Permission to Write—Granted

This was going to be a completely different post. I was going to consider writing rituals—those choices of location and atmosphere that we feel inspire us to be more creative. I was going to talk about superstition, and how it can sometimes be a good thing, if, like a magic feather, it helps to trick your mind into performing.

So I started doing some research. What do other writers—ones with far more authority than I—do to get the creative juices flowing?

I began by paging through my copy of On Writing, by Stephen King, which I first read about seven years ago. But after only a few minutes of this, I was hooked. I opened the book to page one and read it straight through. I finished the next day (it’s not a very long book, and it’s an easy and engaging read, half autobiography and half pep talk).

I’m a more seasoned writer now than I was the first time I read the book, so I noticed different things this time around. Bits of advice that had seemed profound many years ago (avoid adverbs whenever possible, kill your darlings) were now simply nice reminders. What surprised me the most, though, was the message I took away from this second reading: with nearly every page, King grants us permission to write.

It turned out to be a message I really needed to hear that day.

You see, I was feeling a little down about all the time I’d been spending with my laptop. Maybe I was even slightly ashamed of it. “I, uh, write a bit,” was a huge—I mean huge—admission for me. As if my friends and family were going to demand a resume, a bibliography, and three years worth of tax returns to prove my credentials.

You may be familiar with imposter syndrome—that idea that whatever success you’ve had is a fluke, and you’re about to be found out. There have been some excellent Thinking Through Our Fingers posts on it, such as here and here.

Why is this so prevalent among writers? Is it because writers tend to be such an introspective bunch that self-doubt comes naturally to us? Is it because popular culture only venerates the bestsellers, the blockbusters, the top-forty hits? Or is it because the statement, “I’m a writer,” calls to mind stereotypes of pretentious know-it-alls who delight in correcting one’s grammar?

If you (or any of your friends) play golf, you probably don’t mince around with the word golfer. You don’t say, “Well, I golf a bit, but y’know, it’s just something I do when I have time. I haven’t been able to earn a living at it yet.” No. You say, “I’m a golfer.”

My husband’s hobbies are rock-crawling (extreme four-wheel-driving) and desert racing. And while I can’t say he’s never made a dime at it, I can affirm that he’s spent far more money on it than he’s ever made doing it. And he’s never apologized for it, because he loves it. It’s part of what defines him. He’s a rock-crawler. I’m a writer.

Say it with me. I’m a writer. There, that wasn’t so hard.

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So if you’re feeling a little down yourself, feeling like you’re maybe wasting your time, here are some words of permission by Mr. King himself.

“…when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.” (p. 150)

“If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires…consider it hereby granted by yours truly.” (p. 150)

“In writing classes, if nowhere else, it is entirely permissible to spend large chunks of your time off in your own little dreamworld. Still—do you really need permission and a hall-pass to go there? Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not.” (p. 235)

“I have written because it fulfilled me … I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” (p. 249)

So what are you waiting for? Write. Even if you never make a dollar at it. If it makes you happy, write.

For what it’s worth, you have my permission, too.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Back to School, Back to Writing

I didn’t intend to skip most of my writing days this summer. No, we weren’t gone on tons of family vacations. Most days we didn’t even have much going on. But I have 6 kids and they generate a lot of noise and distraction, so writing was super difficult to come by.

Now I’m sitting here, on my kids’ first day back to school with my thoughts jumping here and there, my own distractions (ahem, I’m looking at you Facebook and email!), and I’m struggling to get back into the swing of things.

Really, this is a pep-talk to me, but you’re welcome to come along if you can admit you have a problem (the first step is acknowledgement…).

How to bring focus back to your day

Writing isn’t our only priority in life. We have house cleaning, other jobs, kids to take care of, bills to pay, grocery shopping, etc. But it’s easy to waste the day clicking refresh on email or scrolling social media instead of actually getting anything done. But how do you get done what you need to and still write?

Back to School

How many of us save writing for “later” or when we’ve finished everything else?

Stop that and try these:

  • Make daily lists. Be specific. What do you need and want to accomplish today? Put in a specific writing goal whether it’s 100 words or 10k words. Check it off as you go along. If you are accomplishing everything and still wasting a lot of time, you may need to up your goals.
  • Accountability partner. Having a person you check in with throughout the day or at the end of the day helps keep you on task. You exchange lists and cheer each other on as you achieve your goals. They can also help encourage you (or threaten you) to work harder.
  • Yoga, meditation, and grounding exercises. Sometimes focusing is hard because our mind is anything but quiet. Finding ways to calm your thoughts is necessary to help you focus. Some need meditation, some need yoga. Being mindful of yourself is healthy. You will figure out what you need to calm the thoughts and focus.
  • Healthy diet. If you feel good physically, it impacts your mood and your ability to think. I was at a retreat last week and had healthy, fresh, non-processed foods every day. It really made me realize how much what we put in our bodies impacts our ability to work hard. If we don’t feel good, we don’t function as well.
  • Set a timer and turn off social media. Make yourself sit butt in chair, fingers typing for 30 minutes to an hour. Then get up and walk, dance, or move in general. Find a healthy snack or get a drink. Do another task, or get right back to it.
  • Reward yourself. Sometimes we’re like little kids who need some positive reinforcement to work harder. Say your goal is 10k words for the week (doable, right?). If you achieve that goal, maybe then you get to buy a pair of shoes, or get a massage, go to dinner with friends, buy a new book, whatever will motivate you. Find your “currency” and offer it to yourself as a reward for achieving a larger goal.

Hopefully some of these help me this year. Maybe they will help you as well.

What nifty tricks do you have to keep yourself focused and writing?

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576A6469Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles—family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Survey Analysis: How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovetIn my post from last month, “How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?” I talked about how authors of young adult books are including more profanity, sexual situations, drug use, and other controversial content in their novels. I was really curious to find out in greater detail what readers of all ages thought about various difficult topics. Leveraging Google Forms and Sheets, I created a survey to find out.

The survey was both a success and a failure. On the plus side, I got almost 200 responses, which was more than I expected. On the negative side, only six of those responses were from actual young adults. The rest were from grownups (18 and older) who read young adult literature.

I promised to provide an analysis of the results, so here they are. Please note that I’m not claiming statistical significance here. I’m not a stats person, though I do consider myself something of an Excel ninja. Though it’s interesting, I would caution against reading too much into the data I present below. When in doubt, write the book you want to write.

Respondents

From sharing my results with various groups, I managed to get a total of 195 responses. The demographic section of the survey tells us a little about the people who completed it.

Age

As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the survey were adults. The breakdown by age category is here:

Age Category

Respondents

Percent

12 – 14 years old

1

0.5%

15 – 17 years old

5

2.6%

18 – 29 years old

28

14.4%

30 – 39 years old

94

48.2%

40+ years old

67

34.4%

Gender

The overwhelming majority (86%) of respondents were female. Here’s the full breakdown:

Gender

Respondents

Percent

Female

167

85.6%

Male

27

13.8%

Something else, or I prefer not to answer

1

0.5%

Last year, I was at a writing conference, attending a panel about writing young adult fiction. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and asked the question: “What can be done about the perception that YA is dominated by females?” I actually laughed out loud when I heard this. All four panelists were women. Maybe 80% of the audience were female. This isn’t a “perception” … it’s a reality.

Location

Survey respondents came from 27 US states, plus some international locations. However, because of my circle of friends (and also because of the groups where I went to solicit responses), the vast majority of the responses (54%) came from people who live in Utah.

Here’s the breakdown of how many responses came from each location;

Alabama (1), Alaska (1), Arizona (14), California (7), Colorado (4), Hawaii (4), Idaho (11), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Louisiana (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (3), Minnesota (1), Nevada (5), New Mexico (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (4), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Texas (8), Utah (105), Virginia (2), Washington (5), Wyoming (1), Other or International (5)

Average number of books read per month

I thought it would be interesting to know whether the respondents were voracious or more casual readers. Because of this, the survey asked how many books, on average, each of the respondents read.

Books per Month

Respondents

Percent

less than 1

17

8.7%

1 or 2

50

25.6%

3 or 4

64

32.8%

five or more

64

32.8%

Percentage of books read in the young adult genre

Finally, I asked what percentage of books each of the respondents read in the young adult genre.

Books in the YA Genre

Respondents

Percent

less than 25%

33

76.9%

25 to 50%

79

40.5%

51 to 75%

45

23.1%

75% or more

38

19.5%

Methodology

Using the word “methodology” automatically makes things more scientific, right? Well, probably not, but I did have a method to my madness. For every topic or subject matter in the main section of the survey, I asked respondents to rate their comfort level using the following rating scale:

  1. Very uncomfortable. I actively avoid books like this, and won’t read them at all.
  2. Uncomfortable. I have a low tolerance for books like this, and sometimes stop reading if I encounter the topic.
  3. Moderately comfortable. I don’t seek out books like this, but I don’t avoid them if the story is good.
  4. Comfortable. I don’t mind reading books like this, and often enjoy them.
  5. Very comfortable. I enjoy reading books like this, sometimes seeking them out specifically.

To analyze the responses, I considered a 1 or 2 to be negative (discomfort) and a 4 or 5 to be positive (comfort). The 3 responses were neutral, so I ignored them for the purposes of analysis. Using this methodology, I created Pro/Con comparison for each item, and then compared them as percentages.

As an example, the first question asked the respondents’ comfort levels with “Bible” curse words like “damn” and “hell.” (I actually asterisked them on the survey so nobody could complain about being exposed to profanity). In the results, I got 60 5s, 63 4s, 61 3s, 8 2s and 3 1s. (Yes, three people indicated they were “Very uncomfortable” with encountering the words “damn” and “hell” in a YA novel. Go figure.) Adding the 4s and 5s and the 1s and 2s together, I got a Pro score of 123 and a Con score of 11, or 91.8% Pro and 8.2% Con. Make sense?

So let’s look at the individual sections and scores. To reduce clutter, I’ll provide just the Pro and Con tallies and percentages for each item. However, you’ll find a link to a PDF with the full scoring at the bottom of this post.

Language

I grouped the questions about language into three categories: “Bible” curse words, scatalogical and “body part” curse words, and F-bombs (which my teenaged son calls the “Elder Swear”). The results didn’t really surprise me:

Language

Pro %

Con %

Stories with characters who use “Bible” curse words (d**n, h**l)

91.8%

8.2%

Stories with characters who use scatalogical or “body part” curse words (s**t, a**, d**k, c**k, c**t, p***y)

30.5%

69.5%

Stories with characters who drop F-bombs (f**k)

23.2%

76.8%

On one of the groups where I posted this survey, a group member took me to task for grouping words like “shit” and “ass” in with the body part swear words. The names for female body parts, she claimed, were used more for sexual power games than for curse words. I can see her point (to a point), but I was just trying to do a survey, not make a statement about gender politics.

Sexual Content

As far as I can tell, one thing that distinguishes young adult from middle grade fiction is the introduction of sexual situations. (Sometimes, when meeting other writers, I like to joke that I write “middle-grade erotica.” It’s just fun to see the looks on their faces as they try to parse that.) As in all of the categories, I ordered the items based on what I expected the relative comfort/discomfort levels to be.

Sexual Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with lots of sexual content but no actual sex between teens

42.9%

57.1%

Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation

12.8%

87.2%

Stories depicting hetero sex between teens

19.9%

80.1%

Stories depicting sex between teens and adults

7.8%

92.2%

Stories depicting taboo sex involving teens (incest, BDSM, etc.)

5.5%

94.5%

One aspect of the results surprised me: overall, the respondents were slightly more comfortable reading stories about actual sex than about pornography and masturbation. I don’t know why, but I was really taken aback to see that readers found simulated, solitary sex more disturbing than the real thing.

The last question in this section is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t seem that the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon has trickled down to the YA reader. E.L. James’ books pushed BDSM into the mainstream to a certain degree, but that’s not happening for adult readers of YA fiction.

LGBTQ+ Content

Like it or not, young adult fiction tends to be heteronormative in the sense that it assumes that most boys like girls and most girls like boys. (It reflects the real world in this way.) Since I personally know a number of readers who intentionally steer clear of books with gay and lesbian protagonists, I figured it made sense to ask these questions separately.

LGBTQ+ Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is incidental to the plot

57.7%

42.3%

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is crucial to the plot (including “coming out” stories)

39.9%

60.1%

Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters

73.8%

26.2%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens

13.0%

87.0%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults

5.9%

94.1%

YA readers seem to be more accepting of LGBTQ main characters if their sexuality isn’t directly tied to the plot. The big difference in comfort levels between the first and second items above kind of surprised me. Minor gay and lesbian characters (I was careful not to use the word “token”) seem to be more acceptable to more readers.

Substance Abuse

I remember being shocked, as a young teenager, reading about teenagers drinking and smoking in The Outsiders. I was probably 13 when I discovered that book, and nobody in my sheltered circle of friends did any of that stuff. My kids had a very different experience. In my kids’ school, vaping and seems to have replaced smoking as the default bad-habit-du-jour.

And remember: The Outsiders was published in 1967. Teens have always smoked and boozed and used drugs.

Substance Abuse

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting teenagers smoking or vaping

64.2%

35.8%

Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens

38.0%

62.0%

Stories depicting alcohol use by teens

50.4%

49.6%

Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens

42.1%

57.9%

Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens

36.8%

63.2%

I actually expected the Pro scores here to be a little higher. It’s possible that the older audience skewed the numbers here to the Con side.

Mental Illness

There has been a huge effort over the past several decades to destigmatize mental illness. In the past several years, I’ve read YA books with protagonists who have Tourette syndrome, with severe depression, and even sociopathy. Readers seem to see mental illnesses as just another obstacle for characters to overcome.

Mental Illness

Pro %

Con %

Stories focusing on protagonists dealing with mental illnesses

95.1%

4.9%

Stories that prominently feature self-harm (cutting and other self-injury)

52.5%

47.5%

Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders

85.5%

14.5%

Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide

68.1%

31.9%

The one surprise here is the balanced Pro/Con score for self-harm. From what I can tell, in the United states, around 6-10 percent of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves, with “cutting” being the most common activity of this type. At the same time, less than 3 percent of of teens struggle with eating disorders. With self-harm being two or even three times more common than eating disorders among U.S. teens, you’d think it would be a topic more people would be comfortable reading about. Not so, apparently. That self-harm is significantly less acceptable to readers than suicide should be an eye-opening fact.

Abuse and Violence

I’m not certain I got the questions in this category “right.” Violence is a staple of growing up—kids beat up on each other all the time. I tried to think of the types of abusive situations that might cause someone to put a book down.

Abuse and Violence

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting sexual abuse involving teens or children

17.9%

82.1%

Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children

19.5%

80.5%

Stories depicting domestic violence

43.1%

56.9%

Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations

68.1%

31.9%

Interestingly, the Pro/Con rating for sexual assault is within half a point of the rating for hetero teenaged sex (see above). And the readers I polled are more comfortable reading about sexual assault than about consensual sex between LGBTQ teens. That last question is kind of a catch-all, and doesn’t really say much about anything.

Social Issues

Speaking of catch-alls, this last category was exactly that.

Social Issues

Pro %

Con %

Stories involving bullying (real-world or cyber)

92.2%

7.8%

Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality

89.3%

10.7%

Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality

83.2%

16.8%

Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion

46.6%

53.4%

Stories involving firearms

88.5%

11.5%

Stories with heavy political content

67.8%

32.2%

The bullying question was a gimme. Bullying is so pervasive in all aspects of teenagerhood that I would defy anyone to come up with a single YA novel that didn’t feature bullying of some kind.

I wasn’t surprised by the Pro/Con ratings on the “ism” questions. I was pretty surprised that my respondents were more comfortable reading about teenagers with guns than they were about teenagers getting abortions. (But then, I had a very Utah-heavy population that responded.) The question about politics was also interesting. I wasn’t expecting a two-thirds Pro rating on that one, though I’m not sure whether I expected it to be higher or lower.

 

Conclusion

Again, since this turned out to be essentially a poll of adults, I’m not sure how much we can extrapolate regarding teen readers. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adult readers of YA fiction are often the “gatekeepers” who buy the books, put them on library shelves, assign them for classes, and so on. So grownup attitudes about young adult fiction are still worth considering.

You can download a more detailed analysis of numbers below. Enjoy!

YA Fiction – How Edgy Is Too Edgy?

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Find Your Writing Fuel

Years ago, I was in a writing workshop led by my dear friend, Mette Ivie Harrison. She was discussing how many books she wrote before she sold one. I can’t remember the number. It was something like twenty. And then she spoke about something I never forget. Mette talked about how she consumes so many stories, so many idea, so many books. She’s always reading, sucking up all that inspiration like fuel. And she thinks all those ideas and plots and characters get churned around in her head, all mixed up and smooshed together and she spits them back out into a new form, her stories.

fuel

Neil Gaiman said, “Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”

“If you want to be a writer,” said Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this idea that we as writers need to read. We need this fuel to create our own stories. Wow! An excuse to buy more books and spend loads of time curled up in my pajamas reading? I love that this need to read is part of our job!

I also love that writing fuel can be found in so many other places.

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows,. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work, (and theft) will be authentic.”

My brilliant friend, Elaine Vickers, is so good at this. Last year, as my parents were taking Elaine and I to the Las Vegas airport my mom was sharing stories about growing up in Star Valley, Wyoming.

While waiting for the plane, Elaine mentioned how much she loved one of the stories and how she thought it would be a great moment in a story. Oh! I hadn’t even thought of that. But since then, when people have told stories, I’ve thought more about this, about the possibility of using these small moments of inspiration in my stories.

So, yes, we need to read, read, READ! We need to suck up and consume all the stories and ideas we can. But don’t stop there. Be open to finding writing fuel everywhere you can. Go to art shows, travel, let your interests guide you to new and exciting ideas. And find your writing fuel!

 


blackanewhiterin

Erin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.

 

I Open at the Close: On Harry Potter and the Universal Experience of Death

It’s been a little over a month since my sister’s husband died. It feels like longer and not that long all at once.

He was diagnosed with bone cancer almost exactly two years ago and all our lives were turned upside down. It has been a roller coaster that steadily got worse and worse ever since. But what I want to talk to you about, and the part that has to do with writing, is what happened June 30.

That was the day we got the news that his bone cancer had metastasized to his lungs and there wasn’t much time left. We knew this was coming but it was still a shock, and I had to take my pain outside to walk around my neighborhood over and over and process it all.

And do you want to know what’s interesting? I’m a religious person. I find great comfort in scripture and prayer. But as I circled my block in the dark, the words that kept coming to me were not from scripture, but from the final Harry Potter book. “I open at the close.”

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Those are the words written on the golden snitch that Harry carries with him to face Voldemort and sacrifice himself.

I open at the close.

And those are the words I couldn’t get out of my brain.

Because as much as my brother-in-law’s death was a too painful and too soon ending, it was also a beginning. A beginning for him of an existence free of pain. A beginning of a new (if unwanted) chapter for my sister where she and my niece would face the world without him. The beginning of a new family for all of us, where we hold tight my sister and niece, lift them up, protect them.

I didn’t want the close. But it was not the end. Life would go on. There would be new beginnings.

I open at the close.

I raced home and pulled my copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS off the shelf. I flipped to the back and found the scene I was looking for. I walked with Harry away from Hogwarts. Away from life and friends who were family. I cried when he whispered, “I am going to die.”

Do you know how hard it is to say that? To admit it and face it? It takes an inordinate amount of bravery. I don’t think people actually understand this until they see someone have to do it.

I continued to weep as one by one, Harry’s family came with him, to walk him home. I thought of my brother-in-law’s mother and sister who had already passed. The ones who seemed to be visiting him in his dreams those last few days.

And then Harry asks, “Does it hurt?”

I don’t know J.K. Rowling’s life story. I don’t know if she has watched someone die. But this is word for word the question that plagued my brother-in-law. That plagued my sister and all of us. And when Harry spoke the words that were slowly choking all of us, I couldn’t contain my emotion.

How did she know? How did she know all the feelings and thoughts I was facing in that moment? The feelings and thoughts my brother in law was facing?

Over the next few days, we said goodbye to him. We stood in his room and watched and waited as he took his last few breaths. And when his chest stopped rising once and for all, I thought of Sirius falling through that veiled archway. Passing from one plane to the next. Just gone.

And again the words came.

I open at the close.

When the pain felt too much to handle. When the world seemed so incredibly unfair. When I was facing unspeakable emotional pain. It wasn’t scripture where I found that first initial comfort. It was books. It was characters who felt real to me. It was the insight of an author I’d never met. The humanity of a universal experience. One we will all have eventually.

And I’m not sure I realized how important books were until then. I’m not sure I fully understood what it is that we, as authors, are doing. How divine the work of creation truly is.

You are not just creating stories and made up worlds. You are forming a mirror and a rope that binds us, as humans, together. One that says, “You are seen and you are not alone.”

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

What’s the Future of Historical Fiction?

An editor recently told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that anyone who sets out to be a writer is “crazy”, and anyone who sets out to write historical fiction is even “crazier.”

And she is a champion of both.

I thought I knew what she meant. That you have to be a certain brand of risktaker to pursue a profession that is often solitary, thankless, frustrating, and costly. And that to add historical research to that is just the cherry on top.

Maybe that is what she intended to imply – I didn’t ask for an explanation. But recent events have led me to think that the pursuit of historical fiction is challenging for some additional reasons.

We’re killing history in our culture.

Let me explain. I recently moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Founded in the early 1600s, it’s near the coast, has mild winters, and tree canopy roads. I feel like I’ve found paradise. I live only two miles from historical Colonial Williamsburg and have already enjoyed speeches by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, strolling the Governor’s Palace Gardens, sampling apple cider that tastes like liquid pie, and I think nothing of seeing horse-drawn carriages trot by as the noonday cannon shakes the earth.

It’s bliss.

But it might be ending.

A few weeks ago, Colonial Williamsburg went public with devastating financial news. Due to low attendance, they are laying off much of their staff and scrambling to reorganize or they will have to close in several years.

A bitter pill for a beloved American institution.

As you can imagine, much chatter is going on about what led to this decline, and while people talk about management, priorities, etc., there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on.

We’ve stopped valuing history.

In an effort to “teach to the test”, it’s been mentioned that English and math are god-like subjects and science is offered as important to keep us competitive in the world marketplace. All of which are fair and true statements. But it seems as if history may be going the way of the art and music concentrations.

In a recent article by Communities Digital News, they report on students who don’t know what the Bill of Rights is, who have heard of the Civil War but don’t know what it was fought for, who aren’t studying American history prior to the late 1800s.

What does this mean for historical fiction, which tries to eke out a presence among rising genres like domestic suspense?

A pessimist might say that it is doomed. But I’ve never been a pessimist. So, I offer these words of encouragement to those who, like me, read and write in this genre.

  1. Thank God for Lin Manuel Miranda, who helped make the Founding Fathers popular again. I hope, I hope, I hope that the popularity of “Hamilton” will encourage citizens young and old to dig deeper into the figures and issues that shaped our nation. (Which, if you study it, you will realize that we are discussing many of the same topics today.)
  2. Historical Fiction isn’t merely about facts. It’s about love, revenge, deceit, valor, struggle, bravery. These are everlasting human traits and a love of history and historical fiction connects our present with our past and our future. If we write compelling characters, we will engage the modern-day reader and open their minds to long ago worlds that they may never have considered.
  3. Despite many agents and publishers saying that WWII fiction is “saturated”, the fact is that readers are eating it up and want more. That era covers so many cultures, so many angles, that it won’t be going away any time soon. You have only to ask book clubs and reader groups what their recent favorites were, and you’ll find The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls and others like them topping the list. Readers love reading it. Writers love writing it.
  4. Dual time periods. This has been a popular writing structure as of late. (And as someone who recently released one, I can tell you that they are a bear to write.) Many dual time period books take place in both contemporary times and in some historical area – often linked by a letter, a journal, or some other artifact that intrigues a current character into connecting with the past. This structure gives me great hope for the solvency of historical fiction. It’s very nature – the connection of the present and the past – defines what we’re lacking in our Twitter and Snapchat focused world.

So what can you do? As a writer, you can mine the wonderful stories that our past has to offer. As a reader, you can read, share, review, and promote your favorite works of historical fiction. Go see movies that are set in a past era. Teach your children/grandchildren/neighbors anything they might be missing in school.

And, maybe instead of Disneyland – though I do love the Mouse! – consider a trip to a place like Colonial Williamsburg or other important historical sites. They’re a whole lot cheaper, and reap rewards that are longer-lasting than a Tigger-tail chocolate-dipped marshmallow stick.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio just left an award-winning career as a real estate agent in San Antonio to pursue writing full time. Along with her husband of 20 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” was released in May 2017, and her third, “The Way of Beauty” will be released in May 2018.

Five Reasons Why I Rejected Your Manuscript

Last month, I wrote about some of the differences between writers and publishers, as well as some of the challenges of getting your work published. Here’s a quick recap: Publishing is a business (GASP!). Publishers want to make money (and that’s okay). Writers also want to make money (and that’s okay, too). It’s not easy to get published (no duh!). But that doesn’t mean you should give up (yay!).

This month, I want to talk a little more about the publishing world, and see if I can’t help give you some more perspective when it comes to that all-important question: Why did you reject my manuscript?

I hear that question a lot, and unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Saying “It’s not personal,” while technically true, doesn’t do much to ease the sting of rejection. Neither does the standard rejection letter that most publishers send out, which are often devoid of specific reasons for the rejection.

As a slush pile reader, I don’t make the final decision about whether something gets published or not, but I often make the first decision. And while a “yes” or “no” from me carries a fair amount of weight where I work, it’s someone higher up the food chain who ultimately decides your story’s fate.

Here are five of the most common reasons I will recommend rejecting a manuscript, as well as some possible solutions.

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Reason #1: It’s badly written. Hands down, this is the number one reason I will pass on a manuscript. “Badly written” encompasses both the content and the style. Maybe the plot is thin, or the characters are flat, or the dialogue is stilted. Or maybe there are grammatical errors as far as the eye can see. Now, a few problems here and there are not deal breakers—even the most professional authors make mistakes and need an editor’s help—but if the whole thing is a hot mess, I’m sending it back.

Solution: Write better. No, seriously. Write better.

Reason #2: It didn’t follow the rules. Every publisher has specific rules for submitting, and few things will red flag your manuscript for rejection like trying to go outside those rules. Some publishers will only take submissions from agents, for instance. Some publishers only want a cover letter and three chapters. Some only want an electronic copy, and so on. When a manuscript comes in that isn’t in the format that we require (12 point Times New Roman, double spaced, one inch margins), or it is clear that the author didn’t bother to read our submission guidelines, we know they’re probably not very serious about their craft. Or, it may as simple a thing as an author not even doing basic research to see what kinds of things we publish (which is how we once got a hand-illustrated horror story about a serial killer in the Deseret Book slush pile).

The reason for this is not because publishers are super nit-picky (although they are), but because when every manuscript follows an identical format, it levels the playing field. I don’t want to see your manuscript; I want to see your story. I want the manuscript to disappear into the background so that your story can take center stage.

Solution: Whatever publisher you’re submitting to, do your homework and play by the rules.

Reason #3: Timing. Here’s the thing: there are hundreds of manuscripts in the slush pile at any given moment, and we read them (more or less) in the order in which they were received. So it’s quite possible your post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller is, in fact, amazing—but it arrived in the slush pile two months later than another post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller that we really liked and are going to publish. That’s not your fault, it’s not your story’s fault, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It’s just bad timing, and sadly, nobody has any control over that.

Solution: IDK, try a different publisher?

Reason #4: It was my fault. Look, I’m human. I make mistakes. I try to give every single manuscript that comes across my desk a fair shake, but every once in a while, I completely and totally blow it and pass on something that was, in fact, really good. I wish I had a good reason for why this happens, but I don’t. Maybe you just caught me on a bad day. Maybe it’s because you write in a genre that isn’t my personal favorite. As with the timing issue, it’s not your fault. It’s not because you’re a bad writer. This one, while rare, is all on me.

Solution: Okay, this one requires a little more than a pat answer. Problems like this are why I’m not the only slushpile reader. Every one has bad days, and this is specifically why we will often have multiple readers look at manuscripts. And the good news for you is that I’m usually aware of when I’m in a bad mood or when I’m just not into your story because of the genre. When that happens, I will make specific mention of it and suggest that someone else take a crack at it. My solution for this problem is to trust that the right readers will see your manuscript 99.9% of the time.

Reason #5: What does the market want? Ah, there’s the question publishers get more than any other. As I wrote last month, publishers and writers are always looking for the Next Big Thing. The challenge is that publishers are always looking and planning really far ahead. For instance, the publisher I work for has 2018 titles all locked down, and is already looking at 2019 and even into 2020. What is being published right this minute is what we hoped would be the Next Big Thing two years ago. Writers see what’s popular at the moment, and think “I’m getting on that train!” and then we get inundated with thousands of the same kinds of stories. So it may be that your manuscript got rejected simply because the market trends are changing. Again, writers don’t have control over that.

Solution: Like the timing issue, there isn’t an easy answer here. Trends go in cycles, so be patient, I guess?

Rejections are not fun, and nobody pretends like they are. The submitting/rejection phase is probably the worst part of being a writer, maybe second only the marketing/self promotion side once you do get published (but that’s a post for another day). But remember that every published author has been rejected many, many times before—and often, even after they’ve been published! So take heart, because you’re in good company. Rejections can be an opportunity to improve your skills as a writer and to strengthen yourself as a person. Keep at it, and don’t give up!

Also: I swear it wasn’t personal.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.