On Writing

Vision Boards: Envision Your 2020 Goals

Every few years I gather with friends before January 1 to envision the year by creating a “vision board.” The resulting collage can be a surprising picture of the unconscious motives behind our goals.

On New Year’s Eve day, five of us sat around our dining room table with a stack of New York Times newspapers, random magazines, gluesticks, scissors, and blank poster board. The house was quiet, save for a Spotify playlist of café favorites. Just days before, my stepdaughter’s children’s laughter rang through the house. I could still see them sitting at this same table with napkins tucked under their chins.

I flipped through magazines, thinking vaguely about my 2019 goals: the unfinished ones – an interrupted blog and my middle grade characters stuck in Purgatory in Act II – and the finished ones – a novel submission, a new job, deeper friendships, a garden planted, and a daughter launched from college to Africa. My 2020 To Do List included returning to the blog, and getting those characters out of Purgatory and into an agent’s in-box.

As I skimmed newspapers, headlines jumped out at me. SO MUCH IS COMPETING FOR A CHILD’S ATTENTION. No kidding. Clip, clip, clip. Was this about my desire to put books in the hands of children, or the memory of my seven-year-old grandson playing Mario Cart?  

Turning another page, I saw a young woman with arms reaching out as she released a bird in the air. One night that week by a warm fire, my daughter and I had talked about reaching for our goals. How could we support each other’s efforts? The outstretched arms reminded me of our conversation. Clip, clip, clip. Was this a vision of me reaching for my goals? Or supporting my daughter? Did it matter?

If you follow a strict interpretation of vision boards, yeah, it kinda matters. Vision boards became popular through a book and a film called The Secret which espoused the idea that “like attracts like.” According to this Law of Attraction, envisioning what you want can attract your goal to you. A new car, a different house, a slimmer waistline, more money – if you focus on your vision and believe it already exists as a reality somewhere, the real goal will manifest in your life. You send the message to the Universe and the Universe hits reply. Easy peasy

I don’t want to diss the Universe but this lacks a crucial element: action. I’m all for believing in my goals, and Lord knows I need to bring more focused attention to them, but that’s not the same as taking tangible steps. Like what St. Ignatious of Loyola had in mind: Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you. You’ve got to do the actual work. 

In the end, I liked how my board turned out. It had way more to do with conscious or unconscious thoughts of my children or children in general than with my goals. It was like sending my goals to a playground with cousin Imagination in hand. What a wild ride that can be. 

To make your own vision board, you need: poster board or some stiff paper, some newspapers and a magazine or two, scissors, a glue stick, and colored pens. Also, don’t spend an entire day doing this. Save a little time for actually writing.

On Writing

On Writing: The Idea Cloud

Pick a thread from the Idea Cloud hanging over you. (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon)

Every once in a while, two movies come out at the same time with same theme. Or multiple books suddenly have “thief” in the title. (There are 161 titles in Goodread’s Best Thief Book category!) Why does this happen? I blame it on the Idea Cloud.

Sometimes, the explanation is simple. Similar films released close together is a phenomenon with it’s own Wikipedia page. But what about novels? Novels are usually unique stories written in isolation. Normally, a story emerges from one brain before it reaches the gristmill of publishing. So why would a writer see her own unique concept crop up in somebody else’s book?

It has to do with how stories arise in the writer’s brain. That’s where the Idea Cloud comes in.

Idea Clouds spreading overhead. (Northwestern Minnesota)

Here’s how it works:

Let’s use the thief example. You’re listening to the news on your way home from work. The newscaster announces that a monkey is missing from the town zoo and evidence suggests someone stole it. Huh, you think. A monkey thief. Not a bad idea for a story. Then you remember the 161 thief books on Goodreads. You’re going to need more than thievery to make a fresh story.

Still driving, you recall a rash of missing dogs reported last year. Missing dogs, missing monkeys. Huh, again. Now the old story has a fresh twist. That’s promising. Your writerly brain turns the two ideas over like a Rubik’s Cube, seeing how the pieces might fit together.

Then you get home. You step out of your car, or off the train, or down from the bus and you listen. Do you hear the firing shot? All the other writers who heard the same news story as you are now sitting down to their laptops. The race is on. Are you going to join them?

This is the moment you begin to tug on the Idea Cloud, that fluffy cumulous-shaped mass of ideas floating over head. You reach up and pull down the missing monkey thread. Now the missing dog thread. The Idea Cloud’s positive charge will speedily lock onto any emotionally-charged memory you have about dogs, monkeys, and missing animals in general. All those memories hidden under the couch cushions of your amygdala will rise up, supercharged, and ZING! Lightning will strike.

Lightning must’ve been in this tropical Idea Cloud hanging over my car. (Boca Raton, Florida)

Suddenly, in rapid succession, you will remember: your favorite dog when you were ten years old; your little brother’s remorse over leaving the garden gate open; the neighborhood search for said dog; and the knock on the door from a motorist with bad news. You will feel the old sorrow of learning that your dog is dead, and wish you’d never listened to the news that day driving home.

But wait! You are now a superhero middle grade writer! You can rewrite history and transform your old sadness. You can finally give your dog the resting place he deserves in your heart. You can write a good story that kids will love.

You begin to ask What If questions. What if the monkey and dogs in your story are in cahoots? What if they have a good reason for disappearing? What if the lead dog has your old dog’s name? What if the dogs steal the monkey from the zoo to help them spring their canine friends from a kill shelter?

Eureka! You’re ready to draft your next middle grade story.

The sun breaks through the Idea Cloud. (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Then, one of your critique group friends informs you that another middle grade writer just sold that story to HarperCollins in a five figure deal.

Whaaa…? You were just getting started!

But, hold on a sec. It’s not exactly the same. The author pulled the same two threads down from the Idea Cloud, asked the same What If questions and finished her version first but her monkey doesn’t pick locks and there’s no kill shelter. You swallow your pride. You change the location of your story from Cleveland to India, where you lived as a child. Now your story is not the same as hers, and, anyway, there’s room in a bookstore for two books on animals saving a corner of the world.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do when you found out “your” story was already out there in the world?

If so, you may steal the dog/monkey story. I just made it up. Somebody else might’ve written it first, you never know. Google it and then write like heck to be first to finish it. Set it in India. Or Guam. There aren’t enough children’s books about Guam. Good luck!

P.S. This particular Idea Cloud idea is mine, however. But feel free to share this post with other writers like us.

On Writing

On Writing: Finding the Silver Lining in Querying

It’s tough but not impossible to find a bright spot in the submissions process. (Yosemite National Park, CA)

When I queried literary agents about my manuscript, the results were mixed but rejection came with a silver lining. It led to a choice that, in the end, will make my story stronger.

My young adult (or YA) story had followed a tortuous path: written, workshopped, revised, reimagined and rewritten all over again. Feedback from my critique group, beta readers, and a bestselling mentor strengthened character arcs and plot points. (Mentor: what happens in Act III? Me: She realizes she had it all wrong, and starts over. Mentor: No, I mean, what actually happens-happens?)

When I judged the manuscript to be submission-ready, I wrote a pitch and multiple drafts of a query letter to arrive at a boilerplate that could be personalized for each agent. 

Then came submersion in Agent Land. Goal: to create a curated list of agents seeking YA stories with my story elements. I read a few months of #MSWL on Twitter and online to discover what agents were currently seeking. Then skimmed conference notes for all the agents I’d already met and heard speak so I could mention it if I queried them. In the Bay Area, a group of YA writers get together for breakfast every other month. As we went around the circle, I asked each one about their agents, past and present. Finally, I compiled lists on Agent Query and Query Tracker online.

The list grew to 34 names. (This is shortish. I just read a tweet from an author who was rejected 40 times before signing with an agent.) I picked eight to start, rechecked their status on their agency website, noted submission instructions for each, and read their recent tweets. Then hit Send. 

Whenever I #amsubmitting, I’m jettisoned back to first grade, jostling in line with other squirmy kids, hoping Teacher notices how smart and well-behaved I am, while feeling a little out of my depth with playground etiquette and spending all my time on the swings. I mean, nobody wants a tether ball in the face.

The results of my first round of submissions were mixed: two no-responses, two form rejections, three personal responses. At this point, I had been submitting for months, distracted by life events and travel. Summer turned to fall to winter. We flew to France for the holidays. I submitted another agent from my sister-in-law’s dining room table sprinkled with tiny gold stars.

Then it happened: the agent asked for a full. Clouds parted. She wanted to see the whole manuscript. Gulp.

I uploaded the document. She followed me on Twitter. Christmas came. We drank mulled wine at the Marche de Noel and shopped for boudin blanc.  Another email: she loved the voice, but couldn’t use the story. What else did I have? I had a middle grade story that had been optioned for television but never published. It wasn’t really her genre, but I sent it.

A couple days went by. At this point, we were winding up our trip with visits to cousins.  We ate, drank, walked by the sea, visited a 17thcentury fort. Skies were grey. It rained. We played a hilarious version of French Trivial Pursuit. Became addicted to a card game called Belote. The sun finally came out. Fluffy clouds sailed across the sky. And the agent wrote again.

This time, she explained in a long letter what she liked about my writing, what elements in the story worked for her and what didn’t. She encouraged me to keep going. “You’re so close to your breakout novel!” But no, she wasn’t offering representation at this time.

Editorial letters like this are a generous gesture on the part of a professional. As Mary Kole, of https://kidlit.com, suggests in Manuscript Submission Blueprint, writers should pay attention to advice from professionals. Unless they ask for a revision, you only get one chance to interest them in a project.

Now I had a quandary: I could ignore her advice and keep submitting. Or consider it and revise. Or self-publish. Or drop the project and work on something else. Putting it aside felt like giving up, and, man, those two words are pure motivation for me to charge forward. (More on that another time.) The agent agreed to see it again after I revised. I decided to pay a professional editor to read my manuscript and recommend ways to improve the story. Even at $2.50 a page for 337 pages, the cost was 75-80% of attending a big writing conference and the results would be help me finish this project.

In the end, the process provided me with a few epiphanies, and the knowledge and connections I needed to move forward. It doesn’t take the sting out of rejection, but that’s part of the process. You’ve got to move through it to get what you want. What I want is to tell and sell a really good story.

A couple side notes: 

  • Mary Kole’s online tool Manuscript Submission Blueprintincludes Feedback Aggregator and Checklist for Regrouping worksheets. 
  • Did you know kids naturally gravitate to either swings, slide, monkey bars or sandbox, according to their nature. I picked swings. What’d you pick? Why?
On Writing

On Writing: When Company Comes to Call

When getting your work done means hiding away for an hour an day. (Oregon Gardens, 2019)

As I anticipate a full house this week, I’m wondering how to squirrel away an hour a day to write. How do I break the habit of taking care of everyone who crosses my threshold and putting my own needs on hold while they’re here? Instead of blocking out time to write, I’m usually cooking, rifling through recipes to feed a crowd, pouring coffee, picking up the house, and, wait, did I mention cooking? No wonder my grocery list includes items like GIN! and LIMES! 

Old habits die hard – and that includes the need to write. When I worked fulltime and revised a YA, I rose at 5 am to write. When we took a family vacation, I slipped out while everyone slept and used the business room in the hotel lobby. I found cafes, local libraries, kitchen tables, and front porches in the quiet of morning. I had to jump on the chance to get a character out of a tough spot, to advance a plot, to read a critique – even when there was no paycheck involved and the story may never meet an actual editor. 

Why? Likely, my company will wonder. Why does it matter? Why do I still need to be alone when company comes to call?

1 – Because it’s work, even when I don’t get paid for it.

2 – Because of “flow,” as it is called by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  Flow is the experience, to paraphrase Csíkszentmihályi, of being so involved in creating something new in the world that you forget time, forget to eat, and sometimes (as my youngest just reminded me) even forget to pick up your child at school. I call it the Deep Space Nine of my work, allowing myself to shut out the world and go deeply into my own imagination to create something new.

3 – Because if I do not make incremental, “Deep Space Nine” progress on my chapter/plot/poem/painting, my efforts to restart everything after one week off will be like starting a freight train. My writing mentor, Veronica Rossi, called it trying to get a 747 off the ground. She is right. 

4 – And because I need to get my writing project DONE. If I want to submit to agents by November, I will want to finish the first draft of your book in time to have beta-readers read a copy, then do the inevitable changes, then write a query and a synopsis, research agents who like the kind of story I wrote, and submit it. In other words, I need to be done with my current writing project tomorrow.

On Writing, Oregon

Building a Writing Community: Fairy Godmothers, Lifelines and Schmoozing

Children’s book writers listen to one another’s work at an SCBWI Critique Cafe in Napa. (2014)

I read two picture books every night for years. Eventually, my daughters began reading to themselves, but I missed the magical world of their children’s books. I’d gone to journalism school and figured, hey, I can write a kid’s book, no problem.  It turned out writing novels is a practiced art.

My first effort was a chapter book about a narwhal and a unicorn. I trucked off to share it with a writers’ group that met at the local library. I brought some pages, read them aloud, and listened while they discussed my fledgling efforts. It wasn’t easy to stay quiet which was the rule. When the first critiquer stated how much she loathed talking animals, I wanted to leap to the defense of my characters. Yet, if I had done that, I would have missed the entire point of the meeting: listen to feedback and improve the story, so even the snarkiest critic finds merit in it.

Sherry and Hillary (pictured) ventured up to Willamette Valley to winetaste and write (2019)

The writers’ group whittled down to four steady members – Leslie, Hillary, Sherry and I. We met monthly for the next 14 years, sometimes around my creaky dining room table, or in Leslie’s cozy living room, or in Hillary’s home office. Every July, we trekked to Sherry’s for a homemade meal and one of her signature desserts. 

We settled into the “sandwich method” of critiquing. The critiquer says what she likes about the story or chapter, then defines problems with voice, character, plot, setting, etc., and, finally, finishes on a positive note. 

Leslie and I at the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles ( 2014)

Over time, we become familiar with one another’s strengths and difficulties, commiserated over rejections, and celebrated every gain. My critique group  transformed a very solitary vocation into a shared journey. They are the fairy godmothers who help me turn a pumpkin of a story into a chariot every time, as I hope I do for them. Even after I moved, we continue to sprinkle fairy dust on each other’s work though semi-magical Facetime. 

Another writer I met along the way became a daily lifeline. In 2015, I met Debbie through the SCBWI Nevada Mentor Program (more on SCBWI in a sec). A bestselling author picked both our manuscripts and helped us revise them over six months. A couple coincidences become obvious right away. We lived 3000 miles from each other, in each other’s home states and close to each other’s hometowns. With the clock ticking, we emailed each other five days a week about our revision progress.  It was like riding in a bike race as a team and tossing the water bottle back and forth. Last fall, we spent a few days together on the East Coast. What a pleasure it was to pull out our laptops in a coffee shop in person and read each other’s work. Four years later, we still check with each other several times a week. 

Debbie and I dashed to New York City for writing inspiration. Here on the High Line.(2018)

I met all the writers above – and many more – through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI is a professional organization for writers and artists who create stories for children and youth. This largely volunteer-run nonprofit hosts conferences and workshops across the U.S. (including my new home state of Oregon) and in over 20 other countries. In 2015, I started the Napa County arm of SCBWI’s San Francisco North and East Bay Region, and ran it for the first four years. Now I’m happy to grow my writing community in Oregon, and schmooze with local writers here.

These are just a few ways to find support as a writer – critique group, productivity partner, professional associations. What supports your writing life? (Other than coffee.)