What we’ve accomplished

President-elect Joe Biden has won the election for approximately the 473897328763287643th time, front-line workers are starting to get vaccinated, snowpocalypse is coming tomorrow. Already it’s quite the week.

For Hanukkah, we did a chilly outdoor get-together with my parents, chatting behind masks until the wind was too much. For Christmas, we’re doing nothing. My in-laws live too far away, outdoors isn’t an option, staying there isn’t safe. It would’ve been nice for the kids to see their grandmother since they lost their grandfather to cancer in April, but that would’ve required more people (not to mention our leaders) to follow virus restrictions this year, wear masks, care about other people instead of blah blah blah freedom, so here we are.

If I sound angry and frustrated, that’s because I am. Those “we’re all in this together” ads have never been true, not once.

Still, those of us who are still here have managed to survive the pandemic and the horrific political climate of the past few years, and that’s an accomplishment.

If you’ve managed to create anything during this year, that’s an accomplishment, too.

In between rounds of edits on my middle grade manuscript, I started writing short stories again. One was published in Daily Science Fiction. Another will be published in an anthology called “Strange Fire: Jewish Voices from the Pandemic,” out next year. A third is waiting in a submission queue (argh).

I haven’t found an agent yet for my kidlit work, but I’m ending the year with two middle grade manuscripts that are stronger than they were in January.

I worked with some wonderful author clients this year on their manuscripts, including one for the second time. My coaching client got another article posted. And I picked up some new freelance writing work.

What about you? Did you create something? Did you make a sourdough loaf? Did you keep your household going despite all odds? All successes. We’re still in the tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of it.

So whatever you celebrate, have a happy, safe, quiet holiday. If you need an editor in the coming year, please do reach out. And go easy on yourself. You’re surviving a pandemic. You’re doing fine.

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?

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.