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.

Using the insider’s perspective

We were in synagogue over the weekend, attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah (and mazel tov to him!), and I thought I’d properly prepped my interfaith kids for the experience: Use the transliteration to pronounce the Hebrew words, turn the siddur pages from the left, stand when the Torah scrolls come out, don’t talk when everyone is praying silently. Afterward, my daughter asked why people had been bowing during the service, and I realized I’d left that out of my prep talk. Jews bow while reciting specific lines in certain prayers, I explained.

It’s a little more tricky than the standing and sitting, when you can just do what everyone else is doing to blend in. There’s no advance notice on when to bow, it doesn’t say “bow here” in the siddur, and by the time you notice other people bowing, the moment’s probably passed; you need to know when to do it from experience. Oh, and the details are likely to vary by synagogue.

Confused yet? (If so, here’s a pretty good overview on the subject.)

The conversation reminded me why firsthand knowledge is important, in life and in writing. If you wanted to write about a synagogue service, you’d probably know about the Hebrew chanting and the Torah scrolls, but unless you’d sat through a service yourself, you might not know to include the bowing.

That insider’s perspective can make all the difference in the authenticity of your work. When researching a topic, don’t stop at the surface level; try to figure out what an insider would know, someone who’s an expert or part of the community being written about, and look at the topic through that person’s point of view. Then you’ll know the details that are important to explain for the reader, and the details your characters would so take for granted as part of the landscape that they might not remember to notice for more than half a sentence. 

Or if your characters aren’t meant to be insiders in the world you’ve created, make them as observant as my daughter, who caught the one detail I’d forgotten to tell her about in advance and got me to give her the insider’s perspective.

Don’t bring this to the writers’ conference

A fellow writer on Twitter last week was looking for advice on how to make the most of  their first SCBWI conference. Plenty of folks had good suggestions. My contribution: Bring a shawl, it’s cold in hotel conference rooms. Because I focus on the logistics of things. And seriously, it’s cold in those conference rooms (even in June!).

But the question got me thinking, especially since registration for NJSCBWI’s conference is coming up this weekend. There are plenty of lists and tips out there about the many things you should bring to a conference (business cards, printout of your workshop schedule, notepads, money for the inevitable book-buying spree), so I thought I’d focus on what not to bring. Here’s what to leave at home:

  • Heels. Unless you’ve found the one miraculously comfortable pair of them in existence. You’ll be speed-walking from workshop to workshop to critique session to group critique session to roundtable to the book sales area to lunch to dinner to whew. Ditch the fancy unwalkable shoes.
  • Adorable small bag. It will adorably fail you. You’ll be toting around notepads, your schedule, manuscripts, workshop handouts, books, business cards, phone, possibly a laptop or tablet, definitely at least five pens, and—as I mentioned—a scarf, sweater, or shawl, in addition to whatever things you normally carry around with you. Which is why you need a tote. But even a tote can’t accommodate the following baggage …
  • Preconceived notions. You don’t know ahead of time how the weekend is going to go. You might get a manuscript request from an agent or editor, but you might not; there are no guarantees. You might see some familiar faces, or you might make some new writer and illustrator friends. You might find the inspiration you’ve been seeking to finish your work-in-progress, or you might inspire someone else to finish theirs. Be prepared for anything.
  • Unhelpful comments. You know the ones. “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book! I’m just going to sit down and write it some weekend.” “So you ever going to make any money at this?” “That’s cute you write for kids! But when are you going to write a real book?” “But writing is just your hobby, right?” They’re not useful, they’re not true, you don’t need them. Leave them home, in the trash.
  • Imposter syndrome. Writers, artists, all manner of creative people—no matter their level of experience—play this awful mind trick on themselves: I’ve never done this before, I don’t have an MFA, everyone else has been published or they’ve been writing/drawing longer than me, I’m such a newbie, I’m not successful enough, I don’t belong here. Stop. If you’re taking your craft seriously enough to want to work on it and improve it and connect with other people working on their craft, you belong. Grab your tote and get in there.

If you’re attending a conference this year, I hope you have a wonderful experience and learn many things. And if you’re attending one with me, say hello.

Read Across America Day

I visited my daughter’s school for Read Across America Day, because I will take any opportunity to read to kids. They’re good audiences, and then I get to share picture books I really like. IMG_3285.jpg This year’s selections are to the right.

The kids enjoyed both books.  Their reactions weren’t necessarily what I was expecting, though. For “After the Fall”—a book I absolutely love—I thought the kids would be amazed by the two-page spread at the end, and some of them were, but we also had an entire conversation about egg physics. As in: How come Humpty didn’t totally shatter in the first place? How were they able to put him back together? When I drop an egg, it breaks and you can’t put that back together. If you drop an egg even from this high, it totally breaks. …

I suggested that perhaps Humpty was a stronger egg than he thought he was.

The adorable talking lion statues in “Lost in the Library” were apparently not a problem, from a scientific standpoint. And on the page showing the classic children’s books that one of the lions was reading, the kids correctly guessed the book titles (okay, they needed a little help with “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.” But they got the others).

It was a reminder that you can’t predict readers’ reactions to a book. All you can do is read it, and hope they like it. And not knowing what kids are going to say next is actually half the fun of being around kids.

This might have been my last Read Across America Day. My daughter will be in fifth grade next year, and they might think they’re too old for someone’s mom to come in and read to them.

But who knows? Everyone likes a good story.

Get the details right

In drawing class this week, we were working with a model—my first time in years doing so—and I was sketching away, delighted at how shading here and here was turning a collection of lines into a face, trying to capture the right angle of her lips, when my teacher strolled by and pointed out that the shape of her head was wrong. Mentally I said aarrrrgghhh, because of course he was right.

Drawing, says my teacher, is 80 percent looking and 20 percent drawing. In other words, taking the time to really see all the details and contours of your subject, whether your subject is a bowl of fruit or a person, instead of immediately throwing your pencil (or charcoal) at the page.

I have been thinking about details since people on Twitter this week have had complaints about others getting their names wrong. This has happened to me my entire life. Not until college did any teacher ever pronounce my name correctly on the first try. When I email people for work-related reasons—even though my name is right there in the email signature—I frequently get replies addressed to Marlena, Marianna, Marlene, or this recent gem through LinkedIn: Marlins. Nope, can’t explain that one either.

I figured out the truth a few years back, while helping read out the names of student scholarship winners at a New Jersey Press Association luncheon. The woman I was alternating with was mangling every other name, and as I watched her I realized: She wasn’t really reading the names. She was glancing at them and then reading what she thought the name should be, without paying close enough attention to confirm it. And I think this is what most people do with names. They glance at it way too quickly, type something totally wrong, and get on with their day.

That sort of carelessness as a reporter, incidentally, earns you a giant warning sign on any newsroom copy desk. Because if you can’t be bothered to get the source’s name right, what else did you get wrong? Those were the reporters whose work I fact-checked even more thoroughly.

Attention to detail is everything, in art and in writing. Take a breath, stand back: Did you get everything right? Is there anything you need to change? Look again. That’s my job as a writer. It’s my job to help others with as an editor. It’s my job as a (wannabe) artist. Make sure you’re saying what you actually meant to say.

As for that drawing, I don’t know if I can fix it. But the model is coming back next week, so I’ve got another chance to try.

Please buy a newspaper

I’d like you to do something for me next week. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It could help save democracy.

Buy a newspaper.

Doesn’t matter which one. Local weekly? The Times or the Post? Whatever you like. But you have to buy it. Reading one online for free doesn’t count. Buy an actual paper. Enjoy the crinkling sensation in your hands.

Because here’s the thing. Newspapers are still the best way to stay informed—actually informed, with deeply researched information, as opposed to random people’s opinions with a fact or two maybe thrown in. Farhad Manjoo puts it more eloquently than I can in this column (though I disagree on a couple points: The ink isn’t messy, and something you can fold up and shove in a bag is way easier than a screen you have to constantly protect and keep charged. Newspapers are battery-free).

Am I biased? Of course I’m biased. I spent 20 years in newsrooms. Which also means I spent 20 years watching, firsthand, exactly how much stress and opposition and frustration reporters, photojournalists, editors, and graphic designers will trudge through to put a paper together every single night. My colleagues in North Jersey covered 9/11. One of my co-workers in Miami was thrown in jail overnight while covering a protest, because she was mistaken for a protester. A former co-worker, just last night, was in a New Jersey mall with his family when shots were fired; he got his family to safety and then reported from the scene. That’s what it means to be a journalist. That’s why I trust journalists.

There is absolutely no reason to expect anyone to do this sort of work for free. But that’s the expectation you have when you only read news online, for free.

I worry very much about journalists losing their jobs and newspapers shutting down. I worry about what a lack of clear, well-researched information could do to the country.

So please: It’s my birthday next week. Help me celebrate by buying a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it enough to buy it again.

Feeling grateful

It’s been a continuously busy few months, moving from project to project without pause, a run fueled by caffeine and occasionally chocolate. Things have started to slow down now, just in time for holiday shopping and parties and extra baking and road trips, so that works out pretty well.

As I gear up for wall-to-wall holiday merrymaking, I’m taking a moment to express gratitude. I appreciate the authors who trust me with their words, the editors who depend on me for content, and the people who are willing to share their stories with me for print. I appreciate that I can do the things I love for a living, and still have time to help out at school holiday boutiques and on class trips. And I appreciate my critique group and my writer friends who are helping me on my journey. I hope I’m as helpful to them as they are to me.

Merry everything, and may we all find time to read this month.