Summer's almost over. Is that groaning I hear? No more sleeping in or freedom to plan your days. But heading back to school isn't all bad. There's shopping for new gear and clothes, reconnecting with friends you haven't seen since June, making new friends, feeding your brain and sharing your creative passion. In my county, school starts next Tuesday. You have one last week to hit the beaches, malls and movies with friends before your minds are called to greater challenges.
Picturing the school year ahead, I focused today's LikeWise on a plethora of links. Plethora. Sorry, I love saying some words, even if it's just in my head. You can check the links out all at once or peek at them whenever you feel the urge.
First up is Study.com's 40 Best Websites for Teen Writers. This is an awesome list, including communities and courses (some of them free), grammar and reference, creativity boosters and publishing advice.
For inspiration, visit The Academy of Achievement's Arts Page. You can match your personality with the world's most respected achievers, watch podcasts and browse a list of recommended books.
Teen Ink's Art and Photography Resource Page offers art, photography and museums links. Their site also features links for:
And a General Resource Page. Besides art, photography and writing sites, you'll find environment, reference materials, volunteer opportunities and a fantastic summer camp and courses list, so you can daydream about next summer.
Finally, here's a list of teen blogs for artists, writers and readers:
The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Teen Blog
The Whit Blog from The Whitney Museum
Contemporary Austin's Teen Blog
YA Author's Cafe
The YA Blogosphere, a directory of YA book related blogs.
Enjoy the last days of summer! And it's okay to admit you're a tiny bit excited about going back to school.
I've been thinking a lot lately about art. Not any one art, all art, and how one creative process inspires another. When I studied painting in college, students were urged to explore mediums and other arts: dance, music, theater. Artists collaborate all the time. Theater and dance productions call for artists to do make-up, costume and set design, as well as actors and dancers. Musicians make choreographed videos and help create album covers. Visual artists stage events, using music, performance and video to express their concepts.
But writing is different. Unless, you're writing a picture book or graphic novel, your writing will most likely be represented by words on a page. Yes, an artist will create a cover, but authors aren't majorly involved in that process. I've been a visual artist all my life. Does that sound weird? It's true. I believe I was born with the urge to make marks on paper that expressed what I couldn't say in words. My writing grew from that art. My paintings were always telling stories. Just look at Toto. He's sick of following Dorothy through OZ. He's grabbed the ruby slipper and he's headed toward a tropical paradise with the wicked witch in pursuit.
For me, I think every work of art begins with a story. Seven years ago, a series of drawings begged to be a book and I've been writing ever since. Even though I don't illustrate my stories (mostly because young adult novels aren't usually illustrated), I visualize them. And I wonder, besides standard illustrations and creating imagery with words, how can I use my visual art skills in my books?
Other artists have asked that question too. I'm in awe of author/illustrator Brian Selznick who produces cinematic experiences with image and text in books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. And David Weisner, whose images are so powerful, he needs no words to tell picture book stories like Flotsam. At this stage in my life, I'm most interested in creating pictures with words. But I'm glad the artist in me asks questions that prompt my brain to think outside the box of traditional storytelling.
I hope the questions inspire you to unlock the gates in your brain. Pollinate your chosen passion with other art.
School's out. Two months of freedom from school work. What will you do with all that freed up brain space? Read, of course! You'll want books at the beach, books for lazy afternoons on the porch or under a tree, books on long car rides and late nights in bed. So this month, LikeWise features sites dedicated to readers.
First up is teenreads.com. Teenreads offers the Ultimate Reading List of 400 books, interviews with authors and publishing professionals, polls, contests, a blog and monthly book and screen reviews. What I liked most about this venue was the Teen Board. Thirty teens from around the country are chosen by staff for a year long commitment to provide reviews and blog posts, as well as answer reader questions. The site's recommendations include non fiction and adult books.
Next up is Readingteen.net. It features similar content: book reviews, giveaways and blog. But it's run by two mothers and their young adult children with part time reviews by a handful of teens. While there are adult, motherly opinions being offered on their blog, I thought the content was thoughtful and invited discussion. I especially liked this post urging book banners and the banned books' supporters to stop fighting and start listening:
Child Corruptors vs. Nazi Book Burners
At The Library of Congress, you'll find booklists, poetry and free resources. They feature fantastic author webcasts and a gazillion links that probably lead to a gazillion more links so there's no telling what sort of treasure you'll dig up.
Finally, there's Reading Rants, a blog hosted by Middle school librarian Jennifer Hubert. She reviews books for teens but doesn't stick to the YA section and she accepts book suggestions from readers. I love her listed links, which include book reviews by topic, blogs for teens and out-of-the-ordinary authors.
These are just a sampling of the sites I found. Try them out, start a reading list. If you're the type who likes to share books with friends and those friends are away for the summer, join a book club. You can find them at libraries, Nerdfighters, Goodreads or The Guardian. And if you love a book so much you're eager to share it with the world, create a YouTube review. Who knows, you might gather a following, like Jesse the Reader who offers brief book reviews for summer reading below.
A blank page, a white canvas, a lump of clay. Artists experience a unique thrill when faced with a new project. I've never tried to analyze it, but for me I think it's a mix of exploring the unknown and anticipation of what may grow from words, paint and clay. And hope. I want it to be successful. I hope it will come closer to being the type of work I admire.
I just finished a book I've been working on for over a year. I'm a little low on creative energy and still sweeping the last story from my brain. You develop a relationship with each project. Bond with it, commit to working through good times and bad. It can be hard to let go. But I had an idea for a new story so I scratched out a beginning. Then my brain kicked in and started asking the main characters questions. Who are you? What do you want? What's standing in your way and what will you do about it? The answers will fill blank pages and hopefully, another book will be born.
As a visual artist, I face a blank canvas with photographs, sketches or props as guide. I have a vision of what I hope to create and I can't wait to translate it on canvas. I've done very little sculpting and crude ceramic work but I love a lump of clay. What will it be? A pot, a figure, or an abstracted thought? From our minds to our fingers to the medium, we express. What do you want to say to the world? Stretch a new canvas, create a new document, buy a new batch of clay. Start a fresh project today.
If you're wondering why there's a photo of my dog Teddy illustrating this post, it's simple. When we adopted him two months ago, he was a blank slate. He's getting to know us. We're getting to know him, asking questions as we go and eager to grow this relationship. Sort of like his hair. He had next to none when we met him. Now he has chocolate brown spots that shine in the sun like fudge. He's a work of art, for sure
Just so you know, I'm not ashamed of using Teddy as a metaphor and since it's pretty much The Year of Teddy at our house and he doesn't mind being photographed, you'll probably see a lot of his mug.
For Christmas, Teddie, the much adored leader of my critique group, The Skyway Writers, gave each member a beautiful, red-beaded bracelet. Now, I wear it every time I write. It makes me feel connected to my talented peers as I sit at my lonely desk, trying to find the right words to tell a story only I can tell. I love starting the year with a positive new tradition.
I announced at the end of last month that I planned to steer this blog in a new direction. My focus will be encouraging teen readers, writers and artists. There's no better way to start than by celebrating great books. This week, one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, won the John Newbery award for the second time with her latest book, Flora and Ulysses. Have you read it? I haven't and I'm eager to get my hands on it. I've loved all her other books so I know what to expect. That's the thing about favorite authors. They don't disappoint.
Yesterday, I finished the fifth revision on my work-in-progress and sent if off to three invaluable readers. While I wait for their feedback, I'm pondering all I've gained from this book. Each novel is a journey. I learned the basics writing my first book. I knew nothing. Not point of view or how to format dialog or why all that lovely description puts young readers to sleep. I was as unpolished and new as new could be.
When I started this book, I had a couple conferences behind me. My writing toolbox seemed adequate, my confidence boosted by a contest win and a published story. But I was without a writing group and one-hundred pages in, I sent the manuscript off for professional review. Although the feedback was positive, the suggestions called for a rewrite I couldn't comprehend. My brain twisted into a knot trying to sort it out. In the end, I shelved the project and my creativity spiraled.
A year later, I was accepted into a most wonderful critique group. The story, of course hadn't let go of my brain. It had percolated into a nice, bubbly stew, begging to be restarted. So I did, ignoring the old version entirely. What I've written since doesn't even resemble it. And although I couldn't follow the professional's advice because I scrapped what she'd read, I did finally accept her wisdom and I think my work benefitted from it. So the first thing I learned during that painful year was even through the dry spells, there's growth. Just keep writing, keep trying, even if it feels like the worst writing you'll ever do. Even if it ends up in junk files. Write.
Another year has passed. I've written and revised the book and added to my toolbox. My critique partners challenge me to craft better sentences and paragraphs, to choose the right words and place them carefully. I listen now to the rhythms in the story, think about syntax and cringe at discords. My previously unstructured chapters now follow arcs, or they try to anyways, and my story strives to hit prescheduled points on a plot map: binding, low and turning. When I think of all I've learned through the writing of this book, I imagine my brain as a house with doors and windows wide open and knowledge sifting through. The greatest things is, the doors and windows didn't close when the book was finished. I'm primed for the next story, ready to learn what it has to teach.
This week, I finished the third draft of my novel, the one I hoped to pass on to readers. But the pile of notes I jotted during that revision demand a fourth attempt. So I've outlined by chapter the additions and changes and next week, I'll attack Draft #4.
Writing a book can seem like an endless project. When I've described the process to non-writer friends, they gawk at me and say things like, "Why would anyone go to all that trouble?" Which, believe me, I've asked myself a time or two. Even if your loved ones are supportive, they probably don't understand the passion (some would say madness) that leads us to toil for eons on a story. So, it's best to share writerly moments with people who can relate. The writers in my circle are always willing to lift their heads from their work to encourage and advise. And keep me grounded. Even if I can't see the end of this process, I trust their promise that it does have an end.
Books on craft are also a comfort and fuel while I revise. They stimulate the brain and, I hope, affect the revision in a positive way. Recently, I read Donald Maass' The Fire in Fiction. Maass is the president of Donald Maass Literary Agency and the author of Writing the Breakout Novel. In the last chapter of The Fire in Fiction, he addresses what he feels is the lack in most people's writing. Maass writes: Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that, if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author's experience for what is distinctive and personal.
That was an eye-opening bit of wisdom. I've joined in discussions about bad writing practices in successful, sometimes award-winning books. We struggle to erase excess adverbs and adjectives, passive voice, telling, etc. from our manuscripts, then pick up the latest publishing darling and gasp at the undisciplined writing. It can be downright discouraging. Some might even see it as an excuse to ignore the experts' list of no-nos.
Indeed, after reading truckloads of submissions in his career, Maass suggests the key to a good story is not following all the literary rules, but being as honestly unique as you can. Filter your story through the treasure of memories in your head. Make it a story only you can tell because only you know how you would experience it. I believe that's what agents and editors mean when they say they're looking for fresh voices. And as a reader, I agree with him. If I'm swept up in a story, I don't notice how it's written.
I don't think Maass is saying we should stop improving our craft. The creative people I know never tire of learning new ways to improve their work. Writing a novel, for most of us, is a slow process. It requires patience and perseverance, qualities I hope to spend the rest of my life practicing. And next week as I revise, I'm reminded by Maass to leave my individual stamp on the story.
Photo credit: David Banghart 2013
It's been two months since I've blogged. To tell the truth, the blog slipped to some dusty corner of my mind while I typed a thousand words a day, finishing the first draft of a novel. When the book loosened its grip on my mind for a sec, I remembered I had a blog! Now, I'm deep into revising and obsessed with making the story the best it can be. But I thought I'd take a minute to update this site.
Since my last post in April, my critique partners have been all kinds of busy. Sandra Markle's picture book Waiting for Ice made Bank Street's Best Children's Books of the Year list, Janet McLaughlin released Psyched Out, the second in her Get Psyched series and Augusta Scattergood's debut novel, Glory Be has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Crystal Kite Award. That's a photo of us above, celebrating Augusta's win last week with other Tampa Bay children's writers. I'm honored to be part of this talented, dedicated group.
They deserve credit for my productivity and the growth of my writing. I come away from each critique energized and eager to get home so I can write more story and improve on what they've read. This week, they'll review my synopsis and find the weak points in my plot so I can shore up those places as I revise. In the weeks ahead when this book is ready to submit to agents, they'll be there to keep me sane while I wait for responses. They know the cost of rejection and the value of even the slightest encouragement from an agent or editor.
I was motivated recently to join Goodreads so I can review books, including those of my new writer friends. It's a rewarding way to support authors and good books. The more published authors I meet, the more I realize how important these connections are to success. And it isn't all about money or selling our books. It's about sharing our love for children's literature and our desire to create books worthy of a child's bookshelf.
Besides polishing my manuscript, another summer goal is to revamp my blog and website. When I created it, I was studying picture books, thinking my art background would translate into that genre. But I learned after two years, that I don't have a picture book voice. I'm not sorry for the experience. Learning is never wasted and I met the most wonderful, talented people. Now, my writing travels a young adult path and I'd like the website to reflect that.
I wish you happy writing and encourage you to connect with other writers. If physical connections aren't possible, meet writers online. It will enrich your life and your craft.
For the next few months, maybe longer, I'll be posting once a month and I celebrate the freedom to do this because . . . I don't have a book to promote! That's right. There are some positives to not having a book deal. At a local SCBWI event, writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, encouraged us nonpubs to embrace this time. Published authors in the room shared knowing glances and smirked. They remember their prebook days with fondness: no agent and publisher prodding you to do backflips and handstands to sell your book; no full calender of signings and school visits; no mad scramble to lure readers on blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Joyce offered many sage morsels that day. I sat in a back corner, womanning the sign-in table, and though Joyce couldn't see me, twice her words struck like a bullet. First, she talked of focusing on your sweet spot as a writer. She said often new childrens' writers explore every avenue from picture book to young adult and that's helpful if you use it to find your strengths. Then, it's time to concentrate. If it's PBs, start cranking out stories like a factory. If it's middle grade or YA, write short stories and work your way up to novels.
I've been writing for four and a half years and I've juggled PBs, MG and YA for almost the entire journey. I've always felt that my voice is better suited to MG and YA but the artist inside urged me to try PBs. I've been blessed to belong to the best PB group (in my biased opinion) in Florida, Rob Sanders' PB&J, Picture Books and Java. They are my writing family. Perhaps my attachment clouded my reasoning because from the beginning, I've heard: "Your voice is too old for PBs" (my words not there's. They were always much kinder.) So, Joyce's advice hit the target. I needed to quit struggling with PBs and focus on my novels for older children. A small part of me rejoiced, the sensible writer who fought the artist for my attention. A large part of me silently wailed at my inevitable resignation from PB&J.
As I recovered from that shock, Joyce addressed branding and how not focusing on one genre can affect new writers. She cited a writer who had a pending deal on a MG novel. The interested agent (or editor, I can't remember which) Googled the writer and up pops a website featuring the author's self-illustrated PBs. The agent wasn't interested in representing PBs so she turned the novel down. Joyce continued, saying agents and publishers want to see an author committed to building devoted readership by producing consistent books. OUCH! I slunk down in my chair, feeling as if a path had cleared from Joyce to my seat and all eyes targeted me. My website is all over the place. I tried to focus it on writing but . . . well, look at it; there's a giant, clothed rabbit hosting the home page! And even though there's only one portfolio page, the art is what viewers notice. No one ever comments on the writing. So, guess who will be revamping their website? One day, I hope to have agents and publishers Googling my name and when they do, I want to be ready. Until then, I'm enjoying my freedom. Today, I don't have to worry about branding or book promoting. The Bible says there's a time for every season. Rejoice fellow nonpubs! This is our season of learning to write the best book we can.
Since, I'm only posting once a month, I'm throwing everything I've got here. If you're in Florida, Tennessee or Missouri, please watch for events promoting Rob Sanders' debut PB, Cowboy Christmas. The launch party is Saturday, Nov. 3 at Inkwood Books in Tampa and you don't want to miss it. Rob's hired cowboy strummers and there's sure to be tasty refreshments.
Happy Halloween everyone. Wishing you treats, no naughty tricks!
September 30 through October 6 is Banned Book Week. Since the event's inception in 1982 over 11,300 books have been challenged, many of them children's books. Among the top one-hundred most challenged books are:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I've read these books. Some of them were hard to read. The Chocolate War was banned partly for unsuitability to age group. I was stunned by the cruelty in that book but I can't imagine it being more relevant than today when bullying has reached a whole new level through social media. Harry Potter was called evil. Yet the overriding message in that series is that love conquers evil. The Giver was accused of degrading motherhood and adolescence. Librarians drew diapers on the naked tot wandering through Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. There are books I'll never read, some I may find offensive. But I want the freedom to choose what I read and I believe school libraries should offer books that stimulate minds and foster conversation, books that children in all situations can relate to.
BannedBooksWeek.org offers a wealth of information for writers, artists, teachers and librarians, including an events page where you can click on your state to find celebrations of banned books. I was delighted to find two events in the Tampa Bay area. One of them led me to an unknown local resource, Bluebird Books, a mobile literary-themed project.
Every week is a good week to read a book. This week, why not choose one from the Top One-hundred Banned Books?
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