Tallying the Tailwinds

tailwinds

I come from a family of runners and writers. Both pursuits can be difficult and, at times, discouraging. My brother and I were talking about running recently and laughing about the fact that he’d run the same route every morning for months, always thinking, “I have the worst luck. The wind always picks up when I turn back for home.”

We were laughing because of course, this wasn’t true. The wind was there all along. But he wasn’t aware of it when it was pushing him gently along, helping him toward his goal. As runners, we’re aware of our tailwinds for a minute or two, and then we simply don’t notice them. Headwinds, however, are nearly always in our thoughts because they’re quite literally in our faces.

As it turns out, this isn’t an experience unique to running, and certainly not to my brother. In all aspects of life, we are more likely to notice the forces working against us than those working for us. Not because we are negative or pessimists, but because the obstacles are the very things we’re trying to overcome, and therefore they have our attention. The things that are helping us along don’t require our attention and therefore don’t receive it to nearly the same degree.

In psychology, this is known as the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Tom Gilovich of Cornell University has studied this phenomenon for years, sharing his results in scholarly articles as well as this highly accessible podcast interview. It’s a phenomenon that shows up across the human experience, in areas from sports to politics to family matters.

In conjunction with this research, Gilovich also references the fact that who actively practice gratitude—which is, in essence, the act of acknowledging and appreciating your tailwinds—are happier and healthier. Those who don’t are more likely to not only focus on their headwinds—the obstacles in their way—but to succumb to greed and envy, two feelings that are essentially the opposites of gratitude. As you might guess, this does not result in happier, healthier outcomes.

Let’s return, then, to writing. It’s easy to focus on the (valid) writing is difficult for you and on the obstacles you’ve faced and are facing.

But have you tallied your tailwinds lately? Ever? Your list might include some of these:

  • Your education and literacy (For so much of the world, this is not a given.)
  • Access to libraries, and perhaps even a personal library
  • Access to the materials you need to write, whether that’s a brand-new laptop or a notebook and a sharp pencil
  • Writing software (Search and replace! Track changes! What incredible tools we have.)
  • A supportive family
  • Wise critique partners
  • A writing community, including mentors who pay it forward
  • Access to information (Google Earth! Google Translate! Straight-up Google! YouTube! Blogs like this one!)
  • Emotional health, including a heart capable of empathizing with the characters you create
  • Physical health, including healthy hands capable of typing
  • Mental health, including a mind capable of creating
  • A supportive and knowledgeable agent
  • An editor or publisher who champions your book
  • Readers who love your work (whether they number in the millions or we’re just talking about your mom)

My own list includes many of these, and I’m sure there are things I’m missing—advantages I’ve enjoyed for so long that I simply don’t see them. But the very act of writing this list has helped me appreciate all the forces working in my favor. The very act of listing your tailwinds, or even stopping to think about it, can make all the difference in outlook and, as a result, outcome. It’s certainly something I plan to practice on a much more regular basis.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Best Books of 2017: A List of Lists (and What to Do with It)

list of lists

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to weigh in with a list of Best Books of the Year–from libraries and magazines to authors and bloggers, including our own Rosalyn Eves and Amanda Rawson Hill. I’ll admit, I’d planned to post my own list today, and it included Long Way Down, The 57 Bus, Orphan Island, and Clayton Byrd Goes Underground.

I love poring over the lists: seeing if my favorites made the cut, adding to my already-overwhelming TBR pile. Since my first book came out, I’ll admit there’s sometimes a tiny hope that my own book will have been found list-worthy. But as I talked with a friend about what I might like to write next, she suggested something I’d never considered:

“Have you studied the lists?”

Her assertion was that there’s a lot to be learned from the lists, both for the sake of our art and the necessary commerce that accompanies it–because books that make the lists are often successful in both regards. Of course, we seek to be original, we long to tell our stories. But we can find inspiration, instruction on craft, and a sense of the marketplace by looking at books on the lists that have been successful in all these areas.

So, without further ado, I give you a list of lists so you can find new books to read and love and recommend, but also with the hope that you’ll study and learn from it (as I plan to!) as an early step toward creating something that’s wonderfully, uniquely you.

What lists did I miss? Feel free to link in the comments!


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Story Soup -or- Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Next Tuesday, my sophomore novel, Paper Chains, will be released into the world. In the weeks ahead, I’ve got school visits, a book festival, a writing conference, a library event, and the high-profile privilege of being interviewed by a fourth grader (one of the perks of writing for kids.) This particular fourth grader asked some really insightful questions, one of which I’m absolutely certain will be posed again at my upcoming events:

Ideas graphic.jpegWhere do you get your ideas?

As authors, this may be the question we’re asked most often, and others (including Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Neil Gaiman) have answered it with great insight. I love this question because to me, it embodies a core curiosity. Where do these stories we love come from? If we keep walking upstream to where it all began, what will we find?

I have two answers for this question:

Stories are all around you.

Stories are within you.

If you think of your current work, you can probably find both origins. Often (but certainly not always), the outer spark that starts a story—the part from the world around you—gives rise to its plot, and the inner spark—the part from within you—gives rise to its theme.

Paper ChainsIn early conversations about Paper Chains, I would tell people, “The idea came from The Snow Child, an adaptation of a Russian folk tale my grandmother read to me when I was a little girl.” And this is true. Paper Chains is a bit of an allegory of the Snow Child. Katie’s relationship with her parents, her cultural heritage, and parts of her personality were drawn from this core idea.

But as the manuscript—and my understanding of it—progressed, I realized that I’d set out to do more than write a story inspired by a book my grandmother read to me. I realized that The Snow Child—and, in fact, all the stories I’d grown up with—had become part of who I was, and so had the grandmother who read them to me. And without even realizing it, that had become what I was writing about: the idea that we are all made of stories, sort of a “story soup” (to use a term coined by one of my characters) composed of not only our own life experiences, but the stories that shaped us as well.

I really believe this. I’m shaped by stories. They are all around me, they are within me. And maybe, for me, that’s what’s so sacred about writing. It’s a way to give back to the well and wealth of stories that have made me the person I am. In five days, Paper Chains will be released, and the process will come full circle. This idea that came from around me and within me will be out there in the world, and it will become part of each person that reads it. And maybe someday, pieces of Paper Chains will find their way into another story, and the cycle can begin again.

If you, like me, are looking for your next story, I hope the idea will come from both places. Because when we can say something meaningful about the world around us and the soul within us, that is a story worth telling.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

From Passenger to Pilot

As I draft this post, I’m sitting in an Airbus A320 from KDTW to KDEN at flight level 370. I don’t know this because I have a great deal of aeronautical knowledge or because I was even particularly paying attention to the pre-flight speech; I know this because my aviation-obsessed son did a little research before I left.

Jack spends his time watching instructional videos and studying navigation charts. The reward for getting his work done is ten minutes of YouTube aviation channels. It is a powerful motivator. My son is passionate about flight to the point that it’s not enough to fly on an airplane, to be the passenger. He has to become a pilot.

TTOF july17

I think this is not unlike the reason we write. We love story to the point that it is not enough to be along for the ride. We need to be the one charting the course, the one taking others on the journey. But in order to do so successfully—in order to make the jump from passenger to pilot—there’s a tremendous amount of work that must take place. Skills to be acquired. Forces of physics and nature and mechanics to understand. We must learn how to chart the course, how to navigate it safely, and how to listen to the essential voices from the ground that are guiding us in the right direction.

Writing is an art, certainly, but I think all art requires this study and work, unglamorous though it may be. I remember coming to an elementary school arts night and being amazed at the quality and technique of the self-portraits the kindergarteners drew. Just as I was marveling at how many of the kids I could actually recognize from their portraits, I was shocked to hear a parent complaining that art should be free expression and that all the portraits looked the same. Yes, all the portraits looked similar in that they all looked remarkably like human faces. Drawn by kindergarteners! Of course art is expression, but we must first acquire the tools and skills with which to express ourselves. As a friend in theater education says, “If we want kids to think outside the box, they first have to understand the box.” Certainly this is true at any age.

And so it is with our writing. We can take our stories to new heights and undiscovered places—but we must do so with an understanding of the principles and potential dangers, of the layout of the land and the craft that’s taking us there. We keep our skills sharp by attending a conference, taking a class, reading a new book on writing or creativity. Only then can we have the soaring sensation and the breathtaking beauty we first fell in love with, and only then can we share those things with our readers as well.

What will you do this summer to become a better pilot?


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

The World is Wide Enough: Rethinking the “-er” and the “-est”

 

April TTOF

We are all storytellers here, and today’s post is about my most recent experiences with one specific form of storytelling: live theater.

Due to ridiculous good fortune and a particularly skilled friend, I found myself in possession of a (reasonably priced!) ticket to see one of the very first performances of Hamilton in San Francisco. It’s still hard for me to put into words how perfect it was–the staging, the acting, the music, the story itself. I found myself thinking, “That may be the best performance I’ve seen. Of anything. Ever.”

What could possibly follow an experience like that? Would everything pale in comparison? Perhaps I should give up on theater, because what could ever hope to compete?

Luckily, my kids had already been cast in a children’s production of Once On This Island, and there was more theater in my immediate future. As I write this, we’re twenty-four hours from closing night, and I still haven’t made it through the final number without tearing up. It’s a beautiful show.

As I reflect on these two very different productions, I’ve also been thinking of a conversation I had recently with a wise grandmother. She told me of how she’s seeking to eliminate “the ‘-er’ and ‘-est'” from her conversations with her grandkids and even from her own thoughts. Rather than asking them, “What was the best part of the trip?” she asks, “What did you love about the trip?” Rather than evaluating her staff in terms of who is better at their job, she considers what strengths each of her employees brings to the workplace.

There is certainly a place for comparison and even ranking in certain facets of life, but ever since that conversation, I’ve been increasingly aware of how limited the need actually is. When anything is placed as superior, in terms of relationships or experiences or works of art, by necessity, something also becomes inferior.

Here’s what I propose:

What if we eliminate the comparison and ranking from our lives as much as we possibly can? Easier said than done, of course, but how powerful would it be to look at our experiences–and our work–in terms of what we love and what we learn? To approach our storytelling with a respect for and awareness of all the stories that have come before and all that will follow–but without worrying how ours will rank among them? To recognize that the world is truly wide enough for us all? Would we then tell our stories for more pure reasons, rather than for purposes of a bigger advance, a potential award that designates our work as “better”, a secret (or not-so-secret) desire to earn the rank of “bestsesller”?

Tomorrow night, I will watch from the wings as forty bright, beautiful children sing these words with strong voices and hopeful hearts:

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story

~ “Why We Tell The Story”, Once On This Island

Nourish yourself and your story, then, my friends, without any worry of whether it is best or better in comparison to everything else out there or even than what you’ve written before. Put your whole self into your story, and when you’ve done that, again and again, let it be enough.

And it will be.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

 

The First Rule of Improv/Revision

improv

There are some excellent posts on revision in the TTOF archives, including Rosalyn’s post just last week. Today I’m hoping to add to the canon by sharing one of my own rules of revision.

The title of this post comes from Tina Fey’s hilarious and smart book, Bossypants. The whole book is excellent, but my very favorite part on page 83, where Fey outlines her “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE…Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” ~Tina Fey, Bossypants

In terms of improv, this means that if your partner says, “It sure is stinky in here,” and you say, “Nah, it smells fine to me,” then the scene is over and it wasn’t funny. But if you take what they say and run with it–“Yes, I’m filling the whoopee cushions. Want to help?” or “Yes, I notice you’re wearing your cheese hat again.”–then you’re getting somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

This idea of starting with YES has all sorts of implications in all areas of life, but what does it mean in terms of revision? Should you make every change suggested, even by the most trusted editor or critique partner? Absolutely not. But if you approach every critique with the attitude of “Yes”–as in “Yes, that might work” or “Yes, I see why you’d feel that way as a reader” or “Yes, I’ll at least give it a try”, then you’ll really get somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

It can be hard to lean toward YES, especially with the big stuff. “Take this plotline back and bring the other one forward. That’s your story.” “These characters need to meet sooner and share the page more often.” “I know this story all started with the doll, but…can you get rid of the doll?” (Best advice ever.) You can resist these kinds of suggestions flat-out, or do a half-hearted move-the-food-around-your-plate attempt until it looks like you’ve done what you were supposed to do–or you can say YES and see where it takes you.

My most recent experience with the power of YES happened when I sold my first foreign rights for my debut novel (!!!) on the condition that I cut the word count by 20% (?!?). I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wondered if it would be too much of a compromise, whether I could kill quite so many darlings and still be true to my story. But I said yes, and I tried it. And it totally worked.

The beauty of computers is that you can save a new copy of your manuscript and try anything on it, and if your YES crashes and burns, there is literally no harm done to your story. It’s still there in its original form! A wise author clued me into this trick. “Yes. I’ll try this thing my editor/agent/critique partner said, just so I can tell her/him I tried it. I can always go back to the old version.”

Do you want to know the best part? When it comes to the big stuff, I have only ever once gone back to the old version. Saying YES in myriad ways has made my stories infinitely better. I have never once regretted an answer of “Yes, I’ll give it a try.”

P.S. For an actual TTOF post about improv, see the excellent  “7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes” by Erin Shakespear. And HUGE thanks to Erin “Cheese Hat” Shakespear and Helen “Whoopee Cushion” Boswell for their excellent improv lines above!


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Considering the Cost

considering-the-cost

The year is drawing to a close, and one of the themes that seems to be on everyone’s mind is time. It’s certainly on mine.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak to a group of students at the university where I teach. The topic? Time management. My gut reaction was, “Let’s find another speaker so I can listen to a talk on time management, because WOW, I need to hear that.” But I reluctantly recognized that the best way to learn to manage my own time a little better was to do the work of figuring some of this out for myself. So I got to work.

The students I was speaking to are like many of the readers of this blog: bright, motivated, and working tirelessly toward their goals. I asked them to start with this exercise: Write a list of the things that are important to you. No ranking, no set number of items on the list. You might include writing, family, work, exercise, sleep, activism or volunteer work, mediation or worship, travel–it’s your list! But there are a few to get you thinking. (This is the part where you actually take two minutes to write the list. Tasha’s insightful and inspiring post on essentialism might help.)

Okay. Now. Time is one of the most precious commodities any of us have to invest. I would assert that emotional energy may be the other, and that they are related through one of my mom’s favorite quotes:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Consider, then, the goals you’re pursuing and the important things on your list. What is the cost of each–not only in terms of time, but the emotional cost as well? How much of your life are you willing to exchange for a finished manuscript, a book deal, an online presence? For a close relationship with your parents or children? For a physically and mentally healthy body? For the social or environmental causes that are close to your heart?

These are not rhetorical questions; there is no answer or position I’m guiding you to. But the cost of each of the things on your list–those most precious, important aspects of your life–is worth considering.

As you look toward 2017, reflect upon how you spent your time and emotional energy in 2016. Unless you’re perfect, there will be adjustments to be made. (I know there are for me.) But know that if you’re investing in the things that are important to you–even if the balance isn’t perfect, even if you sometimes feel you’re falling short–then you’re doing okay. Make those adjustments. Ask for help. And then be fierce and steadfast and work hard.

We got this. Look out, 2017.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.