Monday, January 15, 2018

When the Cat Explodes

Ursula Le Guin

"Ultimately you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete—this is what I meant to do, and I stand by it—can come only from the writer, and it can be made rightly only by a writer who’s learned to read her own work. Group criticism is great training for self-criticism. But until quite recently no writer had that training, and yet they learned what they needed. They learned it by doing it." -- Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

On another blog I talk about my current search for an agent. I searched for years for the right agent, firing two agents along the way because they were not serving my best interest. Finally, finally I found the ONE. After five years, and the sale of my two historical fiction middle grade books, my agent decided to focus on picturebooks and so ended our relationship. For a year now, I’ve been in search of a new agent. I write historical fiction, focusing on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I write historical American fantasy, a unique blending of the tall tale tradition and character that captures so much of the American identity with the historical American landscape.

Careful to do my research, and asking for recommendations, I’ve sent out two to three queries a week. Giving time for responses, I’ve sent out close to thirty queries. Most have given me the silent rejection and not responded. A few responses rejected the manuscript because historical fiction is a hard sell. A few others offered only that it was a bad fit. One asked for a revision, and then ultimately passed. Another asked for another revision, offering detailed observations.

But now, I struggle with the writing. I struggle with getting it done.

I am reminded of Neil Gaiman’s speech on how to live the creative life, delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts:

“When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.” –Neil Gaiman, on making good art. See more at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings here.

The definition of “good art” seems to shift between readers, between agents, between editors. One agent rejected my story, stating it has too many characters while the plot was exciting. Another agent stated that she loved all the characters but the plot is too quiet. Another said there was too much reflection, while another said it had too much narrative. The indomitable Ursula Le Guin speaks to this notion:

“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented...This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment...”  states Ursula LeGuin, on her criticism of John Rechy’s essay that “attacks three “rules of writing” that, according to him, often go unchallenged: These three rules include 1.Show, don’t tell. 2. Write about what you know. 3. Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.” (Find more of Ursula LeGuin’s wisdom on her blog here.) 

So what’s a writer to do? First, have courage to break the rules, but finish the story.

Neil Gaiman reminds us that, “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”  (To learn more about Neil Gaiman advice to aspiring writers, and to see a podcast interview, visit Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings here.)

 “If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.” -- Neil Gaiman 

So with this new year, during this time of new beginnings: Finish your story. Learn the rules. Break the rules. Make new mistakes.

“Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

"So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.” –Neil Gaiman.

Wishing you a year of making good art.

Bobbi Miller

Photo of Ursula Le Guin courtesy Euan Monaghan/Structo

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Filling the well

I have enjoyed reading my fellow bloggers' writing goals and resolutions for the past few weeks, but I admit I'm not quite there yet. It always takes me a few weeks in January to get back to business. After all the hub bub that takes place in November and December, I reach the new year feeling weary. A little worn-out. Somewhat depleted. So my goal -- if you can call it that -- is to fill my creative well.

This is a concept drawn from screenwriter and director Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way, which is designed to help enhance creativity. Cameron points out that we need an inner reservoir to draw from if we are going to continue to create -- a creative "ecosystem" of sorts, that needs care and upkeep. If we don't give our reservoir the attention it requires, it can dry up, become blocked, or even stagnant.
Her suggestion is to set aside time each week to do something that nourishes the creative self. A trip to a museum, a walk in the country, or watching an old movie are just a few examples. These should be done alone so we can absorb the experience without conversation or distraction. Cameron calls these activities an "artist's date," as we are taking ourselves out.

I love that idea! Who better to take myself out than me!

I've found that when there's too much going on, it's hard to tune everything out and focus on my work-in-progress. So I plan to set aside time in the next few weeks to nourish my creative self. Instead of tasks that "must" be done, I vow to find time -- even if it's thirty minutes a day -- to do something fun, delightful, mysterious, or intriguing.

Another concept I've come across recently is something called "moodling." The term means dawdling, idling away time, letting the mind wander. Despite our busy, frenetic lives, we all do this in little bits of moments -- while sitting at a stoplight, washing dishes, waiting at the doctor's office (that is, if we're not checking our phones). But a good exercise is to do this consciously, with a pencil and paper, for an hour. Let the thoughts come as they may. Some of the most innovative and interesting ideas can rise up out of the pockets of your mind.

Wishing you all a refilled well and time to "moodle" this year!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin 2017), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Penguin Random House 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Penguin Random House 2011). Find her at

Saturday, January 13, 2018


I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, but in keeping with the theme this month, I'll share a handout I offer at some of my workshops. I call it ADVICE TO MYSELF. These are things I always try to bear in mind along the writing road, not just with the turn of the calendar, but whenever I'm writing, facing the slog, feeling stuck, or just contemplating the nature of the work itself. 

Here's wishing you all a happy, productive writing year in 2018! 
  • The more you work on it, the better it tends to get (usually).
  • There are no shortcuts.  (But there are good days.)
  • “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  – Unknown
  • I’m not doing myself any favors by broadcasting what I don’t like about my own work.
  • Stop worrying about whether it’s character driven, plot driven, or what. Just write it.
  • I am who I am. (aka, I’m not Edith Wharton. I watched too much t.v. as a kid. Deal with it.)
  • Yes, most of my ideas probably exist elsewhere.  So what?
  • There are (arguably) no bad ideas. It’s all about execution.
  • “The best way to bore someone is by leaving nothing out.” – Voltaire
  • Kill your darlings. 
  • “Never wish more than you work.”  - Rita Mae Brown
  • Stillness, silence, staring into space—it’s all part of the work
  • “We must understand and accept that we lose half of our audience the moment we open our mouths.”  - Kate DiCamillo
  • Write to your ideal reader.  And write to please yourself first.
  • Trust your instincts. For real.
  • “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”  - Elmore Leonard
  • When in doubt, ask yourself: What are the questions I should be asking myself right now?
  • Follow your curiosity, not your passion. – paraphrased from Elizabeth Gilbert
  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein
  • Tell the truth. 
  • Don’t save your ideas for later. There will always be more.
  • eedback is a gift. That means you can do what you want with it. (But keep an open mind.)
  • Dreck is part of the process. So is falling out of love with your idea. Keep going anyway.
  • You are a writer if you want to be one.  Think of yourself as a writer.  Call yourself as a writer.  Don’t wait to get published for this to happen.
  • Tell a good story first and worry about the moral later.  No one wants to read a moral.
  • I may get better at this as I go along, but that doesn’t mean it gets easier.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New Year = New Plan by Darlene Beck Jacobson

No matter how many times we grumble and grouse about new year's resolutions, many of us still look forward to a fresh start and chance to do things differently in the new year.  As a writer, I usually make goals that reflect my aspirations and hopes in the writing field.  Completing a draft of a new novel.  Sending a finished project to my agent, hoping for a sale.  Reading as many MG, YA, and PB's as I can throughout the year.  These have been recurring goals as I browse past journal entries.
This year I want to add something new:  For every PB, MG, and YA book I read, I hope to post a review on Amazon and Goodreads to boost the visibility of my author friends and help spread the word about books I really enjoy.  Popular authors like Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, Katherine Applegate, Jacqueline Woodson, etc, don't have to worry about getting reviews.  Everything they write is featured everywhere we look.  Rightly so and deserved.

But for many of us who have written quality books for children, and received praise and accolades from friends and acquaintances, as well as the children we write for, I want to take it one step further.  It takes only a few moments to write a sentence or two stating what you enjoyed about a book.  It goes a long way toward helping an unknown author receive recognition and maybe sell a few more books.  (Caveat: If you don't like a book, spare the author any venomous reviews.  There is enough negativity in this world.)

We authors owe it to each other to be supportive and sing the praises for each other's works.  
I hope some of you will join me in spreading the word and "paying it forward" for a favorite author.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Week = Strong

 by Jody Feldman

A couple days before New Year’s I was sitting in a theater seat, waiting for the movie to start, when my person next to me started talking about a friend who was about to pull out the contents of a jar she hadn’t opened (except to add to said contents) in a year. She had decided that, at the end of each week, she would write down the one thing that made her the happiest or had her feeling the most accomplished over the past seven days.

The movie started, and I thought little of that until New Year’s Eve when the conversation turned to resolutions. Every last person was reticent about sharing. So was I because I hadn’t yet decided exactly how to improve myself. With barely a thought, I committed to the Best Thing Jar. The more I thought about it, the more that idea excited me.

Too often, in writing and in life, we can get derailed by an isolated disappointment; especially one that lasts several days. But over the course of a week, it’s much easier to find something good even if it’s simply making a pan of delicious brownies or writing one unique sentence or making someone smile.

It’s my hope that throwing away the daily judgments will only make me stronger. And by the end of the year I can open my jar and be even the slightest bit wowed by what I’ve accomplished.
Happy New Year!

Monday, January 8, 2018

I, Jane Kelley, resolve to ......


Here I am! In Istanbul's Grand Bazaar! Last year, my husband, daughter, and I had the trip of a lifetime. I'm looking forward to another excursion....but I don't have to wait to leave the country. I can  and will do that every day at my desk. That's what an imagination is for. 


I met these wonderful students in Washburn, Wisconsin. Talking to young readers not only reminds me of why I do what I do, it also gives me great ideas. 


Well, okay, I didn't actually do that. My husband did. That kind of free-falling would give me a heart attack. But I can take other risks. Dig deeper in my work. Write outside my comfort zone. 


This old fountain in San Miguel, Mexico shows a vase pouring water into cupped hands. This image reminds me that the world is full of beauty and kindness. I need to be open to receiving it. With gifts come responsibilities, however. The small sign on the upper left hand corner reads: "Por favor no tirar Basura en esta Fuente." Please don't throw trash in the fountain. 


Oh Blackberry -- my literal bĂȘte noire! Like many writers, I have to guard against dark thoughts. This year, I will do my best not to be my own worst enemy. 

If I can keep some of these resolutions, some of the time, then 2018 will be a good year. 

Happy writing to you all!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Writing in 2018 by Deborah Lytton: January Theme

Happy 2018! For me, the celebration of a new year is filled with excitement and focus. With the opening of a new planner is the opportunity for goal setting and personal challenge. The best advice I always give to myself and to others: write. It is the practice of this ever-evolving craft that will help us reach our goals. In our work, we are sharing stories but also continuing on our own journeys. I can look at manuscripts I have written in years past and see threads of my own story woven into the choices my characters make. I can also see my growth as a writer. Stories I penned in 2005 are very different from the stories I am writing today. And yet, there is still a style to the work that is mine alone. In 2018, I encourage you to find your style of writing. Find your voice. It is unique and special because it is yours.

Here are some of my own goals for this year that might help you:

1. Write. As much as possible.
2. Find the tools that inspire. (I like Blackwing pencils and comp books.)
3. Create a writing nest for yourself that helps you disappear into your work.
4. Set goals for page count or word count or even a completion date if you are really brave.
5. Connect with other writers on social media or at writer conferences.
6. Challenge yourself to write the story that is in your heart.
7. Pour everything onto the page and don't hold anything back.

Good Luck and Happy Writing!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Writing Goals vs. Writing Dreams

In the process of downsizing, I recently came across a greeting card my husband gave me upon the release of my debut middle grade novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND, back in 2010. The front has a rainbow and says, "Celebrating Your Achievement." Inside it says, "Congratulations on making your dream come true."

Getting a book published -- with a real New York publisher (Penguin!) -- was definitely a dream of mine. For many years it was also a goal. Which means I went to conferences and churned out words and went to a critique group and sent my work out. I did MY part in making the dream come true. When it happened, it was glorious wonderful amazing!

But then things got confusing. There were sales goals and number-of-reviews-on-Amazon goals and "likes" goals and awards list goals. After I read a book on the power of affirmations, I had one I said in the shower each morning. "I will win a Newbery Award." And guess what? That hasn't happened. Because that's not an achievable goal, that's a DREAM. No one can will themselves onto the NYT Bestseller list or a Best-of List or win a Newbery. Those things are beyond our control, and no matter how much we do all the right things -- social media, conferences, promotional videos, etc. -- ultimately the only thing we writers can control is the quantity of words we put on the page.

And then there are no guarantees those words will become a book that will sell and/or win awards/hit the NYT Bestseller list. Which in some ways is disheartening -- until you remember that the other side of "no control" is FREEDOM. Freedom to write what you want when you want. The only way one of those dreams will ever come true is if we keep writing. Writing the words is our only part in the "success" equation.

My latest (#6) release in the
children's market.
So. My writing goal for 2018 is to write every day, as I have for the past several years. That practice has brought me more than a dozen book sales and at least that many completed projects that have failed (so far!) to find publishing homes.

As I continue my writing practice, I want to think less, and feel more. To write what is meaningful to me. To channel Ray Bradbury:

"Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for." - Ray Bradbury

Best of luck as you work toward your 2018 goals. May all your dreams come true.

IreneLatham is the author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming books, including two novels for children Leaving Gee's Bend and Don't Feed the Boy. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, her poetry books for children include Dear Wandering Wildebeest, When the Sun Shines on Antarctica, Fresh Delicious and Can I Touch Your Hair? (with Charles Waters). Irene lives in Alabama with her family where she does her best to “live her poem” every single day by laughing, playing the cello, and walking in the woods. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Write it Down by Ann Haywood Leal

It's so easy.  You are on the treadmill at the gym . . . on social media . . .  in the shower . . . and just like that (!) you have a goal.  But as a wise blogger once said:

So definitely do that.  Write.  It.  Down.
 I will ________.
For some reason, seeing it on paper in front of you or on your computer screen makes it real.  It becomes a thing.

And thank you, Kaye Dacus, for this next one:  Give it a set timeline.
 I will ______ by _______.  

Then you've got to . . . 

phone a friend.  Speak your goal OUT LOUD to a real live person.  Do this even before you write down one word, because now it's not just "a thing", it's a real thing.  You have put it out in the universe and you are now holding yourself accountable, and so is your friend.

And maybe the most important thing of all, is something that was embedded in my brain in my teacher life:  Make it attainable.  Sure, I'd like to write 10,000 words today, but it is probably not going to happen. 

What I like to do is to make it two-pronged.  I set what I call my "lofty goal", which is something that is still attainable, but something that is more long-term.  For example, I will finish my first draft by (date) .  Then I'll choose a short-term goal, such as:  I will write two scenes and/or one chapter by . . .



Monday, January 1, 2018


Today marks the release of Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrations by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, published by Carolrhoda/LernerPublishing.

A fifth grade boy and girl have to work together on a poetry project, and they're not sure what to write about . . . at first.

Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to present paired poems about topics including shoes, sports, music, stereotypes, and much more.

Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, this relatable collection explores different experiences of race, and how we talk about it in twenty-first century America.

A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication...a brave and touching portrayal worthy of sharing in classrooms across America." - Kirkus ★ STARRED REVIEW

"The poems delicately demonstrate the complexity of identity and the power of communication to build friendships." - Publisher's Weekly ★ STARRED REVIEW
"Young readers searching for means to have difficult, emotional, and engaged discussions about race will find an enlightening resource in Irene and Charles’ explorations." - Booklist
... a beautifully direct yet somehow outstandingly subtle work that will allow young readers to navigate and understand their places in their communities and the greater world.” - Shelf Awareness
This clever book of poetry is about finding an unlikely friend... would make an excellent read-aloud or a launch pad for collaborative classroom writing.” - The Horn Book Magazine

For more information about the book, the authors, and a downloadable Curriculum Guide, please visit and

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