Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Becomes is What Matters (Sort of) by Jen Cervantes May Theme

My daughter sculpts with clay. She takes a blob of nothingness and shapes it into a pair of aged hands, or a small bird wing, or some other powerful symbol that means something to her. I am always amazed at how she creates something from nothing. The process looks painful. Much like writing a novel. I asked her once if she is happy when the object has taken shape as she has imagined and she is “done.” She told me “not really” because when the process is over she has to let the piece go.

Aha moment….

Letting the piece go…

I’d never really thought of my own work this way. As a matter of fact when I first began writing, I luxuriated in the process and then somewhere along the way my focus shifted to product.  Don’t get me wrong—I wanted that product to be the best I could make it, but I somehow lost the joy of the writing  process.

Our books are journeys untold.  Our readers don’t see the countless nights of indecision, the tears, and frustration over each detail, the sloppy (very sloppy) versions, or even the YES moments. We live in a society of “what becomes is what counts.”
I agree.
Sort of.

Yes, the final product matters. It is what we share with the world, our readers. But the process, the experience of creating is ours. It is what feeds our souls. It is in the fear, the indecision, the painstaking choices that we evolve as artists. Yes, creating a book is a feat of engineering, but we can have both process and product. We can honor all aspects of the journey and try to celebrate each step, each stroke of the pen, each word.
Yes, what becomes counts. But what is counts too.
Maybe more...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dollar Value Menus and Other Tough Stuff

     Sometimes I like to think about what my life was like back when I was first trying to break into the world of freelance illustration and writing for kids books. It was tough. After putting myself out there (with submissions of all kinds), and being as patient as I could be (which is not very patient), the rejection letters began trickling in. I was actually really proud of them. They said I was trying. I put them up on my walls and showed them to all my friends. I was like, “Look at all these ‘form’ rejection letters! It’s like I’m a professional now! I make stuff and they reject it. It’s all part of the process!”
     Of course, it wasn’t easy. My idea of a night on the town usually involved a restaurant with a $1 value meal menu (I’m still poor now but I was more poor then—I really need to find me a sugar mama.) At the time, I understood the hard truth that hard work doesn’t always guarantee that you will get what you want, but every time I thought about going back to get a degree in something that would lead to a regular job with a regular paycheck... I couldn’t go through with it.
In time, my rejection letters began to have notes with them. I was getting personalized rejection letters!!!!!!!!!!! I thought that that was amazing.
     Eventually, I got my first real job and everything from then on went smooth as butter (just kidding.) But, even though the ups and downs (think of a Yo-Yo on a dude’s hand) kept coming they were becoming more evolved problems (think of a Yo-Yo on a dude’s hand who is going up some steps—your still facing tough ups and downs but they are on a whole new level.) When I look at my current problems and stand back and compare them to the problems I faced years ago, I can see how much I’ve grown. Somehow this fact makes it easier to tackle my current problems/frustrations with making books.
     So, these days whenever I’m having a tough time, I ‘take a step back’ and look at how much my current problems show that I’ve grown as an artist/writer. My favorite way of ‘taking a step back’ is by reading some of my (many) rejected stories I’ve made over the years. I read them and I am reminded of the many problems I faced while making them and I can see (with so much more clarity) what the problems were and how I should have solved them. (I also laugh a lot—in a good way.)
The End.

OH, Wait, One more thing...
On June 11th, my newest (picture) book is coming out!
It’s called ‘Cute & Cuter’ (knopf) Check it out you Checker Outers.

Monday, May 27, 2013

In hard times, learn to use an EpiPen...

I am what is known as a “foul-weather friend.”  If you tell me your problems, I’ll immediately start devoting a lot of time and effort into solving them for you.   I’ve been told that this is one of the nicest and also one of the most annoying/overbearing aspects of having me as a friend. 

I justify my actions/meddling by telling myself that as a writer it’s good to understand real life problems.  I also sometimes suspect that sometimes I help others because it's an excellent procrastination technique.  After all, how can I write that next chapter when the world NEEDS TO BE FIXED BY ME!  But the truth is wanting to help has nothing to do with being a writer.  I am actually just not big fan of suffering. 

Of course, there is a lot of suffering in the world that far exceeds my ability to help.  I can’t fix what happened at the Boston Marathon, or in West, Texas, or in More, Oklahoma.  When I find myself starting to despair, I can—as Mr. Rodgers wisely suggested—look for the people who are helping and be thankful for them. 

And there are also small things I can do to prepare myself to be a helper in the future.  It was recently Food Allergy Awareness Week, and as part of it, I learned how to use an EpiPen.  For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s a syringe filled with epinephrine that can be administered to someone who is having a severe allergic reaction.  Individuals with life-threatening allergies (such as to peanuts, bee stings, tree nuts, etc.) often carry EpiPens with them, but might need help using one on themselves in an emergency. 

You can learn how to use an EpiPen too if you want.  It won’t take long.  Think of it as good karma, or just as a way you can make the world a slightly safer place.  Then watch this video: 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Only Way Out is Through by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (May Theme)

The first drafts are always the hardest for me. I spend a lot of time in my head with my books, and when I get to the actual story writing, I'm always disappointed with myself. It was so much better in my head! It's always tempting to stop, and start thinking about a new story, because "this one is going to be good." Total attempt at faking myself out!

But I know that the only way out is through. So...I plod on. Through the many pages of mortifyingly bad writing that I can barely look at, but must be written in order to get to the good part.

Once, though, I'd gotten through a very good portion of the first draft. I was almost done! I'd taken all of those notes, those scribbles, those newspaper clippings and magazine articles, voice memos and emails to myself and put something together. And I loved it. I got some great editorial feedback. It was going, going, going...then it stopped.

And I mean stopped. Like skidded to a cartoon halt.

And this was a story that was so close to my heart, that felt like it had come from the deepest part of me, that had been worrying and nagging and questioning and speaking to me for so long. But I read over what I had, and there was a lot of pretty prose disguising some real flaws.

Things fell apart.

So I decided to give up. Deliberately and carefully, I set the book down, telling myself that I was not going to try to publish it. That maybe this was only a story that I needed to tell myself, and that was fine. This time, it wasn't a fake out. This was admitting to myself that maybe I wasn't ready to tell this story in the way that it needed to be told. That maybe, I would never be ready.

It was a relief.
For a while.
About a year.

I worked on other things. I frowned when people asked about it. 
Then, without even trying to think about it, I started to get ideas. I started to see the story again.
I wanted to see the story again.
Successful or not, I had to try.

Sometimes it's like preparing to go into a cave or a tunnel; you try to prepare as much as you can, and gather all of the tools you think you'll need, but you just don't know exactly what's inside, and if/how  you'll be able to deal with it.You grip your pick a little tighter and get ready to chip and chisel away, to shape an enormous mass of unyielding, forbidding, rocky mass of ideas and characters and themes and fragments and confusion

into a story.

You take a deep breath, and go in again.
Because you're a storyteller
And it's an awful struggle sometimes
But it's a beautiful one too,
in time.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


It took seven and a half years of full-time effort to get my first yes.  I went through an especially tough time about four years into it.  A really, really bad time.  A sort of, "Am I really going to keep doing this?" kind of bad time.  And for a gal who never wanted to do anything but write, that was pretty darn bad.

Talking to a fellow writer recently, I tried to explain what got me through it.  And the best way I could think of to describe it was that I broke up with the past.  I broke up with the four years that had come before.  I broke up with every person and situation that had dashed my high hopes. And, as you always have to do at some point following every breakup, I said, "Aw, screw you, anyway.  I'll be just fine without you."

And I went back to work.

I had to nearly double the amount of time I'd already spent writing before one of my novels was acquired.  But there was something about what I'd done...after that breakup, I was in it for the long haul.  I'd dug in, and I wasn't letting go.

And man, am I glad I dug in.  I can't imagine a life without writing...

Friday, May 24, 2013

May Theme: Gone Fishing

by Stephanie J. Blake

When the pressures of writing get to be too much....the tough go fishing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Counterpoint: The Quality of Light May Theme by Dia Calhoun

At sunset and sunrise, the quality of light reaches its dramatic pinnacle—not at midday when the sun is high and bright, and the shadows meager. How brilliantly that is shown in this back lit tree in my neighborhood. This quality of light is sought by painters and poets, not only for its beauty of splendid contrasts, but, I think, because it reminds us of the human condition. Like counterpoint in music, our lives are mélanges of light and dark.  Isn’t it at difficult, even impossible moments, that humans reach their own pinnacles? Schindler’s List, for example. Or someone who rushes into a burning inferno to save a stranger. Or, on a smaller scale . . . someone who shows compassion to one who has been unkind to them in the past.

In both times of ease and times of trouble, it’s useful to remember that we must hold both the light and the dark, and hope for beauty. Let’s hope we can be be like this tree in the splendor of its bearing and hold ourselves aloft and mighty, for whatever comes.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trust Your Process (May Theme: Getting Through the Tough Times) by Laurie Calkhoven

Reading everyone else’s posts around this theme has been inspiring—learning about Claudia’s to do lists, Marcia’s journaling, and about how writing got some of my fellow bloggers through some very tough times. Thinking about this month’s theme, my mind kept going back to my toughest time as a writer.

I’ve always been a plotter in the plotter vs. plunger debate. I’ve never been able to plunge right into a new idea and write to discover my characters and my story. I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters first. I brainstorm lists of scenes and come up with the beginnings of a plot. I do all the research I need to do before I start writing. I’m open to things changing as I go along, but I’d always been a definite plotter.

I read a lot about other writers processes, writers I admired.  They were all committed plungers. I compared myself to them and decided that my process must be all wrong.
So I decided to become a plunger. And what better time than National Novel Writing Month, or NoNoWriMo? NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30 with none of the advance prep work of the kind that I normally do. I signed up with a few friends with the sole purpose of plunging into a new idea. All I had in mind was a vaguely drawn main character and (maybe) an inciting incident.

And not only was I going to plunge right in, I was going to write a dark, edgy YA novel.  Even though my ideas were mostly for middle grade funny or middle grade action/adventure, edgy YA was what all the cool kids were writing. Even in my 40’s, I was still trying to be a cool kid.

I sat down on November 1st and had no idea where to start. No words came. It didn’t get better the next day or the next. My friends were happily reporting their enormous word counts, sometimes multiple times a day, with statements like, “Oh, this is so freeing. Why didn’t I ever do this before?”

But I wasn’t free. I could barely eke out a few hundred word. Without a roadmap, I flailed around miserably. I couldn’t write to get to know my character. I had to know her before I started writing. I needed to know the bones of her story before I could put words to paper.

I dropped out of NaNoWriMi, abandoned my dark, edgy idea completely, and did all the things I do to trick myself into writing—I wrote morning pages, I read books that usually make me want to write, I gave myself writing prompts, I played with ideas—but I was blank. I didn’t want to be a bad friend and teammate by dropping out of the NaNoWriMo check ins, but reading my friends chipper e-mails about their word counts every day just made me feel more anxious and more depressed. It was time to face facts—I wasn’t a “real” writer. I was a miserable failure. I had evidence of that every time I opened my e-mail.

I felt that way for weeks. And then, finally, I got a new idea—a funny idea, an idea that made me laugh. November was over, and I was tied up with a new freelance project, but just having an idea felt like a miracle. When I finally sat down to begin working on it sometime in January I decided to trust my process. I got to know my characters. I made lists of scenes. I had the barebones of a plot. And when I sat down to write in earnest, I had no trouble writing 1,000 words, or even 2,000 words a day, because I knew where I was going.

I learned two very important things that now I rely on to get me through:


By all means, if you’re just beginning, try on other writers’ habits and see if they inspire you.  But once you’ve found a process that works for you, trust it. It’ll get you through the tough times.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sorrow Into Story

Several years ago I designed and taught a graduate course called “The Resilient Spirit; Art out of Adversity.”  Like the best classes, the preparation of the course was its own gift: for months I read books and researched artists, I watched documentaries and dance performances, listened to symphonies and lectures, attended shows in galleries, tracked down interviews with artists who’d found a way to transform loss.  From public suffering to private trauma, I studied artists across disciplines whose art had helped them heal. 

The Danish writer Isak Dinesen is quoted as saying, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”   As a child-writer, who turned to language as a way to process loss, I hold this notion dear:  “All sorrow can be borne.”  For me, whether it’s in poetry or fiction, or most recently a lyric essay I wrote on family illness, there’s a way in which my writing has nurtured my resilience, has consistently delivered me from adversity to hope.      

The real mystery for me is how this transformation happens sideways in my fiction—that is to say without intention, by chance--because I’ve never written fiction to heal a wounded heart.  And still there it is—hidden somewhere in the text—the promise of redemption, a small bright light in all the suffering, the assurance in the end that goodness will endure. 

And it’s not autobiographical—I wasn’t an orphaned child selling pony rides like Pride in Keeping Safe the Stars, or a stroke survivor like Old Finn.  I wasn’t a girl who never knew her father like Raine in Sparrow Road, I wasn’t a reclusive troubled composer like cold Viktor, or a recovering alcoholic like Gray James.  I wasn’t ever any of these people and yet their sorrows were my own.  And unlike in some of the worst suffering I’ve witnessed in my real life, in my fiction my characters can triumph. 

And triumph is enough to keep me writing through the tough times.  If I tell the story well I get to believe it—and if I’m lucky someone else does, and in this way I’m building my own resilient spirit, making art out of adversity, letting the imagination find a way to help us heal.       

Monday, May 20, 2013

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Ari Goelman

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Ari Goelman is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Ari’s debut middle grade novel THE PATH OF NAMES, Arthur A. Levine, released earlier this month, on May 1, 2013! Congratulations, Ari!

Here is Ari’s biography:

Ari Goelman has published about a dozen short stories, most recently in Strange Horizons, Daily SF, and Fantasy Magazine.   He is a past winner of the Writers of the Future competition, and a graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop.  Publisher’s Weekly has described his work as “outstanding” and “lovingly constructed,” while The Harvard Crimson has described him as a master of “sci-fi, fairies, and the urban ghetto.” 

His academic work has been published in the Journal of Architecture, Planning and Research as well as Environment and Planning A, and has been covered in places as diverse as the Brookings Institute and The New York Times.  He lives in Vancouver with his family and the rain.

Here is a description of THE PATH OF NAMES:

Mysteries, mazes, and magic combine in this smart, funny summer-camp fantasy -- like THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY for kids!

Dahlia Sherman loves magic, and Math Club, and Guitar Hero. She isn't so fond of nature walks, and Hebrew campfire songs, and mean girls her own age.

All of which makes a week at Jewish summer camp pretty much the worst idea ever.

But within minutes of arriving at camp, Dahlia realizes that it might not be as bad as she'd feared. First she sees two little girls walk right through the walls of her cabin. Then come the dreams -- frighteningly detailed visions of a young man being pursued through 1930s New York City. How are the dreams and the girls related? Why is Dahlia the only one who can see any of them? And what's up with the overgrown, strangely shaped hedge maze that none of the campers are allowed to touch? Dahlia's increasingly dangerous quest for answers will lead her right to the center of the maze -- but it will take all her courage, smarts, and sleight-of-hand skills to get her back out again.

Here are links to Ari online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon

And now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview With THE PATH OF NAMES Author Ari Goelman

1. What does your main character, Dahlia, want?

Dahlia’s goals change through the course of The Path of Names.  At the beginning of the novel, she mostly wants to stay home, play video games and practice magic tricks.  Once she arrives at summer camp she sees two little girls walk through the walls of her cabin, and immediately becomes determined to figure out how the ‘trick’ was accomplished.  So, at first, she just wants to know how the magic works.

As the book goes on, though, she becomes more and more concerned with figuring out what happened to the girls, and more importantly, how to help them. She’s still curious, but increasingly, her curiosity is motivated by the desire to set things right.

2. What is in her way?

Ignorance.  Not just her ignorance of magic, but also her ignorance of her own need for friendships and relationships.  Plus, of course, there’s a bad guy with magic powers.  Not to mention the usual contingent of mean girls in her bunk.  And, come to think of it, her best friend isn’t exactly the most helpful guy in the world, not for most of the novel.  Neither is her brother.  Fortunately, Dahlia is not the kind of person who lets a few little obstacles - like everything and everyone - stop her.

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

I knew right away that I was writing a summer camp story, involving ghosts and reincarnation and an old murder mystery that threatens to spill into the present.  The rest very much emerged as I wrote it.  Dahlia’s character – feisty and so independent she’s almost anti-social -- was totally not what I had in mind.  I think that she might have come out that way partly in opposition to the kind of girly heroines in the picture books I was reading my daughter at the time.

4. Was THE PATH OF NAMES always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

I actually intended The Path of Names to be YA.  When I first wrote the novel, Dahlia was aged 13, and I actually aged her up to 15 on the advice of my writing group colleagues who (quite correctly) told me I needed an older heroine for it to be YA.   I found an agent (the fabulous Lindsay Ribar), and she submitted it to publishers based on it being a YA novel. 

Cheryl Klein (my editor at Arthur A. Levine) then convinced me THE PATH OF NAMES would work better as a middle grade book.  On the face of it, her reasoning was based on the lack of a strong romance component in THE PATH OF NAMES.  I personally believe that Cheryl also has magically acute editorial powers, and somehow picked up on the fact that Dahlia worked better as a thirteen-year-old.

The first thing I did to make it work better for middle grade readers was to restore Dahlia’s age to thirteen.  (Thank god for the find and replace function...)  Aside from that, it was mostly taking out curse words and eliminating the occasional reference to sex from the conversation of the older characters.  I think it was a really minimal transformation, because it basically was already a middle grade novel thinly disguised as a young adult novel.

5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

I think there’s a ton of freedom in writing for middle grade readers – they aren’t as wedded to various genre tropes as older audiences might be.  You can mix fantasy and humor and serious themes in the same chapter and your middle grade reader won’t bat an eye.  Also, it seems to me that the focus in middle grade is much more on story – the kind of ‘what-happened-next’ element of fiction.

6. Is there one MG-related question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself. What did you like to read when you were in the middle grades?

Everything!  I had a terrible time in 5th grade.  That was the year my school district switched from a junior high (starting in 7th grade) to a middle school (staring in 5th grade), and for me, at least, it was a terrible transition.  They didn’t prepare very well for the change, and the upshot was I went from this little elementary school class where everyone had known me since I was five, to this huge middle school, where I knew no one.  I already liked to read, but suddenly, books became my essential sanctuary.  And I read everything.

The MG books I remember most fondly are fantasy classics like The Silver Crown and The Sword and the Stone, but if it had pages and little words printed on it, I would read it. This led to me reading a lot of very bad books, but it also led to me reading dozens of terrific books.

I was somewhere in the middle grades when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I read a bunch of those very dark MG (or were they YA?) books that were in vogue back then – The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, etc.  I read most of Richard Peck’s books (The Ghost Belonged to Me, etc.) about teenagers who see ghosts, all of which were no doubt lurking somewhere in the back of my brain when I wrote The Path of Names.  One of my hopes for The Path of Names is that it serves some of the same purpose for MG readers today, that all those books did for me back then.

Thank you for joining us for a Middleview at Smack Dab Blog, Ari. Again, congratulations on the release of THE PATH OF NAMES! We’ll look for it on bookshelves!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Teensy-Weensy, Itty-Bitty, VERY SMALL Steps (May Theme: Getting Through Tough Times) by Claudia Mills

Like many writers, I’m an inveterate list-maker. Right now I am staring at my to-do list for May, with 151 items on the list. But – and here is the tie-in to this month’s theme on how to get through tough times – the items on this list are, every single one of them, very, very small. Whenever I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of whatever it is I need to face in my life (that is to say, all of the time), my strategy for proceeding is to break down what I need to face into the smallest possible units that I can stand facing.

For example, one of my terrifying tasks right now is editing a scholarly volume of essays on ethics and children’s literature. How could an avoidance-specialist like me tackle a task so daunting? So, on my to-do list I have these items:

1. Print out the twelve papers to be edited.
2. Make yourself look at the first one.
3. Read the first one.
4. Send off comments on the first one.
Friends tease me when they see me giving myself extravagant credit for having crossed off “Print out the papers to be edited.” That is hardly worthy of a red check mark made with a self-congratulatory flourish, they say. Ah, but it is. Just as I thought the project was going to have to be abandoned as impossible, along comes a task on the list that I can actually do, in fact a task that can practically do itself as I sit at the computer simply clicking “File – Print” over and over again. As the nice pile of pages emerges from the printer, I already have a little glow of satisfaction that can carry over to the next, far scarier task on the list: “Make yourself look at the first one.” Indeed, I have sometimes given myself credit for task 1a: “Staple the papers you have printed.” Believe me, when times are tough enough, stapling twelve entire papers is a huge accomplishment.

The brilliant, wise, wonderful self-help guru Barbara Sher (Wishcraft, Live the Life You Love, It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now) endorses my small-steps strategy. Maybe I even stole it from her on first reading her books decades ago. Sher explains that it’s only natural that we experience resistance born of fear when encountering major work and life tasks, especially those that matter most to us (so that our failing to do them should not be taken as a sign that we don’t really want to do them, but as a sign that we want to do them too much). The only force great enough to drive out fear is love. So what we need to do, she tells us, is to find a portion of the major work/life task small and nonthreatening enough not to trigger that resistance. Take that one timid, tiny step. And then let yourself fall in love with the sheer doing of it. 

So today I’m going to staple these papers I’ve just printed, I am, I am! And I’ll take one shy peek at the first one. Tomorrow I may actually read the first one – well, maybe not read the whole thing, that might be too intense and scary, but read the first page of the first one. And then maybe the next page.  And maybe the page after that. My prediction: this entire huge hard task will be done a month from today, and done with ease. And how will I do it? One teensy-weensy step at a time.