Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Has to Happen? By Ann Haywood Leal

I believe it was the brilliant John Irving who said,  “You don’t initiate a story until you know how you’re going to end it.  You don’t start a dinner party conversation—‘A funny thing happened on the way to LaGuardia’ –and not know what happened in LaGuardia."

I used to use the “fly by the seat of my pants” approach.  Sometimes it worked—just by fluke, I think.  But more often than not, I would dig myself into a hole and get stuck.  Now I think I tend to agree with John Irving.  I try to tell myself the story.  I don’t like to tell other people the story, because, maybe it’s just Irish superstition, but it feels as if it loses some of the magic for me when I talk it out with someone.  I’ll write little notes to myself –when I do it that way, it’s as if the story unfolds on its own.  As soon as I have a general idea of where it's going, then I start to work—and I work out technicalities and logistics along the way.
But the big, meaty question I try to remember to ask myself is, What has to happen?  If you have an impulsive character up on a rocky ledge, or if you have a nervous, self-conscious character fumbling in a mud pit, what absolutely has to happen?  I don't always know, but it's always an adventure to see where this question takes me.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


I feel some capital letters coming on, so bear with me.

I used to be a process junkie. Every conference I attended, every workshop or class, I wanted to know, "What is your process?"

Because mine may as well have looked like this:

Of course, what I really wanted to know was, "How do you write a book?" Because who wants to try and fail and try and fail and try and fail if you can just ask someone else, some other successful person, how they did it and then copy the crap out of them?

"Write an outline," they said.

"Find out what is in your character's pocket," they said. "Nothing," I said. "But if they did have something, what would it be?" they said.


"Try this sixty-seven point, fold-a-paper, pretend you're a snowflake method. Works for me every time," they said.

So I tried (and still try) all of those things. And failed (and still fail).

BUT I have figured out that I can't work with an outline. And that even if my characters had something in their pockets, I wouldn't care, and that I am wonderfully horrible at anything with more than three steps. I also figured out we all have some process related things in common and that pop up with every book:

YOU HAVE TO DO ALL THE THINGS. There aren't any magic beans and for every fifty-seven things you try, you may end up with one or two that stick and become your process.

WRITING IS HARD AND YOU ARE NOT A GENIUS. Beethoven and Hawking are geniuses. Just know that if the sneaky part of your mind is telling you, "you don't have to listen to that critique/change that plotline/kill off that character," then you probably do. Because you are not a genius.

DON'T WAIT UNTIL YOU ARE "FEELING IT." I would literally never get out of bed if I waited for my feelings to show up.

TAKE BREAKS. Just because you decided to be a writer does not mean your children should have to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of their lives.

YOU MUST BE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR FLAWS. Or, at least, know what they are. Or at the very least, know that you have them. Writing a book has this amazing ability to call forth every one of your flaws in bright screaming Technicolor and possibly stereo and then challenge them to a duel.

Please know that my capital letters are for the stubborn, know-it-all, perfectionist crazy-head that is writing this post. If you know a stubborn, know-it-all, perfectionist crazy-head writer/human, feel free to share.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Writing Interesting Characters - Glenn Wood

As an author of children’s books one of my biggest challenges is finding characters that will not only appeal to my audience but will also stand out from the crowd. That, and coming up with an original idea of course. To have a truly successful book these two factors need to work in tandem. 

What do readers remember most about the Harry Potter books? Usually, Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Harry is a fascinating character in his own right, the orphaned child of murdered magician parents and Hogwarts, a school for young magicians operating alongside the real world, was a great idea. 

For The Brain Sucker I had a strong central concept – a brilliant maniac had invented a machine that could suck the goodness out of kids to create the evil world he desired – but I also needed strong characters to really bring the story to life. 

Once my evil character was formed I needed an equally compelling hero. I wanted a character that had the guts to handle whatever was thrown at him, a boy who had already faced adversity and risen above it with strength and humour. The resulting protagonist was Callum, a thirteen year old boy who had been born with a spinal injury and was confined to a wheelchair. 

This presented me with several challenges. I knew very little about children with disabilities or the restrictions faced by people in wheelchairs. I also had a very clear idea about my character; I didn’t want him to feel like a victim and wasn’t interested in writing a story where disability was the central theme. It was important that my readers saw Callum as a teenage boy first and foremost and the fact he was in a wheelchair became almost irrelevant. 

During my research I was fortunate enough to receive help from an extremely interesting and innovative wheelchair manufacturer – Trekinetic All Terrain Limited. Their managing director was kind enough to share his insights on both the mechanical limitations of wheelchairs and the attitudes of the people who use them. This was invaluable for the development of my main character. 

To my surprise, I quickly discovered that having a hero that was confined to a wheelchair was liberating rather than limiting. The way Callum copes with his disability opened up two very strong character traits. He became fiercely independent but also incredibly stubborn and this developed into one of the main themes of my story – the importance of being able to ask for help when you need it.

Feedback from reviewers so far has been extremely positive about both Callum’s character and the way his disability has been handled. For me, being able to create unique and memorable characters is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. 


Glenn Wood is an award winning copywriter and author who has four published books to his credit. These include his popular autobiographical novels – The Laughing Policeman and Cop Out – and two middle school books The Brain Sucker and The Bully Chip. 
 THE BRAIN SUCKER is an absolutely delightful MG--told with a great deal of humor and understanding. Be sure to snag a copy and keep up with Glenn Wood at his author site.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Little Breaks for Big Ideas, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

The other night, I learned how to do this:

It's a very first try at English Paper Piecing (EPP), with scrap fabric and no plan, generally thought of as a hand quilting technique. I'm not planning to make a quilt, though I love to do all kinds of needlework and stitchery. But it seemed like the perfect little fiddly thing for my mini writing breaks. You know, the times when you're trying to figure out a story problem? Or know you have a problem but aren't sure what exactly that problem might be? Or you just need to stop for 15 minutes and regroup. Or my favourite -- when I know that there's something right there, just brewing underneath, but it needs to be teased out, developed gently with love and patience. Often, those are the times that I take a walk. Getting up and moving are almost always the best ways for me to shake off any hints of block, to generate ideas, to think a story through. But sometimes, a few minutes of stitching, of working with my hands, does the trick. I learned the EPP basics on Monday night; it came in very handy yesterday as I thought "Big Picture" thoughts about a novel revision. On three different occasions throughout the day, I picked it up, stitched for 5 or 6 minutes, then put it down. Over the past couple of weeks I've been working on this embroidery sampler:

In those few minutes of doing a stitch, I give my mind the freedom to decide on whether or not to revive long-dormant projects, to ponder brand-new ones that I'll note and work on later. It's just a few minutes each time. But it helps me allow myself to let my mind move forward, backward, or even in circles; and then to grab onto those delicate threads of new ideas, wonderings, stories, and weave them into my work.

I hate to waste. I wondered for a moment what I'd do with that first attempt at EPP. It's not pretty, but still...

...Then I remembered: I've already used it. And it's served me well.

Also, maybe one day I'll make a little quilt.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


I don’t think a writer truly has an “off” button. Our projects are always on our minds. But it’s not a bad thing…in fact, some of my greatest “ah-ha!” moments as a writer have happened away from my desk. Here’s how you can turn your own time off into productive writing time:

1.      DO SOMETHING PHYSICAL AND MINDLESS. I can’t tell you how many ideas for new books or revelations about characters I’ve had while mowing the lawn. Or painting the porch. Walking the dog. There’s something about fresh air and looking at something other than a computer screen that lets the mind wander in all sorts of new directions.

2.      READ OUTSIDE OF YOUR GENRE. Reading is still a great end-of-the-day relaxer…but reading MG novels when I’m working on an MG can make me feel like I’m never off the clock. Read a mystery if you’re working on a romance, read adult if you’re working on kid lit. It feels like you’ve traveled into a whole new world. (And you’re still learning from your fellow writers…)

3.      ENJOY AN OFF-PAGE STORY. I’ve found this one to be especially important lately, as I begin to focus heavily on plot (WHAT happens, not just HOW it’s told). Plot is especially obvious in a movie or TV show. Binge-watch something new. Get caught up in the whole what’s-going-to-happen-next feeling. Ask yourself what’s giving you that feeling. Figure out how you can incorporate it into your own work.

4.      TACKLE A NEW HOBBY. Learn something new. Take a road trip to a state you’ve never visited. Take up an instrument or a sport. As a writer, every new experience winds up finding its way onto your pages. It makes your work—and your life—far richer.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Smack Dab in the Classroom by author Dia Calhoun: Back to School

The first day of school I'd wait for the inevitable first assignment: Write a book report on a book (likely from an authorized list) that you read over the summer. Fine. But every single year?

Here are a few alternatives to liven up the assignment:
  1. Imagine the most wonderful book you can (not a real book).A book with just the kind of hero, problem, and setting that you like best. Write a book report about that book.
  2. Have you ever read a book that seemed perfect until you got to the end? Then snapped it shut in outrage because it has the wrong ending? Rewrite the ending to your liking AND explain why you prefer it.
  3. Take the hero or heroine of a book you love and add yourself to the story. Write one chapter.
  4. If you were moving to Mars and could only take one book, which one would you take and why?
So foster some creativity and imagination with this year's inevitable first assignment. Who knows where it may lead?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Celebrations by Laurie Calkhoven

My writer’s group is big on celebrations. For a long time we called ourselves the Champagne Sisters (we haven’t come up with a new name since a man joined our ranks). We celebrated the little things—finishing a draft, having an editor express interest—and big things—signing with an agent, an actual sale. We even had champagne at our annual January session in which we celebrated the previous year’s accomplishments and set our goals for the year ahead.

Writers spend so much time alone in front computers that it’s important for use to come together and mark the big and little things. But I don’t do much more than that. I remember when I first started working in book publishing, right out of college. There was a bestselling romance author who bought herself a new piece of gemstone or diamond-studded jewelry every time she sold a book. There was another who treated herself to a new pair Manolo Blahniks. I remember thinking at the time that when I became the writer I wanted to be that I would do something similar. I never quite settled on the thing—jewelry, art, shoes, vacations—but I was sure I’d find a way to do something fabulous for myself.

I haven’t.

Of course my advances don’t reach the level of Manola Blahniks let alone diamonds, but there’s also the question of WHEN do you celebrate? When the editor makes an offer? When the check arrives weeks or even months after the official offer and usually spent long before it arrives? On publication day when the check is long gone?

In addition to the WHEN there’s a WHAT and HOW. The idea of throwing myself a publication party makes me cringe (although I love to go to other writer's parties).  I did take my group to Fraunces Tavern when DANIEL AT THE SIEGE OF BOSTON was published, but I haven't done anything like that since. And do I celebrate all my books, including the freelance jobs? What about the ghostwritten ones that don’t have my name on them? I’ve never been sure, so I’ve let all those days slip away.

But now I’m thinking about celebrations, and I’m wondering why I believe they have to cost a lot of money. I live in New York City where I’m surrounded by some of the best museums in the world. Off-Broadway theater is vibrant and interesting and a ticket doesn’t rival my monthly mortgage payment. And Central Park is free.

So in writing this post I decided to give myself a celebratory experience for each book on publication day, whether my name’s on it or not. First up is MILITARY ANIMALS three days from now. I think it’s time I checked out Whitney Museum of American Art in its new digs. And because the book comes with a paw print dog tag, I already have the bling.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Hour a Day (August theme) by Claudia Mills

I try to write every day. I don't succeed in doing it, but that is my goal and my dream. I'm happier when I'm writing and unhappier when I'm not writing. But my secret for not burning myself out as a writer is that even though I write most days, I write for only a short time each day, indeed only for one sweet brief hour.

I stumbled upon this way of structuring my writing life when I read an article in the Readers' Digest when I was a child: "What You Can Do with an Hour a Day." It told of artists completing work for juried shows on the hour-a-day system, of self-taught men achieving levels of intellectual brilliance by reading for an hour a day at the Library of Congress, of greatness and glory accumulated sixty minutes at a time.

As an adult I read Anthony Trollope's fabulous autobiography and learned that he wrote and published his huge, sprawling Victorian novels by writing for a short, fixed stint each morning, while working full-time at a high level position for the British postal service. He penned these words which I committed to memory:  "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules."

To measure my hour, I use this hourglass:
I love it so much! With the hourglass, I don't need to watch the clock and rue the fact that it's now 5:02 instead of 5:00, so my hour has been ruined. Instead my hour begins when I turn over the glass and begin to write.The sand trickles through the glass as words trickle through my pen.

My goal is to complete a page during my hour: just one pitiful, pathetic, puny page. Yet the simplest math will show how many pages a year one can fill with this method. How quickly they add up!

This leaves me the remaining 23 hours a day to sleep, work (I've had a full time job for most of my writing career), enjoy time with friends and family, walk, read, and Google myself to see if I've possibly won any major awards that they forgot to tell me about.

I read this line once, attributed to Goethe: "Never hurry, never rest." This is my writing mantra.