Tuesday, March 3, 2015

On Writing & Flying

As I considered what to write for this Ides of Writing post, my mind felt like it was full of jumping beans: Ego! Perfectionism! Fear! Jealousy! 

The writing path is riddled with potholes and washed-out bridges and fallen trees, that's for sure. But the Sinkhole of All for me seems to be the propensity I have for wandering around in the labyrinth of my mind -- without my heart. Thinking too much, abandoning my heart. I get caught up in craft: how to write great dialogue, narrative arcs, character development. The mechanics of flying instead of just flying.

And I know why it happens, I do. It's easier to focus on mechanics. It's safer. Those Ego! Perfectionism! Fear! Jealousy! jumping beans, they can take a nap when I focus on mechanics.

But what I want to create is art. And Holy Synchronicity, I found the perfect passage to describe what I'm talking about in Jandy Nelson's gorgeous book I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN:

“Listen, it is not the charcoal that draws the picture. It is you. It is your hand, which is attached to your body, and in that body is a beating heart, okay. You are not ready for this.” He takes the stick of charcoal out of my hand and throws I onto the floor. “Draw him without it. Use only your hand. See it, feel it, draw it. All one thing, not three things. Don't take your eyes off of him. See, feel, draw. One verb, go now. Do not think. Above all else: Do not think so much. Picasso, he say, 'If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes.' Pull out your brain, CJ, use only your eyes!”

All one thing, not three things. Do not think. Use only your heart.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Beware the ides of March by Ann Haywood Leal


Watch out!

Heed my warning!

We can always exercise a little caution in our lives.  But can we be too cautious as writers?

Sometimes we need to ignore the caution flag and step out of our comfort zones.

I'd be willing to bet that you have at least one idea that's been lurking around in a back out-of-the-way mind cavern.  It may have been stashed away eons ago, because it's a little out of the ordinary or too away from the mainstream.  Maybe someone tried to convince you that nobody was buying/reading (blank) right now. 

Ignore the soothsayer's warning and uncover that idea.  Peel off the layers and let it grow into a story.  It's hung around for so long for a reason, don't you think?

Sunday, March 1, 2015


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Tamera Will Wissinger's novel in verse, GONE CAMPING, is scheduled to arrive in 2017 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. In this companion to GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, the poems tell the story of Sam and Lucy's camping adventure and how Lucy handles her fear of sleeping outside and away from home.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

PATH - a Four Letter Word by Tracy Holczer

The time from agent query letter to my first sale was five months. Quite frankly, it was a breeze. I sent out one batch of query letters on December 17, 2011 and settled in for the long wait. Over the next couple of days, my full manuscript was requested by all parties. I settled in for another long wait. By January 11, 2012, I had a revise and resubmit request and then an offer of representation upon resubmission four weeks later. My deal with Penguin was finalized in May, 2012 and the book was published May 1, 2014.

BUT, the path leading up to the moment I pressed send on my first ever query letter was anything but a breeze.

I joined SCBWI in 2002. I slaved over a book for five or so years that I recognized wasn't good enough. I took classes and workshops and spent a fortune on craft books as well as read, what felt like, every book in my library. Then I got Grace in my brain one Sunday afternoon and wrote the first fifteen pages. I submitted for the manuscript critique at the SCBWI Summer Conference in 2007 and was quite shocked when a couple of months later, Steve Mooser called with the good news that I'd won the Sue Alexander Award. I went to New York for the winter conference, met with some editors, and went back to my novel feeling ready to conquer the world.

Which is precisely NOT what happened.

I may have figured out how to write a novel. But I hadn't yet figured out how to write a GOOD novel. Like Ira Glass says (see full video - SO WORTH IT), but to paraphrase:

 "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work."

It took me three more years to write THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY. I probably wrote eight thousand drafts, seven thousand ninety-nine of them weren't good enough. But number eight thousand? That one was good enough. I finally felt like it had that "special something."

I have no doubt that if I'd queried those seven thousand ninety-nine drafts, I would have been rejected countless times. Perhaps I would have given up. I'm so glad I'll never know.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Guest Post: Our Journey To Publication by JillEllyn Riley and Deb Levine

 I'm delighted to welcome Deb Levine and JillEllyn Riley to Smack Dab today! Their journey to publication of their co-authored SATURDAY COOKING CLUB: KITCHEN CHAOS is a lot like the story itself -- full of food, friendship, fun, and more:

Can their friendships take the heat? A trio of mothers and daughters will find out when they sign up for a cooking class from a famous chef in the first book of the Saturday Cooking Club series—it’s mother-daughter bonding and so much more!

Liza and Frankie have always been best friends. But when new girl Lillian arrives from San Francisco, suddenly three’s a crowd. Especially after the trio is grouped together for a big sixth-grade social studies project—can they put aside their animosity long enough to succeed? When Liza suggests they all take a cooking class with the chef from her favorite cooking show for the project, the girls are on board, but they need an adult to take the class with them. It seems like the perfect opportunity to snag some quality time with their overscheduled, overstressed mothers…if they can convince them to sign up!

Several headaches and close calls later, the girls at last find themselves in Chef Antonio’s kitchen with their mothers in tow—but the drama is only just beginning!"


Our journey to publication began--literally--on a quiet brownstone block in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Quiet might not be accurate actually. The block is disappointingly staid--underwhelming for Halloween trick-or-treating, for instance--but we met casually over the din of a whole gaggle of small children and toddlers, our own and other friends'. Bumping into each other sporadically in the neighborhood, as kids climbed over decorative iron railings or swung upside down from scaffolding, we realized that we both worked in media/publishing. We started to consult about our separate creative projects and discovered that we loved working together. We talk a lot, we laugh a lot, and we edit and revise each other's writing with ease, comfort, and very little ego. Then we had the idea of three girls in Brooklyn who long to make changes in themselves, their lives, and their families. Since most kids love to sift; stir; mix; concoct their own delicacies--and cooking shows are tremendously popular with kids--it seemed like an appealing way to watch our characters start to mold their lives. Taking inspiration from girls we knew, girls we once were, mothers we became, and the rich and varied population of Brooklyn--especially the incredible food options and traditions that abound--we dreamed up our three girls and their lives...


Since we both adore middle-grade books and their readers, it seemed natural that we'd write a middle-grade book ourselves. As moms of middle schoolers--and former tweens--we thought the pushing-away/pulling-closer dynamic between pre-teen girls and their mothers would add another layer to our characters' story. It didn't take long before we landed on the idea of a mother-daughter cooking class--and once we did, we realized we didn't have to contain our story in a single book. Envisioning The Saturday Cooking Club as a series rather than one novel helped us develop detailed character arcs for each of the girls, and a narrative thread between each book in the series.
After we'd plotted out the series, we had to figure out how we'd actually do the writing of the books as a team. I don't remember which one of us came up with the idea of alternating chapters in the voices of each of the three girls, but we decided in the very beginning that doing so would truly bring their unique personalities and perspectives to life for our readers. Narrating the book in three different voices also made it easier for us as co-authors to divide and conquer the chapters. And when we finally finished off the last chapter and clicked save, we discovered how close to our characters we'd become, and how much we were going to miss them when we weren't inside their three very different heads every day.

*Spoiler alert* the next book in the series, which will be published later this year, is written primarily in one character's voice, but the other girls definitely still have their say throughout the book.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Everybody says the path to publication is long and bumpy--and it is--and I'm no exception. Yeah, it took seven and a half years of full-time effort to get the first yes. Yeah, I nearly chucked it all four years in. Yeah, I had down times. Yeah, I submitted and resubmitted. Yeah, I was rejected. Yeah, I've still got a hole in the drywall of my office to show for the years of frustration.

The thing is, though, the "path to publication" doesn't end with the first yes.

At this point in my career, I think of "path to publication" not as I did in the beginning--as my name at the bottom of a contract. I think of it as figuring out what your own successful niche is as a writer. What gives you the most satisfaction, allows you to put out work at the right pace, makes you the amount of money you need to exist?

I'll admit, I'm still figuring it out. I've pubbed with a small house and two of the "Big Five." I've published in multiple genres for multiple age groups. Within the next few weeks, I'll start branching out into independent publishing. The first release will be a New Adult rom-com (another new age group and genre).

The thing is, getting a "yes" from the publishing world is an important step...But now, I'm asking myself, "What makes ME say yes?" That is, where do I most happily intersect with my readers? Where does my career most happily intersect with the rest of my life--allowing for room to explore within the industry AND room to breathe?

Jury's still out...But I'm anxious to find out what I learn on the next step of the journey...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Long and Winding Road: Feb. Post Jen Cervantes

I didn’t set out to write a novel, (I’d never written a word of fiction). And then my youngest daughter, Juliana asked me to write her a story. I picked up a pen and something magical happened! Call it a coincidence, call it a God wink, call it destiny. After, joining a critique group and editing over and over, I sent out queries to agents and signed with my first agent. Within a year she’d sold the ms.

Tortilla Sun won awards, made school lists, and was met with wonderful reviews. It has gone into several printings, including a paperback edition. After five years, it is STILL selling strong.

Since my first novel I’ve signed with another agent and have been out on sub three times. Each time has been met with CLOSE calls. I’ve had projects go to sales and acquisitions only to be rejected.

I have no idea why the timeframe seems to be longer for this next project. I’ve stopped worrying about it. My focus is on the work at hand and writing what I love.

I received a letter a couple of weeks ago from a fourth grader. she wrote, "Please please please keep writing and make sure the next book is as good as the first.” I smiled, thinking I couldn’t agree more.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun: Better Author Reports.

When I was a kid, we were required to do reports on the authors of our favorite books. I often thought the questions my teachers wanted us to answer were boring. So here are a few questions I 'd have found more interesting.

  • If the author were lying in a hammock, what would she daydream about?
  • If the author could take a trip anywhere in the world (or universe) where would she go and why?
  • If the author could choose between waltzing in a glittering ballroom, or riding a horse through the hills, which would he choose and why?
  • What do you think the author's favorite childhood book was, and why?
  • If you could do one thing with the author what would it be, and why?
  • If the author could only hang one object on the wall of his house, what would it be and why?
You get the idea. How I would have loved to have answered questions like those, questions that engaged me imaginatively with the author. And how I would love to answer such questions, now, as an author myself.

Happy Imagining!