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.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

HERO -- by Jane Kelley

We all know about The Hero's Journey. I try to follow the stages when I plan tortures -- I mean challenges for my characters. Call to adventure! Challenges and temptations! Abyss! Atonement! Triumphant Return!

But today I want to write about a real hero I know. My friend Alice.

Alice battles cancer.  She fights those insidious cells inside her own body. You can't tell it from this picture. She has a bright smile and an elegant stance. She's holding an object that you wouldn't think of as a weapon, but it is. It's a training paddle because Alice also fights by racing in a dragon boat.

The paddling is important. It strengthens muscles and self images. The team is important. There are many people pulling together to accomplish the goal. The drummers are important. They keep the racers focused and unified. The dragon at the prow is important. Dragons are mythical, magical, fire-breathing creatures. Dragons are also fierce.

Alice has always been a runner. She has raced in many New York City marathons and crossed that finish line all by herself. Now she is deriving strength from being on a team with these women because they are all battling.

And today, July 8th, they will be racing in Florence, Italy. Over three thousand participants have come from all around the world -- from Argentina to New Zealand. They race as part of the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission to show the world and themselves that they are not the victims of malignant cells. They are heroes.

I will be there as part of another team of friends and family to cheer Alice and all the women as they glide over the Arno River, under the Ponte Vecchio, and cross the finish line.

They will triumph just by taking part in the race.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Revising One Page at a Time by Deborah Lytton

My favorite thing to do when I am in the middle of a work-in-progress is to begin each writing session by reviewing the pages I have already written. It is the best way for me to quickly connect with the moment I last left off and continue right on. However, it is also an opportunity to revise those same pages. And revise and revise. Sometimes this can turn my whole writing session into a rewriting session. When this happens, my page count does not increase because I have not actually moved forward at all. In truth, the more time I spend revising those first pages, the better the manuscript becomes. It was in spending hours and hours (and months and months) on the first thirty pages of my YA SILENCE, that I found the voices of the characters and the dual POV structure that gave the manuscript its heart. 
Even though the benefits of this style of working can be enormous, there are also downsides. The most obvious one is that spending time revising first pages can keep me from meeting my personal deadlines. So I have recently broken myself of this habit by only allowing myself to read the scene just prior to the place I left off. This way, my revising is limited and I can move forward with the first draft, knowing that there will be plenty of time for me to enjoy revising (and more revising) later. So my tip is to ask yourself what habits are keeping you from meeting your personal page goals. See if you can change them even a little bit. Writing one page every day will lead you closer to your goal. Try to make that one page happen today!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Writers, Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Ours is a competitive industry. And even though I have found the world of kidlit to be generally friendly and supportive, the truth is that there are a LOT of us writing and hoping to fill a limited number of slots in the publishers' catalogs (or awards lists or school visit budgets or whatever). So it can be easy to get caught up in comparisons: x book got a bigger advance, y book sold more copies, z book was named to Random Awesome Book List (and my book wasn't).

All one has to do to get mired in the Competitive Swamp is to visit Twitter or go to a conference or talk to another writer in the industry, and there it is, right in your face: someone else who's doing better than you. Which is 
1. crazy talk 
 2. crazy-making 
 3. creativity-killing 
 4. depressing 
 5. insane

I know because I've been there. Lots of times! It's been my #1 bad habit as a writer.

But. NO MORE! I'm very deliberate these days about how much I expose myself to social media (which is a hotbed of comparison-crazy-making!). As an introverted person I kind of keep my head down anyway and don't do Facebook or Instagram at all, and Twitter only inconsistently.

But mostly I don't worry so much about what others are doing because I keep busy with my own books/life/dreams. The only real thing we have control over in this business is the words we put on the page. So these days that's where I keep my focus. Amazingly, this has freed me to celebrate not only my own successes, but those of others.

We may be in a competitive industry, but I'm the only ME in it -- and you're the only YOU.

Which makes James Bay's song “Let It Go” pretty much perfect.  Listen for these lines “why don't you be you and I'll be me.” And have yourself a fabulous 4th of July!

 Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal

Monday, July 2, 2018

Break It! By Ann Haywood Leal

Why is it that they are so easy to form and so hard to break? . . . Bad ones, that is.

It may sound a bit simplistic, but when it comes to bad writing habits, I like to think of opposites.

One of my bad writing habits is not getting started right away.  I'll try to get everything else done (including cleaning the cat box and washing every last dish), and THEN I'll get started on my writing.  Is it that necessary to do that online jigsaw puzzle?  And I'm  pretty sure the New York Times isn't going anywhere any time soon, and social media is most likely here to stay. 

So I tried out my theory of opposites.  (By the way, it's so much easier to dish out "wise" advice than to take it yourself, isn't it??)  I actually got started right away--first thing in the morning, I opened my computer and got going with my writing.  (Full disclosure:  I did get myself some coffee, first.)  

I'd love to tell you that it went totally without a hitch; I wrote five chapters in one hour and my fingers were literally flying across the keys.  But . . . the reality of it all is that a mild form of what could only be panic set in:  WHAT IF IT'S SOMEONE'S BIRTHDAY AND IT'S ALREADY SEVEN A.M. AND I HAVEN'T YET WISHED THEM A HAPPY BIRTHDAY ON FACEBOOK?!  WHAT IF THERE'S A REALLY CUTE DOG PICTURE ON INSTAGRAM AND EVERYONE WILL BE TALKING ABOUT HOW CUTE IT IS AND IT WILL HAVE ALREADY DISAPPEARED INTO INSTAGRAM OBLIVION WITHOUT MY "LIKING" IT?! . . . and so on.

But as my de-habiting morning and days went on, that voice started to get quieter, and I actually did get a whole lot of writing done, including this blog post.

Some "experts" say that it takes 21 days to break a bad habit; some say a whopping 30.  But think about how much more writing you will have gotten done in those weeks!

Friday, June 29, 2018

The 'Best' Advice?

By Charlotte Bennardo

So our theme this month is the best advice we've gotten (and passing it along to you.)

  • Write what you know
  • SBICAW (Sit Butt in Chair and Write) 
  • Write it first, revise later.
  • Write what interests you.
  • Don't write other people's stories
  • Write every day

There is a ton or more of advice about writing: not using cliches, use active verbs, don't overuse dialog tags, etc. All these are great points for writer, but the piece of advice I give when asked, and what I live by, is:


There's no "Some day when..." because somehow that someday never arrives. I've heard uncountable excuses, reasons, and stories why people who want to write can't. It's b.s. I wrote my first novel during my lunch break when I was working full time, going to school at night, was married, and had a home to take care of. When the kids came along, I wrote during soccer/baseball/taekwondo/fencing
practice. I snuck in sentences while waiting for the cable guy/plumber/appliance repairman. After dinner, I stole a few minutes to jot down some words. 

Why not make a time line of your routine and schedule writing time, even if it's only in 15 minute blocks? You make time for manicures or a night at the ballpark; you can block off some time to write, and those 15 minute blocks can add up.

And here's my advice: channeling my inner Kate Beckinsale from the movie Von Helsing when a vampiress yammers on about killing her, but Kate slides the stake in while said vampiress is waxing poetic instead of killing:


Monday, June 25, 2018


It took seven years to sell my first book. Back then, I used to think that if I just sold one, everything would change. I'd be "in" the industry. I pictured it as one giant hurdle I needed to scale, and once I got over it, the hard stuff would mostly be over.

I'll wait a minute while you finish laughing...

Okay, we all know that life doesn't magically change because you sell one book--or ten. It doesn't change once you get awards. You still have daily ups and downs, rejections, disappointments.

Just keep going.

And having a popular or well-received book doesn't magically change the world, either. The next book might get negative reviews. It might not sell.

Just keep going.

You have bad interviews that don't go your way. Your publisher doesn't push your work. You might feel overlooked. Wonder if your readers are out there.

Just keep going.

Because here's the thing: underneath all the disappointments and the nearly-non-existent paychecks, underneath the rejection and the struggle, there's this:

There is just nothing in this world--nothing--that is quite like sortytelling. There is nothing like writing and literature and reading. It's something I don't want to ever, ever, ever lose.

So I keep going.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Smack Dab in the Imagination: Imagination, Reverie, and Originality by Dia Calhoun

Imagination is, of course, all about images. As an author, and even more so as a poet, images are the powerhouses of my work. So how do creatives tap into a free-flowing well of images from the imagination?

It’s all about the unconscious.

As a developing species, humans perceived and processed the world in images long before we had language. A tree was a an image long before it became a word. The deeper layers of the brain still retain that way of perceiving the world. A creative artist who wants access to those images in original and free flowing ways, needs to tap her unconscious mind.

For many years I envisioned a tunnel from consciousness to the unconscious well. Now, I know there is not one, but hundreds of tunnels, some big, some small, some straight, some twisting, still others in spirals. Now I envision a sphere with many tunnels on the surface all reaching down to the Great Well at the center. Usually many of these tunnels are active at once. We just aren't aware of them.

One way that I tap into these tunnels is through semi-conscious reverie. Sometimes I do this right after waking. I drift in that state and hold an image, often from a dream, in my mind. Then I start describing it by speaking directly into a note on my phone, recording whatever comes out. Sometimes I grab a pencil and paper. Something about speaking though, allows me to stay in the creative drifting reverie more easily. I don’t edit in any way what I say or write. I allow myself to stop and start as the words an images come and go--no forced, timed writing.

Sometimes this process turns symphonic. I will say a phrase over and over, building on it, repeating with variations. Sometimes it’s pure rhythm. Only later, after breakfast, do I go back over this. First I read it aloud, then begin editing. I always preserve the original. This process has lead to some of my most original writing.

Why not try it yourself?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Writers READ

The best piece of advice I'm able to offer would-be writers can be summed up in one word:  READ.  For me, reading was the key.

First, reading inspired me to want to become an author in the first place.  The books I fell in love with as a young reader like Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder planted the author seed in me even before I knew I wanted to write.  Later as an elementary school teacher, the books I read aloud to my third graders like The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo caused that author seed to grow, and my dream was born.  But simply having the dream to write a book doesn't necessarily make it happen.  As would-be authors often do, I spent many years collecting rejection letters, but it was my continued passion for reading, especially reading middle grade books, that taught me what I needed to know about what a story really must be in order for it to become a book.  Every book I've ever read, the ones I've loved, as well as the ones I haven't enjoyed all that much, were examples of how "story" actually works.  It was all those examples that allowed me to finally take one of my works-in-progress to the level necessary to achieve that sought-after acceptance letter instead of another rejection.

So, my best advice:  Spend time reading to unlock creative inspiration as well as gain wonderful examples of the essentials needed to write a great story.

Happy Writing and Reading,

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Best advice I’ve received as a writer


Likable characters.


High concept.

There are a lot of terms a writer will read about in publishing when if they start down that path to see their manuscript become a bound novel.


If one writes for the market – to be commercial, or try to hit a trend, there’s likely to be a fair amount roadblocks and letdowns, I’ve found.

If one writes not for the market, but for oneself, ones love of the craft and love of the literary world, they won’t fail.

For me, writing and publishing have had to be two different worlds.“You’ll always love writing, but you’ll grow to hate publishing.” At times, this has been true. Publishing isn’t out to eat your heart, but it is a competitive business. To be an author, you have to be pretty okay with hearing the word “no.” Rejections are the norm.

It only takes one “yes,” however. If you keep knocking on doors, however, eventually you’ll hear an enthusiastic “yes.” 

Whether it’s for a novel, a blog post, a poem, a short story, it only takes one yes in that sea of no’s to keep you going and heading towards your goal – whatever that may be.

I don’t personally continue to write as I think I’ll hit the best-seller list one day. I don’t write trends, or commercial or what I think will sell to the next big agent or publishing house. I write what’s in my mind, and in my heart, and what I’m passionate and motivated for.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d certainly love to hit that best-seller list.

But at the end of every single day, I write for myself. I write because I love to write. I write because it makes me feel whole. Like I have a voice and a place in the world. There are many, many places for a writer to find their community. It may be online, or in the local newspaper, on a private blog or a public one. In a magazine or literary magazine.

Never give up.

And always keep writing.

For you.

That’s the best advice I’ve ever been given in this world.

“Keep writing for you.”

Happy reading!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Facing It

My sister posts a quotation from some famous person every day on Facebook, in honor of that person's birthday. Writer Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857, so one December 3 my sister posted this line from him, which has become one of my favorite pieces of writing advice: "Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

It's so simple. And so true.

My biggest problem with any writing project - actually, with all projects and with everything in my entire life - is just this: facing it. I build up dread to the point of incapacity. Maybe, in the end, that's all writer's block is: a refusal to face what needs to be faced.

The strange and wonderful thing is that as soon as I face something - just sit down at my writing tablet or computer and spend TEN SECONDS staring at it - the rest is relatively easy. All I need to to is get over that first hump. That's all. And yet getting over that first hump can seem impossible.

So what I've started doing for any daunting task in my month's massive writer's to-do list is to add, as an extra to-do item, "Face [task x]" (whatever it is). As the facing takes just ten seconds (well, to be fair, probably more like five minutes), it's low-hanging fruit if I need the satisfaction of crossing at least something off the list. From that point, momentum takes over, and I'm all set. Hooray!

I tell the world, with some frequency, how I rely on a cherished hourglass to accomplish my day's stint of writing. Here it is.
For some tasks, however, even working on them for a mere hour is more than I can bear, so I also have a half-hour glass (it looks similar, just a tiny bit smaller). Then this past week a student who knew my fondness for hourglasses gave me a "travel" one, which is actually an eight-minute timer in a small sturdy cardboard case. Behold!
I don't think I'll take it with me on trips, though. Instead I'm going to save it for when I can't face even half an hour of work on some scary writing project, when eight minutes seems about all I can handle.

Then I'll turn over my adorable, teensy-weensy, itty-bitty, baby hourglass (cute is good for terror-defusing purposes). How scary can it be to work on this task for eight measly minutes?

VoilĂ ! Eight minutes later, the task will have been FACED, which was all I needed.

Because facing it, just facing it, is the way to get through.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Priorities, by Sarah Dooley

When I was fifteen, I wrote a story from the point of view of a 32-year-old woman (and how grown and wise she seemed to me at the time!) named Patsey.  I was obsessed with the story. I lived and breathed it and, if my best friend Stacie is to be believed, I even talked about it in my sleep.

But I had a concern. At a student writing ceremony, I had been cautioned, "Write what you know." Having never been a 32-year-old woman (those were the days!), I was afraid of breaking this writing rule by trying to write from Patsey's POV.

"I don't know how to be 32," I told my mother and best writing coach. (News flash, kid: You never will, not even when you're 37.)

My mother was silent for a few seconds. Then she picked up a pencil and sketched a quick shape on the back of a receipt.

"What do you see here?" she asked, pushing the sketch across the table to me.

Being completely obsessed with the animal in question, I immediately answered, "A pretty little pony!"

"No, you don't," she said. "You see lines. None of them are touching. They only hint at the impression of a pony."

My mind was blown. But wasn't I supposed to write what I knew?

"You are writing what you know," my mother reassured me. "You're writing from the point of view of a character you identify with. That doesn't mean you have to be afraid to take a chance or two. I'm not worried about every connection yet, not in your first draft. Give me the impression." 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Everything Else in the Universe: An Interview with Tracy Holczer

First, congratulations on your powerful new middle grade novel, Everything Else in the Universe.  As a fellow writer who has also recently released a middle grade novel concerned with the U. S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, I’m delighted to talk to you a bit about your own process in particular and about historical fiction in general. 

Tell me a little bit about the book’s premise, and how you landed on this subject.

Everything Else in the Universe is first, and foremost, a story about family and healing. I had a disabled father, and grew up in the 70’s, so the Vietnam era seemed a natural fit. I wanted to explore the viewpoint of a child with a parent serving, the sacrifices made by children when their parents are sent to war. As the novel progressed alongside the runup to the election in 2016, it seemed important to lean more heavily on the division of feeling about Vietnam at that time in history and the political ramifications. Not just about protest, but of the very real conflicted feelings a child might have about loyalty, not just with regard to patriotism, but to a parent who has suffered a great loss while serving. To me, when stripped to that level, whether the war was just or unjust almost became irrelevant. It became a story about a girl trying to figure out her place in the world, but more importantly, her place in her family.

Did you set out to write a book about the effect of the war in Vietnam on the families of the American soldiers that served? 

I set out, primarily, to write about one family. To shine a light on the sacrifice this country expects not just of its military personnel, but the children in those families. I watched films of parents returning from war and was struck by the pure relief of the children. Wild, uncontained, relief. And I just wanted to try to capture the whole picture. What came before and after that moment.

Could you share a bit about your research process for the book? 

I am a bit of a scatterbrain. So, my research was all over the place. I went to San Jose, California, where the book is set, and went through their newspaper archives for the summer of 1971, the summer Lucy and Milo became friends. I read Farmer’s Almanacs and World Book Encyclopedias and Life Magazines. I went back to my own childhood photos and ordered a Sears catalogue from the summer of 1971. I interviewed Vietnam vets and heart surgeons. I also read letters from Vietnam vets to their families. It was very surreal doing the research as history seemed to be repeating itself. 

What do you think a book like Everything Else in the Universe offers contemporary readers, especially middle-grade readers? 

Sadly, I think our Vietnam stories are now showing middle-grade readers that history can, and will, repeat itself if we are not vigilant.

The writing process, especially for the novel, is a long, hard road, and the publication of a book marks a major achievement.  As the book makes its way into the hands of readers, what about the book or the project brings you the greatest sense of accomplishment? 

My sense of accomplishment comes from finishing. There were times, many more than I’d like to remember, where I was certain I wouldn’t. That this story was too much for me, and I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But every time that happened, I took a breath (or three), and went back to it. I look forward to talking about this difficult process with kids. The importance of holding a goal and seeing it through, no matter what.

Thanks so much, Tracy.  Congratulations!

I'm delighted to be the first stop on Tracy's blog tour.  Readers who want to learn more about Everything Else in the Universe can follow Tracy's blog tour here:

Mr. Schu Reads - June 17th
Kidlit Frenzy - June 18th
Teach Mentor Texts - June 20th
Caroline Starr Rose - June 22nd