New Job, New Projects, New Adventures

bubenchSince my last post, I have finished a book draft, edited, and started teaching full-time. Talk about a full plate!

OH, AVERY is now a book that exists. Once I get feedback from a few trusted readers, it will be time to start on a new list of agents to query. In the meantime, I’m super excited to be attending the Michigan chapter of the Society of Childrens’ Book Writers & Illustrators conference this coming weekend. The keynote speaker will be Gary Schmidt, author of The Wednesday Wars and Orbiting Jupiter, and while I’m there I’m having the first 10 pages of Avery reviewed by an agent. It should be an exciting time, and I’m hoping the writing community interaction will help me feel less jealous of all my Spalding friends who are gearing up for residency in a few months.

My full-time position was offered to me on the phone about a week before Caleb and I left on an epic 17 day west coast adventure. With a class load almost double what I was expecting to teach, it’s been an adjustment. But, I have an office with a window looking over the campus moat, and I’m anticipating getting some good writing done in that room on the side.

On the horizon, I’m looking to work out some problems with a few picture books I’ve been sitting on while I choose which of three long fiction projects to work on next – two are young adult novels in various stages, and the other is a middle-grade fantasy (?!) inspired in part by our time in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. I’m curious to see which one wins out!

On a reading note, the extensive amount of time we spent in the car during our trip (and the coincidental location!) meant that Caleb and I powered through the 16-hour long audiobook of Wildwood by Colin Meloy. I’ve tried the book once before in book form and once in audio, but never could make through the first few chapters. We stuck it out together, this time, and once the pace picked up a bit we found it an enjoyable homage to so many things we love: the woods, talking animals, Narnia, and the whimsical lyricism of the Decembrists. If you’ve got a road trip coming up or you just have crazy amounts of free time, give it a go!

If you are starting a new school year I wish you well! Happy writing and may the wind be ever at your back.

Why I Love Halloween

It’s October.

The air is crisp, the leaves are crunchy, the cider is hot, the sweaters are chunky.

There are apple and pumpkin flavors of everything – if you’re into that.

It’s a sweet relief from summer’s heat, but a barrier against the long cold to come. A cozy hat and mittens that aren’t yet hidden by puffer coats.

I think it’s safe to say that most people like autumn. A lot of people even love it. Even the people who mourn summer can usually find something in this season to celebrate, even if it is just the looking ahead to the holidays.

But aside from all of this, there are lots of people out there – autumn lovers and others – who lose all that excitement at the mention of Halloween.

It’s the devil’s holiday! It’s a day to worship ghouls! It’s about death! Blood! Sexy costumes!

(Okay, that last one might be truer than I’d like to admit.)

All Hallows Evening is a Catholic celebration meant to remember the dead, including saints and martyrs. Our western Halloween has combined that with the traditions of the harvest season (think corn maze, pumpkin patch, cider mill… yummy). It’s a time to celebrate a successful summer and store up for the winter to come.

I love Halloween. Every year, people ask me why. Why do you, an adult, like dressing up in a pretend costume? Why do you, an adult, like to give out candy to kids? Why do you, an adult, like a holiday that consists of cotton spider webs and bedsheet ghosts? Scary movies? Backyard fires? Candy corn and caramel coated apples?

(You were licking your lips there at the end, weren’t you? No? That’s okay, I don’t like candy corn, either.)

I never know how to answer these questions. Why do kids like all this stuff? Why does anyone?

Because it’s fun.

Scary movies? Fun. Sitting around the fire with friends, roasting s’mores? Fun.

Fun. Kids love candy. This might be the one day left in the year when it’s okay to eat all the Snickers, Reeces, Milk Duds, and Sweedish Fish instead of sugar-free Kool-Aid and low-calorie carrot cake. (As a kid, I always made my Halloween candy last until Easter.)

Fun. Costumes (the handmade ones) make me happy. I love choosing a character and making their wardrobe real, lending a bit of their world to my own.

Fun. Remember pillow forts and hot lava? The invisible baddies you’d flee from when riding your bike? The sweet fencing moves you learned with a stick in your backyard?Who doesn’t want an excuse to have all of that back? Just for one day, to have the freedom to pretend again?

The marketing department might put zombies on my chocolate bar and spiders on my jelly beans. Your neighbor might overdo the styrofoam tombstones and wax hands. The college girls in your town might wear too many sexy costumes.

But what is this holiday all about?

Maybe the harvest is a time to store up food for our minds and hearts as well as our bodies. To remember what we’ve loved and lost, and celebrate what’s just out of reach, beyond the world as we see and know it. There’s a hint of mystery always in the air on October 31st, and the breeze smells sweet, the moon casting shadows that might make us jump.

Halloween is about pretend. Imagination. Childhood. Joy in the little things.

I think we could all use a bit more of that.

Don’t you?

 

Click here for a video where I talk about some of my favorite Halloween books.

Click here for a post with Halloween movies, TV shows, more books.

Click here for my Ana (Frozen) costume.

Rejection and Rotten Floors

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Throughout the Christmas season I was feeling that surge of optimism that comes with that time of year. The bounce in my step seemed to say this is it. This is the year I will find an agent.

I may have been spurred on by the news that my short story was accepted by a great online journal just after the holiday, narrowly coming in as my only publication for the year. I can’t wait until it’s ready to share!

Dreams don’t work unless you do, though, so on January 2nd I took advantage of my break from teaching and sent out 25 query letters, a number that has since risen to 30. (If you know of any agents/agencies looking for realistic middle-grade that touches on growing up, environmentalism, and imagination, send them my way!) That’s way more “submissions” than I sent out in all of 2016!

This is great, I thought. Now all I have to do is sit back, relax… and wait.

Some writers talk about how the waiting drives them nuts. I have to say, I don’t mind the waiting. I’m great at convincing myself that no news is good news. It’s when the news comes and it’s not good that I have trouble staying in good spirits.

This isn’t to say that the news hasn’t been good. Out of the eleven responses I’ve received so far, I’ve had two nice personal rejections, an invitation to query again with a different manuscript, and two requests for full manuscripts (one of which just came back as a revise and resubmit). In all honesty, I was elated just to get those two requests. Something about my book is working. I’m doing something right. But sometimes I have to hang my head and laugh that I’m putting things like “personal rejections” on a list that I’m calling “good news.”

In all the lurking I did while looking for agents and learning how to write good queries, I found out about WriteOnCon, an online conference for children’s writers that was held this past weekend. An online conference consists of a lot of blog posts, vlogs, and live q&a videos, so I’ve spent the last week immersing myself in the world and the language and the energy of writing children’s books. It’s been a great boost to give me the motivation to really dig in to my new manuscript, a leg up that I’ve sorely missed since largely leaving the physical writing community after my graduation in May.

Unfortunately, things never come at all the right times. We’ve been installing laminate floors in our upstairs since November, and all that’s left is the small room where my books and desk live. We were all set to get it done last Saturday when, in the midst of tearing up the old carpet, we discovered the sub floor under the window was rotted through.

Fun times, right?

While we’re figuring that repair out, I’ve been relegated to the couch. And the dog putting her head both under the laptop, making it impossible to type, and on top of the laptop, causing it to type letters I don’t want. And the cat trying to bend the screen back until it breaks and trying to grab my hands while I type. And the two of them chasing each other throughout the house. And the two of them snuggling up beside me while I finish writing the first chapter I’ve written in nine months.

And you know what? I kind of like it.

My Favorite Books of 2016

2016 had some dark spots. But despite the turmoil, some wonderful work was released by authors and publishers who are showing up and doing good work. Someone asked me what my favorite book I read this year was, and I couldn’t choose just one. Instead, I chose one for each genre! That’s not cheating, is it? Here is the list, plus a few add-ons. Most were released in 2016.

24886312Nonfiction:

Simple Matters: Living With Less and Ending Up With More by Erin Boyle. If my 2016 had a word, it was “less.” I’m planning another post to talk about this, and I will list several more books on the topic there, but this book stood out to me because of its simple beauty combined with practical usefulness.

Also: The Bee Book 

12820607Fiction:

We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson. I love books for younger audiences so much that I don’t often read through an adult novel, but Caleb and I listened to this on Audible during a road trip this summer. It is dark and poignant, with characters I won’t soon forget.

23719437Young Adult:

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt. I cannot say much about this book because I refuse to spoil it. It broke my heart, made me cry, and permanently solidified my affections for Schmidt. The premise is that a young teenage boy who is also a father is searching for his baby daughter – Jupiter – whom the “system” has not allowed him to ever meet. The story is told by the son in the foster family that takes him in.

25814142Middle Grade:

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt. I listened to this on audiobook, and I highly recommend you do as well! The reader is phenomenal – by far my favorite audiobook reader. The writing of this novel is spare and powerful – each word drips with emotion and importance. This is another that made me cry, but in such a perfect way. (This was maybe my all time favorite for the year.)

Also: Saving Wonder by Mary Knight

28250985Picture Book:

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield. This book is about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and the childhood dreams that led him to outer space. I am a big fan of outer space in general, and also astronauts, and also kids who dream big and make it happen. This book had it all.

Also: Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick

If you are interested, you can click here to see all 250 books I read in 2016.

Books That Make My Heart Hurt: How to Get Out of a Writing Slump and Figure out What You Should be Writing

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It’s probably no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump lately.

Something about the deadlines that came with my low-res MFA program, and the knowledge that when I met them someone would be there to read my work – and even tell me how to make it better – made it oh so easy to churn out the words. But filling the blank pages of my many Word documents hasn’t been so easy post graduation.

Granted, since graduation I have moved and renovated a house, which was quite the time suck. But now that things have settled down – have been settled down – I have an almost physical itch to get writing again.

The trouble is, I can’t make myself do it.

I’ve sat for hours looking at screens and notebook pages, making dates with myself to produce something. Anything. But nothing ever comes. I can revise, I can write queries, I can submit, but for the life of me I can’t force out any new words.

So how do writers get out of a block like this? I began to ask myself some questions.  Was it the work in progress that I had in front of me? Should I try starting out with something else? Did it really matter what I wrote, as long as I was writing?

Perhaps unfortunately, I believe the answer to that is YES. It matters very much what I write, and it matters very much what you write. There’s a big difference between what a writer can produce, and what they should produce. We’ve been given the gift of communicating truth through story, and we should be using that gift to tell the truths we were meant to tell.

But how do we figure out what story we need to write?

To start off, I took a good long look at my bookshelves and made a list. There are so many books to read, to enjoy, to love. I’m not denying that. But there are some books – different for every writer – that are special. Some books make our hearts hurt when we read them, and for me, I think it is because those are the books that convey a message that resonates within me on a deep level. It’s always hard to choose favorites among books, but I forced myself to narrow my list down to a dozen books that truly stir my soul. The ones I can’t help but take down from the shelf, flip through and read snippets of just for the reminder of how that book makes me feel. My dozen books are:

  1. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  2. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
  4. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
  5. Flags in the Dust by William Faulkner
  6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  9. The Once and Future King by T. H. White
  10. Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
  11. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  12. The Essays of E. B. White

What’s the point of this list? It provides a collection of books that get me right in the feels. It allows me to look at them all in one place and think about why that is. What do these books have in common? What is it about them that – although they are so different from one another – causes the same reaction in my chest?

These books are about longing for something that once was, and was lost. Longing for something that has not yet come. Longing for glory to be restored. Desperately hoping to restore, or to save, something pure and good that is in danger.  They are about love. Love of a world, and love of others, and both the destruction it can cause and the power it has to save. These books make my heart hurt with the sheer beauty they contain. They remind me that this pale earth is not my home. It is a shadow, a passing thing, a dim reflection of the glory that is to come. They soothe the pain of good things that are no more with the hope of the good that has yet to be.

I want to write a book like that.

Oh, I know. That’s a tall order.

But knowing the message, knowing the goal, is a good first step.

My next step is to attempt NaNoWriMo once again this year. I haven’t won NaNo since 2013, and I’m pantsing it this year, which takes me far from my writerly comfort zone. I don’t know if I will win, or if anything I write will be good.

But if I write something, I’ll be satisfied. If I write 50k, I’ll be thrilled. And if somewhere deep inside those pages is a paragraph that holds a glimmer of the truth that I read books to find, then just maybe I’ll be on my path to writing again.

Best of luck to this year’s participants! For more information on National Novel Writing Month, visit nanowrimo.org.

 

Hobbies that Inform or Improve my Writing

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Notice: I did not say OTHER hobbies. Writing is no hobby.

If you want other people to take your writing seriously, you have to take it seriously first. Writing is my job. It may not pay me very much right now (which is the #1 reason it is so hard for others to view it as a job), but people do all kinds of jobs that don’t pay. Whether it’s volunteering for the library, school, church, or community, most people do some kind of work for free – or they have at some point in their lives. Often, those “jobs” can turn into employment. If you volunteer at the library for long enough, they may offer you a position when it becomes available. The same goes for church or school. I take writing seriously and call it a job in the hopes that someday, someone will say, “Hey, you do this job really well. Let me pay you to do it!”

A pipe dream, I know.

Now that we’ve established the writing – paid or unpaid – is a job, we can discuss hobbies. Many creative people direct their strengths into one area while dabbling in others. For me, writing has always been my creative focus. However, I have been known to paint, draw, and sing. I don’t do these things nearly as much these days as I once did, but I can still utilize those hobby skills to inform my job – writing.

My MFA program at Spalding University has an Interrelatedness of the Arts component, which encourages students to view fine art, listen to musical compositions, and attend plays with the present mind of the reader. I think that’s just a fancier way they have of saying that writing does not exist in a vacuum. Creation and content of all types are continually speaking to each other, and these are just some of the things they might be saying.

Drawing teaches the artist to pay attention to detail. Every little line is a choice the artist makes, choosing to make things look one way or another. I find this is especially true when it comes to people: faces, body shapes, poses, expressions, and body language. If you’ve never tried drawing, or never thought about these things, give it a try! The focus might just teach you a new way to look at detail and description in your writing.

Painting is similar to drawing, but I tend to bring a freer hand to a brush than a pencil. Painting for me is about the atmosphere of the piece; the overall theme. What is the color theme (cool or warm) and what tone does that bring to the piece? What kind of feelings are evoked by the piece, and why? Is it meticulously crafted with a tiny brush, so you can see each blade of grass, or is it spread freely over the canvas with broad brush strokes and bold designs, capturing the essence of the subject rather than the exact likeness? What would happen if you thought about your novel or story in terms like this?

Music is a bit different than these. Although you can’t see the sound of music as you can a work of art or a paragraph, music has more in common with creative writing than you’d think. Unlike visual art, music progresses. There is a beginning, middle, and end to every piece of music, and most pieces have a midpoint and a climax as well. Why do those words sound familiar? We use them all the time when talking about plot and story. Orchestral soundtracks or piano pieces are especially useful to me in thinking about the progression of a scene or a story. Try listening to Hans Zimmer’s “Now We Are Free” from the soundtrack of the movie Gladiator, or “Batman Begins, Film Score.” You might also choose music from The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Carribean, TRON, The Last of the Mohicans, or Jurrasic Park. (I’ll do another post, or a video, soon on what music I listen to while writing!) Notice the rising and falling “action” of the piece, the midpoint, the climax, and the conclusion.

Walking or hiking outside is the last hobby that I believe influences my writing. Although walking is not an act of creation, it is the art of learning to observe Creation. As writers, we must notice small things with large meanings. We must see beauty in the everyday. We must see the extraordinary in the commonplace. The outdoors is the best place I know to do this. When I have problems with a piece I am writing, I go for a walk.

Let me know if you try any of these or if you have other hobbies that have influenced and/or informed your writing.