I'm finishing a book about a young artist who loves horses. She discovers her possibilities with the help of her art and these glorious animals. Just as art and horses empowered me.
Spring in Florida makes me long for a horse, endless trails and country roads shaded by moss-covered oaks. It's been a long time since I've had a horse and I don't live in the country anymore. I live in a city surrounded by ocean. These last few weeks, shut in the house to escape a disease, I've stood in my small backyard and longed to ride away. It's not that I'm unhappy with my life. I'm very happy. But on a horse, you can lose yourself in the natural world.
I had my first horse when I was fifteen. On weekends, we traveled for hours through central Florida orange groves, over blossom-scented hills and along wooded pathways. Later, when I was a young adult, I took a job on a show horse farm. My heart caught fire. I couldn't learn fast enough all I didn't know about horses and horsemanship. I lived and breathed horses, talked horses at every meal, dreamed of nothing but horses. That summer job between college semesters became a two decade career in training horses and teaching people to ride. I eventually returned to school and earned a fine art degree. I used it to paint portraits of horses and their people.
These days, I'm cloistered indoors with the rest of the world, afraid to breathe other people's air, afraid to touch anything outside my house. As I sit here, staring out the window at this fine Spring day, I finish the edits on my book and remember. I may be far from a stable and shaded trails, but inside my mind, I hear and smell horses.
What does a writer blog about in a pandemic? I've seen lots of blogs about how to carry on with writing, how to keep mentally healthy and forgive yourself for not being as productive. We're all feeling lost and off balance. Writers and artists might have some advantage. We're used to isolation. Most of us need it to create. But we also need stimulation and support.
I miss critiquing manuscripts over coffee and muffins with my writing partners. This week we'll Skype for the first time and critique online with our coffee at our desks. Can you imagine enduring the plagues of the past when there was no internet? We're the first generations to experience a worldwide epidemic and stay connected. It's a test of the internet's scope and of our tolerance for digital contact.
The term social distancing is kind of indicative of internet relationships. We can see and hear each other, but we can't touch. What will we be when we emerge from this pandemic? Will we be leery of showing our physical self to the world? Will we be shy of standing too close, of daring to touch another? Will hugs feel scary instead of comforting?
I'm a major introvert, so in some ways this isolation is a relief. I don't have to work up the courage to present myself to the public. I don't have to worry about my schedule becoming too crowded and have to talk myself out of panic. I don't have to make excuses when I'm too overwhelmed to accept an invitation. But I worry about total isolation becoming too comfortable. I treasure the relationships I have. I don't want to lose the comfort I've worked hard to feel when I'm with the people in my life. So this week when I Skype with my group, I'm going to strive to come to the meeting with the self I'd bring in person. And I'm going to keep imagining the day when we once again gather.
I hope you are all well and finding meaningful ways to connect.
It's been months since I've visited my blog.
For years I've blogged and enjoyed Facebook friends, while I avoided the rest of social media. But when I signed with an agent earlier this year, I felt compelled to have a greater online presence. Editors look at a writer's online network when they consider books. I understand. Authors need to sell books or no one in the industry thrives. Today, selling books relies on the internet.
So, I opened Twitter and Instagram accounts and expanded my Facebook friends. At first, it was fun searching for friends and people I admire to follow. In the children's book world, everyone is entertaining. Tweets would pop up that I had to share and photos I had to respond to. I'd see something on Facebook that led to a link that led to more time away from writing which let's face it, is the point. It wasn't long before I was overwhelmed by rapid-fire Tweets, photos and Facebook posts.
I tried spending fifteen minutes a day on each venue. I tried saving social media for nighttime. When I did pause to think about my blog, I didn't have the energy or the focus to compose anything. My agent said, choose one social media outlet, the one that suits you best, and let the others go. I'm an artist. My writing is full of imagery. She thought Instagram might be the perfect fit. But I don't carry my phone everywhere and even when I do, I don't think about taking pictures. For the sake of Instagram, I tried. I've had the account for months and there's maybe a dozen pictures on there, none of them worth an audience.
At some point, I realized I missed this blog. Even if no one read it, it was a quiet place for me to align my thoughts. After conferences and workshops, it gave me a space to analyze what I'd learned. When something profound affected me as an artist and writer, I shared it here. I know there are a gazillion bloggers doing the same thing and this may never attract a single book buyer. But this week, an email landed in my inbox announcing a new writer named Angela had responded to an old post. She related to my experience. That felt more meaningful than all the Tweets and photos. It brought me back here. It made thoughts come out of my head and words land on this page.
I don't know how often I'll post, but I'm not ready to give up this blog. I need this quiet place within the internet madness. I know all writers struggle to find the balance between creating books, networking and promotion. Someday, I hope to find a balance that works for me.
I think most writers collect bookmarks, not necessarily on purpose. Bookmarks are passed out to promote new books, so if you're supporting other authors, you'll take their bookmark. Friends and family add to the collection. What do you buy a writer? A pen, a notebook or a bookmark. I don't use most of my collection. They're just too pretty or they make dents in pages. Don't get me started on my feelings about disfiguring books! But I do love my bookmarks, no matter how dysfunctional they are. I shared pictures of my collection here several years ago, but it's grown so much, I thought it was time for an update.
Harry Potter and much loved animal bookmarks. I'm not a Gryffindor, I'm a Ravenclaw, but I don't think Hermione will mind if I use their bookmark. I know Harry and Ron won't. They shy away from books!
Bookmarks from my grandmother and favorite aunt. I use them in my Bible, my grandmother's Bible and mother's Bible. They connect me to these strong women, their faith and history.
Mementoes from museums, libraries and bookstores I haven't visited. Not in person. But these invite me to come. They invite me to imagine places I've never been.
Fancy doodads adorned with jewels, silver charms, silky tassels and dried flowers. Pure treasure!
And last are the bookmarks that promote stories. They don't sparkle or shine. They don't have magnetic grips or tassels. They're just plain, old printed paper. But I use them a lot and they work hard every day to remind me of the books they represent.
All of these bookmarks come from friends and family, so they'll always be special to me. Do you have a collection? A favorite?
For the first time since I joined my critique group the Skyway Writers, we took a summer hiatus. Most of us are traveling, restoring body and spirit, feeding the muse with new sights and experiences. We keep in touch through email and social media. Writing is never far from our thoughts and if there's a need, we're available for input on book projects.
Although I didn't leave town, I did honor my muse with a summer conference, a mini workshop and trips to art shows and bookstores. And I wrote.
Still, July felt like a creative desert. It stretched long and hot, and I squinted to see the end.
I missed my group. I guess I'm slightly addicted. We're a seasoned, serious group. There are five of us, three with books published and two with agents working to sell first books. We aim to publish books until the day we die. And we want them to be good books, so we hire freelance editors to review our work. But before agents, editors or readers see our pages, we look for a thumbs up from each other.
We meet every two weeks. If we have pages we want reviewed, we offer our best effort. When we give input, it's presented with love and sensitivity, but fully loaded with honest critical feedback. Every book is a journey and we travel that path together, sharing triumphs and failures that weave into our bond. Twice a year, we retreat to a quiet rural spot where we write, brainstorm and gather around food. For three days we share a guest house on a lake and our muses run free. As the sun goes down and the stars appear, we come together to discuss, celebrate and laugh.
Having good writing partners is a blessing I'll never take for granted. Not all groups are alike. It can be a challenge to find the right fit. But a tight knit, productive group doesn't happen overnight, so if you're in a group you're not satisfied with, it might be worth the effort to help it grow. In my next post, I'll talk about what I've learned in a decade of critique groups: what makes them work, what pitfalls to avoid and how to make them flourish.
Next week, the Skyway Writers will reunite. Energy will pass between us, and when I leave, I'll be refueled. It will feel like walking out of the desert and into the sea.
That photo is hard for me to look at because of the feelings it evokes: sadness, loss and longing. Photos do that. So can books.
I recently did a workshop with screenwriter and New York Times best selling author Stephanie Storey. What struck me in her talk was the emphasis on bringing EVERYTHING when depicting emotion in a character. It's easy to capture emotion in a photo of beloved dog.
In writing, it's so. Hard. To. Do.
My critique group partners and I talk about this all the time. We love books because of the emotional connection, but we struggle to write emotion in depth. In a recent Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Insight interview, author Stephanie Garber said that it isn't a colorful cover or favorite genre that makes us keep reading a book. It's the feelings we connect with. She believes feelings are the heart of books.
Although I love novels with fantastic world building and intriguing plot, I agree with the Stephanies. What keeps me reading past midnight, what makes me slow down when I near the end, what makes me long for more pages, is my relationship with the character. I want to love a character so much, I dread every bad moment. I want to fight not to close my eyes when danger threatens. When their heart is broken, I want my tears to be unstoppable, and when they triumph, I want my heart to soar.
I think most writers try to achieve this and most succeed on some level. But few accomplish a heart-stealing read. I repeatedly ask myself why. I WANT, yes with capital letters, want to write that kind of book. But how do I make that happen?
Stephanie Storey goes to great lengths to explore her character's emotions. She visits museums as her character, takes online personality tests, even sees a therapist as her character. She says writers need to bring their deepest, most vulnerable feelings to the page. The part of themselves they're afraid to show to others. Those feelings are what make characters real.
So easy peasy, right? Bringing everything means revisiting places in ourselves we'd rather forget. It means remembering painful moments in great detail. So, no, it isn't any more easy or fun than looking at a photo of a dog I lost at a difficult time to a pain-riddled disease. But for books that stay with readers long after they return to shelves, we must go there.
When I was a new writer, dreaming about the books I would write and what they would become, I came to conferences hoping to learn. I was in starstruck awe of everyone, from the seasoned attendees and published authors to the agents and editors.
After a few years, I came to conferences hoping to be inspired and learn something from workshops, but I also hoped to earn critiques with agents or editors who might be interested in my work. I knew some of the authors and quite a few attendees. The agents were familiar from the lists I had researched to query my manuscripts. I was no longer starstruck, but I had great respect for authors, agents and publishers.
A couple weeks ago I attended Florida's SCBWI summer conference as an agented writer with a book on submission to publishers. My respect for everyone in the children's book world hasn't diminished, it's grown. I'm in awe again, not starstruck-new-writer awe, but the kind of awe that comes from learning how hard everyone, from regional volunteers to agents and editors, works to make published books happen.
As I sat in the conference gathering room, waiting for seats to fill and our Regional co-leader Linda Bernfeld to welcome attendees and send us off to workshops, I realized this year was different for me. I was no longer here just for learning or publishing opportunities. I was here because of the people. The writers, young and old, new and seasoned, published and unpublished. We need each other, and I'm one of those seasoned writers now. I want to support new attendees. I want to support the regional volunteers who devote hours and hours for the good of children's writers. I want to be a link in the bond that weaves us together and makes us strong.
Book reviews are helpful to writers and readers. I've been a lazy reviewer in the past, so in an effort to become a more consistent reviewer, I'm hoping to post one a month.
Today, I'm featuring VINCENT AND THEO, THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS by Deborah Heiligman. It won ALA's Excellence in Fiction and Printz honor awards for 2018 and I can see why. Besides books on writing craft, I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But the artist in me couldn't resist this book.
It's thick (409 pages), but the chapters are short and mesmerizing and their complimented by Van Gogh's sketches and paintings. It's clear from the start, this author immersed herself in the life of these brothers. The biography is based on the enormous volume of letters Theo and Vincent exchanged. It's a tragic story, but also one of hope and endurance. Vincent's mental illness is portrayed with honesty and sensitivity, as is Theo's poor health from syphillis. Vincent's devotion to his art and the brothers' devotion to each other transcended the tragedy in their lives. When you finish this book, you'll want to set it down gently and find a quiet space to let it settle in your soul.
Summer is a time to embrace the outdoors and growing things. I love hanging out with plants. There's so much color and texture in a garden and fascinating paths to explore, from the tiny trail of ants to stepping stones that lead to gates and doors. And everywhere you look, there's a vivid picture or story. I can't go into my yard without seeing a void that needs a spot of color, tall, linear plant or a twisting pathway. When it came time to paint our house, I asked the blooming plants what color they'd like. They picked a medium blue with green tint. Now, my calla lilies, allamandas and Hawaiian Tis are preening and strutting in front of the walls, and the house seems happy with the color. Treating my home and garden as a work of art isn't something I think about, it just instinctively happens.
I'm not alone. Many creative minds apply fertile imaginations to their environment. Frida Khalo's home demanded attention just as she did. Called La Casa Azul after the vivid blue color on her walls, her garden complimented the color, or vice versa. Maybe she consulted her plants before she chose that hue. I know she loved them. In self-portraits, blooms from her garden crowned her hair. The New York Botanical Gardens was so fascinated with Frida's planting skills, in 2015 they recreated her home and garden (see above).
Beatrix Potter was fascinated with plants, fungi and wildlife and she drew them in exquisite detail. From that love, Peter Rabbit sprang to life. Beatrix was a farmer and a conservationist and she created more than one stunning garden.
Many writers escape to their gardens to work. Dylan Thomas penned his poems from this shed overlooking the Taf estuary in Wales. Roahl Dahl admired this shed so much, he recreated it in his garden.
Someday, I hope to add a writing shed to my garden. In the meantime, I'll keep asking my plants what they'd they'd like next.
The Blue House by Peter Andersen / CC BY-SA
Hill Top, Near Sawrey by diamond geezer / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dylan Thomas Writing Shed by wardyboy400 / CC BY 2.0
Being an animal lover and a writer of children's books, I was fascinated with an interview I heard of an organization called Red Rover. Besides providing shelter, resources and finances for animals and people in crisis, they raise awareness in children through their Reader's Program. It's aimed at educators and provides a list of books for ages 5-11 that inspire understanding and empathy, like Buddy Unchained, Hens for Friends and Rescue and Jessica: A Life Changing Friendship. The books are sorted by theme: Domestic Animals, Pet Loss, Wildlife and Animal Behavior. A three-week online course teaches how to maximize the impact of the books with discussion questions and activities.
For kids who prefer a digital experience, Red Rover offers a bi-lingual app. It targets ages 7-11 and functions like a graphic novel, adding pop-up questions, discussion topics and games to help kids practice emotional awareness, critical thinking and compassion.
Red Rover also publishes Kind News magazine, for 8 and up, and Kind News, Jr, for ages 5-7. The magazine teaches how to care for pets and how to take action to improve animals' lives. In March, Red Rover participated in Read Across America and gave one lucky educator a $200 bookstore gift card, plus a year's subscription to Kind News magazine. I like to imagine the kids in that classroom being so inspired they become animal and human rights advocates.
I love stories about books making a difference. Red Rover is using them in a big way to make this world a better place. They have a host of powerful videos. Here's one:
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor