Saturday, June 23, 2018

Smack Dab in the Imagination: Imagination, Reverie, and Originality by Dia Calhoun

Imagination is, of course, all about images. As an author, and even more so as a poet, images are the powerhouses of my work. So how do creatives tap into a free-flowing well of images from the imagination?

It’s all about the unconscious.

As a developing species, humans perceived and processed the world in images long before we had language. A tree was a an image long before it became a word. The deeper layers of the brain still retain that way of perceiving the world. A creative artist who wants access to those images in original and free flowing ways, needs to tap her unconscious mind.

For many years I envisioned a tunnel from consciousness to the unconscious well. Now, I know there is not one, but hundreds of tunnels, some big, some small, some straight, some twisting, still others in spirals. Now I envision a sphere with many tunnels on the surface all reaching down to the Great Well at the center. Usually many of these tunnels are active at once. We just aren't aware of them.

One way that I tap into these tunnels is through semi-conscious reverie. Sometimes I do this right after waking. I drift in that state and hold an image, often from a dream, in my mind. Then I start describing it by speaking directly into a note on my phone, recording whatever comes out. Sometimes I grab a pencil and paper. Something about speaking though, allows me to stay in the creative drifting reverie more easily. I don’t edit in any way what I say or write. I allow myself to stop and start as the words an images come and go--no forced, timed writing.

Sometimes this process turns symphonic. I will say a phrase over and over, building on it, repeating with variations. Sometimes it’s pure rhythm. Only later, after breakfast, do I go back over this. First I read it aloud, then begin editing. I always preserve the original. This process has lead to some of my most original writing.

Why not try it yourself?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Writers READ

The best piece of advice I'm able to offer would-be writers can be summed up in one word:  READ.  For me, reading was the key.

First, reading inspired me to want to become an author in the first place.  The books I fell in love with as a young reader like Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder planted the author seed in me even before I knew I wanted to write.  Later as an elementary school teacher, the books I read aloud to my third graders like The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo caused that author seed to grow, and my dream was born.  But simply having the dream to write a book doesn't necessarily make it happen.  As would-be authors often do, I spent many years collecting rejection letters, but it was my continued passion for reading, especially reading middle grade books, that taught me what I needed to know about what a story really must be in order for it to become a book.  Every book I've ever read, the ones I've loved, as well as the ones I haven't enjoyed all that much, were examples of how "story" actually works.  It was all those examples that allowed me to finally take one of my works-in-progress to the level necessary to achieve that sought-after acceptance letter instead of another rejection.

So, my best advice:  Spend time reading to unlock creative inspiration as well as gain wonderful examples of the essentials needed to write a great story.

Happy Writing and Reading,

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Best advice I’ve received as a writer


Likable characters.


High concept.

There are a lot of terms a writer will read about in publishing when if they start down that path to see their manuscript become a bound novel.


If one writes for the market – to be commercial, or try to hit a trend, there’s likely to be a fair amount roadblocks and letdowns, I’ve found.

If one writes not for the market, but for oneself, ones love of the craft and love of the literary world, they won’t fail.

For me, writing and publishing have had to be two different worlds.“You’ll always love writing, but you’ll grow to hate publishing.” At times, this has been true. Publishing isn’t out to eat your heart, but it is a competitive business. To be an author, you have to be pretty okay with hearing the word “no.” Rejections are the norm.

It only takes one “yes,” however. If you keep knocking on doors, however, eventually you’ll hear an enthusiastic “yes.” 

Whether it’s for a novel, a blog post, a poem, a short story, it only takes one yes in that sea of no’s to keep you going and heading towards your goal – whatever that may be.

I don’t personally continue to write as I think I’ll hit the best-seller list one day. I don’t write trends, or commercial or what I think will sell to the next big agent or publishing house. I write what’s in my mind, and in my heart, and what I’m passionate and motivated for.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d certainly love to hit that best-seller list.

But at the end of every single day, I write for myself. I write because I love to write. I write because it makes me feel whole. Like I have a voice and a place in the world. There are many, many places for a writer to find their community. It may be online, or in the local newspaper, on a private blog or a public one. In a magazine or literary magazine.

Never give up.

And always keep writing.

For you.

That’s the best advice I’ve ever been given in this world.

“Keep writing for you.”

Happy reading!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Facing It

My sister posts a quotation from some famous person every day on Facebook, in honor of that person's birthday. Writer Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857, so one December 3 my sister posted this line from him, which has become one of my favorite pieces of writing advice: "Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

It's so simple. And so true.

My biggest problem with any writing project - actually, with all projects and with everything in my entire life - is just this: facing it. I build up dread to the point of incapacity. Maybe, in the end, that's all writer's block is: a refusal to face what needs to be faced.

The strange and wonderful thing is that as soon as I face something - just sit down at my writing tablet or computer and spend TEN SECONDS staring at it - the rest is relatively easy. All I need to to is get over that first hump. That's all. And yet getting over that first hump can seem impossible.

So what I've started doing for any daunting task in my month's massive writer's to-do list is to add, as an extra to-do item, "Face [task x]" (whatever it is). As the facing takes just ten seconds (well, to be fair, probably more like five minutes), it's low-hanging fruit if I need the satisfaction of crossing at least something off the list. From that point, momentum takes over, and I'm all set. Hooray!

I tell the world, with some frequency, how I rely on a cherished hourglass to accomplish my day's stint of writing. Here it is.
For some tasks, however, even working on them for a mere hour is more than I can bear, so I also have a half-hour glass (it looks similar, just a tiny bit smaller). Then this past week a student who knew my fondness for hourglasses gave me a "travel" one, which is actually an eight-minute timer in a small sturdy cardboard case. Behold!
I don't think I'll take it with me on trips, though. Instead I'm going to save it for when I can't face even half an hour of work on some scary writing project, when eight minutes seems about all I can handle.

Then I'll turn over my adorable, teensy-weensy, itty-bitty, baby hourglass (cute is good for terror-defusing purposes). How scary can it be to work on this task for eight measly minutes?

VoilĂ ! Eight minutes later, the task will have been FACED, which was all I needed.

Because facing it, just facing it, is the way to get through.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Priorities, by Sarah Dooley

When I was fifteen, I wrote a story from the point of view of a 32-year-old woman (and how grown and wise she seemed to me at the time!) named Patsey.  I was obsessed with the story. I lived and breathed it and, if my best friend Stacie is to be believed, I even talked about it in my sleep.

But I had a concern. At a student writing ceremony, I had been cautioned, "Write what you know." Having never been a 32-year-old woman (those were the days!), I was afraid of breaking this writing rule by trying to write from Patsey's POV.

"I don't know how to be 32," I told my mother and best writing coach. (News flash, kid: You never will, not even when you're 37.)

My mother was silent for a few seconds. Then she picked up a pencil and sketched a quick shape on the back of a receipt.

"What do you see here?" she asked, pushing the sketch across the table to me.

Being completely obsessed with the animal in question, I immediately answered, "A pretty little pony!"

"No, you don't," she said. "You see lines. None of them are touching. They only hint at the impression of a pony."

My mind was blown. But wasn't I supposed to write what I knew?

"You are writing what you know," my mother reassured me. "You're writing from the point of view of a character you identify with. That doesn't mean you have to be afraid to take a chance or two. I'm not worried about every connection yet, not in your first draft. Give me the impression." 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Everything Else in the Universe: An Interview with Tracy Holczer

First, congratulations on your powerful new middle grade novel, Everything Else in the Universe.  As a fellow writer who has also recently released a middle grade novel concerned with the U. S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, I’m delighted to talk to you a bit about your own process in particular and about historical fiction in general. 

Tell me a little bit about the book’s premise, and how you landed on this subject.

Everything Else in the Universe is first, and foremost, a story about family and healing. I had a disabled father, and grew up in the 70’s, so the Vietnam era seemed a natural fit. I wanted to explore the viewpoint of a child with a parent serving, the sacrifices made by children when their parents are sent to war. As the novel progressed alongside the runup to the election in 2016, it seemed important to lean more heavily on the division of feeling about Vietnam at that time in history and the political ramifications. Not just about protest, but of the very real conflicted feelings a child might have about loyalty, not just with regard to patriotism, but to a parent who has suffered a great loss while serving. To me, when stripped to that level, whether the war was just or unjust almost became irrelevant. It became a story about a girl trying to figure out her place in the world, but more importantly, her place in her family.

Did you set out to write a book about the effect of the war in Vietnam on the families of the American soldiers that served? 

I set out, primarily, to write about one family. To shine a light on the sacrifice this country expects not just of its military personnel, but the children in those families. I watched films of parents returning from war and was struck by the pure relief of the children. Wild, uncontained, relief. And I just wanted to try to capture the whole picture. What came before and after that moment.

Could you share a bit about your research process for the book? 

I am a bit of a scatterbrain. So, my research was all over the place. I went to San Jose, California, where the book is set, and went through their newspaper archives for the summer of 1971, the summer Lucy and Milo became friends. I read Farmer’s Almanacs and World Book Encyclopedias and Life Magazines. I went back to my own childhood photos and ordered a Sears catalogue from the summer of 1971. I interviewed Vietnam vets and heart surgeons. I also read letters from Vietnam vets to their families. It was very surreal doing the research as history seemed to be repeating itself. 

What do you think a book like Everything Else in the Universe offers contemporary readers, especially middle-grade readers? 

Sadly, I think our Vietnam stories are now showing middle-grade readers that history can, and will, repeat itself if we are not vigilant.

The writing process, especially for the novel, is a long, hard road, and the publication of a book marks a major achievement.  As the book makes its way into the hands of readers, what about the book or the project brings you the greatest sense of accomplishment? 

My sense of accomplishment comes from finishing. There were times, many more than I’d like to remember, where I was certain I wouldn’t. That this story was too much for me, and I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But every time that happened, I took a breath (or three), and went back to it. I look forward to talking about this difficult process with kids. The importance of holding a goal and seeing it through, no matter what.

Thanks so much, Tracy.  Congratulations!

I'm delighted to be the first stop on Tracy's blog tour.  Readers who want to learn more about Everything Else in the Universe can follow Tracy's blog tour here:

Mr. Schu Reads - June 17th
Kidlit Frenzy - June 18th
Teach Mentor Texts - June 20th
Caroline Starr Rose - June 22nd

Friday, June 15, 2018

Just Keep Swimming

We all understand the old adage, writing is hard work. It’s excruciating at times. And so is surviving the business of writing. Long, long ago (and in a galaxy far far away), I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults (VCFA) with a four-book contract for picture books that highlighted my love of American folklore and history. But, as much as I knew about writing and story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. And it is, foremost, a business.

I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. This agent wasn't a hard find. I already had the contract in hand, or rather contracts, and so the hard work was done. But I had forgotten an important lesson. Like any relationship, you want to get to know each other, ask questions, and make sure it's a good fit. You don't get married after only a first date. And an agent-writer relationship is akin to a marriage. This agent sealed the deal with the contracts, but a couple of significant issues arose. She had signed the boiler plate contract. This means that the contracts included a couple of  very strict clauses: the option clause, which gives the publisher the privilege of publishing your next book, and the non-compete clause, which restricts the author from publishing another book that competes with the work in question. This first agent didn't negotiate to reword or remove them, and I didn't know enough to ask what they meant. Because of these clauses, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere until after and unless I give these publishers first look, and they weren’t looking at new works until these books were published. I fired the first agent, and found another but she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses because she wasn't the agent on record. Because she couldn’t sell my work, she let me go.

My first two picture books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The second book was published a year later. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract was cancelled. I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses, and then I renegotiated the particular clauses myself.

But there was yet another, stronger riptide I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picture book market was bottoming out. The very genre that I had studied, loved, and sought as my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now? Writers have to find a way to adapt. So I moved to middle grade fiction. The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore and history with this new format. For a long while, it was a hit-and-miss effort. Finally I had this manuscript, Big River’s Daughter. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time. Patience and luck will out. I found my third agent and thought it a match in heaven. She sold my two middle grade novels in our first year together. But then, change happens. The agent decided to focus on picturebooks, and she let me go.

I was an orphan again. And two years later, despite having now seven books (I sold my first graphic novel) under my belt, I have yet to find a home. Lucky for me, whenever I felt like giving up, I have a circle of friends who remind me to never give up.

Or, as Dory says, Just Keep Swimming.

Along the way, I’ve gathered some inspirations and wisdoms I hope you find helpful. First is Vivian Kirkfield's inspiring story. In 2012, at the age of 65, she decided to become a traditionally published picture book author. In 2019, she will have four books debut, including a compilation book of nine full-length picture book biographies. She details the strategy she put together to make this happen. I think her plan is brilliant and already I am working on my stockpile.

Then there’s this wisdom from Caroline Starr Rose, in which she states : 
  “The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There’s no other way to look at it…So, my friends, if you are on this journey, too, take heart. There is no right way. There’s no quick fix. There is no easy road. There is a fair dose of frustration and disappointment. But there is joy and satisfaction, too.”

And, then, remember this:

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it. – Harlan Ellison

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. – Barbara Kingsolver

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
William Faulkner

Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences. – Anne McCaffrey

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.
Jane Yolen

If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.
Edgar Rice Burroughs

In other words, just keep swimming!

Bobbi Miller

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Desire for Validation, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

As a writer, a big part of my working life is intertwined with validation. Is what I wrote any good? Will it sell? Will readers like it? What will reviewers say? It's natural, of course, to worry about these aspects. Writers want to be praised and respected, complimented and lauded. Awards are wonderful things. Best-seller lists catapult you into another category. And, admit it, we all secretly have the book-being-made-into-a-movie dream.

But what about when these things don't happen? A manuscript you believe in gets rejected numerous times. Your work gets published but sales are dismal, and worse, no one's even bothered to review it on Amazon, not even your mom. You get lambasted by a reviewer (dare I say Kirkus?).

One important lesson I've learned in almost ten years in the business is that much of the validation we receive is 1) external, and 2) out of our control. It comes and goes with the wind, and there's usually not much we can do to affect the outcome.

This piece of advice wasn't shared by anyone in particular, rather, it's something I came to know and understand by writing and publishing, and by being a part of the children's writing community. I  know that unless I find a balance and "center," and learn to rely more on internal validation rather than external, then I won't be able to weather the strongest, most punishing wind.

It's most and always about the work. About the creating. Making something, where nothing existed before, except in your beautifully scrambled brain, pulsing with ideas and thoughts and leaps of faith.

I remind myself of that every day, because those external factors can be daunting, and at times, like a black cloud hovering above my desk.

I know a debut author who stopped writing after a pretty awful review. Her book was published by a big house, and I'd seen it displayed under "new releases" in my local library. But she couldn't overcome the sting of the critical, harsh words about what she'd created, the words and story from her heart and soul. It upsets me greatly to think that one negative review stopped this writer in her tracks. While I have many positive, inspirational quotes hanging above my writing desk, I also have one that says: "Internal, not external." That, I think, is the most important piece of advice in writing. Actually, in anything.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of three -- soon to be four -- middle grade novels, published by Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin Random House) and Simon & Schuster's Aladdin imprint. Find her online at