Time and the Writer

Some writers I know have been discussing how unfair it is that more and more editors and agents are not responding to queries or manuscript submissions. That is, if the writer doesn’t hear back, you are to assume that the publisher or agent is not interested in your submission. If the editor does want to read more or make an offer, or if the agent is interested in representing you, of course, they do contact you, although there might be a long wait first.

The writers feel this is unprofessional and, as I noted, unfair. The editors and agents usually note that they regret this necessity, but they are receiving more and more submissions and simply do not have the time and perhaps lack the staff to send out rejections for each one.

I can see both sides of this. I can’t help remembering my husband telling the kids when they were younger, “Who said life is fair?” when they made the same complaint over some household rule. And goodness knows the old form rejections were not satisfying. “Tell me what you don’t like,” we wanted to scream, when we got the meaningless: “This does not meet our needs at the current time.” Most published writers remember the immense relief when we finally graduated to a “good” rejection when the editor scrawled something specific on the rejection letter.

I know most editors are hard-working people who wish they could do more for hopeful writers. They often read queries or ms. on the subway home or while they eat a hurried lunch at their desks. And I’ve seen their desks–overflowing with paper, even in these computer driven days! They’re not out there plotting to make us miserable.

And yet, it’s more than frustrating for us writers. Time is what writers also don’t have, what writers snatch out of hours and minutes of their days and nights.  I remember well trying to write after a full day at work, after coming home to throw together dinner, get kids through homework and baths and bedtimes.  I remember going to sleep with a pad of paper in my lap–the original laptop! So what can we do? No magic answers, I’m afraid. Keep writing, keep sharpening skills, most of all, just keep on keeping on. Go to conferences for greater access to editors and agents, and as Winston Churchill famously said, never, never give up! Talent, hard work, determination, the same answers as always, are the ones that will- sooner or later–and sadly, it’s most often later than we wish–carry us through. Mostly, don’t give up!

And of course, there are more avenues today than traditional publishing, but that’s a whole other column. : )

WHEN THE MUSE VACATIONS by Judith Ross Enderle

shutterstock_132452552Every once in awhile my muse, that creative cheer leader that whispers encouragement and shares fabulous ideas, takes a vacation. I don’t know where she goes or how she chooses a time to leave, but sometimes she’s not anywhere around. This missing muse used to panic me. What if I never had a good story idea again? What if I couldn’t finish my current project? What if there were no what-ifs ever again? (Writers are so good at imagining the worst.) But then I realized that a muse needs time off in the same way a writer sometimes needs time off. And perhaps for the same reasons. So—

Here’s what I try when my muse takes time off:

I might take a break, too. Shift into a different mode, another interest. Gardening helps to calm my brain and I find it often helps me solve plot problems (no pun intended).

Read. Read. Read. I try to pay attention to what keeps me turning pages, how the author solves a knotty problem for the main character, word choices, the voice of the author and the voices of the characters, emotions made visible through showing, the setting details, the sensory images. I’ve learned a lot about writing from reading.

Walk. I enjoy walking. On a long walk I can let my mind wander and explore the outdoors.
Sometimes I call a fellow author. I’m not the only one whose muse goes off to a muse convention or on a Hawaiian vacation.

An afternoon out can help. Over lunch with a friend, we can catch up on life. We might talk about old times and new times to come. Sometimes we talk about everything except writing. Perhaps a muse notices when you aren’t missing her as much as she expected and she comes back sooner than planned.

Still, every once in a while, unexpected life happens outside of writing. Sometimes we need to abandon our muse to take care of family, ourselves, all kinds of life happenings. That’s important. The muse understands. How else will we know how to create the tough times and the emotions that go with them when we get back to our story characters, when life settles down, when the muse is there to whisper to us again?

Have you found other ways to get past the missing muse times? Or the tough life times? If so, please share in the comments.

That’s SO Cliche’!

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I am Queen of the cliche’. I worked in advertising as a Copywriter and Creative Director.  Using snappy sayings and refurbishing cliche’s was a big part of the business, so I am always tempted to use them.  My writers group also knows that I am very good at spotting those sneaky ones and most often suggest rephrasing the line.

But what exactly makes a phrase a cliche’ you ask?

It’s very simple, over-use. In the beginning the expression was probably regarded as clever and unique—so much so that it started getting repeated, and just like the Faberge shampoo commercial …I told to friends about it, and they told to friends and so on and so on and so on! The phrase took on a life of it’s own loosing it’s originality and depth of meaning.  In the words of  French poet Gerard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

 So why shouldn’t you use cliche’s?

They are no longer interesting or very effective, and of course, they show a lack of originality. Of course ,sometimes they work in dialogue or in special circumstances but, generally your unique descriptions will have far stronger effect on your reader.

 Is it easy to fix cliche’s?

Once you have identified a cliche’ try to change it so your reader will feel what you are trying to express. A thesaurus can help. Look up the action words and try to replace them. Dive into your characters head and choose words she would use from her environment and sense of the world.

 Example:

Cliche’: She avoided Anna like the plague

Instead: She stepped off the path every time she saw Anna coming; the blackberry thorns were a better friend.

 Are you up to the Challenge?

Now you know how to avoid them, let’s have a little fun. Do you have a few favorite cliche’s? Here are a few of mine strung together.

Cliche’s are about as useful as a lead balloon. They bug the heck out of me, so don’t be all talk and no action.You may have to work like a horse to weed them out of your writing, but at the end of the day when the eraser dust has  settled, it was all in a writing days work!

(I showed you mine, now you show me yours.)

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NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT

By Stephanie Jacob Gordon

I always thought that someday I would write the Great American Novel.   At the time I decided this I was reading JOHNNY TREMAIN, which I loved.  What I hadn’t decided in the third grade was…should it be about history (next to reading, my favorite subject) or about my daddy.  I loved reading historical books, but I loved my daddy more.  One thing I knew I would never write about was me.  Look how long I’d already lived and nothing wonderful or interesting had happened to me yet.  While I waited for something to happen, so I could write about it, I worked in the movie studios, met a gazillion great actors, rode on a fire truck, and went to school.

I took violin at the Los Angeles Academy of Musical Arts—I was not going to be the next Itzhak Pearlman.  Mommy and I rode the Red Line Streetcar.   My auntie Mimi came with sometimes.  One time I fell getting off the streetcar and slipped down the gutter drain.  Auntie Mimi saved me from disaster by grabbing my long curls and yanking me out.

I took tap dancing from Willie Cohan–Anne Miller was safe, no Music City Rockettes in my future.  I can still do a ball shuffle…but that’s all I can do (then and now).

I often went with my daddy to his fire station and hung out with the firemen he worked with.  I sat in the fire truck and read, made ice cream with the cook (my talented chef daddy, Jack), and watched black and white tv from the old theater seats that had been donated to the station, Palms 43, Los Angeles, California. Sometimes my daddy and I went across the street from the station to the Tootsie Roll factory and got a crate of candy for the firehouse to give out to visiting kids.  Believe me, I ate more than my share.

I took Piano—not a Hogie Charmichael, either.  Not even a Snoopy.  My mom got a note from my teacher thanking Mom for letting me quit.

I took ballet from Nico Charrise—no “Silk Stockings” lead dancer name Syd.  No tip and toeing through life for me.  The first day I tried toe…I broke one.  I can still feel Nico lightly hitting the back of my legs with his stick and yelling, “Right-right-right! And no back-knee, Stefff-fanny!”

After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for something to write about, my indecision began to bug me.  Did we say “bug” in the 40s?  Then in the 6th grade, as part of the art committee for our Simon Bolivar presentation, I made most of the slides.  My portrait of Sen᷉or Bolivar was great, fantastic, and got me a big fat A+.  A light went on.  Why wait for something to write the Great American novel about…I would paint the Great American painting.  I had seen Grandma Moses’ pictures, and people thought she was amazing.  I wasn’t all that impressed.  I could do better.  So, what did I want to paint about?  I sat down to wait for an inspiration.

I entered the Miss La Ballona Creek Beauty Pagent—chubby, pig tails, tone deaf—what was I thinking?  “Do you have a talent, dear?”  Let me think…  Violin, tap, ballet, piano, singing, whistling, wood burning….  “Reading!”

I moved back to LA and got a 9th grade boyfriend—but I doubt any other girl wanted him.  For a long time (last 1/2 of the A9),I was in Jr. Hi Love Land…That’s Disneyland with hand holding and a little lip touching.  Then we went to Hi School…  Love and heartbreak followed me!

While I was still waiting to become a better painter than my little brother, Stevie (the commercial artist), I went to College, fell in love twice, my one true love was killed, taught school, got married, lost my daddy, had three children and seven Grandchildren, studied children’s book writing, found my life-long writing partner, became an author and editor, put a ton of get-up-and-go into SCBWI, lectured and taught writing for young people, wrote a tv series, edited a kid’s magazine, met my true soul sisters, lost my mama, Sylvia, divorced, became religious, got published in every genre for children I can name, and gave up my non-starter art career.

AND, I still can’t decide what my Great American Novel will be about.  History?  My daddy?  My mama?  Certainly not an autobiography.  In all these years, what have I done that anyone would want to read about?

If you get the message…  Start taking notes NOW!

New Year, New Words

Somehow New Years always seem to demand new year’s resolutions, no matter how many worthy promises  to ourselves were left in tatters last time around. From personal–those five pounds put on by grazing on too many holiday sweets that now need to be dropped–to professional, do we have resolutions!  As I cleared up shredded wrapping paper and fallen Christmas tree balls sent hither and yon by clever cat paws, I was already pondering.

My writing resolutions are clear.  I did finish the YA novel I was writing in 2013.  In December I read the last, much revised chapter to my critique group.  Now a little more polishing and I must brace myself and put it out there into the cold, cruel world–that’s resolution number one, and then, number two:  start a new project.  I already have something in mind, although I’m not ready to talk about it yet.

Number three: I want to learn more about ebooks and think about reviving some older novels that are OP (out of print) and decide if I want to try to get them back into circulation and if so, see what is involved.  Okay, I confess, that was a resolution for this year, too, so I really need to do that one, or at least, gather the info.  I do know that the books will need some revising–no one is as up to date on new technologies as teens and preteens, so if I do reprint a book even a few years old, it will have to be brought into the world of cell phones, texting, etc. So my tech horizons will be broadened in more ways than one.  Santa brought me a new up to date I phone for Christmas, so that will help.

And after that, who knows?  What are your resolutions?  More consistent writing hours?  Better research habits, or maybe reminders not to get so carried away by your research that you forget to write?  Are you determined to find a new critique group/start a new critique group?  Haunt the local library and book store and read plenty of the age fiction or nonfiction you wish to write?  Go to a writers’ conference and get the tips and networking you need to get past your current logjam?

Whatever your resolution, I wish you good luck and fortune in 2014.

Cheryl Zach/ WIP:  The Devil Tattoo

 

 

 

BEWARE THE FEAST

thanksgivingturkey     by Judith Ross Enderle

No, this isn’t a warning about eating too much of those Thanksgiving fixings. Nor is it a cautionary tale about overindulgence during the December holidays. Everyone knows the repercussions from eating too (burp) much.

This is about the repercussions from feeding your characters too much. Yup, it’s possible. Too much TLC at the table can create havoc and ruin a good plot.

How? Stop to eat and you can kill the tension in your story. And it happens more than you realize, especially in early drafts. It’s fun to write those scenes when family comes together at the table to share food and news. How about the sensory description you can create, when your plot drifts toward an opportunity to gather information at a roadside inn over victuals served before a warm fire? Or maybe your main character chooses to spread a blanket beneath a tree at the park and dive into that picnic basket lush with all manner of wonderful nibbles. Food scenes are sooooo tempting, so yummy.

Avoid temptation! For, while all the yummy noshing is going on, your story conflict has stopped. Sure you can introduce a food fight, but how long can that last. And what about that grand build up to this point, the villain hot on your main character’s trail, the jeopardy lurking around the next corner? All forgotten over a hearty meal and mundane conversation, with the major action now the lifting of a fork or hand from plate to mouth.

Those of us who are mothers are the worst offenders. Don’t let your main character get hurt! Plus it’s tradition to comfort with food. We want to nurture our characters, too.

But in a story that needs to keep the pages turning as conflict builds and the main character heads toward facing his/her nemesis, skip the meals. Let your characters go hungry. They can eat after the story is over. Because, if they stop to eat, there may be no story.

Now take a writing break, enjoy your holiday meals with friends and family. Then, when celebrating is over, get back to writing. And remember, DON’T FEED YOUR CHARACTERS!

From all the Mavens, we wish you much merry, huge happy, and many joyous holidays, followed by superb inspiration and well-earned success in the coming year.

THE TAIL OF A DOGGY BAG

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

 

IN THE BEGINNING… (no, not that beginning)

In the beginning there were two writers who became friends (with no idea of what the future held for them…yes, I know that is foreshadowing).   They were at the Writer’s Conference given by SCBW in Santa Monica, CA, all wide-eyed and overwhelmed.  The speaker they were listening to was so famous, so respected in his field that the two friends were rapidly writing down every word the speaker said.  After all, he was the renowned children’s book writer, Sid Fleishman. And they, Stephanie and Judy, were conference newbies (of absolutely no renown).

That day we, the newbies, learned two very important things from Sid (who would become a dear friend) that have served us well throughout our careers.  One: If we ever got a contract it would be so terrible that Sid would never sign it.  And two: Never throw away good words and ideas—put them in a doggie bag.

THE BOOK…

Not much later, when we, Stephanie and Judy—now writing partners, were contracted for the Scholastic YA Sunfire series and asked to set our first historical novel at the time of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. We were excited.  Much of Old San Francisco was still there, alive and well. There was an Earthquake Room in the Main Library downtown packed with facts and pictures and old newspapers on microfilm.  The turn of the century mansions, that had survived earthquake and fire, were still there, so lovely, and the cable cars still ran on their original routes.   San Francisco was (and is) an historical writer’s died-and-gone-to-heaven.  There were newspaper stories of Enrico Caruso’s short stay and quick get-away, swearing never to return to such a dangerous place—and he never did.  Were we especially proud of finding an article about a little dog that survived the earthquake and fire in the basement of the St. Francis Hotel.  Francis the dog lived the rest of life at the hotel.

Practically skipping to the post office we sent NORA to our editor (it was her mother’s name).  This is what her editorial letter to us said, “KILL THE DOG!”

We were desolate, but Francis was no longer a part of our book.  We loved him…  He was so funny and cute…  Oh Francis we have been undone!

And then a little voice said, “Do not despair Stephanie, Judy, and little Francis.  Remember… Sid’s doggy bag!”

And in went Francis head first.  And there he stayed until…

AN IDEA!…

One day we remembered our fabulous trip to San Francisco and began to reminisce.  We knew so much historical stuff about the city, why not write a book about it?

“FRANCIS!”

Not a book about San Francisco—A BOOK ABOUT FRANCIS! And we will call it…

FRANCIS THE EARTHQUAKE DOG

And out of that doggy bag that Sid told us to keep came Francis and his picture book that was sold all over San Francisco, bookstores, bakeries, candy stores, souvenir shops and the St. Francis Hotel.  On Francis’ fifth anniversary the St. Francis Hotel commissioned a stuffed dog to accompany our book.  Amazing!  All that because we heard Sid Fleishman speak, kept a doggy bag, and killed the dog!

This is definitely a case of the tale wagging the dog!

Love Your Characters, but Not Too Much!

I had been stuck on the sequel to my YA novel Runaway Storm for a long time. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, but I knew something wasn’t clicking. After completing almost an entire draft, I had decided the story was too edgy and dark. It had drifted far from the fun boys-against-the-wilderness coming of age storyline into a drug-addled world of abandonment.  No! No! I could not let this happen to my beloved main character David. I threw away about half of the manuscript and re-plotted. After all, what kind of a disenchanted adult would David grow up to be if he lived through so much horror? I slashed the darkness through the pages until it was only ankle deep. No steep mountains, no black bat-filled caves or murky oceans.  And I had succeeded. David would grow up without worry lines etched deeply into his young face. He would indeed be a very fine young man… just not a man of very good character. Oops, I mean, he just didn’t make a very good character anymore. In loving him so much, I had made him unlovable. By taking away all the challenges and dangers, I stopped worrying about him. (Ah, Mom relaxes.)  But as a book character, I had made him bland and uninteresting. A pretty flat character that even I couldn’t care about, so no reader would care either.

It was time to re-examine my intentions. I was now a good mother and a lousy writer. But wait had my worlds merged? Was it truly reality that had intruded into my story and my character? Aha! That was the key. Subconsciously, I think I had transferred my own teenage son into my character. How could I let anything bad happen to either of them? And where is a good “Writing therapist” when you need one?

Fortunately, I was able to figure it out. I had to separate the “real boy” from the character. I had to jump back into David’s head and I had to let him fall off a cliff and struggle to climb back up.  I had to remember that the darker and harder the challenges, the stronger my character would become.

Although I do not want my son to suffer quite so many challenges, I do know that fiction and reality run parallel. Both teenagers, real and imagined, have to grow through their own experiences and learning to fix their own problems, as painful as that can be for both mothers and writers.

AN OLIO

BY The Mavens

file000910989872 This summer has been one in which “life” takes over from the usual routine of writing. Some of the events have been tough: Laurie’s dad passed away; Judy’s dad passed away. Others involved relocation: Cheryl moved. Steph’s house is for sale. And then there are family stages: Dawne has been hither and yon organizing kids. So rather than the usual individual maven post, this month we offer an olio (it’s a great crossword puzzle word) of thoughts, favorite quotes, and writing advice.

From Stephanie: You have got to love the book you are writing. If the plot doesn’t drive you and make you want to know what happens next, your reader can, and possibly will, put your book down and walk away. If you don’t love your characters, the good–the bad–the ugly, your reader won’t care what happens to them, either. If you are writing because you think it’s what will sell, what young readers need to know, or perhaps someone just made big bucks by writing the same kind of story, forget it!  Stories that come from inside you, that only you can write, are the stories that will get inside your reader and change them forever.

Cheryl shares some of her favorite advice:  “Never, never, never give up.” (Winston Churchill)  And paraphrasing beloved author Sid Fleischman: “A good villain is your story’s best friend.” i.e. You’ll have to have a strong hero to defeat a strong villain. Plus, it makes the story more interesting!

Judy says, Never assume that because a book is classified as an easy-reader that it was easy to write. There is nothing easy about them when it comes to finding the right blend of character, plot, theme, pacing, vocabulary, sentence length, page turns, and all the many details that go into these all-important first readers. (Guess what I’m working on right now?)

We hope your summer has been a bit more cheerful, a lot less hectic, and very productive writing-wise. See you next month!

The Kids Book Mavens