Thursday, December 12, 2019

Failures That Benefit a Writer

I thought I would take a different approach to this month's theme of "favorite failures" by highlighting three corporate failures that ended up benefiting those of us in the writing community. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has come to rely on these products to get us through revisions, and our personal writing failures.

1. INK JET PRINTER: When a Canon engineer rested his hot iron on  a pen by mistake, ink ejected from the pen's point moments later. This principle led to the ink jet printer we all know and love/hate.

2. While trying to create a strong adhesive, Spencer Silver - a researcher at 3M Labs - ended up with a formula weaker than what was already available. It stuck to objects but could be easily pulled away.  It wasn't until years later that a colleague spread the substance on pieces of paper to mark his place in a hymn book that the idea for this popular product was born.

3. Finally, when failure has gotten the best of us, and we just need something to make us feel better, here is one of the world's tastiest failures. Created by Ruth Wakefield, a baker at the Toll House Inn, CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES were created when Ruth ran out of baking chocolate while making a batch of cookies. So she broke sweetened chocolate into small pieces and added them to the dough. Instead of melting, they held their shape.

The rest, as they say, made history.

Our next failure may very well lead to something bigger and better.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


by Jody Feldman

Here’s something you may not know about me. I’ve written at least 18 novels you’ve never had the chance to read. They sit in my files, in various stages of disrepair. Thanks to this month’s blog theme, I will now call them my Favorite Failures. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll take the Thomas Edison approach. In his quest to invent the lightbulb, he said:
“I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work.”

That’s better. That’s how I think about my hidden stash of stories.

I wrote most of them when I was learning how to write a novel. Of course I understood the whole concept of plot and character and setting, but I didn’t begin to comprehend all the elements and nuances that jettison writing to that publishable level and beyond. Even today, I’m still learning.

One day, perhaps, you’ll see some of these novels in your bookstores and libraries. Others, however, will remain my workbooks, my homework pages, my due diligence.

Just like organizing consultant Marie Kondo suggests we do, I thank these stories for serving their purpose. Contrary to what Marie Kondo suggests, I will not delete; they will continue to hang out in my files. Some of them are waiting to be reimagined, repurposed; waiting to bloom into their full glory. I remain hopeful for these stories.

So, in these dwindling weeks of the current year, let’s raise a glass. Here’s to using the old to invent the new. And in that spirit, let’s refuse to call our previous attempts failures but, instead, launching points to success.
L’Chaim! To life!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

My Favorite Failure? -- by Jane Kelley

Who can choose a favorite anything? This question is impossible to answer for a parent of many children or an author of many books.

Failures are just as difficult––maybe because there are more of them. I've filled dozens of journals over the years. A few of those pages have made it into print. Most haven't. A character named Meredith actually appeared in three different works-in-progress, all of which are still buried in the scrap heap.

One persistent little fellow managed to rise from the dead. His name had changed from his early life, but his outrageous behavior was the same. So was his desire to be a super hero and save the day. And now his book sits on my shelf.

Fabulous cover by Jessika von Innerebner
I first wrote about Clint McCool shortly after my debut MG novel was published. Back then, his antics were too much for me. Just like the fictional grown-ups in his life, I had no idea how to control his manic energy. In fact one editor's comment on an early version was that he exhausted her. Zing, zong, zing! Clint McCool had way too many ideas––and so did I.

Luckily a wise editor Bonnie Bader suggested that maybe 300 pages of brain flashes were a little much. She asked me to turn the middle-grade novel into a chapter book. With those limits, Clint McCool was saved. When the publisher wanted a second book, I had plenty of escapades from that longer version ready to go. In Sol Ray Man and the Freaky Flood, I even got to use another of my favorite characters--Clint McCool's former babysitter.

Illustration by Jessika von Innerebner

Clint McCool and Mrs. Brussels were lucky. I doubt that poor Meredith will be. I don't dwell on the books that might have been. And yet many of my personal disappointments have provided subtexts for my novels. Nursing those losses has forced me to think deeply about them. That made them excellent grist for my mill.

You never know when a character from a failure will spring into action and, like Clint McCool, save the day.

In fact, my current work in progress relies upon that.

Eventually, I hope, it will be my new favorite failure.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Redefining Failure

my first book in the
children's market,
released Jan. 2010
As I reflect on the past decade -- which is also my first decade in the publishing industry, as my first middle grade novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND was released January, 2010 -- I find that one of the most important things I've learned or am learning is how to redefine failure.

Like many of us creative types, I am super-sensitive to the world, and especially to failure. I don't like to fail. I don't like rejection. It can make me want to curl up in a hole and disappear.

But. These days I'm aware that a simple shift in thinking can make all the difference. Mistakes are essential to learning. And what good does it do to beat ourselves up over those mistakes? Which is why I am actively working each day to throw out the old language of "What was I thinking?" after making a mistake/experiencing failure, and shifting that to: What was I LEARNING?

my next (9th) book
in the children's market
releasing Feb. 4, 2020
Whenever I remember that mistakes and failure are part of the process, and merely stops along the way, I find my heart and mind open again to the muses. I can move forward instead of getting stuck in the muck. I can forgive myself for being an imperfect human. Side benefit: it's also helping me be more forgiving of other people's failures, too. And that is a beautiful thing indeed! Also: this theme shows up in MEET MISS FANCY (my latest book for children) as well as my next one!

Irene Latham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyd Mills/Kane. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Junior Library Guild, Bank Street College and other organizations.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Daily Grind I Don't Want

By Charlotte Bennardo

A number of writers I know journal. I've only been successful at it once.  I wrote about the whole tedious, unfair-unless-you're-a-white-male, degrading experience of going through both the criminal (not me, I was the victim), and the civil court system. Writing helped to keep me sane during a process that took 8 years, left me in debt (even though I 'won'), gave me an ulcer, and ultimately, convinced me that our system is really flawed (although I don't know a better alternative). I filled up one of those black and white notebooks we all used in elementary school. Once the trials and farce that is our legal system was over, and my life was my own again, I closed the book, and have never read what I wrote. I never want to read it, so I don't know why I keep it.

For me, journaling was the way I exorcised that time in my life that was just too unbearable to talk about with anyone. I should burn the book because I will never use those experiences in my writing because they are too painful and personal. So yes, I was successful, but no, I never want to do it again.

Photo courtesy of Negative Space, Pexels.

At this point, I want to write all the stories in my head, not jot down my feelings and observations that I will never revisit on the page. Oh, I know I could journal just a sentence, maybe even a single word, but I don't want to invest time in any writing that once written, will be pushed aside and forever ignored. I admire people who can do both. I probably could if I wanted, but I don't want to.

Now...what to do with all those pretty journals I bought or had given to me? I use them for story ideas; this way, I will always have a story idea to write about. So I guess that is journaling in a way, isn't it? I'm journaling my ideas. As I've written previously, I don't always have a notebook with me, so I've written ideas on my arms, on the bottom of my shoes, on napkins. That's journaling, too, right?

I guess I am a successful journaler, but I'm doing it My Way.

Do you journal?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Fun Assignment for Creative Writing Classes

  As a contributing editor for a magazine that shares true, first-person stories, I've learned that telling our own personal stories can be extremely difficult for one simple reason: we know too much.

When we help craft a narrative with our contributors, one of the main tasks is helping them weed through the details that just don't move the story forward. For example, once I interviewed a lady for a women's health magazine. The story was about a medical diagnosis that saved her life. It was serendipitous because she went in about a minor health issue when the doctor noticed something much more severe. During the interview, the lady spent literally twenty minutes telling me about the minor issue she went in for...and guess what? It didn't matter so much. It was a lot of detail that served no real purpose in the story.

It just goes to show that what's interesting to the people who live a particular story may not really matter to anyone else. These extra details can become a burden when fiction writers try to write a story based on true events they themselves lived.

A creative writing teacher of mine in college came up with this brilliant assignment to help us learn how to weave fiction out of fact: She had each of us write down the bare bones of a family story. Then she took those papers from us and handed them out to a random classmate. We each had to write a fictional story based on someone else's true family story.

Probably the best story I wrote in that class emerged from that assignment. It gave me enough info to have characters and a plot, but since I didn't know these characters personally, I was freed from any concerns about, say, painting Aunt Martha as a gossip or Cousin Frank as a booze hound. Maybe in real life, Cousin Frank was a tea totaler, but maybe he was a more interesting character as a drunk. Since I didn't have to worry about Uncle Frank shunning me at Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of my life, I could write the story the way I wanted to write it.

So if you're looking for a seed of an idea for fiction, try telling someone else's story--but don't feel that you have to tell it truthfully. It is fiction, after all.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Your Imagination Camera by Dia Calhoun: Smack Dab in the Imagination

"You can't depend on your eyes
 when your imagination is out of focus." 

~ Mark Twain

I love this quote for all it’s many levels of meaning. What, for example, does it mean for “imagination to be out of focus?” This surprised me because I don’t usually think of imagination as being something focused, perhaps more of a soft focus—the world peered at slantwise. Focus implies a spotlight beam of narrowed attention.Another useful word is tuned. My imagination needs to be tuned, calibrated to the creative project I’m working on, tuned in and turned on.

I have an image of a camera sitting on my shoulder as I work, or walk through the world. This is my imagination camera. Always on, its automatic focus can shift from a wide focus to a narrower focus. My imagination camera is tuned toward the creative project at hand.

What do you want to see through your Imagination Camera?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Training to Be a Writer

Though I've always liked the idea of journal writing, I have to confess that I've never been disciplined enough to keep up a journal with any regularity. I always begin a journal writing goal with tons of gusto and enthusiasm; but then, usually after a remarkably short period time, I end up as a journal writing flunkie. But thanks to Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I was able to make journal writing work for me.

     Cameron's book is chock-full of wonderful strategies and techniques for any artist who wants to live a more creative life. She encourages readers to do things such as "Artist Dates" and "Artist Walks" to practice living in a more creative mindset, but it's Cameron's "Morning Pages" that truly struck a chord with me. 
     The idea behind these written pages is developing the habit of simply writing about anything (or nothing) in order to tap into the creativity that's hidden, and sometimes blocked, inside us. It's a stream of consciousness-type writing, which for me, turned into an invaluable tool for training myself to be able to write on demand. 
     The Artist's Way is designed for readers to spend ten weeks working through the text as well as Cameron's suggested activities for living a more creative life. During this ten-week period, artists are encouraged to write "Morning Pages" every day.  Though called "morning" pages, this writing can be done at any time of the day, but should be done as part of a daily routine. As the journal flunkie that I am, I was not always able to keep up "Morning Pages" as regularly as I would have liked, but the few times I committed to reading Cameron's book and following its plan, I did "Morning Pages" enough so that now, writing is much more of a habit for me. When I sit down, whether it be to write notes for a new project, work on a rough draft, chip away at revisions, or do last edits on a book that's almost complete, I'm able to tap into that writing habit I cultivated while doing "Morning Pages." Even with my inability to stay true to writing every, single day, while doing The Artist's Way, the benefits of "Morning Pages" have stuck with me for years.
     So, in the traditional sense of the word, I'm not a journal keeper, but rather someone who has found a way to make journal writing work for me.

Happy Reading & Writing,