5 Things To Work on When Writing Isn’t in the Cards

I intended to get a chapter outlined yesterday.  My editor asked me to get this done but we’ve had rain for four days straight and the mold is up.  Let’s just call what I woke up with a pounding headache and get one to discussing writing.

Or not writing.  Because even when the headache backed off around 1 pm, I was too foggy to write.

Fortunately, there are always writing related tasks to do.  Here are 5 things to work on the next time your brain is lost in the fog.

  1. Watch a webinar.  Focus on writing skills and inspiration.  There are some really informative writing webinars available.  Linda Sue Park just did one for SCBWI about writing in scenes.  This session was information packed.  You should have a another week or two to check it out.
  2. Take a class on a topic that interests you.  Don’t limit your educational activities to writing.  Take classes on other topics for the fun and inspiration.  I’m on class one of Coursera’s Graphic Design Elements for Non-Designers Specialization. I’ve also taken classes on dinosaurs, evolution, and Ancient Egypt.
  3. Research for your writing!  Get ready to start a new project but doing some of the research.  It is amazing how many resources go into writing a book for young readers.  Make yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up, and read.
  4. Research what to do with your writing.  If you’ve got manuscripts in need of publication, take an hour or three to research agents or publishers.  I’ve got 5 agents and agencies on my list to review.
  5. Business cards, social media and more.  My business card is boring.  My site has one look.  My facebook author page another and the list goes on.  But I’m taking a class on design.  Yesterday I spent some time pulling together a new business card (see above).  It only took me about 90 minutes and 6 attempts.  Most of the 90 minutes was spent learning how to do the curved lettering in Illustrator.

What do you work on when your brain is too foggy to write?



3 Ways to Promote Your Work Online

You may have already seen something about this, but J. K. Rowling is serializing a children’s book online.  Each weekday from May 26 to July 10, she will be posting one or more chapters of The Ickabog.  She wrote this story for her own children while she was working on the Harry Potter books.  She had never done anything with this and suggested to her teens that she could make the book available to young readers.  Everyone agreed it was a great idea.

Search #TheIckabog on Twitter and you will find 1000s of messages.  I would give you a more specific number but Twitter gave me the number then refreshed and decided that I didn’t really need to know how many there were.  Thanks, Twitter.

Part of the reason that this has gained so much traction so quickly is, let’s be realistic, because it has Rowling’s name attached to it.  But she is doing three things:

  1. Giving away a serialized book for free.  Now registration needed.  Just click over to her site and read.
  2. Holding a contest.  Young readers have been invited to create their own illustrations and post them with the hashtag #TheIckabog. From among the entries, her UK publisher and her US publisher will choose images to be used to illustrate the book this fall.  And her proceeds?
  3. Giving something to a worthy cause.  All the money she makes on sales of The Ickabog will go to help those negatively impacted by the coronavirus.

Now, granted, none of us is J K She-May-as-Well-Be-a-Rock-Star Rowling, but we can use these things to promote our work.  You can give something away.  What you would give away would depend on who you are targeting.  Teachers love lesson plans.  Young readers?  An illustrator friend creates coloring pages.

You can also hold a contest.  Maybe you could give away copies of your book.  Or you could name a character after someone or even a setting.  Edwardsville?  Edwardstown?

Last but not least there are so many ways to give including supporting literacy programs which are a personal favorite.

What could you do to promote your work online?


Breaking 3 Writing Rules

Yesterday @JoshuaIsard tweeted an Orwell quote. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Contrary-bear that I am, I immediately thought of an exception.  But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore writing rules.
Oft repeated rules are oft repeated for a reason. Breaking them can be done but can be hard to do well.  Thus the rule.
Here are five of them as well as authors/books that break them.
“Never use a long word when a short one will do.” George Orwell  I hadn’t had my coffee when I read Joshua’s tweet but immediately the word tintinnabulation popped into my head.  Poe used it in his poem, The Bells.  It is definitely a $20 word but well worth the extra penny. Poetry and picture books are often about the sound of the word and sometimes that sound requires a more elaborate word than ring or toll, peal or jingle.  Perhaps this rule should really be, use the right word?
Don’t write rhyming picture books .  This isn’t a rule that I’m inclined to break but there are other people who do it well.  If you are interested in writing rhyming picture books, look beyond Seuss and study April Pulley Sayre.  Your rhyme and rhythm have to be spot on and you can’t switch up the word order in your sentence.  It has to be logical and smooth.  
Children and teens want to read about characters who are slightly older than they are.  No adults!  The trick is that readers need to be able to identify with the characters and it can be hard for young readers to identify with adult characters.  But, there are exceptions.  Among my favorites were Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry, two of Cynthia Rylant’s characters.  They may not be children but young readers identify with their love of their pets and friends and also their ability to get in a fix.
If you are determined to break the rules, study other writers who have done it and done it well.  Your attempt still may not fly but at least you struggled to get air born!
Is there another writing rule I should have included?  If so, list it below.

Three Reasons I Quit Reading

One of the reasons that I love using the library is that when I decide not to finish a book, it is a guilt free decision.  This is especially true when it is an ebook.  Click to check it out.  Listen or read for a short time.  Click to return.  Am I sure I want to return it?  Oh, yes.  I’ve actually made it about 1/3 of the way through a book before turning it back in.

Here are the three main reasons that I quit reading a book.

Voice.  I’m sewing a new set of masks for the family and I always listen to a book while I saw.  I checked out a book by a really popular author that another author just recommended.  “Her books have so much suspence!”  Hmm.  I don’t know.  I didn’t get through the first chapter.  The book opens with the POV character heading to a party and hating everyone and everything involved.  Granted, I think we’ve all been there.  But when I step into the book and the POV character is griping about her shoes, her dress, the party, the hostess, the other guests, the fact that . . . whoa!  Back it goes.

Brains? What Brains? The book that I made it 1/3 of the way through suffered from a lack of intelligence on the part of the POV character.  Gullible didn’t begin to cover it.  It was painful to behold.  I know that not everyone is a Mensa candidate but when characters are dumbed down to keep the tension high . . . that’s one of the times I click Return.

Violence.  When I read YA books, the level of violence isn’t generally a problem even when I’m reading horror.  Gore isn’t a huge problem for me.  But sexual violence is a no go.  I don’t think I’ve ever returned a YA book for this but adult books?  One recent best seller combined “no brains” with “violence.”  My book club avoids books recommended by a certain celebrity because of this.  Myself, I don’t know why these are frequently elements of women’s fiction.

What makes you decide to quit reading a book?




Memorial Day

I hope you are taking some time to recharge and recenter yourself today.

Most Memorial Day weekends, my family spends the weekend in the country. We roam forests, fields and gravel roads.  We stare into the open blue sky.  We remind ourselves that in addition to fighting for the Flag and Freedom, our veterans were fighting for forests, open skies and gravel roads, deserts, mountain tops and sun-dappled swamps.

Sadly, today we are going to be attending a memorial service for a friend who died of COVID-19.*  But it is appropriate that we have her service today.  She and her husband are both veterans,

Hope you’ve spent some time this weekend doing something to help you recharge and center so that you can come back tonorrow ready to write!


*We are going to be social distancing.  Our pastor is serious about safety as is his wife, the medical doctor.  Not sure how this is going to work.  My skittish self will likely volunteer to be outside.


Four Tips to Help You Take Action Now

When I have a deadline, I work toward it.  I meet it.  And then I find myself drifting around the house, cleaning floors, dusting and baking.  My family really appreciates the baking. With my last deadline on the near horizon, I’ve been contemplating what I can do to get my writing-life in gear.  Monday I was fortunate to read Rachelle Gardner’s post, Find What You Control, And Take Action.

An agent, Gardner admits that at the moment quite a bit is out of our control.  While that was the case last year, it is even more so now and we are feeling it.  She reminds us that people are reading more than ever so we writers are essential.  What we need to do is figure out what we can control and take action.

Here are tips to help you do this.

Learn something new.  I am always energized when I am learning and now is a great time to take advantage of many of the free learning opportunities online.  You can learn about writing with free webinars.  You can learn about marketing your work whether through bookstores or online.  Or you can just take a fun class.  Whenever I take a free Coursera class on history or science, I come way with a list of new writing ideas.

Read!  One of the great things about being a writer is that reading is a part of our work.  We learn from reading other writers.  Wednesday afternoon I finished Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou.  If you can get the audio book that is read by Angelou herself, I highly recommend it because each piece is written and read in her voice.

Write.  This one can be tough. I have to admit that as I work on my cozy and try to craft scenes with people gathering together I find myself thinking, “Will things still be like this?”  My solution?  I’ve been working on picture book manuscripts and brainstorming a piece of historic fiction.

Submit.  While we don’t know exactly what tomorrow will bring, we can still send our work out. I got serious about my agent search and have a list of people to send my work.

While we can’t predict the future, there are things we can do.  There are  editors and agents who want our work.


3 Big Picture Things to Look for in Your Fiction

Like many of you, I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, as in even more than usual.  Some things I’ve really enjoyed including All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair, The Long Call by Ann Cleaves, and The Other People by C. J. Tudor.  Some things I’ve found much less enjoyable.

I’ve been noodling over what it was I didn’t like when yesterday I read Nathan Bransford’s post on diagnosing big picture problems in your novel.  His post helped me shape my own thoughts on the elements you need to have in place in most fiction.

Character goal.  What is it that matters to your character?  What is she trying to accomplish?  What is he trying to keep from happening?  No matter how you frame it, your character needs a goal.  Just what that goes is may change in the course of a novel but that’s okay.  If getting a basketball scholarship is the only way your character will get to college, a willingness to put something else first shows just how important that things is.

Plot. Your character needs a goal but it can’t be something that is easy to achieve.  Whether your story is a novel or a picture book, there have to be multiple attempts.  Otherwise it is all to easy.  Something your character wants without a plot is nothing more than a situation.  Think savoring a spoonful of melted chocolate vs striving to win a baking contest.

Change.  I hinted at this one above.  There has to be a change.  Often it is a change in your character, some kind of growing awareness.  Sometimes your character doesn’t change but manages to change their world.  Much like something without a plot, a piece without change often feels like a situation vs a story.

When the time comes to rewrite your story, don’t just shift commas and fix spelling.  Look for big picture items like character goal, plot and change.


3 Things to Remember When Working on a Rewrite

Last Friday I got the coronavirus manuscript back from my editor. I quickly looked at the comments. There were 100 so I couldn’t read them closely but I wanted to let her know if I had any big questions or concerns.  After I e-mailed her back, I walked away.  And that’s my first piece of advice to you–

Walk away.  What? You expected me to say that I got right to work?  Nope.  My first piece of advice is to read through everything, or listen to what the person has to say, and then walk away.  Even if you can see the benefit of very comment, you’re going to need some time to simply exist with the recommendations.  You need to let things settle before you get to work.

Don’t cruise through on autopilot.  Remember that you don’t have to make absolutely every change.  Sometimes my editor just wants more information if it is available.  If it isn’t, then I just tell her that.  Sometimes she asks for a change that for some reason doesn’t work.   Sure, I could just make it.  After all, she’s the editor.  But I often look at why she wants the change.  What doesn’t work?  Then I try to come up with something better.

Ask questions. Sometimes I look at a request and think, “What?  I have no clue what you just said.”  Sometimes this is because I am simply too close to the material.  This is the time to take a short break.  I walk.  I clean something.  I read the comment aloud.  And if I still don’t get it, I send her an e-mail.

Rewriting is hard.  I have an especially difficult time with complex changes because we send the manuscript back and forth with track changes on.  I’m dyslexic so having highlighted text and text that is struck out along with regular text is super distracting.  With a big change, I will copy the comment into a new document, write the new paragraph(s) and then paste it into the old document.  The original text is still there, struck out, and the new text is highlighted, but I don’t have to look at it through the whole writing process.

Especially when you are working with comments from an agent or editor, it is important to remember that you are all on the same team.  You want to make a great book.  You may need to come up with a trick like this one to make things easier for yourself, but it will be worth your time when you create a book that sings.


How to End Your Picture Book

Last week, I read Dibs! by Laura Gehl.  In this story, Julian has to learn to deal with being a big brother. He tries to do this by calling dibs on various things.  Because we need a plot, obviously this does not work.  I’m not going to review the book here.  You can click through using the link above if you want to read my review.  But I am going to include plot spoilers here as I discuss the ending.

Writing a satisfying ending to your picture book can be tricky although there are several that work well.  These include:

Call to action. This is popular in nonfiction where you challenge the reader to go forth and . . . conserve, recycle, feed the hungry, etc.

Circular ending.  I really like well crafted circular endings.  This ending somehow connects to the beginning.

The surprise ending. In my mind, this is the trickiest type of picture book ending.  It surprises the reader while also flowing from what happened earlier in the story.

Dibs! does two of the three.  It has a circular ending that is also a surprise.

First we’ll discuss the surprise.  Early in the story, Julian deals with Clancy by callind dibs on all the things he is afraid Clancy will take from him – a special plate, cookies, and  an astronaut costume.  Clancy goes bigger and calls dibs on the bakery where the cookies are made, the White House and NASA.  When he travels to space, he and the rocket are grabbed by aliens and he has to be rescued by Julian.

Space, space and more space.  And brothers.  And family.  That’s what the reader has been experiencing through the last two-thirds of the story as they approach the last spread.  Another spread about space wouldn’t be especially surprising so how does Gehl shake it up?  Julian teaches Clancy a new word – jinx!

We’ve been so deep in the space theme, that returning to the theme of an all powerful word is a delightful surprise.  But it works because on the previous spread, the brothers both call dibs on a plate of star cookies.  Unlike earlier times, they are both laughing and we know they are going to share.  Dibs leads us right into jinx in a way that is believable, fun, and surprising.

And circular.  Because we are back to the idea of a key word.

I have to admit that endings are not my strength and when I come across one that works this well . . . wow!  It really wins me over.  Now I just have to develop the perfect ending for my own manuscript.



Give Yourself a Break

The other day a friend commented that she was having to force herself to read her current book.  But it wasn’t for a class or bookclub.  It wasn’t for research/  It was something she was reading for fun.

Really?  It didn’t sound like fun.

My advice?  Back away from the book and give yourself a break.  That is something we need to remember both in our reading and in our writing.

Sometimes I will push myself through when I am reading a book that I feel like I have to read.  Sometimes it is for bookclub.  Other times it is a book that is good for me – a tough topic but something that I believe I should know more about.

Last week, I was reading one of those books – a good for me book.  Ugh.  I was learning a lot but it was such a tough slog.  It felt like every chapter was weighing me down and this book is a monster at 600 pages.  I just couldn’t do it.  Some books require more energy than others to read and it is okay to put a book aside for another time.  Give yourself a break.  So I picked up The Golden Thread. The only problem now is that I have a deadline and I would much rather be reading.

Lately a group of writing friends and I have also been finalizing coronavirus essays to submit.  I had three.  I picked out two markets and realized that I can only send a single piece to each.  I was going to have to leave one of them sitting here on my desk.

I started with my favorite piece.  I tweaked and nudged and smoothed it out . . . and realized that it just doesn’t hang together.  So I went over it again.  And again.

Then I realized that I have two other pieces left.  I can let this piece sit.  Some pieces just take longer to come together.  And it is okay to give yourself a break and put something aside until you’ve had time to process it.

We are living in interesting times.  If for no other reason, we sometimes need to remember to give ourselves a break.  Back away from that book, whether you are writing it or reading it.  Try something else for a while.  It is okay.  Really.