbeque, or setting up an inflatable pool on the blacktop and having a family water fight. Summer is fun, summer is a welcome change of pace. Summer is… not great for writing. For me, at least.
After the kids (finally) go back to school at the end of August, it usually takes me a while to find my rhythm again. This year was extra especially hard as we adopted a puppy in August, with all the pet training challenges an enthusiastic three-month-old dog brings. So, come mid-September, I was screaming at myself to get a grip and focus on my work. But it just wasn’t happening, and this was dragging me into a downward spiral of self-doubt, fueled by VERY EARLY mornings (thanks to Small Pup) and not enough sleep. I wasn’t writing ANYTHING, and I wasn’t reading, either. My to-be-read pile looked like an unclimbable mountain, and I just didn’t feel like touching a single book. So I sat down and came up with some strategies to ease myself back into things. I decided that, instead of tackling the big tasks on my to-do list, I would try starting out with small steps, and tiny bites.
On the reading front, I resolutely put the TBR pile away. I went to my town library and looked for comfort and familiarity, and a change of genre. If science fiction and fantasy were stressing me out, I was going to move away, at least for a while. I picked up a few thrillers by an author I used to love, rereading a few old favorites and trying a couple of new titles. I mixed in a bit of middle grade, and a bit of YA. Before I knew it, my 2018 ‘books read’ list — horrifically untouched throughout July and August — was suddenly growing, and I was having fun again.
I approached writing with clear and easy goals, and a challenge. The challenge for what was left of September was to do something writing-related every day. It could be creating a blog post, going over a critique partner’s submission, or working on a short story. I set aside the must do’s (like work on Star Blade!) and focused on the can do’s. As my confidence grew, I began to hit my goals. I revised a short story that had been languishing for a couple of months, I wrote a promised blog interview I’d been sitting on for a while, and I got through most of a new editing pass for my brand-new sci fi thriller. I wrote down what I achieved every day in my journal, and gave myself stars and a pat on the back. I was on a roll, I was getting things done.
I’ve kept the momentum going into October, with slightly more challenging goals, keeping to my system of trying to do at least one writing-related thing each day. So far, it’s working, and I feel like I’m back up to speed and moving along nicely. The strategies worked, for me at least, and I shall reapply them whenever I lose momentum or get into one of those self-doubt spirals, and need something structured to help me along.
We all go through slow patches at times. It’s normal, and often downright necessary. And sometimes we need to help ourselves a little to get out of a slump. Will my strategies work for you? I don’t know; perhaps you might have to come up with your own solutions. But here’s a recap of mine, in case you need them. Good luck!
Daily challenges. A loose ‘do something writing-related every day’ worked for me, but find your own. It could be trying a writing prompt, or doing a different daily writing exercise. Make it something that can be as big or as small as you can handle on each specific day. Small steps, tiny bites.
Easy goals. Give yourself tasks you know you can handle. One page of new words a day. A new short story. Ten pages of revision. Victory with easy goals will encourage you to take on more demanding ones next.
Comfort food. Or comfort books, really. Though food is good, too. Especially cake. Wait, what were we talking about? Books, that’s right. Think of it as comfort food for the brain. I got myself back in the mood for reading by returning to old favorites and switching genres for a while.
When we are young, the extraordinary is everywhere. Babies reach for dust motes, sparkling like magic in a stray sunbeam. Toddlers find enchantment in sticks, and stones, and seashells. Shadows hold mysteries, a puddle is an ocean of promise, and every street corner hides a story yet to unfold.
We recently adopted a shelter puppy, which means I’ve been taking endless trips to the backyard in the name of house training. Small Pup is in awe of everything in her newly expanded universe: the crackle of last autumn’s leaves in the woods at the back of our house; the chirp and cheep of crickets and chipmunks and other wild calling things; the dappled play of sunlight through the green boughs.
Our multiple excursions have forced me to slow down, take a break from life, and actually take a good look around me. I’m rediscovering the art of enjoying the details, the little things: early acorns, tiny frogs, the first of the autumn colors in the trees. Last night a small snake — barely a hatchling — slithered past. When it saw us, it froze and raised its head in youthful defiance, until we moved away and it could escape, leaving a rippling trail in the grass.
It takes me back to childhood days I’d thought forgotten. To the tall bushes at the end of my London garden, which I was convinced held a path to a secret world if I could only find the right word, or the right moment, or the right gesture. To games played in the nearby woods, looking for fairies in the quiet places and wondering if the squirrels could be persuaded to talk.
Our young lives are alight with stories of magic doorways and other places: a rabbit hole in the countryside or a space behind a dryer in a big city basement laundry can lead us to a Wonderland of talking playing cards or an Underland of giant roaches and warrior bats. But more than that: when we are small we believe in the possibility of magic and that these imaginary worlds might just be real. We lose that as we grow, and reason and logic begin to prevail.
These stolen moments, out in the backyard with Small Pup listening to the rustle of wildlife in the trees and letting my imagination soar, have been a true gift. I’ve been a little out of sync with my writing lately, and this quiet process of getting back in touch with the enchantment of my childhood days is helping me connect to my own words again. And find the extra in the ordinary.