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

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.