However you’re coping is fine

So. How are you?

Staring at the walls? Stress baking? Getting work done while your kids grumble their way through online assignments and your cat attacks the back of your desk chair? (Okay, that one’s me.)

Whatever you’re doing is fine.


Someone has been leaving rocks with sweet messages along our local walking path.

It’s okay to be upset. Especially if, like me, you already know someone who’s died from the coronavirus. I didn’t know him well—we worked together briefly—but I worked with his wife for years. Both wonderful people, by all accounts, and this is awful.

It’s okay to be completely non-productive and let the kids stare at screens a little more.

It’s okay to work in your pajamas. Or in a fancy dress. Or in a three-piece suit and slippers if that’s your thing.

It’s okay to write, or draw, or create in whatever way you want if you’re up for it. It’s also okay if you’re not up for it and you’d rather lie on the couch and watch “Star Trek.” (This week, I’ve done both.)

It’s okay to take walks. Please take walks. Wave hello to people from a distance.

It’s okay to acknowledge that these are scary times and we’re trying to get through them as best we can, without getting sick or making other people sick.

Stay safe, wash your hands, enjoy the sunshine even if it’s only through your kitchen window.


P.S. It’s not okay to get all your news through social media. Many newspapers are currently making their coronavirus coverage free to non-subscribers. If you think they’re doing a good job, please consider subscribing.

Yes, the jokes matter

Exercise class had just begun and some of the other students were joking about how this was the “slow” class, because we’re mostly newbies. Uh-oh, I thought, already seeing where this was going.

Sure enough, a few students made the “we’re the special class” joke, and then another one said it: “They’ll have to send the short bus.”

“My son used to ride that bus,” I said quietly. “Can you not make that joke?”

Someone muttered an apology. “Thanks,” I said, and let it drop.

I have no idea whether the other students respected my stance and felt at all bad about their “jokes,” or whether they waited for me to leave so they could complain about blah blah political correctness and you can’t say anything anymore and it was fine to make these jokes when we were kids and how come everybody’s so sensitive now?

Now, I don’t totally expect people of, let’s say certain generations to understand how the ground has shifted around them. Yep, it sure was okay to make those jokes when they were kids. I heard those jokes when I was a kid.

But it was never okay.

I’ll repeat: It was NEVER OKAY.

It’s just that people didn’t think the feelings of special needs kids mattered then. Or that special needs kids mattered, period.

My son is 12, and he knows he’s not like the other kids. They laugh at him. And if he ever heard an adult making those jokes, it would crush him.

He’s not required to “toughen up” so the people around him get to keep being jerks without consequence. The people around him need to not be jerks.

I say this as a kidlit writer, and as a parent. What we pass on to the next generation matters. That includes what we joke about, and how, and what that shows about whether we respect the other person.

If people are serious about wanting to change the mental health problem in our country, if they at all agree that we need to raise awareness, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t make those jokes.” They also shouldn’t stand by while someone else makes those jokes.

If someone is saying something mean, or crude or obnoxious, about another person or group of people whose great offense is being different from them—if they’re punching down, as the saying goes—anyone listening has the power to stop it. Anyone listening. Because nothing changes unless we stand up for each other, and look out for each other.

You want to joke around? Great, me too! But get some different material. Plenty of other things to joke about.

So, we’ll see what happens at the next class. Maybe the others will just ignore me. But maybe speaking up changed something. You never know.

Any writing counts

So recently I’ve written about a grocery service that delivers your order in reusable containers, then picks up the empties afterward; a (possibly?) haunted house that was featured on a ghost-hunting TV show; a trio of artist friends who’ve been exhibiting their work together since the ’80s; a book club discussion about white nationalism; and a popular teen “Real Talk” program at a Massachusetts library. The day job offers much variety.

None of this has much of anything to do with my fiction work. That’s fine. I don’t expect the day job to overlap with my kidlit projects. And many writers, artists, and other creative types have a day job of some sort. Because there are bills.

So, is it breaking my “brand” if I write about all these different things? Will it confuse people if they see my articles and also hear me talking about my manuscripts? I don’t think so. Everything you write is part of who you are, so why hide any of it?

Writing about one topic, in one particular style, doesn’t stop you from writing about other things as well. Switching up what you write about keeps your mind sharper. And the storytelling techniques are about the same no matter what story you’re telling. The real difference with me? The articles are about real people, and me quoting what they say. The manuscripts are about people who live in my head.

Writing is writing. The more you do it, the better you get, whether it’s a magazine article, a blog post, a press release, or a manuscript. Just make sure you set aside time to focus on the type of writing you love the most.


We need each other’s stories

So what do you call it when you write a novel about a Jersey girl fighting anti-Semitism and then there’s a mass shooting at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey? Is that irony?

I don’t know what to call it, but every time I worry that I overdid it in the novel, real life tells me I didn’t.

I know anti-Semitism is an uncomfortable topic for some people. Being Jewish, period, is an uncomfortable topic for some people. I’ve watched eyes glaze over when I mention it, like it’s some sort of embarrassing thing not to be discussed publicly. I have a lifetime’s worth of people not knowing the first thing about any of my holidays but expecting me to know every little detail about Christmas.

Plus, you know, the pennies and the names that got thrown at me in elementary school when I was the only Jewish kid in class.

And the time in college when I attended a friend’s church service to hear him sing, and the layperson leading the service that day talked about how the Jews “know of the light, but they walk in darkness” because they haven’t accepted Jesus as their savior. (And after the service, she mistook me for my friend’s Catholic girlfriend and said, “Haven’t I seen you in church?” And it took all of me not to reply, “No, haven’t I seen you in synagogue?”)

And the time post-college when I turned a guy I knew down for a date, and later that night, as a group of us sat in a diner booth, he started telling Jew jokes. (I finally shut him up by saying I knew better Jew jokes than that, and then telling a few of them.)

People don’t want to talk about this stuff. They don’t want to talk about how anti-Semitism is just as bad as, and intertwined with, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and Islamophobia. But the uncomfortable stories are what we need to share with each other, if we’re going to understand each other. If we’re going to help each other. We don’t understand and respect each other’s differences if we’re not willing to listen.

So, I’ve told some of my stories. I’m here to hear yours.

And if you’re looking for ways to help the families of the victims in Jersey City, the Star-Ledger has the info here.


Remember it’s subjective

Here’s where the day job is at (AKA, the newspaper/magazine writing): I heard from one editor who’s happy with my work. Then I heard from another editor who doesn’t like my work and wants changes.

And *shrugs* that’s how it goes.

Different people are going to react differently to your work. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will go “meh.” When it’s an article, or some other type of work-for-hire, well, revisions are part of the deal (which is why I’m revising). When it’s your own work — say, your novel — you’ve got a bit more leeway in how you respond to those reactions.

But here’s the key: These opinions will vary by person. This is why literary agents usually have a line about “this industry is subjective” in their rejection letters. A manuscript that leaves them feeling “meh” might completely wow the next person to read it. You are the same person, and your work is the same work, no matter who’s reading it. You can’t control the other person’s reaction.

I’m not saying writers (or artists) need to toughen up, or grow a thicker skin, or whatever other figures of speech are floating around. But it is useful to take someone’s reaction, positive or negative, and evaluate it to see if there’s anything you can learn from it. If so, then go ahead and use that feedback. If not? You’re entitled to nod politely and move on.

Your opinion of your work, in other words, should exist a little apart from the opinions of others. And it should sustain you on the negative days.

Rejection evolution

When you get a rejection from an agent or editor, you should:

  1. Grumble loudly and stomp around the house
  2. Eat ice cream
  3. Announce to the world that you are never ever writing a single word again
  4. No, seriously, take a breath, it’s OK

(Please guess 4.)

Hey, 1. and 2. are fine. I’ve done both, sometimes at the same time. But the thing about rejections is, they really aren’t personal. They don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They do mean you should keep trying.

I deal with rejections at the day job as well as with my fiction. Not every article pitch gets accepted, even from editors who know and like my work. Maybe they just ran a similar article, or maybe the topic doesn’t wow them. It’s not personal, so I shrug and move on to the next thing.

But for a while, I had a harder time doing that with my fiction. Those stories feel like pieces of me in a way that something I write for a magazine or other publication doesn’t. So I stomped around the house, got epically frustrated, silently begged friends and family not to ask how my writing was going. And ate ice cream.

I finally had to ask myself why I was doing this. Was it helping me improve my writing or my chances? And how could I teach my kids about persevering and working to achieve their goals, if I weren’t willing to do the same?

So I changed my reaction. I quit taking it personally.

This week I got a rejection on a short story I’ve been sending around. I read the email, shrugged, and moved on with my day.

It’ll find a home somewhere, or it won’t. The point is to keep trying.

The gift of time

I had a novel to revise (and also type up) and a noisy house. So I drove to a cabin in the woods.


You can also be inspired by nature.


The Highlights Foundation offers year-round workshops for kidlit writers and illustrators on its campus, the former home of the founders of Highlights magazine. It also offers Unworkshops: You can stay there a few days without registering for a formal workshop, so you can get some creative work done, and they’ll provide meals and snacks. 

The last time I tried to do a DIY writing retreat, I ran into two problems. One, at some point you have to flee the hotel room so the staff can clean. And two, you end up eating alone in restaurants. I don’t mind bringing a book to dinner, but it did look a little weird when I was surrounded by couples on dates. An Unworkshop solved both problems, because no one bothers you. You don’t even have to socialize with other people during meals, if you’re feeling especially introverted or time-crunched (although I did end up socializing after all). You can stay in your little cabin and get work done.

The cabin was quiet, the scenery outside was gorgeous, I had a desk and constant coffee. And now I have a manuscript.

Some notes on the experience, if a cabin creativity retreat interests you:

  • You will be driving up country roads to get there. Several will be gravel. Drive carefully.
  • Beware of bears (didn’t see any), and also ticks (didn’t see them either).
  • The staff is incredibly nice and will introduce you around to whoever’s there.
  • The internet is spotty. Hey, you’re in the country.
  • Seriously, it’s pretty outside. Take a walk.

But the best thing the campus offers is quiet free time to get things done. Never feel like you need to earn that, or you’re not at a point in your career where you ”deserve” it. Camp out at the library, find a diner booth, DIY it like I did and get a hotel room somewhere. But take the time. You’ll be a better writer or artist for it.

And then what happens?

In the great plotters vs. pantsers debate, I fall pretty firmly on the side of pantsers. I have a general idea of how the story is going to end, but I discover things about it as I write—who my characters are, what they want, where they’re going. It’s not quite freewriting (which is also a good exercise!), but not quite organized, either. It’s a little bit like story improv.

In improv, in order to keep a scene going, the performers onstage will play off each other, building a scene together line by line. There are no mistakes, and no one gets to say “no” and kill the scene. It’s called the “yes, and” principle. Usually this requires another human being or two, but you can do “yes, and” as a solo game.

The protagonist is at school and overwhelmed about something he’s struggling with. What does he do? He storms out of class. Then what happens? He sees something suspicious in town and runs to tell his father about it. Then what? His father shrugs it off, and his worries—about his problems and about the strange visitors—only grow, especially after . . .

Well, I haven’t written that far yet. But I hadn’t planned any of the above details when I started writing.

One action leads to the next one, and the next and the next. Eventually you’ve got a plot, and because it’s built off what the main character and supporting characters will do or say next, it’s focused on their needs and desires, which means you’ve gotten to know your characters very well.

I might not keep everything in this story-in-progress after I’ve written my way through it. But it’s a lot easier to see what’s working and what isn’t when I’ve got a full story in front of me.

This technique isn’t going to appeal to everyone, which is fine—there’s no one right way to write a story. But it works for me, and it might for you too. Just keep asking yourself: What happens next?

Lining up dominoes

I recently finished another round of revisions on one of my middle grade manuscripts. I extended a few scenes, cut a few others, and changed small but significant details about the protagonist’s background. Going through the process was a good reminder: the key to revising is revising consistently, throughout the story.

Changing where my protagonist lived, for instance, meant checking every reference to his childhood home to make sure it was still accurate. And it meant thinking through the repercussions of that change. How would this have affected his childhood? How did this change the dynamic between his parents? Did this change mean other changes were needed, too?

It’s the domino effect of storytelling. (Or the butterfly effect, if you like that better.) Every action impacts other actions, ultimately changing the story overall. The hard part about revising isn’t making changes; it’s keeping those changes consistent with each other, and with what was already on the page.

In the middle of revising something? Not sure how to go about it? Think of a line of dominoes. If everything is properly aligned, all the details will fall into place, and so will the story.

What writers need to hear

In drawing class, our instructor was talking about how professional artists could create using a toothbrush, if they wanted. The tools don’t matter, he said; what matters is how you use the tools. The only difference between us students and the professionals, he said, is that they kept drawing.

It’s fascinating how much of what he says also applies to writing. The tools and methods don’t matter—you can reserve early mornings for writing time at your computer or (like me) stick tiny notebooks in your purse for use during the kids’ swim classes or long car trips. The point is that you’re writing, not that you’re writing in some official approved manner.

And I think writers look for that official approval because they want that validation. They want someone to tell them they’re a writer, that they belong, and they’re not being pretentious, especially if they haven’t written professionally before. They want proof to wave around, like a certificate, to show that they’re legitimate.

You don’t need it. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’re serious about learning and improving your craft, it will show. You need no seal of approval from anyone.

A while back, our drawing instructor went around the room and asked everyone why they were taking his class. Now, I have no expectation of becoming a professional artist. I’m too much of a beginner to plan on gallery shows or book illustrations. So when he asked me why I draw, I said, “Because I can.” It was the most honest answer I could think of, and I still think it’s the right answer. It’s also why I write.

You don’t need to prove that you deserve to create. You just need to create. Everything else flows from that.