Pantaphobia: THAT’S IT!

Robin LaFevers writes: One of the hardest things about being a writer can be the sense of isolation we experience–the sense that we are the only ones to feel a certain way. Especially when those feelings are not happy or joyful ones. That’s why fellow writers’ honesty is such a gift. Today I am honored to share with you such a gift–a guest post by YA author Myra McEntire. It is a raw, honest look at some of the hardships of being a writer, and the unexpected places where we can find healing connections.

Myra is the author of the Hourglass trilogy, which was a RITA nominee as well as a nominee for the YALSA Teen Top Ten. She is also a contributor to MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, a collection of holiday short stories which has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

For more of Myra’s humor and honesty, connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.

Pantaphobia: THAT’S IT!

I was diagnosed with major clinical depression last January. Big time med changes, counseling, the whole churro. With the help of family and friends, including Stephanie Perkins (who held me accountable for daily tasks like eating, showering, and teeth brushing), the extreme low only lasted for a couple of months.

But even the regular low is a real pain in the ass.

I spent a lot of time attempting to escape my pit of despair. I sat in front of my computer, trying to turn words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. I tried, and tried, and tried, but never made it to scenes or chapters. There were distractions – we moved, our kids changed schools, and then summer break rolled around. Summer break at our house is like a three-month Coachella Festival. My focus is solely on crowd control and keeping everyone alive. Next year I’m ordering myself a t-shirt that says “SECURITY” in hot pink, sequined letters. I’ve not ruled out a low voltage tazer, but there are some … legality issues I need to look into.

When I wasn’t serving as the family bouncer, I decorated, painted, gardened, and crafted, until there was nothing left to decorate, paint, garden, or craft. (Y’all, I Mod Podged so many things my cats got nervous. I think they thought they were next.) Finally, once school started. I could breathe. I had quiet time to be still and get honest with myself. I evaluated life, and what I wanted from it. I didn’t know if I could write for publication anymore.

I had multiple conversations with my husband – who understands chasing dreams, as he’s a former minor league baseball player. “Should I get a part time job? Finish my masters? Keep the house really clean and serve a home-cooked meal every night? Go to the gym regularly?” (THE GYM. REGULARLY.)

Thankfully, my husband is wise. “You won’t be happy,” he said. “That’s not you or your life.” The man turned down home cooked meals, and I’m a mighty fine cook, so he was not. messing. around. He gave me the courage I needed to keep questioning myself.

I talked to dear writer friends, who assured me they’d still love me if I weren’t “one of them.” That made me feel safe, but sad. I loved being “one of them”

I didn’t seek out online affirmation, so every note or tweet I got from a reader was a boon, a bolster, a blessing. They all reminded me of how it felt to emotionally touch a reader. That’s why I started writing in the first place. Continue Reading »

Writers, UnPlugged: Lessons from the Writer Unboxed UnConference

I’m writing this on the Saturday morning following the Writer Unboxed Unconference in Salem, still under the spell of the one of the most amazing weeks ever. It was the absolute best, hands-down, no doubt about it, most transformative writing conference I’ve ever been to – and I have been to a lot. I want to go on to say that other conferences had their fabulous moments, too, because sheesh, you don’t want to offend anyone, and it is true. But right now, it doesn’t feel true.

What made the UnCon different from other writing conferences is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.

This conference played in a different ballpark and gave writers something seminal that other conferences don’t put first: real community.

This doesn’t mean everyone sat around singing Kumbyah (thank god). Rather, we came together as complex human beings. We listened, we learned, we argued, we debated, we found common ground, and through it all we didn’t pretend to be anyone other than who we were – let the chips fall where they may. Did it make us vulnerable? Sometimes scarily so. But it was liberating, expanding, clarifying, empowering.

I can hear you yawning, thinking And so? Unless you were one of the lucky pups who got to spend five days together as the winds rattled through Salem, why on earth would you care? Why would exploring the difference between the UnCon and all those other otherwise-worthy conferences matter to those of you who couldn’t come — which, let’s face it, with everyone’s crazy, busy schedule, along with a cut off at 100 writers, is most of you? The answer is that what made the UnCon different is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.

What made the UnCon so different? Continue Reading »

Losing One’s Marbles

86847631_bd5ec1e4dd_mYou’ve all heard the big news: 9 out of 10 dentists agree that the path to publication requires sitting our tush in our writing chair and putting words on the page at least once a day. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when we have writer’s block. Even when we are busy working two other jobs and have a new baby or an untrained puppy or an ill child or aging parent . . . or all of that at once.

I’m no dentist, but I do agree we writers need to develop a habit of regular writing–preferably every day. That said, I also know there are seasons where we must allow ourselves a break, lest we lose our all-important marbles.

Here’s the catch: we need to know why we are taking a break, and it better not be one of these boring old excuses.

Excuse 1: Writing’s just too hard. Yes. It is incredibly difficult to create a solid story out of air and imagination. But it’s not as hard (Cheryl Strayed said) as being a coal miner. Or as hard (I say) as being a corrections officer, a lumberjack or a medieval leech collector. So let us don some big girl/big boy undies and embrace the challenge.

Excuse 2: I keep getting rejected. Fabulous. You are now one of us. I have so many rejections that when a kind soul says (in an attempt to encourage me), Remember how many times Harry Potter got rejected! I consider popping her in the face. Rowling got rejected twelve times. Twelve! I have gotten rejected about ten times that. Here’s the deal: if you get rejected, it means you are putting your work and yourself out there, learning (ideally) from the feedback and the experience. Rejection = Potential for Growth. Plus, if you are an author who never gets any rejection, none of us will like you. We will roll our eyes behind your back and pretend not to buy your book.

Excuse 3: I read what I wrote yesterday, and as it turns out, I am a crummy writer. Pishposh. Everyone is a crummy writer. Everyone hates what he wrote yesterday. With practice and effort and the willingness to seek and receive feedback, we all get better. Get to work.

Excuse 4: I don’t have what it takes. When I was in labor with my son, I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a mom. But it was too late. Much like parenting, being a writer requires on-the-job training. And a willingness to get pooped and spit-up on. But a novel will never leave its athletic cup on the kitchen counter. A novel will never ask you to spend many hours and dollars making a Rainbow Parrot costume that, come Halloween, she refuses to wear. Maybe you have what it takes. Maybe you will have what it takes if you keep working. So keep working. Continue Reading »

The Five Stages of New Writers’ Grief

a grief-stricken new writer

© iStockphoto.com

Earlier this year, at an online forum for writers that I frequent, I watched a familiar scenario play itself out. A new member joined the forum, full of excitement (and not a small amount of hubris) about the novel he’d just completed. As he posted his early attempts at a query letter for others to review and critique, two things quickly became clear:

  1. He was convinced the rest of the forum would be utterly dazzled by his unmatched literary brilliance, and
  2. Before writing his opus, he had done absolutely no research into the business of publishing.

The first one is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be excited about what we’ve written. And we should believe in the literary merit of our work (but not to the extent that we let our egos blind us to the possibility of improving our work).

It’s the second thing that can be the real killer, and yet it’s so common. Many new writers assume the way to write their first book is to simply sit down and start typing. On one hand, this sounds wonderful, and artistically pure. But on the other, imagine applying that logic to some other large task. If you wanted to build a house, and you had no background in construction or architecture, would you just grab some boards and nails and start hammering? Or would you perhaps want to put some planning into the project first?

Over several days and numerous threads on that forum, I watched a painful but increasingly familiar cycle unfold, as this new writer came up against some of the harsh realities of writing and selling commercially viable fiction. So, to borrow from the Kübler-Ross Model (AKA the five stages of grief), I thought I’d share my observations with you, and see if perhaps any of these stages sound familiar.

1. Denial

What do you mean my 375,000-word opus is too long to be marketable?! And what’s this “genre” of which you speak? I refuse to limit my creativity by trying to confine my work within a single easily identifiable genre! And why on earth should I have to bother with writing a query letter? Can’t I just call up one of the top agents and hire her – after all, she works for me, right?

It quickly becomes clear when a writer hasn’t done much (or any) homework on how the publishing business works. And when the harsh realities of this business begin to reveal themselves, some writers are not exactly open to the information.

 

Noooooo! Continue Reading »

On Not Giving Up

cartoon-determination-diamonds-dig-Favim.com-649941This week, my new adult novel, first in a big new series called Trinity, is coming out.

I’m going to be celebrating even more than usual, because this one’s had a long hard road to publication, with nearly four years and several rejections before it was accepted. Even though I’m a well-established author with many books to my name, it looked like this one was fated to remain homeless. ‘Too different’ seemed to be the verdict. A mix of urban fantasy, romance and conspiracy thriller, set in modern Russia, it was outside of my usual genre of YA fiction, and clearly also outside the comfort zone of many publishers.

But I was unwilling to give up.

I really believed in this book. Writing it had been a challenging, enriching and extraordinary experience and its characters and world haunted me.

It was a risky book to write, in all sorts of ways, but deeply thrilling, and I knew there were readers out there who would love it like I did. So I hung on, and in between writing other books, I kept revisiting the novel.

I sent it to good friends who are also writers and listened carefully to their advice and suggestions, and was greatly heartened by the fact they were immediately gripped by the story. I refined it, sculpted it, trying to re-read it with fresh eyes. When we went back to Russia the second time, in 2012, (this time, knowing enough Russian to keep up basic conversations) I rewrote entire paragraphs and even chapters, folding in new impressions of the country and culture into it, waiting for the right moment to send it out once again.

And then that moment came, and so did the right publisher. Joel Naoum of Momentum Books read it, loved it, and ‘got it’ immediately. It was such a thrill, reading his email about my ‘amazing manuscript’ , talking to him in detail about it, and later, meeting the rest of the Momentum team who clearly loved the book, and the idea of the series, as much as he did.

I’ve had a lot of acceptances over the twenty-four years I’ve been a published author, with more than sixty books to my name. And every book is special to me. But this one feels especially sweet, and sitting at my desk writing the sequel as I wait for the first book’s release, I am filled with deep satisfaction. Trinity has found the best possible home. It was well worth the wait.

This experience taught me once again why, as a writer, you should not give up. Continue Reading »

Creating Living Breathing Dialog

4836106500_63c363660b_z

By Torley (Flickr’s CC)

Today’s guest is Sally Wiener Grotta, an author and journalist whose books include Jo Joe and just-released The Winter Boy. Sally’s a consummate storyteller, reflecting her deep humanism and appreciation for the poignancy of life; and she’s also an award-winning journalist who has authored hundreds of articles, columns, and reviews for magazines, newspapers, and online publications. Sally gives occasional writing workshops and speaks frequently on the business of writing, and she has co-authored numerous non-fiction books.

My fictional characters are my other “selves,” my best friends, the ghosts who haunt me when I ignore them. And the stories that I create in collaborations with them are my lifeblood and raison d’etre.”

On why she feels it’s important to share how she relates to her characters, Sally says, “It’s part of my pay it forward. Throughout my career, I’ve had some wonderfully generous mentors. I would be honored if someday another writer could look back on one of my workshops, a discussion with me or an essay I’ve written, and say that it made a difference for her/him, helped set his/her writing on a new, useful, good path.”

Connect with Sally on Facebook, on Twitter, and on her blog.

Creating Living Breathing Dialog

“I’m having difficulty with the dialog,” Liz said to me. What a major problem, because she was talking about a play she was writing. Unlike a novel, a script is all dialogue—a story devoid of narrative. “My characters are too thin. Please take a look, and tell me where I went wrong.”

Liz is a good friend whom I could trust to welcome an honest critique, so I read her play. It’s nicely framed, but insubstantial, for the precise reason that she is forcing a plot onto stick figure characters which she has created for the sake of her story arc. When I sat down with her, I explained that the stage (or the book) is a window onto a much larger tapestry of life. “Dialogue,” I told her, “isn’t something that you plug into a play to tell a story. It’s something that comes out of the mouths of the characters who are living that story.”

To help her understand, I described how my characters are born and live within me, and the relationship I develop with them. I know them as intimately as I know myself, with perhaps a greater clarity than I have about my own history, my emotional tics and personal foibles.

For instance, when I think of any of the people in my latest novel, The Winter Boy, I understand not only who they are within the plotlines of the story, but also about their childhood, their family relationships, the traumas and triumphs that still haunt them. Continue Reading »

The Great Twitter Debate: Should You Follow Back?

photo by Gerry Balding

Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment, because if there’s one topic that could be considered controversial about the usage of Twitter, it’s this one. When someone new follows you, should you follow them back?

Some say yes, of course; it’s rude not to. Some say no, why should I? Twitter isn’t meant to be reciprocal. Others (like me) land somewhere in the middle. And still others are baffled, overwhelmed, or totally undecided.

Today I’m going to break down each school of thought in hopes of putting things in perspective, and maybe helping the undecided figure out where they stand. I am not – I repeat – I am not trying to convince anyone of one method over another. I’ve seen people use each of the options below to great success, so I suspect the answer lies less in “which is the best overall” and more in “which is the best fit for you.”

Team Followback

The plan: Follow back everyone who follows you, barring spambots. These people usually end up with a higher number of “following” than “followers.”

The goal: Build a high number of followers. Be inclusive. Maintain a wide pool of people to interact with.

The detractors: Many social media instructors teach that a “good ratio” is part of building a platform as a writer. If you follow everyone who follows you and then some, you look like a fan instead of someone to be a fan of.

The reasoning: This school of thought believes that following back is common courtesy. It costs you nothing, so there’s no reason not to. If you expect people to follow you, you have to be willing to return the favor.

Some supporters of this method also argue that it’s just smart to acknowledge fans/readers. If someone follows you and you follow back, it’s like a tip of the hat for their attention. Happy fans are good fans, after all.

Every Tweep for Him/Herself

The plan: Follow only people who offer you value – connections, prestige, information, entertainment, etc. These people usually end up with a lower number of “following” than “followers.”

Continue Reading »

Keep the Faucet on: Slow and Steady Fills the Ocean

6307672876_b73164a218_z

By Steve Johnson (Flickr CC)

Louis L’Amour has a quote I love: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I use this quote often in my classes. I even have this quote posted on the bulletin board in my office.

Why, then, why why why do I need to re-learn this at least once a year?

This fall has been an overwhelming, but exciting time for me. I combined households with the love of my life, not only moving but putting my old house up for sale and the relentless cross-one-thing-off-the-list-then-add-three-more insanity of that process, all while also starting a new venture in teaching online fiction courses…and attempting to finish the draft of my new novel.

What does this have to do with turning the faucet on, you might ask? Well, I do this thing, when life gets too frenetic, where I begin thinking things like, “Let me just go finish spackling and then I’ll come back to write,” or “I’ll be able to focus on the writing better if I just go ahead and unpack my office boxes,” and “I have to get everything ready for class tonight before I sink into the writing.”

Blah blah blah. I’ve been here before. I know better! But I fell into the trap again. Please tell me that some of you do the same thing and I’m not alone in this? And here’s what happens: with each passing day, it gets easier not to write. After a week, self-doubt creeps in and you begin to wonder if the project is even worth your time anyway. Two weeks out and you lose sight of what you were trying to do with the story at all. You begin to believe your stupid lie: “I’ll write again when I figure out where the book is going.”

What shamed me out of it was the “Inspiration & Motivation” class I was teaching. In that class, we spent half the time on prompts and exercises to help writers start (or finally finish) a project, and the other half on some aspect of the writing life…such as creating and defending a writing schedule (see where this is going?). Continue Reading »

On Reviews and How (Not) to Take Them

paper_birds_by_hoppipoppi.jpgI got the call from my husband two weeks ago, the one you never want to get. While at the park, our oldest daughter (age 7) had fallen and broken her arm. (My girl is something of a tree-climbing-roller-skating-bike-riding daredevil. Yet she managed to get a fairly spectacular compound fracture–her first–falling less than 4 feet off the toddler section of the playground. Really? Yup).

She was absolutely incredibly brave about the whole experience, from the ambulance ride to the hospital to the x-rays to the procedure to set the broken bone in a full-arm cast. Then she came home–and she was still brave. But she also had to face the kind of sucky reality that the whole ordeal of having a broken arm (her right arm, too) was really only just beginning. In a couple of months (a compound fracture means a loooong time in a cast) she’ll be fine, and she knows that and understands that she could have it so much worse, but it was still hard–especially in the first days when she was under orders to stay lying down with her arm elevated to keep the swelling down.

Now, my kids are always begging me to tell them stories, sometimes made-up ones, sometimes true stories from when I was their age.  So to cheer up my daughter and pass the time while she had to stay lying down, I told her that I’d make up a story just for her.  My girl loves witches and ghosts and all things spooky (spooky by 7 year old standards anyway), so I made up a story about a little-girl witch and her adventures.

Perfect, right?  And the rest of this post is going to be all about the healing power of stories during times of adversity, right?

Continue Reading »

The Meaning of Everything

Photo by Donald Maass

Photo by Donald Maass

It was my son’s seventh birthday.  We asked what he wanted.  He told us.  And so…

…we got a puppy.

A boy and his dog.  Growing up  together.  How sweet.  How classic.  Our son is adopted.  He comes from a hard place.  He has struggled to attach, a long process of pendulum swings from safety to fear and back again.  What a perfect gift for this boy we love so much: a puppy all his own to love too.

Trauma kids arrive with lacks, for instance eye contact, an understanding of cause and effect, and empathy.  Trauma kids test and reject you.  At the same time they cling with a choke hold.  Some days our son follows my wife around, talking nonstop.  One day she said, “Sweetheart, I really, really need to take a break.”  He said, “Can I come with you?”

We’ve made huge progress, we’re proud of that, but it’s a lifelong journey.  How excellent for this stage, we thought, to have a puppy.  The puppy will make eye contact with those big, sad puppy eyes.  Training the puppy will demonstrate cause and effect.  Caring for the puppy will build empathy.  All good, good, good.

Our puppy is a rescue.  (In our oppressively hip  neighborhood you will be lashed if you own a purebred.)  She’s sleek and black and wickedly smart.  She eats like a horse, has doubled in size, and we love her to pieces.

The trouble began with a corner of our baseboard molding.  It looked like a beaver had attacked it.  Of course it was Pup.  Chewing.  Everything.  You dog owners can stop laughing now.  It’s not funny.  Our place is trashed.  Carpets are rolled up and put away.  When we set the table for dinner the dishes are pushed to the center.  Pup also follows us everywhere.  She sits outside the bathroom door and barks.  She is needy, a bottomless bucket

There is so much we didn’t know or hadn’t considered.  We were willfully blind. Continue Reading »

Justifying Evil

 

Photographer Unknown

Photographer Unknown

No, this isn’t another post about the Amazon-Hachette imbroglio.

I recently took part (along with WU’s Donald Maas) in the Surrey International Writers Conference outside Vancouver, absolutely one of the best literary powwows I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to scads. (Sadly, I’m unable to attend the WU Un-conference beginning today. I have no doubt it’s even powwowier!)

One of the workshops I gave at the Surrey conference was titled Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character.

Moral argument as a structural device expands the thematic range of the conflict from a battle of individuals to a contest of moral visions. Each character is seen as seeking to create, maintain, or defend a way of life – an idea of what it means to live well among others – and if the conflict in the story is crafted well, these ways of life are ultimately antithetical.

This is what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) meant by the Unity of Opposites – a tightly woven conflict in which the protagonist and the opponent (or the problem/challenge the protagonist faces) are inextricably bound together, so that escape or compromise is impossible. Either the opponent must be defeated (or the problem solved, the challenge met), or the protagonist fails in a shattering, life-changing way – in a sense, she dies, if not physically then emotionally, morally, professionally.

But the stakes are also ultimate for the opponent – otherwise the protagonist’s victory or success is diminished. A hero who overcomes a facile, underdeveloped or unconvincing opponent – or solves an unimpressive problem, meets a humdrum challenge – will fail to engage the reader in a memorable way.

We need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance.

To stage conflict meaningfully the stakes have to be ultimate for all concerned, and this requires understanding the opponent’s perspective just as fully as the protagonist’s.

This requires that we justify – not judge – our opponent’s worldview. We can’t remain outside this character, feeling toward him but not for him. Stepping into his shoes is just the beginning. Sooner or later, we have to inhabit his heart and soul.

This often means we need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. And this requires that we not just accept but champion, embrace — dare I say it, love — someone we consider fundamentally mistaken, hurtful, even evil.

I know. Writers have all the fun.

And yet… Continue Reading »

You’re Such a Character

Image by The Magic Tuba Pixie

Image by The Magic Tuba Pixie

As an author, especially one just starting out, you’re often told about the importance of your “brand.” You’re lectured that how you act on social media, what you talk about in interviews, and what you write should all be in keeping with whatever “brand” you choose.

But that can seem artificial or inauthentic. You’re a person, after all. You’re not a corporation. You’re not a product.

But you are, in a way, a character.

Think about it. The fictional characters we write are supposed to seem as real as people, yet we can’t possibly portray them with all the complexity and breadth as people. You may know what hospital your protagonist was born in and the color of the walls of her second-grade bedroom and the bitter tears she cried when her brother threw her favorite CD out the window of a moving car, never to be seen again, on the road between Casper and Cheyenne – but you’re not going to share these details with your readers, unless they’re relevant to the story. You don’t write a character with no interests or history whatsoever, of course, but sentences laden with exposition bring your fiction grinding to a halt.

And the same is true of us, as authors. Even if you do want to tell your readers alllllll about your life, they’re not likely to be interested. You’re going to be selecting details regardless. So it’s not too much of a stretch to give some thought to those details, and what you’re going to emphasize, and what’s going to fall by the wayside.

This has really hit home with me lately, as I prepare to launch my second debut — a new novel, this time under a pseudonym. Continue Reading »