twinkiesNative Floridians aren't easily distracted by nature. We grow up with a variety of amphibians and reptiles, including alligators, over 12,000 insect species and forty-four snake species. We learn early on to leave gators be. Don't feed them, for crying out loud, unless you want them knocking on your door and looking at your fingers as if they're Twinkies! We know which snakes and bugs are poisonous and we learn to get along with them all. It's their planet, too, and they'll likely be here long after we're gone. I'm always surprised at newcomers who are disgusted by lizards. I think they're cute.
We're used to hot, humid weather that melts ice cubes before they've had a chance to chill your drink. Daily thunder storms with booming lightning don't stop Floridians from going about their business. When I was a little girl, we invited the family to our house during hurricanes. The kids played games. I don't remember what the adults did but it seemed everyone had a good time and the next day, we picked up and moved on.
Writers are a lot like Floridians. We don't let much distract us from our work. Even when we stop typing, we're figuring out story in our heads. We do it while driving, doing chores, waiting in lines and sometimes when we're supposed to be listening to the person next to us. Work isn't nine to five for us and storytelling isn't just a job, it's a mission.
Two weeks ago a storm called Irma headed to Florida with her eye set on Tampa Bay. I imagine every writer in the state stopped writing like I did, to watch that storm on the news. It was a monster, wider than the state, chewing up the islands below us and leaving devastation behind. Now that I'm grown, I take hurricanes seriously. And from the sounds of it, so do most Floridians, including the children's writing community. Thousands listened to the dire warnings and evacuated. The people who stayed behind searched for a safe place to ride out the storm.
We boarded our windows and doors, filled our cars with gas and our cupboards with canned food and water. Neighbors helped neighbors and wished each other well before heading inside to sit awake all night, listening to Irma batter our houses. On Facebook, the children's writing community lit up with offers of help and thoughts for everyone's safety. After Irma passed, Floridians cleaned up downed trees and smashed fences. They sweated in houses that no longer had electricity. Some faced destroyed homes and a long road back to normal.
The writers in my group struggled to drag their thoughts back to their stories. A statewide series of workshops was postponed and a contest deadline extended. But we will recover, and we won't have to do it alone. The children's writing community supports its members. Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators have offered to cover the costs of everyone (everyone!) wanting to attend the postponed workshops. The workshops have already been rescheduled, and I'm busy working on my contest entry. Writers, like Floridians, expect hardships and challenges. We're not going to let a storm, no matter how fierce, keep us from our art.
Saturday morning before the sun rises, I'm driving with a writing partner to the Society for Children's Writers and Illustrators conference in Orlando. The first thing I tell new writers when they ask for advice is join SCBWI. Without them, I suspect many children's writers and illustrators would give up before their books reach the hands that are meant to hold them.
The minute I realized I wanted to write for children, I Googled writing groups, found a meeting nearby and joined. I was a woman with a dream and no skills. Who knew there were writing rules? I spent a year learning the basics and I'm forever grateful to the woman who had the patience to pass them on without a single groan or eye roll. But she didn't write for children and even though others in the group did, we were all struggling to understand what that meant. Sometime in that year, I discovered SCBWI and thought why not, I'll join that, too. When I attended my first SCBWI critique group, I knew I was in the right place.
At the national level, SCBWI offers a website that caters to the needs of members. There are blogs, resources, grant contests, a message board where you can get any question imaginable answered, find online critique groups and get your query letter reviewed. SCBWI hosts a summer conference in Los Angeles and a winter conference in New York. They also publish a quarterly magazine called the Bulletin and an online newsletter.
SCBWI is represented in every state by volunteer-run groups. Florida's chapter hosts two conferences a year, a mentorship program, a newsletter, local workshops and an annual contest. It also facilitates the ongoing need of members to establish critique groups. Which leads me back to my weekend. When you go to a conference, expect great things, like learning from agents, publishers and authors of admirable books. Saturday, I'll be attending a middle grade fantasy workshop with author Henry Neff and senior editor for Scholastic, Matt Ringler. How wow is that?
Expect to leave conferences inspired and motivated. Even better, expect new friends. I've never met a friendlier crowd than SCBWI. They share your dreams, understand your trials, and they'll celebrate your success. If your new to the writing world and you're attending your first conference, you might make connections that lead to a writing group. For sure, exchange emails. Writers need support. Even if you're an introvert like me, you don't have to do this alone.
Saturday morning, my writing partner and I will probably chat all the way to the conference about our stories, the workshop and what we hope to learn. When the sun dips below the trees, we'll turn the car towards home, our heads filled with what we learned and our hearts filled with renewed dreams and the encouragement of friends.
Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
Before readers launch into a literary journey and spend hours and hours reading a story, they must be charmed or fascinated by the protagonist. It helps if the character is funny or feisty. Everyone likes feisty. Feisty faces the world with chin up and eyes blazing. Readers can't wait to see what that character gets up to and they believe whatever she faces, she'll be up to the task.
It's tougher to start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted and pessimistic. In her excellent book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl Klein likens the experience to listening to a negative person at a party who goes on and on about their bad luck and how it never changes. Who wants to spend time with that person? She says negative, defeated characters are unappealing. If you start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted, it's vitally important to show they're resilience and assertiveness. Immediately! And humor counts double in this story.
So, guess who starts every book with a dispirited, passive person?
Yep, that would be me. My muse NEVER imagines characters who wake up on the right side of the bed with a sword drawn to vanquish their enemies. In my critique group The Skyway Writers, my critique partners know I always want their eyes searching for the passages where my character lacks assertiveness. They help me see when she's reacting instead of acting, passive instead of active, finding problems instead of solutions and embracing defeat instead of believing in victory.
I think most writers tend to pen protagonists with personalities that echo their own. If you're not a witty and daring optimist, that doesn't mean you can't create appealing characters. You just have to dig deeper, find the parts of you that believe in miracles and have the courage to overcome the most dreadful events. Write the character you hope to become!
It took many years and hours upon hours of writing and learning to earn a place among The Skyway Writers, the group I share stories with. They're one of the most valuable things in my life, right up there with reliable transportation and groceries. I've met many people who struggle to find compatible writing partners, so one of the things I thought I'd do with my blog this year is share some of the wisdom I glean from my group.
This month, the Skyway Writers talked about the need for an active protagonist. It's a subject vitally important to me because I'm an introvert. If I'm not paying attention, I'll start every story with a passive, reactive character. I still remember the moment when I took a synopsis class years ago and the teacher pointed out my character wasn't DOING anything assertive to reach her goal.
Oh. You mean, they have to pick up the sword and yell charge?
Your protagonist has to drive the story, even if it's a quiet, emotional tale with very little action, and even if they make a wreck of their lives and everyone else's, they have to drive the train. From the onset when they make the decision that sets the story in motion, each decision and action must propel them to the climax and resolution.
That's so much easier said than done for someone like me. I try not to let it interfere with writing a first draft but I pay attention to it in every revision and ask my critique partners to keep an eye out for places where my character's not asserting herself. If you don't have a writing partner, don't despair. You can teach yourself to beware of weak protagonists.
When you revise, take notes in every scene. Is your main character making decisions that drive the plot or is she merely responding to other characters' decisions and actions? Is she following someone else's lead? If so, it's not a bad idea to look at the leader and ask if maybe it's their story you should be writing. Try a chapter in their point of view. Or go back to chapter one, wind your protagonist up, then buckle on that sword and charge!
I hadn't meant to abandon this blog for seven months but that's how long it's been since I posted. In the spring of 2016 we decided to move back home after living most of our adult lives away. Home was just one county south, but it felt like a new country. Preparing our old house to sell, finding a new home, sorting and packing, shedding everything that wouldn't fit in a much smaller place, moving and then traveling back and forth for months until our prior house sold . . . well, it took much longer and way more energy than I imagined.
Now a new year has arrived with fresh hope and perspective. It's strange and wonderful to return to the place where I spent my early days. Everywhere I look are reminders of the sights, sounds and smells that shaped my view of the world. We writers of children's books count on childhood memories to help us relate to our characters.
Home is a popular subject in middle grade books. Most of them feature characters searching for a place to belong. In Augusta Scattergood's The Way to Stay in Destiny, Theo fights to stay in a boarding house where he's found friends who understand his love of music and baseball. In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry dreads summers with Aunt Petunia and looks forward to the school year when he can return to his beloved Hogwarts Academy. Bod Owens in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is adopted by ghosts in a cemetary.
The places we grow up weave into the fabric of our souls. If we followed Theo, Harry and Bod into adulthood, we'd see the boarding house in Destiny, Hogwarts Academy and the graveyard playing roles in their lives. We'd see those places call them back. That thread from home, it's always attached.
I've lived for so many years in oak-shaded copses, I've forgotten what it's like to be surrounded by the ocean. Here, there's water north, south, east and west. The air smells of salt and gulls cry overhead, reminding me of toes dug into wet sand. I love moss-draped oaks, narrow country lanes and rolling pastures dotted with livestock. I miss seeing cows and horses emerging from early morning mists, rustic barns and sandhill cranes. I've never been a keen boater or swimmer, never longed for life in a city by the sea. But a part of my heart answers back when the ocean calls.
Does that look like chaos to the left? It's my house. This morning. With me preparing for a garage sale tomorrow. And that hiatus I mentioned last month? It needs to stretch a wee bit longer. My family: one husband, one aging Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Hound, one imp-hearted mini rat terrier and two feral, main coon type cats, is moving south. The big move happens in late June. Before then, I'll be sorting and packing, cleaning and painting. After the move, I'll be cleaning and painting, unpacking and resorting.
No writing, critiquing or blogging will happen until the dust settles. Then I'll be back with stories about shedding the things you gather, interspecies mediation and coming home after four decades away. Meanwhile, I hope you're reading and writing and making good art. I just finished All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor. So, so excellent.
I'm taking a break from blogging this month. Meantime, I hope you're all reading and writing and creating fantastic art. I just finished another great book, Orbiting Jupiter, by one of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt. I fall in love with his characters on page one.
Do you have a story, essay, photograph or painting you'd like to share with peers across the country? Teen Ink is a magazine featuring work by teens, and only teens. You can submit throughout the year and they consider every submission for publication. They have contests for Cover Art, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Educator of the Year (you nominate your favorite teacher), Environmental, Travel and Culture and Community Service.
If you're 13 -19, Teen Ink is looking for your writing and art: serious, funny, long or short, they enjoy it all. Be sure to send holiday-themed pieces months ahead of the holiday. Nonfiction winners are published each month in print and online. If your submission is accepted, you receive a free copy of the issue featuring your work and a choice of merchandise from their store.
If they accept your stories or art, Teen Ink and its partners and affiliates become the owners, with the non-exclusive right to publish your work in any format, including print, electronic, and online media. That means they can reuse it today or years from today. But you retain the right to submit your work for non-exclusive publication any where and any time you wish. So, if you see another magazine or contest you'd like to submit to, you can.
A word of caution: some magazines and contests only accept work that hasn't been previously published. So any time you submit your work, ask yourself if you'll be satisfied with the rewards offered. Being published in a national magazine that's available in classrooms and libraries is a pretty significant accomplishment. If you're interested in making art or writing your career, that publication credit will impress colleges and the people you hope to sell your work to. And every piece of writing or art we share with the world, makes a positive difference.
I've loved books and stories since before I could read. The school library was a magical place packed with shelves of wonder. I carried away stacks of books, my insides tingling, my mind racing ahead to a cozy, quiet spot where I would carefully choose the first book and open the cover.
While the books I read have grown thicker and the selection broader, my love for good stories remains. But lately, I've been reading without enjoyment. Even worse, I was quitting on books. I never quit on books. If I read the first chapter, I stick it out to the end, even if I don't relate to the main character or totally believe the plot. I have too much respect for stories to not follow them to the last page.
So what happened to my story-loving heart?
I became a writer. Writers read books differently. We study them. We analyze and criticize, mentally edit, note the clever plot twists and lovely passages. If it's a masterpiece, we mourn our lack of ability to ever write such a thing. Maybe it's possible to shut off the writer's brain while you read, but I haven't learned it. Still, I was determined to rediscover the joy of reading. I scoured lists, tried book after book, read outside my favorites genres. Nothing worked, and it was starting to depress me.
Then two weeks ago my esteemed writing peer Augusta Scattergood passed me a YA book to read. I took it with no enthusiasm. It was contemporary, not my favorite genre. I had two other books on my bedside table, one fiction, one nonfiction. But I opened the new book. Here's the beginning of Jenny Downham's Unbecoming:
"It was like an alien had landed. Really, it was that weird. Like an ancient creature from another planet had crashed into Katie's day."
That's seventeen-year-old Katie, who until this moment has been trying to live up to her mother's ideal: good student, good daughter, good sister to her emotionally challenged brother. Now, she's sitting next to a grandmother she's never met, listening to her mother desperately try to convince a hospital social worker the old woman can't come home with them. Katie observes:
"The old woman just sat there, eyes shut now. She wasn't asleep though--you could tell by the tip of her chin. Maybe it was a trick? Maybe she wanted them to think she was napping, so she could scarper when no one was looking? Her boyfriend was dead, the doctors thought she was too vulnerable to go home, and her daughter didn't want her. Why not escape and start a new life somewhere else?"
And just like that, I was there, sitting with that demented old woman, feeling Katie's confusion, curiosity and compassion. In the space of a page, I cared about them. I read the next page and the next several chapters, without thinking about who was writing or how they accomplished this incredible story. I didn't stop to study sentence structure or plot or character. For the first time in a year, I was enjoying a book.
Thank you, Jenny Downham. Your beautiful book renewed my faith in stories and reminded me why I write. But best of all, you restored my joy in reading.
* Note to readers: If you'd like to know more about Unbecoming, here's my review on Amazon. Which reminds me, authors appreciate reviews, even the critical parts, as long as the criticism is presented with respect. Your reviews have an impact. They can bolster writers' belief in their ability and help them tell better stories. But mean-spirited reviews are toxic. They poison the venues they appear on and bruise writers' hearts. So before you post negativity, think how you'd feel if someone wrote the same about your work.
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