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

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.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Revising One Page at a Time by Deborah Lytton

My favorite thing to do when I am in the middle of a work-in-progress is to begin each writing session by reviewing the pages I have already written. It is the best way for me to quickly connect with the moment I last left off and continue right on. However, it is also an opportunity to revise those same pages. And revise and revise. Sometimes this can turn my whole writing session into a rewriting session. When this happens, my page count does not increase because I have not actually moved forward at all. In truth, the more time I spend revising those first pages, the better the manuscript becomes. It was in spending hours and hours (and months and months) on the first thirty pages of my YA SILENCE, that I found the voices of the characters and the dual POV structure that gave the manuscript its heart. 
Even though the benefits of this style of working can be enormous, there are also downsides. The most obvious one is that spending time revising first pages can keep me from meeting my personal deadlines. So I have recently broken myself of this habit by only allowing myself to read the scene just prior to the place I left off. This way, my revising is limited and I can move forward with the first draft, knowing that there will be plenty of time for me to enjoy revising (and more revising) later. So my tip is to ask yourself what habits are keeping you from meeting your personal page goals. See if you can change them even a little bit. Writing one page every day will lead you closer to your goal. Try to make that one page happen today!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Writers, Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Ours is a competitive industry. And even though I have found the world of kidlit to be generally friendly and supportive, the truth is that there are a LOT of us writing and hoping to fill a limited number of slots in the publishers' catalogs (or awards lists or school visit budgets or whatever). So it can be easy to get caught up in comparisons: x book got a bigger advance, y book sold more copies, z book was named to Random Awesome Book List (and my book wasn't).

All one has to do to get mired in the Competitive Swamp is to visit Twitter or go to a conference or talk to another writer in the industry, and there it is, right in your face: someone else who's doing better than you. Which is 
1. crazy talk 
 2. crazy-making 
 3. creativity-killing 
 4. depressing 
 5. insane

I know because I've been there. Lots of times! It's been my #1 bad habit as a writer.

But. NO MORE! I'm very deliberate these days about how much I expose myself to social media (which is a hotbed of comparison-crazy-making!). As an introverted person I kind of keep my head down anyway and don't do Facebook or Instagram at all, and Twitter only inconsistently.

But mostly I don't worry so much about what others are doing because I keep busy with my own books/life/dreams. The only real thing we have control over in this business is the words we put on the page. So these days that's where I keep my focus. Amazingly, this has freed me to celebrate not only my own successes, but those of others.

We may be in a competitive industry, but I'm the only ME in it -- and you're the only YOU.

Which makes James Bay's song “Let It Go” pretty much perfect.  Listen for these lines “why don't you be you and I'll be me.” And have yourself a fabulous 4th of July!

 Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal

Monday, July 2, 2018

Break It! By Ann Haywood Leal

Why is it that they are so easy to form and so hard to break? . . . Bad ones, that is.

It may sound a bit simplistic, but when it comes to bad writing habits, I like to think of opposites.

One of my bad writing habits is not getting started right away.  I'll try to get everything else done (including cleaning the cat box and washing every last dish), and THEN I'll get started on my writing.  Is it that necessary to do that online jigsaw puzzle?  And I'm  pretty sure the New York Times isn't going anywhere any time soon, and social media is most likely here to stay. 

So I tried out my theory of opposites.  (By the way, it's so much easier to dish out "wise" advice than to take it yourself, isn't it??)  I actually got started right away--first thing in the morning, I opened my computer and got going with my writing.  (Full disclosure:  I did get myself some coffee, first.)  

I'd love to tell you that it went totally without a hitch; I wrote five chapters in one hour and my fingers were literally flying across the keys.  But . . . the reality of it all is that a mild form of what could only be panic set in:  WHAT IF IT'S SOMEONE'S BIRTHDAY AND IT'S ALREADY SEVEN A.M. AND I HAVEN'T YET WISHED THEM A HAPPY BIRTHDAY ON FACEBOOK?!  WHAT IF THERE'S A REALLY CUTE DOG PICTURE ON INSTAGRAM AND EVERYONE WILL BE TALKING ABOUT HOW CUTE IT IS AND IT WILL HAVE ALREADY DISAPPEARED INTO INSTAGRAM OBLIVION WITHOUT MY "LIKING" IT?! . . . and so on.

But as my de-habiting morning and days went on, that voice started to get quieter, and I actually did get a whole lot of writing done, including this blog post.

Some "experts" say that it takes 21 days to break a bad habit; some say a whopping 30.  But think about how much more writing you will have gotten done in those weeks!