Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Say No to Negativity

Several years ago I had the great fortune to participate in a writing workshop called "Zen Writing" at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education from a marvelous woman named Brina Cohen.  The workshop had only one ironclad rule.  Participants were not allowed to criticize each other's work.

To be perfectly honest, I probably never would have signed up for the class if I'd understood this ahead of time.  I'd been in writing workshops before, and I knew they weren't suppose to be pleasant.  They were the place I came to have my work torn apart. They were a place where I would somehow grow my craft by being made to feel ashamed and/or defensive about my work.

But I stayed through that first class and listened as the established members of the group began to read their work.  And the work I listened to that day was amazing--by far the best writing in any workshop I'd ever been in.  And when the workshop was over, I'd given up any ideas I might have had about dropping out of the class and asking for a refund.

Brina's philosophy was that as writers, we are often already sure that everything we've written is bad--and that sometimes, there is more to learn by hearing what people like about our work instead of what they hated.  And negative criticism is often meaningless anyway--it is easy to nitpick minor points, espouse a theory about where the story should go (which is often not at all what the writer is thinking), or use the critique as an opportunity to grandstand about one's own brilliance.  But talking about what we like in each other's stories requires a completely different set of skills.  I found that it instantly forced me to really think about what the writer was trying to achieve, and then I found that my comments were geared toward helping him/her actually achieve it--which is a lot more fun.

There wasn't a single person who came into that workshop who didn't become a much better writer within weeks.  It's amazing what a little positivity can do for craft.

As for myself, I see this workshop as the starting place on the road to being a professional writer.  It was there I learned where my strengths were.  It was there I developed confidence in what I was doing, and it was there that I learned that the best workshops don't involved tears, or hot seats, or cruelty, or one-upmanship--or any of the other silliness we put ourselves through in the name of self-improvement.

So this November, I say no to negativity.  Be kind to those you critique.  Insist they be kind to you.  Then see what happens.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November Theme: No to New Ideas by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

"The Having of Wonderful Ideas" is a lovely book* and the kind of concept I can get behind. I may not have a whole lot of things, but I've got ideas. I walk through the world and get ideas in quick, staccato bursts, inspired in different ways on different days. Once, I woke up with what I'm TELLING you was the PERFECT picture book idea. Seriously. Like, I know nothing about writing picture books, and that night, it clicked.

I had a Wonderful Idea.

But I didn't write it down.
And in the morning, I'd forgot it.
It's still forgotten.

So now I write the ideas down, wherever, whenever I am. If I'm somehow without paper and pen, I voice memo myself while I'm walking (and try to look official, or at least Secret Agent-y, and not just weird.) I take the ideas, make many notes to self and then...put them away.

Because, sometimes, every once in a while, I use my propensity for idea-having as a most effective procrastination tool. I mean, it feels righteous, no? I may not be working on that revision or those chapters, but I'm having ideas, being creative and all thinkery. That is a thing to celebrate, to be proud of, to revel in. Right?

Well, sometimes. But a lot of the time I have to say a big fat NO to the ideas, for now. When I am faced with the half-filled or blank page, when I am struggling and challenged by my characters or faltering plot, I cannot and should not whisk myself away into the joys of Coming Up With Something New. I have to keep going, muddle through the boring parts, the fear, and blank screen. Sometimes I have to work with what I have. And then maybe a wonderful idea about THAT will come. Maybe, maybe not. But I have to deal with it, worry it like a bone until I know I need to turn away (for a while.) Of course, sometimes an idea hits and it makes sense to put whatever I'm working on aside, to take a dip in the newness and play for a while. But, really, most of the time, I know that I should say "No," and "Wait" to the New Ideas. And "Get Back To Work, Self." And I know the difference. So I give the new idea a gentle pat, make another cup of tea, and keep pushing through.

The Wonderful Ideas will keep.

As long as I write them down.

*It's really a great book!

Monday, November 25, 2013


I’ve tried.  Really.  I’ve tried to act like it’s great fun, those amusement park rides that flip you upside down sixteen times or spin you faster than a rocket.  Growing up, my family used to have season tickets to Silver Dollar City, and every year I’d force myself to get on Fire in the Hole or American Plunge.  I’d act like getting off one of those rides was not complete and utter relief.  

The last time I went, I stood in line (again) for the Plunge…when I arrived at the top of the line, I looked down into the hollow log I was about to board (I’m not joking.  You board a hollow log with no seats and nothing to hold you in—just metal bars down the sides for passengers to grip.  And with no seats, you all squat into the log, and basically sit in each other’s crotches…) and this voice popped to life in my head.  I’ll censor here, but basically, it was something along the lines of: What the #$%&*^$%##$ am I doing?????

I sucked it up and got on the ride, picturing myself flying out of that crazy hollow log the moment it rounded the top curve on the steep..well…plunge.  Heart going crazy, eyes shut tight, unable to scream when we raced down the slide and the water washed over us.  When I got my wobbly legs off the crazy thing, I knew this much: I was officially done.  With the Plunge, with Fire in the Hole, and with any other amusement park ride.  With Ferris wheels (which make me feel like I’m being tossed into the stratosphere over and over), with all of it.  If you want to go to the fair, fine, but I’ll be eating a corn dog with mustard and checking out the live music while you stand in line at the Tilt o’ Whirl.  Done.  Kaput.  Finished.  THE END.

…After I was through making all these proclamations (to anyone who would stand still long enough to hear them), I realized that “no”s can also be helpful in our early attempts to create a well-rounded character.  It’s so easy to wind up focusing on the things that a person does do or have: my character is smart (or athletic or funny), my character does have red hair (or braces or freckles or a brother)…Sometimes, remembering the things our own characters say “no” to (and why) is every bit as helpful in creating a rich backstory and defining who our character is…

Sunday, November 24, 2013

November Theme: Choosing No = Book sale!

Stephanie J. Blake

In September, my small high school class celebrated our 25th class reunion. We were all very close, and I wanted to attend so badly, but the RMC-SCBWI conference was scheduled for the same weekend.

My writing career had stalled. I wanted to make some new connections. I had to make a choice! There would be other reunions, sure. And other conferences while we're at it. but something told me that this conference was important and after looking through the editors and agents who were schedule to attend, I chose to go to the conference.

I was determined to get the most out of it. I paid extra for a novel critique and for the novel intensive. A few weeks after registering for the conference, I wavered. I had doubts about the manuscript I was working on for the critique. I almost talked myself out of canceling.

The morning of the conference, I printed out the first page of a novel for the Novel First Pages session. At the last minute, I decided to enter a silly picture book manuscript in the Picture Book First Pages session instead.

How could I know that this small choice would change my future?

Fast forward to the afternoon First Pages session. I was nervous even though I was anonymous. The reader picked my page, and I cringed as she read it. The agent and the editor on the panel loved it! The audience laughed in all the right places.

I got a FEELING.

I got the editor from the First Pages session later for my novel critique. We had a nice talk about my novel and at the end of the 20 minutes, I mentioned the first pages critique. She requested the manuscript on the spot.

On November 11, she made me an offer!

MY ROTTEN FRIEND will come out with Albert Whitman & Co. some time in 2015. The amazing editor who discovered it is Kelly Barrales-Saylor.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun

As part of the Smack Dab in the Classroom series,  I am so pleased to offer librarian Kathleen Dale's imaginative ideas for engaging kids with middle grade books.

Dia Calhoun: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book?  Kids who might have different interests?

Kathleen Dale: It is always difficult to find one book that 100% of the kids will love.  Motivated students will read anything, so I try to get my students motivated by doing a classroom/library setup for the book.  Here is an example of how I got all the kids on board reading the following books:

Revenge of the Whale by Nathanial Philbrick
I hang fishnets from the ceiling, a calendar of whales and dolphins (picture side out) laminated together and dangle them on strings, small fish dangling around the classroom, a sailors uniform, a giant wallpaper map of the world covering the back wall, an outline of a boat on the floor when students come in with a life-size skeleton laying on it with blood dripping around it, and lots of fog when students arrive.   I set up eight different stations around the classroom or library. At each station is a dictionary and laminated vocabulary words I think students will struggle with during the book.  Also at each station I have a variety of items to go with the story, such as music at one station, of songs of the sea, cake donuts and water to represent hardtack and the lack of fresh water, rough oyster shells to represent barnacles, etc. After going to each station, their task is to write a short story of what they think the book (our class novel) is about.  During the book we track, on the world map with pins, the route of the whale ship Essex.
I have done this with Beowulf, A New Telling by Robert Nye, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Peak by Roland Smith and lots more.

In the library, I do the same set up and then display alike books.  I hang the vocabulary words in the library along with the display, and then have a writing contest about the sea to go with the display.

Dia Calhoun: Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids’ imaginations on fire?

Kathleen Dale: Reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, I covered the back wall of my classroom with white butcher paper and divided it into four sections with marker.  I labeled each section: poetry, articles, comments and thoughts.  After reading the book for that day I allowed approximately seven minutes for students to take markers and fill up the sections.  Under comments, students were allowed to draw a line and make a comment on another’s comments. I even had teachers coming in and commenting on some of the things the students wrote.  We did this each day until we finished the book.  Here is a poem one student wrote, “I have been warned once, but I did not pay heed. I have been warned twice, but I did not believe. I have been warned thrice but will only ignore, I’ve been warned once again only to close the door.  And now before me is a horrible fate, I cannot turn back, it is too late.”

Dia Calhoun: Have you ever done something “outside the box” that worked really well?

Kathleen Dale: Yes, the book club I started eight years ago has expanded from thirty-six to over 100.  We hold our book club four times a year before school.  As a teacher I taught Literature Circles and loved giving the students choice.  For my library book club I choose and read thirteen to fourteen different selections of books.  When students arrive they sit at the table that is marked with the book they read, discuss that selection, eat breakfast and listen to the book talks for the next book club. 

Dia Calhoun: If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be? 

Kathleen Dale: Give students all the prior knowledge they need to help them understand the book.  Too many teachers just plop a classic in to a students’ hands and expect them to love the book as much as the teacher. Before giving students To Kill A Mockingbird, read aloud Mississippi Trial 1955, and then as you read aloud this young adult novel, bring in articles about the Jim Crow Laws, the facts about the south during the 1950’s, have them read articles, and show them pictures/videos about the courthouse where the trial took place.  The students’ love of literature is directly related to the understanding the student has prior to reading.  Make reading fun and motivate them to read.

Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas, Kathleen Dale! 
Kathleen Dale is a Media Specialist at Riverview Junior High School in Utah. The Smack Dab in the Classroom runs on the 23rd day of each month.

Friday, November 22, 2013

No-vember by Laurie Calkhoven

Like many of the writers who contribute to Smack Dab, I have trouble saying no. For me it manifests in a knee-jerk yes to nearly every freelance writing offer that comes my way. And I do it quickly, as if the job is going to disappear and I’m going to turn into a bag lady if I think about it overnight.

I had a slap in the face about this a couple of months ago. Things were slow in freelance world and I was doing research for my own historical novel. I was in that stage where I had a vague idea, but had to do some pretty broad reading to discover if it was plausible. I was flailing around. Then I was saved—I thought—by a freelance offer that arrived via e-mail on a Friday morning.

There were reasons to say no to this project. The deadline was crazy (three and a half weeks), the money was paltry, it was a flat fee vs. an advance against royalties, and it wasn’t a book that would add anything new to my resume. When I asked for more time and more money, I met a wall. When I pointed out that coming up with original ideas AND getting the job done in that short amount of time would be difficult, I was told not to reinvent the wheel. In other words, don’t worry about craft and creativity, just get the job done.

Still, things had been slow and the idea of working on someone else’s book given the trouble I was having with my own was somewhat of a relief. I found reasons, in hindsight, to support my knee-jerk yes. It was a new client. I told myself it might lead to more and better-paying assignments, despite the fact that I had already proven to the editor that I would work for a pittance. I didn’t feel great about the job, but I made peace with it—or so I thought.

Saturday morning I woke up with intense vertigo. I’d experienced this before, the last time about five years ago. I knew what it was and what to do to make myself feel better, but I also knew it would be about a week before I felt completely steady on my feet. Why am I so out of balance now? I wondered. I don’t have time for this. Then I realized—it’s this @#$%ing assignment.

I’d never quit a freelance job before, but I knew I had to. Losing a week of my super short deadline would make writing even a halfway decent book nearly impossible. I wasn’t sure the editor would care, but I did. I thought about it in my few waking hours on Saturday and Sunday, and when I didn’t feel any better on Monday morning, I sent the e-mail. The intense relief I felt when I pressed send let me know I made the right decision.

Since then I’ve come up with a list of four “musts” when it comes to freelance assignments. Instead of responding with my knee-jerk yes, I weigh these offers against my list, which includes reasonable deadlines, an editor who is professional and respectful (that’s a whole ‘nother story), enough money to make it worth by time, and it has to be a children’s book. More and more of my freelance projects these days pay a royalty, so that’s on the list, too. That’s a huge plus, but not a must. Another plus is to have my name on the title page, but it’s not essential.

If a project doesn’t meet those requirements, then I have to have a really good reason to take it on. It had to add something new to my resume or pay incredibly well, for instance.

Since coming up with my musts I’ve turned down a freelance assignment or two. I still worry about becoming a bag lady, but I have a lot less angst about saying no than I used to. I’ve also negotiated two two-book contracts for projects that meet those requirements and bring me joy.

Now I just have to attract the project that’s going to bring in millions so that I can finally get back to my own novel. Do you hear me universe? I’m ready.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I’ve spent the last six months waking early, writing late, holed-up alone in quiet rooms trying to bring a book to life. There are days that I don’t shower, and days that I look feral, and I wonder what my neighbors think when they see this disheveled, solitary writer still in her pajamas when the day is almost done.  If people ask me what I’m doing with my days, I tell them that I’m writing, and I am.  But the truth is, I’m also dreaming; I’m living in a second secret world, the world of my unfolding story, and it’s a world that seems as real to me as the one that keeps asking for my time.  

It’s serious work for me, this deep immersion into dream-life; I struggle to transition between imagination and reality. When I have to write a blog post (for example), I’m reminded how difficult it is to get yanked out of my story when everything unfolding on the page seems more urgent than real-life.   

Not every fiction writer works this way, but plenty do, and I know I’m not alone in my desire to live fully in my story, to wake and sleep with the people and the problems and the story-place vivid in my mind.  And I know I’m “in” a book when the people on the page are as real to me as the people that I love. 

Solitary dream-time is a rare gift in my life, and I’ve learned to use it well. So when I’m lucky enough to hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign on my days, I cherish every quickly disappearing minute.  I live deeply in the novel knowing that the world will claim me soon.

For now, the door is locked.  The phone is off.  The world is gone.  This writer is at work. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Saying "No" to Perfection (November Theme) by Kristin Levine

Here are five reasons why saying "no" to perfection has allowed me to become a better writer:

1. Instead of agonizing for hours about whether or not a query letter was too informal, I decided to try just sending it.  Result: I ended up with an agent.

2. The chapter ending I wasn't sure was quite right?  Instead of spending hours writing different versions, I decided to get a second opinion.  That's what editors are for, right?  Result: she either loved it (all done), hated it (okay, so I need to try a different track) or didn't even notice it (but I learned I need to work on that chapter opening instead!)

3. Letting my younger daughter watch Dumbo over and over again when I was finishing up my second book and too poor to hire a babysitter?  Maybe not my best parenting moment.  But the magic feather from the movie ended up playing an important role in my book!

4. That draft that was due on Monday?  And I decided to turn it in late and go to the gym instead?  Well, taking care of myself and my body enabled me to finish it in record time the next day.

5. Struggling with writers block?  I just say "no" to good writing and encourage myself to write something really bad.  Really really bad.  Like I literally write down "put joke here" or "something interesting needs to happen in this scene" and most of the time, I can fool myself into writing something that isn't half bad after all.  

 6. (Bonus reason) Saying "no" to perfection has let me be part of this blog - even when I don't have the time to make sure every post is phrased just right!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Every “Yes” a “No” by Claudia Mills (November theme)

I am loving the posts of my fellow bloggers this month: so many beautiful reminders of the way that “No” can be a necessary step on the way to “Yes,” a condition for making “Yes” possible. The posts have provided eloquent testimony for the claim that “Yes” might be the fundamental word for writers, for all creative people, indeed, for all people trying to live a full and abundant life. When I was younger, I used to describe myself as “a yay-sayer to the universe.” (Some of the things I said yay to turned out to be terrible mistakes that anybody but me could have seen at the time, but that is a story for another day). “Yes” is the wonderful refrain of Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses: “and yes I said yes I will Yes."

So now I’m going to put forward the sobering truth that every glorious, life-affirming, celebratory yes actually contains within itself a multitude of no’s. This has been a hard lesson for a yay-sayer to the universe to accept. Once I prided myself on being a person who says yes to everything; I used to boast that yes was my default-setting. But now I know that it is impossible to say yes to everything, if only because yes to this inevitably carries with it no to that.

If I say yes to a request to write a book review (oh, how I love writing book reviews), I’m thereby saying no to using those same hours to write a chapter of my own book. If I say yes to an invitation to serve on a church committee (oh, how I love the sweet fellowship of time shared with my church family), I’m thereby saying no to using those same hours to spend time with my family-family, or to take a walk with a dear friend.

This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t write the book review or help out at church. I want a life that involves saying yes to writing, to reading, to exercise, to family, to friends, to church – even to delicious idle hours doing nothing at all. But I can best say a balanced yes to all of these things by realizing that yes isn’t cost-free. The older I get, the less I want to say yes to spending a single hour, day, week, month, or year doing something unless I really mean it, unless I truly want to spend the very stuff of my life doing that thing.

I’m no longer going to say “Yes” unless I can say “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out By Ann Haywood Leal

The cautionary tales ...
If you look cross-eyed at someone, your eyes will stay that way.

If you take out your retainer, your teeth will go back the way they were ...PRE-braces!  (Immediately, I was running my tongue along my front teeth, checking frantically for the old fang-type protrusions.)

And don't forget all of the forbidden don't-you-try-it types of scariness:

No boys allowed.
No girls allowed.
No eating.
No food or drink.
No talking.
No swimming.
No running.

But at some point, as writers, we made ourselves move past all of that.  We developed this blindness for the rules with an unexplainable urge to break them.  We had to try things--difficult new things.

We have to take chances, because otherwise there would be no characters and no new stories.

So go ahead .... run with scissors!  Chew that big glob of sticky bubble gum with your braces!  Just try to tell us no.

Friday, November 15, 2013

No Reason Why Not (No-vember Theme) by Bob Krech

I used to have a friend in high school named Peter. Whenever I was with Peter and someone would suggest we do something that would inevitably get us in trouble or injured or a similar result, Peter would smile, shrug, and reply, "No reason why not."
I loved that phrase and the spirit it encapsulated. I liked it so much I made it the trademark catch phrase for the character of Margaret in my book Love Puppies and Corner Kicks. I have to remind myself to use it myself because I tend to go in the opposite direction and can usually come up with a couple of dozen good reasons "why not" when a suggestion is made or a situation presents itself.

With writing, and the business of writing, "No reason why not" has come in handy. Recently I was offered an opportunity to work with teachers for two days at a local school district. I immediately thought of how I was not really qualified to present on the topics they wanted and how long the sessions were and how I would need a ton of preparation and then I put the brakes on and visualized a more positive experience. They had asked me so they must of thought I could do it. I had time to prepare. I could ask them to shorten the sessions. No reason why not, right? So I did and they did. I was on a "No reason why not" roll so when it came to the fee, I asked for more than I had in the past because I tend to underprice.  And they didn't blink. They just sent the purchase order. It was very cool.

It's happened often enough in my writing too. I have a habit of thinking that I need a solid hour or two to write anything. When I see twenty minutes or half an hour in front of me free, I don't often immediately think of getting some writing done, but when I use the "No reason why not" approach, and sit down for those twenty minutes, often enough, I can get something on the page. It's true for topics too of course. I had an idea for a book recently where I knew nothing about the subject, but it intrigued me. I immediately thought of how I knew nothing about it and could never write in that genre because I had no experience there, blah, blah, etc, etc,  till I went to "NRWN" and just started writing it anyway. editor says he loves the idea and so we're off. No reason why not, right?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

HALF-BAKED WRITING or How So Many "Nos" and a "Maybe" Got Me To Yes – November Theme by Tamera Wissinger

Thanksgiving is on the way and I'm hungry for all of the flavors of the season. One of my favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal is the pumpkin pie –to me, it’s the exclamation point on this traditional, celebratory meal. If you have ever baked a pumpkin pie, you know how soft (and messy) it is when it goes into the oven.  

When I began writing for children, I simply wrote. I knew so little – I didn’t even know what I didn't know – kind of like baking a pie from scratch without a recipe – or an oven. I knew it wasn’t very good writing, but I was engaged and having fun. Eventually, that wasn’t enough and I began to seek out good writing ingredients and an oven through workshops and instructors. I learned the basics, joined SCBWI, attended conferences, joined a critique group. My stories improved and I gained confidence. I baked up a storm of stories and poetry.

Several years later I started to submit my stories, and soon after I started to hear "no." I racked up dozens of: “thanks, but no,” “thanks, not right for us,” and one “not my cuppa,” which still makes me smile. Every once in a while I would hear, “not this one, but please send something else.” I sold a couple of poems to magazines. Then I received a note from an editor saying that she loved one of my picture books and she was sending it around her office for feedback! How exciting! My story might be published! I waited and hoped. And then the word came back: "no." More specifically, something to the effect:  “We love the language of your story, but it’s slight – we can't figure out how to produce this. We have to turn it down. Please send more.” Oh.

After the disappointment wore off, I wondered: Now what? I had come so close, or so I thought. I did send more, but nothing else tempted the editor. So I stepped back and assessed. My one story was delicious and satisfying enough for an editor to nibble, but not enough that she wanted to serve it, and nothing else was coming close. Was it possible that I was serving half-baked pies in the form of my manuscripts? Nobody wants to eat a half-baked pie!

This very kind, thoughtful maybe/no was a turning point. As much effort as I had put into my storytelling, I knew that I was still missing something, but I didn’t know what I was missing. I needed help – experts that could help me move from half-baked stories to something complete – something that was as good as I could make it and that might tempt an editor. As luck would have it, Hamline University was starting their MFA program in writing for children and young adults –I applied, was accepted, and a world of expert children’s author/instructors, a committed staff, and a network of like-minded students became mine. Oh, I wrote my share of half-baked stories and poetry while a student at Hamline. The beauty of writing with supervision is that I began to understand where my stories were half-baked, raw, or beginning to set.

I know many authors who have succeeded without a formal MFA program, and going through the program did not ensure my success. Regardless of an author’s approach, the process of getting to yes is the same. We mix up and bake our stories over and over and over, adding ingredients, taking some away, changing the temperature, hearing no, trying and trying to make our stories so irresistible that an editor is tempted to bite. Eventually, that is what happened for me. After ten years of nonothanksnotthismaybenonono,I received that single small magical word: yes. My fishing poetry, eventually entitled GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, would become a book.

I still hear "no" much more than I hear “yes.” Even the best, most revered authors do as well. It is a part of our field, and if we want to continue doing what we do, we must accept no and not let it be our undoing. Instead of thinking of no as no, I've begun to think of it as not now, not with this editor, or not this way. It leaves open the possibility that down the road, with the proper ingredients and baking time, I might hear: Yes. This is delicious; it is something we would like to sink our teeth into. Before we serve it to the world, let's bake it just a tiny bit more, and while we're at it, let's add some whip cream and maybe a few sprinkles.

Here's wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, and in your writing and your pie-making, I wish you happy baking!


Tamera Wissinger is the author of GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, which arrived last March from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. She also recently heard “yes” to two picture book manuscripts: THIS OLD BAND and THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO GOBBLED A SKINK. Both are from Sky Pony Press and will arrive in 2014 and 2015 respectively.