Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer is in Session!

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

-- Summer Sun by Robert Louis Stevenson

 Summer time! The perfect time for new adventures, new beginnings, and new things! Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores the emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and experiencing the story.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It can stir hearts and bring about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

Hope you are enjoying your summer!

Bobbi Miller

The importance of classroom libraries, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

"A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn't a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way one became a reader." -- Nancie Atwell, esteemed educator and author

I read this quote in a post on Nerdy Book Club by an elementary school principal in Michigan, Jim Bailey, who has made it a priority to have well-stocked libraries in each and every classroom. As we're talking about going back to school this month on Smack Dab -- and the often-asked question authors get when we visit -- where do you get your ideas? -- it struck me how Bailey's idea for getting books into classrooms is nothing short of brilliant.

Bailey felt there was a direct link between classroom libraries and reading motivation, reading achievement, and reading engagement, so he went through his budget line by line and asked himself, "Is this program or resource better at raising student achievement than putting a book in a student's hand? If the answer was no, then I had just found money to support classroom libraries."

In fact, Bailey was able to find thousands of dollars in his budget by eliminating items such as purchasing the Accelerated Reader program and its prize incentives, as well as buying workbooks that he felt contained pages and pages of busy work. Then, at a staff training session prior to the first day of school, Bailey gave each teacher a $100 Barnes and Noble gift card to spend on books for their classroom (plus a $5 card for coffee), and the entire group took a field trip to B&N.

Several teachers cried, they were so excited, Bailey said, and many texted him photos of the books they were buying. He said that this decision completely changed the culture at his school. They have committed to reading -- real reading -- not comprehension quizzes or endless worksheets or scripted lessons. "We were showing what we truly valued with our time and money. Our students!" he said.

Every school should be so lucky to have a principal like Jim Bailey, but many don't even have programs to eliminate to find money for classroom libraries.

But as my mom always said -- Where there's a will, there's a way.

My local thrift shop has piles of gently used books, often for less than a dollar. There are similar book bargains nationwide at Goodwill stores. Bernie's Book Bank is a literacy initiative that distributes free new and used books to schools in need throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. And public libraries often have used book sales where books can be purchased at super low prices. With a little digging, free and low-cost books can be found!

I'd like to help two classrooms! If you are a middle grade teacher or know of one with a classroom in need of books, please leave a comment below. Two classrooms will be randomly chosen to each receive a copy of my newest middle grade novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up. (U.S. addresses only.) Good luck!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, and Simon and Schuster/Aladdin. More on Michele at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

Monday, August 13, 2018

What Do I Know To Be True? by Chris Tebbetts

When I think about the difference between the writer I am today and the writer I was in my own school days (he said, ham-handedly shoe horning his blog post into this month’s topic :-), I’d say that one of the big differences is my relationship to revision. Like a lot of the students I meet these days at author events and school visits, I used to want my my first drafts to also be my last drafts. I wanted to write the book report, or story, or whatever it was once through and be done with it. 

But of course, we all know that’s not how it works. Writing, as they say, is rewriting. And the cool thing about growing into my own adult relationship with that unavoidable truth, is that I’ve come to see how much easier, and even more fun, revision can be as compared to drafting, and to filling those blank pages with ideas, sentences, words…or anything at all! 

The thing I (truthfully) say to kids about revision is that, for me, it’s a bit like I’ve spent all this time creating my puzzle pieces (i.e., my first draft), and now I can really start to play with them—moving them around, rearranging things, and pulling everything into one big (hopefully) cohesive picture. I suppose I run the risk of being seen as a big geek by calling that “the fun part,” but hey, I’ll take it.  

There are, of course, endless tips and tricks to be shared in the topic of revision, but I’ll limit myself to just one here. It’s a question I ask myself all the time, once I have a first draft down and as I’m trying to figure out where to go next. 


This can apply to any aspect of the story I’m working on. What do I know to be true about this scene, this character, this narrative arc, this conflict…? The thing I like about it is that there's no way to not have an answer at any given moment. It’s an immediately achievable thing. And maybe it takes me all the way back to my very basics: I know that my character comes in at the beginning of the scene, and I know he leaves at the end. Period. Okay, well if that’s all I really know, even if that’s less than I wish I knew, it is an honest answer, and it’s a necessary next step in figuring out the rest. 

Or, say, What do I know to be true of my character? Maybe I haven’t figured out what’s motivating that sudden road trip of his. But I know he loves his car, and I know he’s fifteen pounds overweight.  Sometimes the details that don’t feel important in the first-drafting phase get mysteriously promoted by virtue of having shown up. They then find their way more deeply into the story by virtue of being true—if that’s what they ultimately are. True, as in, true to the character, true to the intention of the piece, true to the needs of the story. 

One more version of this can be the way I edit a scene or a chapter.  Instead of what do I know to be true…. What do I know to feel right as I read through what I have? Which sentences, which paragraphs are ringing authentically for me, or making me feel something, or just feel correct in whatever way? As an exercise, I’ll take a passage of text, cut everything else out (i.e., everything that’s not ringing true for me), and start rewriting from there. However disjointed the result is, it gives me a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence of honest bedrock from which to work. 

Sometimes, the idea in revision is to simply keep moving, keep writing, keep revising, until the answers begin to present themselves. And for me, this has been one way to make sure that happens. 

Happy rest of the summer to everyone! Current situation.... 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I Dreamt I Had an Idea...by Darlene Beck Jacobson

I am the kind of person who rarely remembers her dreams.  I can wake up after a great dream and try desperately to capture the threads before I get up, often to no avail. So, imagine my surprise, my astonishment, my luck to have a dream about my next book.

Back in May, I'd finished all my writing projects and had spend days wondering what I was going to write about next. No ideas popped into my head, everything I jotted down seemed lame or didn't interest me. Then one morning I woke up with a gift. A writing miracle for this sleeper with the fleeting dreams.

I had a title, a main character, the basic premise and the format for telling the story in my head as I opened my eyes. I also had dozens of words/chapter titles swimming into my thoughts to go along with this. Before I hit the shower, I raced for a notepad and scribbled down everything I'd been reciting over and over again so as not to forget. It wasn't until I filled two pages of a legal pad that I felt secure enough to wash my face and get on with the day. A day filled with excitement and gratitude, and a prayer of thanks.  

Writing ideas come from everywhere, and sometimes they are a gift already opened, waiting to be received.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Apologies from a Once-Wannabe Teacher

from Jody Feldman

Dear Jeff and Mike,

I owe you a decades-old apology for subjecting you to my teacher phase. You may not even remember. I was 9 years old to your 7 and 4 and, that summer, I had apparently become enamored with teaching. Either that, or I’d had enough of those endless summer days and was looking for some mental stimulation. Maybe I had come across an old homework sheet or maybe you had been building towers with our alphabet blocks. Whatever the spark, I was able to fill an hour or two by creating, if memory serves me, a lesson plan of workbook pages and blackboard exercises.

When I’d prepared as well as a 9 year old could, I sat you in front of me, trying to figure out how to get you to do the work. I’m sure you humored me for a few minutes before you got up to run around or until, in frustration, I uttered, “Class dismissed.” I realized you would not be learning from me that day. This may have been the first and last time I considering going into education.

And yet, peripherally, here I am, excited to start a new year of school visits. It’s different when you understand exactly what you have to offer all those kiddos. And it’s so much more fulfilling when you’ve developed a deep enthusiasm for talking about reading and writing, joy and frustration, rejections and successes, and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Oh, and about ideas and inspiration. My answer to that most-asked question, this picture.
Explanation is included in presentations.

Back to that day, all those years ago, when I abandoned my teacher aspirations forever, I didn’t stop to thank you for sending my career in another direction. While I may not have the mettle to be a day-in, day-out teacher, a favorite part of my career—second only to the creative high I get when I latch onto a new idea—is popping in to schools and spending the day talking and, yes, teaching. And this may never have happened if you’d stayed and humored me.

Your sister, Jody

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Just When I Thought I'd Graduated.....Jane Kelley

It's back to school for me.

I thought I had "graduated." Surely after writing for years and having many novels published, writing the next one should be easy. Or if not easy, then easier, right?

(Actually this is my daughter's college graduation.)

This isn't just because of a common misconception.

Writing a novel is messy because the creative process is incomprehensible. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, I guarantee that your best writing will surprise you. If the reader marvels at how you came up with that fresh idea, then probably you do too.

Does that mean that we are forever doomed to being a new kid with lots to learn? Where's the bathroom? What are the teacher's pet peeves? Who's the bully? Who will be your friend?

Yes. Every novel presents its own challenges. Every novel requires you to learn how to write all over again. I remember, shortly after my first novel was published, being devastated when I heard Katherine Paterson say that. (Yes, KATHERINE PATERSON.)

Can't I learn from any of my mistakes? I've made so many. Aren't they good for something?

I sure hope so. Today, I stare at Draft Three of Version Two. My goal was to write a humor MG novel. Somehow or other it's become a gritty, poignant examination of what it means to dream. To be honest, I don't know what to do with it....except start over.

So it's back to school for me.

Actually a few lessons are still relevant.

1. Show up at your desk. There's no substitute for doing the work.

2. Lay down a foundation. Those beautifully surprising inspirations need to attach to a structure.

3. Have confidence. Students who are told they're smart do better at tests.

4. Find ways to have fun.

Yes I need to learn new things. But I know I can. Starting school again just means I have another chance.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Treasure Chest of Ideas by Deborah Lytton

I think of ideas as precious gems in the treasure chest of my imagination. My ideas come from different places. Some are from observations of real life and some are from my dreams. They come from thoughts of "what if" or "how." Perhaps they come from a place of powerful emotion like joy or pain. Other times, they are part of a message I want to share with readers.

My novel JANE IN BLOOM was inspired by an interview I watched on a news program years ago about children who felt invisible in families where another child needed more attention. I wanted to tell the story of a forgotten sister who was invisible to her family. I thought readers might relate to a character who needed to be seen and heard. The story grew from there. My newest series, RUBY STARR, was inspired by my daughter's request to write a funny story for her. She was in fifth grade at the time, so I started with a fifth grade student who loved reading and viewed the world through the pages in a book. I thought there might be readers who would see themselves in Ruby. The rest of the series came out of that character sketch.

If you find yourself running out of ideas, look into your own memories to see if there is an experience that could give rise to a story. Is there a dream you had for yourself when you were in elementary school or middle school that could be the center of a book? If this doesn't help, ask yourself what you would want to read if you were ten years old. Or where you would want to visit if only for one single night. You can even ask yourself "what if" questions to see if they create inspiration for you.

Your ideas are infinite. Trust in your imagination and keep writing!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Where Writing Ideas Come From, or, What I Did Over Summer Vacation

At school visits, I always kind of marvel over that question, "Where do you get your ideas?" For me, the world -- life -- is bursting with ideas! Finding them is not my problem; choosing -- and sticking to -- just one at a time is! But that's really a discussion for another day.

So today, for the curious, I'll share with you where some of the ideas have come from for some of my books, and also share with you some new ideas that have found me this summer.


coming Oct. 1 with
illus. by Thea Baker
1. BOOKS - Like most authors, I'm an avid reader. So many of my ideas come as a result of reading! My next release LOVE, AGNES: POSTCARDS FROM AN OCTOPUS was inspired by the adult memoir THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS by Sy Montgomery. It started in me an octopus obsession! And all of my
obsessions eventually wind up in my writing. Please note: if you want to broaden yourself as a writer (and person!), broaden your reading habits. Read things you wouldn't normally pick up: say, a mechanics magazine or a book about pig farming or 18th century medical techniques. Who knows what ideas will find you?

2. ART - There's no way around it: art inspires art. Which is why I visit art museums and attend concerts and see movies and attend plays and look at photographs online. My first middle grade novel was inspired the the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Each year during National Poetry Month I present a poem a day on my blog in a series called ARTSPEAK!, each year on a different art them. (2018 was ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance.) Earlier this summer I visited The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection at Birmingham Museum of Art and was fascinated by these wood carvings of Bible stories. Who knows, maybe I will have a character in a new book who carves stories out
illus. by Anna Wadham
of wood! My book DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST was inspired by Greg du Toit's amazing photographs, which I saw when poking around National Geographic's website. And earlier this summer I took a pine needle basketmaking class AND a painting (sunflowers!) class. Ideas, ideas, ideas!

illus. by Sean Qualls
and Selina Alko
3. CURRENT EVENTS - I am not much of a newshound or TV person, but I do keep up with a little of what's going on in the world. Often this has inspired my books, like CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race,
illus. by Mique Moriuchi
Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Quite a few of my forthcoming books are similarly inspired -- including WILD PEACE, which was just announced at Publisher's Weekly.

And it's not always big societal current events that captivate my imagination -- sometimes it's simpler, seasonal joys, like FRESH DELICIOUS, which celebrates the summer farmers' market. Take some time and think about how you're spending your time... what are your daily habits and pleasures? There may be a book idea in there!

4. HISTORY - Some of my books are inspired by my personal
illus. by Stephanie
history, like DON'T FEED THE BOY, which is set at a contemporary zoo and allowed me to draw upon my former aspirations to be a zoo vet and my time as a teen volunteer at the Birmingham Zoo.

Others are inspired by stories I uncover, like the forthcoming MEET MISS FANCY, which centers on a real-life elephant who lived in Birmingham from 1913-1934. I find these stories by reading and listening and visiting historical museums and attending historical programming.
coming January 2019
with illus. by John

This summer, as a way to get to know our new home (we moved this past December), we've visited 4 local historical museums. At the Ashville Museum and Archives, I came away with a calendar celebrating the county's bicentennial, and oh boy, was it packed with ideas just waiting to be fleshed out! I dog-eared quite a few pages for further investigation. You just never know what stories might be hiding in your own backyard.

Here's the thing: you can only be inspired if you lead an inspiring life -- which means you've got to get out in the world and live a life worth writing about. I promise, all the stories are right there waiting for you. Go!
Find out more about Irene Latham and her books at irenelatham.com.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? By Ann Haywood Leal

A writing idea sometimes shows itself to me like a sliver of light under a door at the end of a long hallway.  I might mull it over for a while and see if it grows.  But sometimes a new idea hits me hard, bulldozing me to the ground, and I know I have to write about it.  Those are usually the types of ideas that hang around, sticking to me, until I finally build a story around it.
I don't believe that writing ideas are as elusive as they try to appear.  Louis L'Amour once said, "Ideas are everywhere.  There are ideas enough in any daily newspaper to keep a man writing for years.  Ideas are all about us, in the people we meet, the way we live, the way we travel, and how we think about things."

One thing that is important for me is to keep myself open to new ideas -not just at the brewing, beginning stages of a story or book, but throughout my writing.  This is what rounds out my characters as I go, and what fills up my story, as a whole.

A lot of that is paying attention to the small nuances of life.  I love to notice little quirks in strangers, and put them into my story.  How do I know if they're worthy of the story?  They hang around in my head for a good while.  It's that phrase that you can't stop thinking about.  That phrase might become a line for one of your characters, or even a first line for your story.  You might hear someone say something in a crowded grocery store, in line at a restroom, or waiting for a table at a restaurant.  Maybe it makes you wonder, or smile, or cringe, and you have to write it down.  Then definitely do go write it down.

Each year as August begins, I can almost start to taste a new school year.  Schools are idea mines, because there are so many universal feelings with which readers of all ages will connect.  So as the air begins to cool down and the Fall air hovers in the distance, sit back and sniff out some good ideas.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Smack Dab News

Michele Weber Hurwitz will be teaching a five-week online class with The Writing Barn, focusing on the fundamentals of middle grade fiction. The class will be taught completely online in a fun "Brady Bunch" screen format through the Barn's Zoom virtual classroom.

The sessions will be held each week on Mondays from 7 to 9 p.m. CST, beginning September 17 and ending October 15. The course will dig deep into the areas of setting, plot, character, voice, dialogue, conflict, theme, and pacing, utilizing a combination of lecture, discussion, writing exercises, group critique, and Q&A. Participants can work on an existing manuscript or start something new during the class. Click here for more info and to register. All of the sessions will help build technique and offer suggested guidelines for tackling revisions, rough spots, and writer's block. Michele is the author of four middle grade novels, published by Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. More on Michele at micheleweberhurwitz.com.



An intimate workshop for middle grade and young adult authors looking to explore or revise and polish a work in progress.


Whether you’ve jotted down ideas for a novel but can’t get your story off the ground, you’re stuck in the middle of a draft with no idea of where to go next, or you’ve written most of the book but can’t figure out the ending, this workshop is designed to help! Two award-winning, New York Times best-selling authors--Chris Tebbetts and Julie Berry --along with their guest, author Hannah Barnaby, will share their writers’ toolbox for getting unstuck, with a focus on character development, plotting and outlining, revision, journaling, and improvisation/play. 

Participants will receive an initial one-on-one critique as well as individual “ask the editor” meetings with our guest editor, Kate Prosswimmer of Sourcebooks, with time for revision and additional writing in between. Please include a five-page writing sample with your application. Accepted students will then be asked to submit 10-12 pages from a work in progress and a brief synopsis or story description for critique.

Click here for more info! Application deadline is September 15. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018


By Charlotte Bennardo

photo courtesy of Philosophical Disquisitions

The July theme is freedom- from writing habits. Therefore, I declare my independence from writing magazines.

Don't get me wrong, I like perusing through Publishers Weekly, and checking out articles in Writer's Digest. I had subscriptions to numerous writing magazines. When the last issue of my Publishers Weekly arrives though, I won't be renewing.


Because these magazines tend to be about the 'big' stars of writing. Oh sure, they have the occasional breakout debut author, but still the focus is on 'big success.' Most writers are midlist, and we are generally ignored. Is our writing less worthy? Not that I can see, yet we're  invisible. "Everyone loves a winner" seems to be the theme, and while I'm not one to hand out participation trophies, as a midlist author, these magazines depress me. If they were revealing the secret of how to sell a million copies, hook a top agent, or reel in that Big 5 editor, that would be different. Yes, they offer this advice, but it's all generic and we midlist authors have heard it over and over. And I wonder if these mega selling authors subscribe to these writing magazines, or is it just us, lower on the ladder of success writers who subscribe, wanting to see our names on the bestseller list?

Either way, I'm freeing up my mailbox, my desk, my credit card, and my recycle bin. If I get the urge, I'll read the copy in the library. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The 10K-Word-a-Day Writing Binge (Holly Schindler)

I feel like the actual writing process is a series of establishing habits and then breaking them and forming new ones when the old habits stop working. It’s not really even that the old habits were 100% bad—it’s just that they’ve stopped personally working for you.

The latest I’ve broken is the mega daily word count goals.

I kind of feel like this habit was born in social media—all those “I hit 8K today!” Tweets. Those, “Well, I wrote a sloppy 10K, but I can fix 10K! Can’t fix a blank page!” FB posts. (Don’t even get me started on NaNoWriMo.)

Sure, to some extent, bad writing is better than no writing. I get that philosophy. Most books are written in the same way artwork for a graphic novel is produced: artists sketch, then they refine the sketch, then they ink, then they color. Each time adding a new layer to their piece.

Writers rough out the story, and with each rewrite, they also add new layers, new intricacies, honing and refining. The best writing really is rewriting.

But here’s the thing: for me, as of late, revising along the way is working. Actually, it’s working far better than 10K-a-day drafts.

Which is not to say I don’t feel like my first drafts are just magically no longer “word vomit.” They are. But I revise a rough chapter now before moving on to the next. Because I found that when I drafted an entire book from start to finish, 5-10k words every single day, the farther along I got in the project, the less I kept of my work. I threw out whole chapters. I had to invent subplots that meant giant swaths of books became unusable. I realized the climax was fairly anti-climactic, which meant I needed to change the events leading up to a better, more exciting climax. This all meant that material I often spent as much as a week or two writing was thrown.

Think about it: one or two weeks of work straight into the recycle bin.

Yes, I still delete. Just not as much. Revising as I go means I don’t go completely off the rails halfway through and find I need to delete 40K words all at once.

I absolutely think insane word counts have their place. They teach new writers a lot about working under crazy deadlines and sticking to a schedule. These days, though, I’d rather take a deep breath, and spend a few minutes thinking and looking critically at a chapter I just wrote before moving on to the next. It might feel slower—and it might result in far less interesting Tweets (“Whew! Spent two hours staring and brainstorming and then got 500 fresh new words down!”), but in the end, I find I cross the finish line far sooner.

…and I don’t have to lose my mind with 10K-a-day insane word count goals to do it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

What is your Creativity Myth? Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

All creative people use their imaginations to develop their work. But we can also use imagination in how we approach the creative process and in our relationship with our work.

Here’s an example.

A common approach is to think of “conquering” your novel, or poem, or art. As though the work is something to be dominated. This more traditionally “masculine” approach tends to create a sense of urgency, worry, and even manipulation, which can undermine the creative process. Instead, I encourage the writers I mentor to think of themselves as explorers instead of conquerors. Explore the problem before you, the letting, character, plot, image, etc. This immediately allows your to relax, to take a gentler, more inquisitive approach to writing.

This week I read an interview with Evelyn Fox Keller, who wrote the biography of geneticist Barbara McClintock, winner of a Nobel Prize. The title, chosen by McClintock, is A Feeling for the Organism. “It’s her (McClintock’s) deepest belief that you cannot do good research without a feeling for the organism.”* That resonated with my own idea of being an explorer of your work. Think of your writing as an organism, as it’s own living self that you are discovering or coaxing into existence.

I invite you to use your own imagination to work with metaphors in your approach to creative work. What underlying metaphors do you use that you may not even be aware of? What is your creative “myth?” I like Sam Keen’s definition of myth. A myth is simply the “unconscious systematic way in which your experience is formed.” Once you're aware of your creativity myth, use your imagination to shape it.

*The interview with Evelyn Fox Keller is on p 77 of Bill Moyers A World of Ideas

Friday, July 20, 2018

Freedom to Be Messy

The desk in my office is tidy with everything in its place.  The closets in my house are organized with things hung neatly on hangers or folded nicely and put on shelves.  The dishes in my sink are always washed way before any leftover food gets crusty.  But when it comes to writing, in order to harness my most creative ideas and whip my rough drafts into their best shape, I discovered that I needed to give myself permission to be messy.

My writing process begins with notes about characters and story lines in a spiral notebook, and I let everything about that part of the process be messy.  My handwriting is a mixture of print and cursive in large letters all over the page.  I always use wide-ruled paper but rarely write on the lines.  And I don't start at the beginning of the notebook and progress through the pages but rather write randomly on any page I want.  I found that this allows me to let my creative self really dump any possible ideas into that notebook.  Many ideas are never used but sometimes those ideas that seem useless on the surface are the ones that lead to the really inspirational ideas that allow me to create a unique story.

Once I've "messed up" my spiral notebook with enough good ideas, I sit myself down at my laptop and begin writing.  This part of my process is not all that messy, although there are times that once I get into my work, I skip around and don't write the story in sequence.  Doing that allows me to sort have the feeling of walking around the perimeter of my story and seeing as much of it at one times as I can.

After I have a rough draft completed, I print it out.  It's always a good feeling to hold that draft in my hands because, at this point, it is neat and tidy, the way I like things in my life to be.  But it doesn't stay that way for long because revision comes next.  I mark up that printed manuscript by making changes with a pencil.  I write all over that thing, and again, not in a very neat way.  I have scratch-outs, and arrows, and I write in the margins, the headers, the footers, and sometimes on the back side of the page.

Then I head back to the computer and input all those changes and usually in the process make even more changes.  Printing it out again comes next, and you guessed it, I mark up that new, neat, and tidy draft until it looks good and messy.  And so the process continues until I am ready to send it to my editor.  Once my editor gets a hold of it, he gets his chance to mess it up with all kinds of comments, suggestions, and changes.  I get it back and work to revise it according to those changes until both my editor and I are confident that the story is the best that it can be.

I know I would never be able to get to this point if I did not allow myself to be messy, really messy.  As a beginning writer, I always felt compelled to keep my writing as neat as everything else in my life, and if I had not been willing to give myself permission to break that habit when it comes to my work, I would never have been able to give my stories the creative freedom they need to become the books that readers enjoy.

Happy Reading (and Messy Writing),

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Letting Go of Market Expectations

There are plenty of bad habits to get into when writing.

One of my worst when I first started was trying to make sure I wrote something I thought people would want to read.

Spoiler alert: You will never know what people want to read.

Not readers, librarians, kids, teens, teachers, agents or publishers. There is no prediction method or glass ball to give authors that knowledge. So how do you know if what you’re writing stands a chance at ever becoming published?

Spoiler alert: You don’t.

Therefore, there is only one way I’ve found that I can write with confidence and ease.

I write what I want.

I write what is in my heart.

I write the story I want to tell.

I write even if it’s a quiet story or contains unlikable female characters.

I do not weigh how I think people will react. I write to write, and even if it’s bad writing to start out with, it’s still a first draft. And I can fix a first draft. I can’t fix a blank page.

Just get it out. The idea, the words, the sentences that have been bouncing around in your head for weeks or months. Let it flow and pound away from your fingers and see what you’ve got.
More than once, it hasn’t been what I’d hoped. It’s like trying to draw a Renoir and ending up with something you may have sketched in Kindergarten. But other times, oh, the other times, something really beautiful gets written. And other people like it. But most importantly, you like it.

Just keep writing. Don’t give up.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Giving Up Self-Doubt

Once upon a time I wrote a doctoral dissertation. It took me twelve years to do it. Of those twelve years I estimate that six months were spent in the actual research and writing of the thing. The other eleven-and-a-half years were spent in despair over whether I could actually do it. 

I'd start, stop, complain to everybody about how impossible it all was, plus pointless, plus something I didn't really want to do anyway. I'd mope, sulk, whine, worry - anything except for quietly and patiently, hour by hour, day by day, plodding toward the finish line. For a while I even had weekly therapy sessions with a life coach who specialized in clients who couldn't seem to finish their dissertations.

Then finally, sick unto death of hearing myself talk about how I was never going to finish the dissertation, I just made myself sit down and write it. Whew! Hooray for me!  But I sort of wish I had those eleven-and-a-half years back again, wasted on self-doubt.

Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Kay Ryan has a terrific short poem on self-doubt. You can scroll down to find the full poem here. She writes that a chick has only "so much time to chip its way out." It can't squander its limited supply of "egg energy."

It can't afford doubt. Who can?
Doubt uses albumen
at twice the rate of work.

Ah, you may say, that is all well and good. But - um - how exactly do you get rid of self-doubt? 

Here all I can say is that it's helped me just to recognize that what is going on when I procrastinate  - say, for eleven-and-a-half years - is self-doubt: to name it, blame it, and bid it begone. A daily practice of patient plodding - what Jane Yolen famously calls BIC (Butt-in-Chair) - makes a huge difference here, too. 

I also think of what a wise friend told me when I asked her how she can be so amazingly productive in all she writes and publishes. She said, "I figure that God wouldn't give me the work if He didn't think I could do it." Kay Ryan's chick was given an egg to hatch out of. I've been given books to write. You have, too.

Let's trust that the universe knows what it's doing. Let's stop doubting ourseves and write our books.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Don't Stop Believin'

With this round, we at SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE are sharing the best advice we’ve heard and followed through our writing careers. What keeps us going, despite the odds?

We’ve all heard the backstory of J.K. Rowling, how she was a single parent, jobless, and “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” The rest, of course, is literary history. In 2008, Rowling delivered one of my favorite all time inspirations, which I still carry around. You can read the entire speech here.

“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned…
“Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared…”

Another favorite piece of advice comes from Robin LaFevers (April 2014):

“Yes, I’m talking to you. The one over there, not meeting my eyes for fear I’ll see the self doubt and despair that have begun to edge out your sense of purpose and confidence.
"And you, there in the corner, looking everywhere but at me, afraid to believe that your time is almost here. It is. You’ve been working hard, for long years, carving out time, pouring your heart and soul into your work, perfecting your craft, and, maybe most important of all, not giving up. So yes, your turn is coming. It’s just around the corner there where you can’t see it, but it’s heading your way. It might be here in two months or maybe two years, but it will be here. Unless you give up. Then it will never arrive, so whatever you do now, don’t give up."

In other words: Don’t. Give. Up. It is as simple and as hard, failure-fraught, messy, and frustrating as that.

And this means, don’t stop learning. About yourself, about your story. About your craft. I'm looking forward to taking this Line Editing webinar class, offered by master teachers Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson! I took their revision class last year; this is the logical next step for me. And for everyone who wants to engage deeper into language, how structure impacts story. There is an underlying rhythm to all texts. As Noah Lukeman once said, sentences crash and fall like ocean waves, working their magic on the reader.

So, my best advice. Don't stop believin' in your story.

Cue music

-- Bobbi Miller

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Why I Don't Write Every Day, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Write every day. That's what writers are advised to do. Aim for a daily word or page count. Have a plan, have a routine, have a dedicated space. Early morning or late at night or on a lunch break, don't let anything interrupt that sacred writing time. Write whether the muse is present or not. Always be working on something. Finish one book, start another. Write, write, write.


Um...I'm not so sure.

This month on Smack Dab, we're talking about habits we've freed ourselves from, and mine is learning not to feel guilty when I don't write. There are times -- could be days, could be weeks -- where I take a much-needed physical, mental, and emotional break from writing.

I used to feel enormously guilty about that. I see many writers on social media using the #amwriting hashtag. And there's so much advice about the importance of the writing-every-day thing. I used to worry I'd get out of practice, or lose my skill, or feel less sharp, or the words wouldn't come when I was ready to write again.

But I've come to realize none of that is true, and the time away is exactly what I need at that particular moment. When I don't write, when I'm not butt-in-chair for hours, rewriting one sentence over and over, I go outside and take in this:

And this:

And this:

And something happens to my writerly soul. It replenishes. It renews itself. The time away from words invariably brings me back to the writing with more to give.

So, the guilt stops now! I've decided to view the times I'm #notwriting as important, as necessary, and as vital to my creative process and journey, as the times I #amwriting. My new hashtag: #nomoreguilt :)

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of three middle grade novels, published by Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, and Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Another novel is coming this November, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. More at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What Are We So Afraid Of? - by Chris Tebbetts

I’m fascinated by the way so many of us seem to avoid the creative process, even as we love the creative process. What is THAT all about? Why do we resist the writing when we do? And art making in general?  

One answer—and some would say the only answer, ultimately—is fear. 

Resistance to the creative process takes on a lot of forms, but if we’re boiling things down to their nature or essence, FEAR is a good one-word candidate, evidenced in part by how much has been written about it. 

Writing is apparently a very scary thing to do. So…what are we so afraid of?  Plenty, as it turns out. 

But as I’ve dug into this topic and read various takes on it, I’ve also found three responses to fear (and our relationship with it) that I like very much, and have found helpful.


I love this notion. For me, it’s truest in the middle of the night. That’s when my career always seems to be crashing and burning around me in the most convincing way – probably because I’m a captive audience, lying there in bed, where darkness turns my vision inward while I try to get back to sleep. 

And maybe 3AM isn’t your problem. But for anyone who wrestles with this kind of thing, in whatever form, I encourage you to take a look at when you’re the most vulnerable to the lies you tell yourself. For me, last year was when I finally started to see those late night moments for what they are --- illusions that nearly always go away in the day, and usually because getting back to work is the perfect antidote.

That awareness is no miracle pill, but it helps a lot. As Lawrence Block wrote:  “Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. …. Fear and courage are like lightning and thunder: they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.”


In The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says, “It’s important to distinguish between toxic and nutritious anxiety.” He refers to "page fright," our version of "stage fright," and the energy it can bring to the process.  

The difference, I think, is between putting fear into the story—using the present writing moment to capitalize on that energy, even if it makes me uncomfortable--and, on the other hand, dealing with those future-minded fears, the ones that are based in all kinds of stuff I can’t know or control.  

Anne Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, spoke about fear in a TED Talk radio hour podcast I heard.  She spoke about it as a natural, even necessary, companion on the way toward (in the case of her examples) enlightenment. But I’d extend that to the kind of truth-seeking we do in storytelling as well.  She spoke about Muhammed receiving the Koran—what she called the core mystical moment of Islam; and about Jesus on the cross in his last moments.  His final words, she says, were “Father why have thou forsaken me?” Muhammed, she said, “was held not by conviction but by doubt.” 

These were moments of trembling and fear, not elation or enlightenment, even though that’s exactly what these people or characters, were on the cusp of.

"Abolish all doubt and what’s left isn’t faith," she says, "but absolute heartless conviction.” The results, for us, might be a didactic or even soulless story. In religion, it’s fundamentalism. 

I love that quote--and I love that it came, for me, from a somewhat unexpected place. 


Fear—the non-nutritious kind—is mundane. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains it like this: 

“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.  

“Well, so do I. 

“So do we all. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.” 

I love the practicality of that advice, as well as the reminder that it's something so many of us work against, and, ultimately, share.

So there it is. I don’t have a tidy conclusion to this blog entry. Nor do I even aspire to rid myself of all my writing fears. Given some of what I’ve read about it, I’m going to let myself hold onto at least some fo the energy it brings to the process. But I am going to continue to try—always—to put, and keep, fear in its proper place.

Easier said than done, I know. But then again, so is writing. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Freedom to Write by Darlene Beck Jacobson

This month's topic, about what we , as writers, need to free ourselves from had me struggling. Irene's post last week articulated well the very things I've tried to overcome as a writer.  As I contemplated what to write about, I realized something profound.

Freedom to choose WORDS, EMOTIONS,CIRCUMSTANCES,CHARACTER TRAITS, and how we address IMPORTANT ISSUES, are the essence of writing. Having the freedom to write what we want to, in the way we want to, is our right as a citizen in this great nation. Thanks to the unwavering vision of our forefathers and mothers - don't doubt for a minute that there weren't influential women behind these men - our freedom to express ourselves in writing endures 240+ years later.

It is up to us to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place.  By writing what we believe and are passionate about, we envision the world we hope to see.  We make that world possible in the pages of our books.  If only one person gains insight, finds joy from despair, laughs at life's absurdity, or feels moved to do something good, we have helped change the world.

Isn't it curious that one of the first acts of a dictator is to ban and burn books? As if knowledge, thought and reason will disappear, like the ashes, into the wind.  But even in desperate times, when hope seems lost, people write on caves, in the sand, with charcoal, crayons, paint, and even their own blood.  Hope cannot be silenced.

What we do as writers is no small thing.  Words can be expressions of our worst and best selves.  Words, stories, books, have the power to change the world.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Get It in Writing!

by Jody Feldman

For those of you who don’t know, the books I write tend to have puzzles and other mysteries about them. Fun, right? Except not so much fun when, months later, I’m revising and the puzzles puzzle me, the mysteries are mysteries to me, the codes appear as total randomness.

It starts in the fast-draft stage. With copious notes to lean on, I tend to charge ahead, adding to my word count with such rapidity that in about 8 weeks time, I have 60,000-80,000 words of a book, often, 20% of those words coming in the last week. Then I try to mop myself up and put myself back together. Most important, I let all those words take a long nap.

When I’m finally ready to revise, I’ll come across some reference that never appeared in my notes. In the moment, I’d created something brilliant, something that would play a major role in the plot. “I am so smart! I am nearly a freakin’ genius!”

Well, freakin’ genius, try and figure out exactly what you mean, right here in this chapter.

It’s a scene that played out two books ago. (What does that cryptic P.S. mean?) And in the revision
I finished in May. (What does GYTO mean?) And it happened again just this week with a book I hadn’t looked at in a year.

One character had texted the word, OF to the group. “What does OF mean?” said a newbie. “You’re smart enough to figure it out,” came the reply. Except she wasn’t. And I wasn’t. And part of the plot depended on that text.

I figured it out enough to move forward with the revision; I figure them all out enough. But I am certain, to my core, that’s not what I originally intended.

I’ve come to realize that this bad habit of rushing, of refusing to take 30 seconds to add the meaning of such cryptic-ness to my set of copious notes—that needs to change.
That is, unless I’m in the mood to drive myself completely batty.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

HERO -- by Jane Kelley

We all know about The Hero's Journey. I try to follow the stages when I plan tortures -- I mean challenges for my characters. Call to adventure! Challenges and temptations! Abyss! Atonement! Triumphant Return!

But today I want to write about a real hero I know. My friend Alice.

Alice battles cancer.  She fights those insidious cells inside her own body. You can't tell it from this picture. She has a bright smile and an elegant stance. She's holding an object that you wouldn't think of as a weapon, but it is. It's a training paddle because Alice also fights by racing in a dragon boat.

The paddling is important. It strengthens muscles and self images. The team is important. There are many people pulling together to accomplish the goal. The drummers are important. They keep the racers focused and unified. The dragon at the prow is important. Dragons are mythical, magical, fire-breathing creatures. Dragons are also fierce.

Alice has always been a runner. She has raced in many New York City marathons and crossed that finish line all by herself. Now she is deriving strength from being on a team with these women because they are all battling.

And today, July 8th, they will be racing in Florence, Italy. Over three thousand participants have come from all around the world -- from Argentina to New Zealand. They race as part of the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission to show the world and themselves that they are not the victims of malignant cells. They are heroes.

I will be there as part of another team of friends and family to cheer Alice and all the women as they glide over the Arno River, under the Ponte Vecchio, and cross the finish line.

They will triumph just by taking part in the race.