Is There Too Much Imagination?
Baby birds chirp from moss-draped oaks and ducklings scurry after their mothers at the pond. Blooms explode in beds. Wildflowers pop up in yards. Butterflies and bees flit from my sunflower to Purple Queen, then travel to my neighbor's yard to sample their plumbago.
I'm energized by nature, so you'd think all this new life and activity would inspire my brain to spin story. It hasn't. A couple weeks ago, I brainstormed a story with my agent and I was excited by the ideas it sparked. The story had a relatable protagonist, an intriguing premise and the potential for a satisfying outcome. The setting was moody, mysterious and a little quirky. There was a touch of magic.
The magic grew and grew, and the plot took unexpected turns. As the story developed, my shoulders and neck tensed, and panic crept into my head. I asked myself why and had a revelation.
I had allowed my imagination to veer too far from my life experience, and the story began to feel forced. For me to write authentic story, it needs to grow from people and experiences I relate to, and the magic needs to evolve organically. It's a valuable lesson. It helps me know myself better as a writer, and I hope it will help me write better books. But it wan't easy giving up that story.
I'm restless and anxious when I'm not productively creating. I have another story started. It's growing slower than I'd like, but I'm trying to be patient. I think I'll go outside and commune with the flowers and bees. Maybe they'll buzz plot to my muse!
Quarantine, The Next Chapter
It's Day 60 for us in quarantine. Even though we both worked from home before the Stay at Home order, things have changed. We keep running lists of supplies needed, review online orders before we send, and grocery orders the night before in case we need to add anything. We no longer shop in stores. We use drive through pick up for groceries, pharmacy and home improvement needs.
In some ways, life is the same. We still walk every morning, start work at our individual desks and watch TV in the evenings. But the TV we watch is aimed at shows that uplift. And even though we care deeply about the upcoming election, we can't seem to tolerate politics. I used to enjoy the opinion section of the newspaper. Now, I skip it. I miss eating out with family and friends and I worry about restaurant workers. I miss getting to know every dog we meet on our walks. I miss taking our animals to the vet and chatting with a whole office of animal lovers. I miss meeting with artist and writer friends. I look forward to Skype visits, but it doesn't compare to the real thing.
We're the first generation to drain a country of sanitizers, toilet paper and surgical masks. We're the first to experiment with a wide variety of hand sewn masks. The first generation to populate the internet with an abundant array of free entertainment and education. Artists are lifting spirits. Healers are healing, caretakers caring, teachers teaching, everyone giving what they can.
The sky is clearer, animals roaming freer and the earth sighing.
Today, my state lifted the Stay at Home order and began opening businesses. But we don't feel safe going out. We order more soap, sanitizer and masks, and we talk about the future with question marks.
Storms in the Brain
Storm is a good word for what happens to my brain when a story erupts. I'm a fourth generation Floridian, I grew up with storms, and heard stories of hurricanes past. I love and fear them, as I do story. I love reading and creating stories and I fear I'll never do the stories in my head justice.
I just finished a book and passed it to my agent. I'm letting go of the story world I've lived in for the last year, saying goodbye to the characters. Next week, my agent will submit the book to publishers, hoping to find a good fit. I've learned it's best to not waste energy on wondering if I did my best or expectations for its success. Instead, I focus on the next project.
The idea for a new story came to me a while ago. I put it in a box. I lifted the lid every so often and peeked inside, but I didn't take it out of the box until last week. I listed all that I knew about the characters and their world. Then I shared it with my agent. She poked and prodded and asked lots of whys and what ifs.
My husband and I walk every morning and for the last two days those whys and what ifs have fueled our steps. I walked over three miles yesterday, trying to figure out where a boy named Ash came from and why a girl named Roan was allowed in the woods.
The answers to those questions lead to more questions. They twist and churn into a tornado. Soon, I hope, the beginning will pop out of that storm. It's a magical moment when the main character takes her first steps on a clean page, and she brings a steady rain of words to fill the pages after. I pray they're the right words to describe the storm in my head.
Horses, Art and Books
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.
Pandemonia and Isolation
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.
A Quiet Place Within Internet Madness
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.
Bring The Emotion
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.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor