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.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Working big to small

Between two book editing projects, a few smaller editing projects, my usual newspaper gig, and a case study, August was unexpectedly busy. But here I am, and I’m looking forward to more busy-ness in September (as well as a break from all the heat advisories).

In the meantime, I’ve been revising a few stories of my own as well as working on the next story, and beginning research for the story after that. And I keep relying on advice from my drawing teacher.

Nope, I am not a professional artist. I have just enough talent to know how much more I would need to be a professional artist. But I love art in all its forms, from gallery paintings to comics, and I take art classes for fun. My teacher for the past few sessions is an excellent artist, helpful in all aspects of technique, and there are a few things he says regularly. One is that you have to study an object pretty thoroughly before you can draw it, instead of just glancing at it and rushing your pencil into action. Another is that you need to work “big to small”—that is, sketch in the big shapes first, figure out where all pieces are in relation to each other, then start to add in the details.

Turns out his advice works pretty well for writing, too. Even pantsers—and I am definitely a pantser—have to know a few basics before they start writing in earnest. Be a reporter: Know the who, what, when, where, why, and how. In other words, study before you draw.

And work out the character arcs, plot, beginning, and ending before you stress about the color of the curtains in the living room, or whether you’re using the right word to describe the sound of your protagonist’s voice in one scene. Sketch in the most important things first, and swing back later for the details. Work big to small.

I didn’t expect to get good writing advice from art class, but I’m calling it an extra-credit lesson, and will use it to the fullest.

Happy reading and writing this month.

On being a generalist

I’ve attended the occasional business networking event where other attendees have taken it upon themselves to critique my business model. “You’re too all over the place,” they say. “You should specialize in something.”

Those other attendees, of course, weren’t writers.

As a journalist and assigning editor, I’ve had to become knowledgeable about a lot of different topics pretty quickly. This means I have 1. ferocious focus, 2. strong research skills, and 3. a constant sense of curiosity about practically everything.

Just in the past few years, I’ve written about real estate and home design, agriculture, health care, hearing issues, wine production, art, computer theft, and the Caldecott/Newbery awards. (And that’s just the day job/nonfiction side of my work.) I like the variety because I like learning new things and hearing such a wide variety of stories, because that knowledge will make my fiction writing and editing even richer.

There absolutely are writers and editors who specialize in a particular industry or a specific topic, and that’s fine. I may eventually decide to go that route. But being a generalist is also a valid choice and can lead you down any manner of interesting pathways.

And those networking events? I haven’t attended any lately. I’ve been a little busy.

Write/edit/revise/repeat

First of all, May the Fourth be with you!

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Yes, my droid wears a top hat. He is fancy.

Second, it’s been a busy month.

I wanted to revise my MG novel-in-progress so that I could submit the revised version for a critique at the upcoming NJSCBWI conference. My beta readers had given me great feedback, I’d done some more research, and I knew a whole lot of things I needed to add. Meantime, I also had my usual daily and weekly deadlines for the various editing and writing projects that make up my day job. So I worked on those projects during the day, then revised the novel at night. All month.

This was a fairly doable thing. It was a matter of mindset, and minding the time. I’d spend mornings on one article or editing gig, break for lunch, switch gears to another project, then switch gears again at night and work on the novel. Working on one thing continuously for all that time might have gotten exasperating, but flipping to different projects kept me sharp.

I don’t think multitasking actually exists, at least the way people think of when they use the term. But I think you can finish anything if you work on it an hour (or two) at a time.

I made all my deadlines, including the submission date for SCBWI, and then I spent a day remembering what TV looks like.

And then I flipped back to the first draft of another novel-in-progress. But now I get to take my time a little more.

Bringing the news offline

I’d share some of the articles I’ve been writing lately, but I can’t.

Or more precisely, won’t.

Here’s the deal. One of my regular gigs is writing and editing (and setting up photos and working with reporters and helping keep things moving) at this local newspaper. You’ll note there are no articles posted on the website. There never are. The paper is print-only. And I’m glad.

Back in the ’90s, when newspapers decided they needed websites, the orders came down to put all articles on the website. For free. And I thought, “But why would anyone buy the paper if they can read the whole thing for free online?” Alas, I was a lowly copy editor and who cared what I thought.

So we put everything online. For free. Even though newspaper circulation had already been slipping downward for a while, and Generations X (that’s me), Y, Z, Z-plus and whatever else they’re going with these days didn’t have the daily newspaper habit their parents and grandparents did. Even though Craigslist and eBay came along to corner the market on classifieds. Even though advertising started to slip and the cost of newsprint went up. (This article in The Atlantic is a good summation.)

So newspapers lost money, and fired staffers to save money, and lost more money, and got thinner and thinner, with less and less news in them.

The past couple years have been good for the bigger papers, bringing a surge in digital subscriptions. But as the Pew Research Center points out, the industry overall is still suffering.

Now, I’m a book-nerd. Most of my goals for the future involve writing books and working with authors on their books. But I also love newspapers, and have ever since I joined (and later ran) my college newspaper. Newspapers, with a few exceptions, are still the best place to find good journalism. But I’ve been watching colleagues lose their jobs for some time now, and I’ve grown increasingly worried that good journalism is going to disappear with them.

So I was delighted when a colleague of mine announced he was launching his own local paper and looking for freelancers.

Every time I interview someone for an article, about the town food pantry’s plans for outreach or the changes to this year’s arts festival or the expansion of the Middlesex Greenway, they tell me how great the paper is and how glad they are to have a local paper. At the end of one recent interview—which happened to be at a church—the monsignor even blessed me, which was a first. I will definitely take my blessings where I can get them.

And none of these articles is online, because my colleague wants people to buy the paper. Not read it for free.

And frankly, I do too. I want this paper to keep going, because I think this level of local news is what’s missing from most papers now—they don’t have the staff, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the time, etc. I think this is how newspapers survive and thrive: By staying local, and by consistently charging for content. Because I don’t work for free, and neither should anyone else who writes, edits, takes photos, or does graphic design for a living.

So if you want to see what I’ve been working on lately, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the paper. But trust me: It’s worth it.

Typos matter

I cringe at “speciality.” I groan at “reigning them in.” And when I see “traveling though the town,” I want to throw things.

I see errors like this constantly: in newspapers, in published books, on restaurant menus, on product packages, in the tickers across the screen on news channels, even on storefront signs. I can’t switch off my editor’s eye, so I get regular reminders that people don’t write or type as well as they think they do. (Or that they need to hire an editor.)

Does it matter? Of course it matters. For one thing, people might judge you by your typos. Check out this study by University of Michigan researchers that found people reacted more negatively to emails with errors in them. A good part of my job consists of emailing people about being interviewed for an article or setting up a photo for that article, or else emailing writers about possible editing work. These people don’t know me; all they have to go on is my email, and if that email contains misspellings or poor grammar, they have less reason to take me seriously.

For another, errors and unclear language can cause unnecessary confusion and even cost money. Just ask the dairy drivers in Maine who won a labor dispute case over the lack of an Oxford comma.

You can absolutely be a good writer and still commit typos, or be a terrible writer who spells and punctuates everything correctly. (I’ve dealt with both.) But if the entire point of writing is to communicate with other people, shouldn’t you want to do that as clearly and as accurately as possible—for your readers’ sake, as well as yours?

If nothing else, you’ll have my undying gratitude.