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.

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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

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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 toward. (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.

In Memoriam

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Photos by Brooke MacNaughtan

Last Tuesday, my first book was published. We had a launch party full of great food and laughter and families gathered. It was wonderful. And a big reason it was wonderful was the Shakespear family. Erin is a beloved member of the TTOF family and one of my closest friends, and she recruited her husband Ryan and their six children to help out.

Ryan showed up with a ladder and his signature cowboy hat and helped hang stars from the ceiling. He was steady and strong, kind and thoughtful, as I always knew him to be. He laughed and played with his kids. He helped in ways large and small, without fanfare or recognition. When the night was over and the crowd was gone, we spoke. He congratulated me on the book, and I thanked him for sharing his wife and his beautiful family with me for the night. He smiled and said, “They are pretty great.” And I agreed.

One week later, Ryan passed away in a hiking accident, leaving behind that beautiful family. He was one of the most selfless, kind, involved fathers I have known. He was a supportive husband and he and Erin were truly best friends. My heart breaks for them.

img_2966One line from the book that keeps coming to mind is this:

Remember this truth: You are not alone.

These are the words in my heart right now–words I want to share with Erin. There will be great needs over the coming days and weeks and years, and I am here. This is what friendship looks like, and I know that because of the kind of friend you have been to me. The world is a better place because you are in it, and because of that handsome cowboy who walked by your side. I love you, Shakespear family. You are not alone.

For anyone who wishes to contribute to the Shakespear family, here’s one way to help. And please, hold your loved ones close today.

Thinking in Threes: Triple MG Interview

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Today on the blog, we’re featuring triplet debut authors Jill Diamond, Elly Swartz, and our own Elaine Vickers! These three authors’ books were released just this week, and they each agreed to answer three of our interview questions. Bonus: They also agreed to do a giveaway! Check the end of the post to find out how you could win a critique from all three authors. But first, the interview…

finding-perfectWhere did your initial story idea come from?

Elly Swartz, author of Finding PerfectOne day, I woke-up with Molly in my head, and she wouldn’t leave until I told her story. At the time, I knew a number of adults and kids whom I was very close with who had OCD. I was awed by the disconnect between how they saw themselves and the world saw them. I then spent the next 7 years researching OCD, writing Molly’s story, and working with OCD pediatric specialists to authenticate the manifestation, discovery and treatment of Molly’s symptoms. Between research and the writing, I learned so much from Molly. She has stayed with me long after wrapping up my final draft. Truly, I think a piece of Molly will stay with me always.

Jill Diamond, author of Lou Lou and Pea and the Mural MysteryI actually came up with Lou Lou and Pea’s names before anything else. I adore naming things! After that, I knew I wanted to write a story inspired by the people, traditions, art, and culture that I love about my neighborhood, the Mission District in San Francisco. I also knew I wanted it to be a mystery and a friendship story. It all kind of fell into place from there, and Lou Lou and Pea were born!

Elaine Vickers, author of Like MagicFrom an editor’s tweet to an agent. (Neither of whom I ended up working with! So you’re not wasting your time on Twitter, folks. 🙂 There was an article about an American Girl doll being checked out from the New York Public Library that this agent and editor felt would make a great middle grade novel. I agreed, and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I wrote the story. The doll was replaced by a hollowed-out book box after several revisions, but that tweet and that article started it all.

lm-coverTo whom is your book dedicated, and why did you choose that particular dedication line?

Elaine: My dedication line reads:

for my mom

and my daughters

who make my life

like magic

Like Magic is a story of connection—between friends, but also between mothers and daughters. My mom has been my greatest support all my life—the kind of mom I hope to be for my own daughters. So it felt just right to dedicate it to them.

Jill: My dedication line reads:

For Nancy Diamond, known to her students as The Best Librarian in the Whole Wide World, known to me as Mom

I dedicated the book to my mom because it could never have existed without her. My mom was an elementary school librarian and a true champion of children’s literature. I began working on the book when I was caring for her during a terminal illness. I thought it was a fitting way to honor her, particularly because my mom greatly influenced my love of both reading and creative writing.


Elly: 
My dedication line says, “To James, Joshua and Gregory. You make my heart smile every day. I love you.” James is my husband of 26 years, and Joshua and Gregory are our sons. I dedicated this book to them as they are truly my whole heart. On this long journey to YES, their belief in me never wavered. They make me proud and so very happy. I am beyond grateful. And lucky.

lou-louWhat is the best reader response you’ve ever had for this book?

Jill: My favorite feedback thus far was from someone who won an ARC of LOU LOU AND PEA in a raffle. She tweeted: “My daughter LOVED Lou Lou & Pea! She gobbled it up in one night, told me it was super funny (her highest praise), and said she wants to learn Spanish. So – THANK YOU!”

Elly: I had the privilege of Skyping with a class whose teacher had an arc of Finding Perfect that she had read aloud to all of her students. When we Skyped, we spoke a lot about Molly and her unattainable definition of perfect. In response, this fourth grader shared his interpretation of what perfect meant to him after reading Molly’s story and participating in our discussion. I was truly moved.

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Elaine: When I read this book to my daughter for the first time, she surprised me with a Lego recreation of a key scene in the book. I think it will be hard for anything to top that, ever.

lego-lost-and-found-girls

And now for the best part…

Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway and win a critique of the first five pages of your MG or YA manuscript by Elaine Vickers, Elly Swartz, and Jill Diamond!

Good luck!


JillDiamond_Headshot.pngJill Diamond has loved children’s literature for as long as she can remember, thanks to her school librarian mother and the long, cold winters in Maine. When she’s not writing, Jill practices law, dreams about her next travels, eats soft serve ice cream, and wears cowboy boots. Jill now lives in San Francisco with her husband and their son. Visit her at www.jilldiamondbooks.com or on Twitter @jillinboots


ellyElly Swartz’s debut novel, Finding Perfect (FSG) is about twelve-year-old Molly, friendships, family, OCD, and a slam poetry competition that will determine everything. Through the years, Elly’s been a Sesame Place ride operator, messenger, lawyer, legal author, and college essay adviser. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and beagle named Lucy. If you want to connect with Elly or learn more about what she’s working on, you can find her at www.ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz or Facebook.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic (HarperCollins) and 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.

An Author’s Christmas Eve

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Writing and publishing are often compared to a roller coaster, because hey, we’re writers, and sometimes we want to save the really creative metaphors for our work. But writing and publishing could also be compared to a calendar year—some beautiful days, some rotten ones, seasons of bleak gray, seasons of anticipation and waiting and hard work.

If I think of my own writing journey in these terms (and as somebody who celebrates Christmas), I’ve arrived at Christmas Eve. There’s a red-letter day on the calendar that I’ve been counting down toward forever, and suddenly, it’s almost here. My debut novel is about to be released, and I have an actual hardcover copy that I can hold in my hands! In all honesty, I always imagined this part would feel like Christmas Eve, and it does! But there’s a catch.

I imagined this part of the publishing journey would feel like Christmas Eve as a kid. Nothing but parties and treats and gleeful anticipation of the day you’ve been waiting for forever. Knowing that on the other side of sunrise, you’ll get the very thing you’ve been waiting and wishing for, and all your dreams will come true.

Ahh. Christmas Eve.

The reality is that right now feels less like the Christmas Eves of my childhood and a whole lot more like Christmas Eve as an adult. It’s a wonderful time, to be sure, but there is also a crap ton of work to do. Things to assemble and buy and so many people to reach out to. Events to plan. And will any of it live up to the expectations of those you’re trying so hard to please?

In this Christmas Eve scenario, there is only one gift, and it’s both the one you’re giving and the one you’re receiving: your book. Talk about pressure.

By the way, I don’t think this applies only to writers on the eve of traditional publication. I felt this way before I clicked “send” on queries. Each time my agent sent a new batch of submissions. I feel this way a little even when I send something I’ve written to my closest friends and critique partners and even to my parents. The stories we craft are pieces of ourselves, and it’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to give them to readers of any kind.

So what do you do when Christmas Eve arrives, as it inevitably does? You take that gift that you’ve labored over and you try to find the very best ways to package it and present it, with a query letter or jacket copy or the perfect book trailer or postcards for libraries or…you get the idea. Sometimes this works beautifully, but sometimes the gift itself resists that packaging.

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Another thing: Even when things seem to be going smoothly, there’s a distinct possibility itching at the back of your mind that perhaps the gift itself is not quite right after all. That in spite of all your efforts and thought and planning and sacrifice, what you have to offer isn’t going to measure up. That even you will be disappointed when Christmas morning arrives and this one imperfect story is all there is. But it’s sure as heck too late to do anything about that, because it’s Christmas Eve and you couldn’t change it if you wanted to, and even if you could, on a fundamental level it is what it is and you would probably only make it worse. So maybe just put another bow on top…

No. See there? The bow was too much, and now you’re questioning all your wrapping choices, and the thing inside the package is still exactly the same as it was before, which is to say that it’s still not perfect.

As soon as this gift leaves our hands and passes to someone else’s, there is the distinct possibility that it won’t quite be what they were looking for. There is a high probability that they will recognize its imperfections.

But here’s the thing: That’s what life is. Imperfect and yet incredible. That’s what your gift is, in its own way. In fact, that’s what so much of what we write yearns to convey.

Here are my characters. Imperfect, yet incredible.

Here is their journey. Imperfect, yet incredible.

Here I am, the deepest parts of my soul visible in slivers of light and shadow and all shades in between through the words I put on this page. Imperfect, yet incredible.

What a gift it would be to recognize the value of our words and the value in ourselves, during all seasons of this journey. For me, on this Christmas Eve, I’ve still got miles to go.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, October 2016) and 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.