YOUR WRITING SUCKS!

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

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Warning! A critique group can be hazardous to your health…but only if you let it.
When I began to write for children, I took classes at UCLA. I was not looking for a career. In fact I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for. Whenever I get a desire to try something new, I go back to school. I take classes. That is what I do.
Over the years I have dabbled in many related and unrelated subjects, taken numerous interesting classes from many skilled (and unskilled) teachers, and accumulated a library of “How To” books. I fit the saying, “Jill of all trades and master of some.” I know it is none, but I have mastered some. Along the way I have learned more, experienced more, and discarded more useless information than I can name. Still I have enjoyed the ride that led me to all my diverse areas of knowledge. If institutions of learning gave out medals like the army, I’d have a chest full of them. I’d like that.
One of the hardest lessons I had to learn on my path to becoming a children’s book author can be said in a single word, CRITIQUING. No one likes to hear a negative word about anything they love. Especially their children. And for writers of children’s literature, our manuscripts are our babies. Our beautiful new- born expressions of a love for the written word. And WHO are you…to judge my baby?
It doesn’t matter if those terrible words come from and agent, an editor, or a colleague who doesn’t have such a perfect story anyway…so there! We become half Pit Bull and half Rhodesian Ridgeback, and one hundred percent Nose Out Of Joint. It is how you have to react at first. You have just been told your baby stinks. At least that’s what you heard. But, for the most part I can honestly say, that was not what was said.
When you first step into the writer’s bullpen to face the critique bull, you are wearing Medieval armor with a hole cut out where your feelings are, and you are carrying a huge sword to protect yourself. Every non-positive word goes right through your armor and stabs your heart. That is the price we pay to become children’s authors. I wish I could say that is the worst price you will have to pay…it isn’t. But those payments are not what this blog is about.
Writers need thick hides. They need to take everything someone tells them, that they don’t agree with, and practice closed mouth, a still tongue, and a smile. Your brain may be saying, “idiot,” but your face should be saying, “uh huh, oh, thank you for that thought.” You don’t have to do a thing with the critiquer’s ideas if you don’t want to: Hit delete.
Defending your writing will start a battle and a battle can cause a war. There are always casualties in a war. Your critique group could end up dead. Realize that things can be said that might drive you or the other person out of your group. A writer’s group blood bath can poison the waters for a long time and make members afraid to say anything at all to you. A nod and a smile could keep all that from happening.
And if you are the one who is trying to drive home your thoughts regardless of how they are affecting the critiqued writer and implying who the devils cares—because YOU are right—STOP! You could be next. You are setting a terrible precedent. You may be the reason the group disbands—or so they tell you—wink, wink. Yes. You could be right. Maybe the baby needs a change. Say your opinion once and let it go. An argument never changed a hurt heart.
BEST: BEFORE YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT YOU DON’T THINK WORKS—SAY SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT YOU DO THINK WORKS. EVERY BABY HAS SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL TO DISCOVER. SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO LOOK CLOSER. AND IN A MANUSCRIPT, SOMETIMES IT ’S HIDDEN BETWEEN THE LINES, OR IT ’S THE WORD CHOICES, OR IT ’S THE NUGGET OF AN IDEA WAITING TO GROW.
Being kind is always the best way to treat a new writer, even if her baby is stinky. (And are you so sure your baby’s you-know-what doesn’t stink?)

PURPLE MOUNTAIN’S MAJESTY

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

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I am going to be honest here…I have not been writing. I was on a roll for a while. Then the editor we were working with went up in a puff of smoke and the publishing house disappeared. I just lost momentum and desire. Since then, I have avoided writing like the plague. The only writing I have wanted to do…have done, is the poetry I share with my group, The Cottage Poets. And my poems have rarely been warm and fuzzy, they’ve been mostly venting. This last year and a half has been up-ending. I feel like I have been walking on my hands with my head in my underwear. I have not had a clear vision of how I see my life proceeding or if I expect an upward or downward progression facing me in the future. I suddenly don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

I can’t decide whether this came about because, after 74 years living in Southern California, I decided to move. A move I felt I had to make for financial reasons. A move that took me away from my family and some of my dearest friends. Or perhaps it is because some of my personal setbacks…like turning 75 this month, finding there was no more cartilage in my knees, learning to live (again) with a fifteen year old (my beautiful granddaughter, Sarah), or because my dog, Izzi, has decided she likes my daughter best and pretty much ignores me.

It is amazing to me, at my age, to live in a place where I don’t know where anything is or how to get there if I find out. Where I don’t know anyone I see, although every lady looks like someone I am sure I met at an SCBWI Summer Conference at one time or another. Where people are genuinely kind and courteous and young and old hold the door for me, waiting patiently while I limp through. Where traffic in my town goes 25 MPH and I am fine with that. AND the scenery is mind-boggling, stunning, peaceful, green-green-green. There are lakes everywhere. Quaint abounds. Vintage is the norm. And I have never yet met a tree I didn’t love. On our meanderings, my daughter Jackee driving, me looking right and left so quickly I get car sick, my favorite exclamation has become OMG! OMG! OMG!

The best OMG! My birthday. It was amazing. Laurie Knowlton came from Ohio, and Dawn Dixon came from Arizona, and Judy came from Bellingham (WA…lol). We partied and laughed and talked and talked and talked for 9 days straight. It was everything a birthday celebration should be. Thank you, Loveys.

My life in Mount Vernon, Washington is everything my life in LA environs wasn’t. I am older than I have ever been before. I am happier than I thought I’d be. I am gearing up for something. Judy, ever positive, hopes it’s writing. I miss my grandkids and my great kids. I miss my friends…you know who you are. I am up here waiting…when can you come by? I’m ready for another party (and it’s a great excuse for not writing.)

No Butts About it!

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I have no New Years resolutions, but that’s because I was not very successful in fulfilling last years. The problem, I find, with writing is that it is so easy to get distracted. I can find a zillion other things to drop my writing down my daily list of “to do’s,” until it slides right off the end of the page. So this year, I plan to go back to the basics—

 

1) Butt in chair equals writing.Unknown

2) Create first, edit later.

3) If there’s no flow, just write any way,(Butt in chair still

equals writing, even if it’s Gobble-de-gook.)

 4) I hereby promise to finish one manuscript before I begin another. (just have to choose which unfinished one I should start with.)

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5) I have decided that “slow but steady (writing) wins the race, not creative spurts here and there, that I think are pure genius until I look back later with an editor’s eye. (As I am working on a Sea Turtle book, I think that is quite apropos. )

I love motivating sayings. If you have a favorite, please post it. We all need help to get over the bumps and through the potholes in our New Year writing journey!

I wish everyone a brand new start, and great success. Reach for your goals. You can do it in 2015!Unknown-2

BEGINNING AGAIN

by STEPHANIE JACOB GORDON

OLD PICS ARE THE BEST PICS                                   How many times have I begun again? Somewhere between 96 and 1,811 times. It is what I do. I am not only talking about my writing, I am talking about my life.

It’s not so much because I’ve failed a lot, it has more to do with my expectations failing me. What else is new?

It wasn’t my daddy’s fault that he could finally buy a house so we moved one month before the end of grammar school, leaving behind my 6th grade teacher—the only one who ever liked me–far behind. It’s a long story about my other teachers and it has to do with my working in studios since I was 17 days old. My new teacher at my new school really hated me—I bit my nails—the whole class lost hearing Kon Tiki until my nails grew out—the kids hated me, too.  One month until Jr. Hi arrived.

Begin again.

It wasn’t my fault that at 74, having live around LA my whole life, I have moved To Mount Vernon, Washington. Yesterday, missing a slew of old friends, I was griping a “little,” and my granddaughter, Sarah, said, “Bubbe, go make lemonade with all those lemons.” She was right on. Upward and onward.

Begin again.

My oil painting teacher said I had talent—I painted and painted—my watercolor painting teacher said I had talent.  Really  Me?  My artistic soul dreamed, but it was not to be. My dream of a garret in Scotland and becoming famous—Poof! Three wonderful kids.

Begin again.

Then there was my stained glass window class of 10,000 cuts. Even if I was good at it (?), I felt I might need my fingers in later life. I took my 10 X14 masterpiece home, and covered my hands with Hello Kitty bandages. I found out I am blood type B negative.

Begin again.

Piano—zip. Violin—zip. Ballet—zip. My mother’s dreams for me—zip—zip—zip. My dreams—not so much. What was there out in the big world meant for me?

Begin again.

The UCLA Writing program? I liked children’s books, didn’t I? I liked essay exams, didn’t I? I loved writing stories for kids, wouldn’t I? Besides, if that didn’t work I could always…SIGH.

Begin again.

So I went back to college. I took classes from the best, Sue Alexander, Eve Bunting, Sid Fleischman, and met Judy Enderle. Authors, editors, agents, publishers. A new friend who was already published! Good start, right?

Miracle! Someone wanted to buy my first YA. All 140 pages of it. Problem was; it was 250 pages long. What did I do? Of course. Nothing new here.

Begin again.

Second book—perfect! Almost. Begin again!

Third book—exceptional! Nearly. Begin Again!

Sometimes the editor can be wrong. You have begun again so many times you’re not sure what you were writing in the first place. It happened to Judy and me, and the editor had the book for six years. Changes after changes.Beginning again and again and again. The editor was fired. The book was returned. We sold it to another editor. The last time when we began again, we put it back in its original form. Sometimes you are right—your book is perfect.

BUT, if you want to sell it you smile and…Begin again.

 

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.

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.

MAKING YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE–ONE DAY AT A TIME

By Cheryl Zach

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I’ m just coming out of a period when life overwhelmed me and the writing spark withdrew and hid behind the dark places inside, and boy, was it scary. So I’m so madly happy that the spark has once again ignited, that for the moment I need little help returning each day to the current WIP. I usually start by rereading a few pages that I wrote the day before, which warms up the writing muscles, and then I let my characters loose and see where they go!

And on the note of my happiness as I write–I don’t watch much tv (there are exceptions, but that’s a story for another time) but I have seen promos for a new reality show where adults are given a chance to try for the ‘big dream’ they always longed for but never got to pursue. One man wanted to be a professional chef and cook for the President in the White House; one man wanted to drive race cars; one woman wanted to be a professional photographer, so she was getting to do a shoot for Sports Illustrated, and so forth. The excitement and poignancy felt by the people who got this second chance was so moving to watch.

And I marveled and thought how amazingly blessed I have been, despite the low points, despite recent years when I couldn’t write and the early years when I wrote and couldn’t sell, to have still managed to break through the tough nut of publishing, to sell over 50 books to major publishers, get good reviews, occasional awards, the respect of my peers. I have had this dream from childhood, and even though I never became a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling, I’ve done so much that I hoped for–I need to appreciate how good it has been. And I do, truly. And I hope to carry the writing spark with me for the rest of my journey, and to entertain, move, and illuminate the readers who share the journey with me.
Cheryl Zach