Sunday, June 23, 2019

An Imagination of the Heart: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

"An imagination of the heart is an embodied act."

~Nathan Schwartz-Salant 
  Mythology and Clinical Practice, Jungianthology Podcast

This wonderfully multivalent quote by Jungian analyst Nathan Schwartz-Salant, made me think of different kinds of imagination. As a creative professional I try to convey emotions, through both my writing and sculpture practices. Would imaginations of the heart be those centered on emotion? Emotions are always "of the body." 

What about an imagination of the mind? Would this be more related to thinking? For me, thinking often feels disembodied. It is easy to rush around thinking of the "ten thousand things" one must do, attend to, and be absent from my body. The body becomes simply a vehicle for thought.

To bring a thought into the world however, to write about an idea or to execute a plan requires the body to carry it out. 

Feelings, when conscious, are always "felt" in the body; the sweat of fear; the heart-pounding of rage; the tears of joy. Writers must embody their characters, their be concrete instead of abstract. As a writing exercise this week I will try to write with the imagination of my heart instead of the imagination of my mind. I'm curious to see how that changes my work.

Also, it is interesting to speculate about other types of imaginations. An imagination of the soul? An imagination of the throat? Hands? Would a dancer have an imagination of the feet?

 What fun to think about.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Flowers, Writing, & Process

One of the things I love to do is walk in my neighborhood, and at this time of the year, one the things I love most is looking at all the flowers people have planted. I don't know the names of many of them or know much about them, but I enjoy all the colors, the shapes, the sizes.

This year, I decided, for the first time, to plant a few flowers of my own. So I went about trying to figure out what containers I would put them in, which meant several trips to a few stores to see what was available. Then I perused the outdoor nurseries looking at the available flowers and deciding which colors and kinds I liked best. Once my final decisions were made, I purchased - two round flower pots and one rectangular box, seven different kinds of flowers, three bags of soil, a cushion to kneel on, and some blue gardening gloves. Then I went to work.

Now I not only get to enjoy flowers when I take my walks; I also get to see all these colors, shapes, and sizes every time I look out my office window. I'm thankful for their beauty and their inspiration, and I'm also thankful for the way they remind me of how so many things in life are a process. 

There are flowers growing outside my window right now because I first enjoyed flowers on my walks in my neighborhood. Then I decided I wanted to plant some of my own. Next I took time to make a plan so that could happen. And finally, I was able to enjoy accomplishing what I set out to do. 

In many ways, it's similar to writing. I began my journey as an author by enjoying other people's work. I liked middle grade books so much, I wanted to write one of my own. In order to do that, I made a plan so that I could make that happen, and after many years of focused effort, I was blessed enough to have my dream come true.

Happy Flower Month!

And Happy Reading & Writing,

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Value of Waiting by Claudia Mills

Here is something that happened to me that happens to VERY VERY few writers.

The first full-length middle-grade novel I ever finished got published RIGHT AWAY.

And here's what I learned from this: I wish it hadn't.

My remarkable luck in getting published was owed to several factors. First of all, this was a VERY VERY long time ago. That book came out in 1981. Getting published was vastly easier back then. It truly was. Second, the company that published my book was the same company where I worked as an editorial secretary. They liked me - I think they even loved me - and this helped them to like, and even to love, my book. Third, I took pains to try to come up with a topic that would be publishable: that would have that "extra something" that might come to a librarian's notice. So, although I am not Cuban-American myself, I took my experiences from having a Cuban-American boyfriend and spending time with his extended family and drew on these to write a book about a Cuban-American girl's search for identity. This was also WAY WAY before (most) people realized the importance of "own voices" narratives.

So my first book was published. Hooray? No. It was a not-very-good book that received lukewarm reviews (and one scathing review rightly calling me out for my clumsy portrayal of Hispanic culture). It's been out of print for decades.

My second book was published, too. Hooray? Well, this time it was a book I ripped from my own heart, sharing my own most deeply painful childhood experience. I honestly thought this book would win the Newbery. I even made some notes for my Newbery acceptance speech. But it didn't win the Newbery. It, too, received mixed reviews, including this one (which I can't locate now but quote from memory) that said: "Mills's new book is so good one devoutly wishes it was even better."

I now devoutly wish that second book had been even better, that I had had the skill and experience to write the book that story deserved.

My next few middle-grade manuscripts were rejected: surprise, surprise. And then a few more were published. And finally, with my SEVENTH published book, I wrote one that I don't now cringe when I remember it. In fact, I still like this book. I like it a lot. The literary world did not go wild over this book, but they had already gotten used to me as a writer of somewhat mediocre mid-list titles. Would they have gone wild over this book had it been my first book? Maybe. Or maybe not. But at least with this book I published a book I'm still proud of today. I'll even tell you the title, though I don't have a jpg image to post of the cover: The One and Only Cynthia Jane Thornton. I doubt you can find a copy of it anywhere, but you have my permission to read it, if you do.

So the moral is: it's okay not to publish your first book. Or your second, or third, or fourth. Or fifth or sixth. It's okay to give yourself time to learn your craft and grow into the writer you want to be, with these growth pains happening in private spaces rather than in the public sphere.

There's value in waiting. There really is.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Flowers, Art, and Writing, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

It seems there's a month or day to commemorate everything now, and June is no different. It's National Rose Month! The rose is one of the oldest known flowers -- rose fossils discovered in Colorado date back 35 million years. Ancient Romans used roses as room decorations and wore the flowers as necklaces.

In reading many interesting facts about roses -- such as the world's most expensive rose took 15 years to breed and cost 5 million dollars -- I started thinking about flowers in relation to art and writing. A red rose is often used to symbolize love and passion, but many other flowers have meanings and significance as well.

The mistletoe, of course, is synonymous with Christmas kisses (remember Harry Potter's and Cho's sweet kiss under the mistletoe?). Mums, the national symbol of Japan, are said to represent a long life. The white daisy symbolizes innocence, and the forget-me-not flower was supposedly named for the last words of a young man who fell into a river and drowned while picking these flowers for his lover. Maybe that legend isn't quite right for a middle grade story!

Flowers make great character names, too. Think of all the ones J.K. Rowling used in the Harry Potter series: Petunia Dursley, Lily Potter, Pansy Parkinson, Moaning Myrtle, and Lavender Brown. She even used the French name for flower with Fleur Delacour.

Suzanne Collins used two flower names for characters in The Hunger Games -- Primrose and Katniss (a real plant), and of course, how can we forget Chrysanthemum, the title character in Kevin Henkes' picture book?

Many writers like to use flowers for inspiration as they work. I plant annuals just outside the window of my writing space, and an author friend of mine hung her children's floral paintings over her desk.

A Rutgers University study found that flowers create a feeling of happiness and well-being and can also improve memory, which is sometimes very much needed during intense manuscript revisions!

I love this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The earth laughs in flowers." They certainly lift my spirits and change my frame of mind.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of several middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Find her online at

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Importance of Patience and Perseverance

I’ve long studied American folklore and history. In fact, I earned my MFA in writing for children from Vermont College in 2001, and was awarded honors with distinction for my MA in children’s literature degree from Simmons in 1995. During both of these degrees, I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. Children’s literature at that time showcased the best storytellers of the genre, including Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin, and Aaron Shepard, among many others. Folklore was a staple in picture book collections. I graduated from Vermont with a four-book contract for picture books that highlighted my love of American folklore and history. But, as much as I knew about writing and story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing.

And publishing is, foremost, a business.
I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. What I didn’t realize is that an agent-writer relationship is akin to a marriage. While this agent helped seal the deal with the contracts, other issues arose. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. I was referred to another agent, and more problems arose. It turned out that the contracts contained a couple of damaging clauses. According to this new agent, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere, and she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses. In other words, my career was not only stalled, but completely derailed. The relationship ended, of course. Determined, I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses and renegotiate the contract myself.

My first two picture books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract, however, was cancelled. Thankfully, I had a strong circle of friends, in particular Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer, who understood that business side of things and shared their wisdom and support through the years.

But there was yet another, stronger riptide I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picture book market was bottoming out. The very genre that I had studied, loved, and sought as my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now?

Writers have to find a way to adapt. So I moved to middle grade fiction. 

The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore and history with this new format. For a long while, it was a hit-and-miss effort. Finally I had this manuscript, Big River’s Daughter. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time.

And that’s when I learned my greatest lesson: the importance of patience and perseverance.
I met Emma Dryden via Facebook, when she was describing her recent experience as a passenger on a Windjammer cruise – the very one I had gone on as I was researching my book, Big River’s Daughter! I’ve known about Emma for decades; she’s legendary in the field. It turns out, she had just started her own business, drydenbks. I signed up, asking her a crucial question: Where do I fit in now?
And of course, Dumbledore that she is, she helped clarify my thinking and create a plan that would help me achieve my goals. Not only do writers have to adapt to the shifting markets, sometimes they have to make their own place. And we need a business plan!

Part of that plan included an introduction to agent Karen Grencik, who it turns out had just started a new agency, Red Fox Literary. This time I wasn’t shy about asking questions – even dumb ones. One month later after teaming up, Karen sold Big River’s Daughter to Holiday House. Three months after that, she sold my second middle grade novel, Girls of Gettysburg, also to Holiday House. 

All things happens for a reason at the time they are supposed to happen. As River plunges into the wilds of the frontier, taking on the Pirates Laffite and the extraordinary landscape of the mighty river herself in the rough-and-tumble Big River’s Daughter, there is that truth of River’s journey:

If one perseveres, life can be full of possible imaginations.

--Bobbi Miller

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Secret Is, There Is No Secret, by Chris Tebbetts

When I first tried my hand at writing for kids, I thought I wanted to create picture books, not novels. I couldn’t even imagine writing something as long a whole novel. How did people even do that? 
Flash forward a few years, and my picture book manuscripts were going exactly nowhere. Meanwhile, at a summer manuscript workshop, I met a guy who told me about his work on the Sweet Valley High series for a book packager in New York. When he suggested that I contact his editor to see if she was looking for additional writers, I felt conflicted. 
Part of me thought, what’s the point? I have no idea how to write a novel. 
And part of me thought, So what? Just email the editor and see what happens.
A few weeks, several emails, and two sample chapters later, I had an offer from the book packager--not to work on Sweet Valley High, but to write a new four-book fantasy-adventure series they were developing, called THE VIKING. Just like that, I had six weeks to write the first draft of the first book, and eleven months in which to complete the entire four book series.
Talk about trial by fire! The pressure was on from day one, which was arguably a good thing. I usually need some kind of pressure to get my work done. Mostly, though, the feeling was something along the lines of, AUUUUGHHHHHH! WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO????
And then….
I just started writing. There was no other choice, but to get my fingers on the keyboard and develop some good writing habits, ASAP. 
That’s when I learned first-hand about the benefits of working every day, whether I felt like it or not. It’s when I learned to ignore the abject awfulness of my first drafts, put my head down, and just keep going.  
But maybe most of all, it’s when I discovered that there’s actually no big secret to writing a novel. Just the opposite. Writing those first books completely demystified the process for me, and showed me that a 600-word picture book is written in the same way as a 40,000-word novel: one word at a time. One paragraph. One chapter. 
Over and over, and over, and over again. 
Step by step...
And to be clear: I’d never say that writing a novel is easy. Of course it's about more than just putting words on a page. But in terms of actually getting it done, at its most basic level, there is something very simple about the process.
Showing up is everything. Butt in chair. Fingers on the keyboard. Filling pages today, and worrying about making them better tomorrow. There’s no magic in that, but realizing the truth of it was a bit like learning how to do magic. Or maybe more like learning the tricks behind the tricks—not how to make a card disappear, but how to palm that card so that the “magic” can be performed.
To this day, I still feel a sense of overwhelm when I start writing a new novel. How did I ever do this before? What if I can’t get it done this time? The difference now, though, is that I know what I need to do if I want to start getting some answers.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Lessons Learned.

Stuck in the closet in my work room, buried under copy paper and assorted office supplies lie two completed manuscripts. Two finished novels, written back in the 90's when I first thought  about writing BIG. I'd had some success in publishing short stories in literary magazines and magazines for kids such as CICADA, and CRICKET. But I'd always wanted to try and write a book-length story.

So write, I did. Both stories had a beginning, middle, and end. Both stories had an arc and characters who changed through the story. But, like many newbies to the art of novel writing, both stories went unpublished. It wasn't for lack of trying - I'd mailed out each manuscript several times, waiting for responses that came in the form of the dreaded DEAR AUTHOR. Why wasn't I making progress? Why wasn't my work at least getting personalized rejections?

It wasn't until I joined critique groups and began getting constructive feedback on my writing that I was able to answer those questions.

Here is what those manuscripts taught me:

1. It takes time to hone and develop a VOICE. That difficult-to-describe-unique-quality all writers have once they become better at the craft of writing. My VOICE in those initial manuscripts was all over the place - sometimes MG, sometimes YA, sometimes adult. No wonder those stories haven't seen the light of day.

2. You need more than one pair of eyes to read a manuscript and find the gems amid the mess that is a first, second, or umpteenth draft. Sharing work opens up so many paths for the story to grow and develop beyond initial expectations.

3. It takes much more than just a character "doing something" or "having a problem" to make a novel worth publishing. Reading the books of other authors gave me valuable insight in character development, conflict, emotional impact, figurative language, and many other aspects that make a successful story. Reading widely makes writing better.

4. Finally, just like the characters in our stories, we can measure our own growth as writers by recognizing how much we've learned since those first manuscripts. Our characters don't solve their problems without some kind of struggle and more than one attempt. Neither should we expect to pen a successful novel without a dud or two.

Those unpublished manuscripts proved that I could write and finish a book-length tome. That was enough encouragement to keep on writing. They are a reminder of how far I've come.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How I Knew

by Jody Feldman

These are flowers in my yard. I didn’t plant them. I hired someone to do that. I don’t have the patience to garden even though I know how. I don’t have the patience to sew, even though I’ve taken several classes. Believe me; I’ve tried.
But I do have the patience to write.

There was a time when I didn’t think that was possible. I wanted the words that poured from my fingers to be perfect. Sure, I was up for a snip here and a tweak there, but I didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) the concept of wholesale changes.
Of digging up the flowerbed.
Or ripping apart the seams.
Of doing what was necessary to create the vision that was my goal. I was still at a point where I craved instant gratification from any creative process.
And then...

I signed up for a workshop on revision. The leader, the wonderful Darcy Pattison, told us—
Well, I don’t remember what she told us exactly. But here’s what I came away with. To create a story that might match my expectations, I’d have to get my fingernails dirty. Not just a little crusty, but downright filthy.

After that weekend, I grew hyper-aware of what it would take to create a publishable book. And I had doubts. Could I really rip apart my sentences and paragraphs and whole chapters like that? Could I rethink entire scenes? Could I bear to throw them out and completely retool?

Those doubts bombarded me,
for about 15 minutes.
Yes, I could. I could do all of that. And more.
That when I knew, how I knew, I could become a writer.