Mentor/Protégé

This is a Thinking Through Our Fingers classic, originally shared on November 29, 2011.

Photo by Casey McFarland, iamcasey.com

I have been reading children’s literature all my life. It’s only been the last two years that I’ve started trying to write it. I consider myself an experienced reader and a beginning writer. Because of this, I’ve developed a mentor/protégé relationship . . . with myself.

I imagine it’s a pretty common occurrence.

“You’re a genius!” says the mentor in me. “This book is destined to become a classic!”

And the writer smiles and types furiously while the muse is still nearby.

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But soon (sometimes within minutes), the mentor has changed her tune.

“This book is garbage. You’ll never amount to anything as a writer. Your time would be better spent cleaning the fridge.” [sympathetic “wah-wah” from a single trombone]

At times like this, the mentor would do well to remember words from her own hero, her great-uncle Wilbur Braithwaite. Wilbur was a writer of poetry and music who also happened to be veteran of World War II, a state-champion coach in multiple sports over a 50-year career, and a mentor to hundreds of high school athletes. In this article, he listed the following as one of his “Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching”:

“Your players tend to become what they believe you think they are.”

Ponder that for a minute. If I treat myself as a wannabe who is wasting her time, most likely I will remain a time-wasting wannabe. If, however, I can treat myself as a beginning writer who has great potential and promise, I will work harder and continue to improve, and I may just fulfill that potential and promise. So the lesson, I think, is this: Be kind to yourself, believe in yourself, and then remember #10 from Wilbur’s list:

“Work hard to influence the outcome of important things within your control.”

That’s the advice I’m giving my protégé today.

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Elaine 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.

Dream Big {ish}

Dream big.

For most of my life this has been instilled in me. I was raised to dream and work hard to make it happen. When grow up in a destitute area such as Chester, PA you need dreams and writing became my escape from reality. When you dream (well, at least I dream) you reach for more, the impossible seems more tangible. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming…it’s the waking up that sucks.

A few months ago I released my first novel into the world. After the years it took to finally hit that PUBLISH button my mind had come up with a million and one scenarios as to how my release day would go. I dreamed big or as big as my non-existent budget would allow. Release day came and…#101,000 in Kindle sales. For me that was sweet. A debut, self published author with no budget almost cracking into the 100,000s was awesome…then I started to obsess over the number.

Needless to say I allowed the Amazon algorithm to get in my head, to define me as writer as that number I had been so proud of plummeted hour by hour, day by day. Being competitive it was hard not to take that as a sign of how awful I was. But it has nothing to do with your skill. It certainly doesn’t reflect how hard you work to put out something you’re proud of.

What you can do at this moment when you bucket holding your confidence is punctured is take a step back. Take notice. See what worked for you. Was it advertising? Was it blog work? For me it was word of mouth and the little snippets offered up on Instagram. For my next release I’ll hit these harder as well as trying different avenues that I wasn’t able to the first time. This wasn’t a failure, just a learning experience.

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Another learning experience was recognizing my competitive nature was not helping. Checking my ranking on and off left me stagnant. There’s still the rest of my series to get out. Watching the chart did not put words on the paper. I had to step back and let it go. Queen Elsa was right. Let it go! If it’s not supporting your craft let it go.

Keep dreaming big. Shoot for the stars. If things don’t go how you planned…Switch up! Learn from your stumbling blocks. Until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

 

Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

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If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Ways to Study Craft

Right after I signed with my agent, I had a minor panic attack. Until that point, I’d always told myself that I loved writing and I always made time for it, but I’d convinced myself that I could walk away from it and think of it as a hobby. Signing with my agent made me admit that I was serious. Really serious. And admitting I was serious, meant that I needed to actually know what I was doing.

Because I definitely didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.

And so it was AFTER I signed with my agent that I decided I should probably read a craft book. I picked up THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby and started reading.

I don’t know if you’ve read THE ANATOMY OF STORY but it is DENSE! It’s so good and so full of really amazing information. But I could only get through a few pages before I had to put it down and let my brain take a rest. I still haven’t finished it but just reading the first half did wonders for my writing. (And yeah, I’ll finish it one day. I swear!)

I think really studying and analyzing story craft is so important. But it can feel daunting to do. And sometimes the resources people tell you to check out make no sense or they go against your rhythm. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to write, let alone study craft.

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BUT! You have to do it if you want to get better. So I’m going to talk about some ways you can study craft without getting an MFA or losing your writing time.

  1. Read a craft book. This is the obvious one. Maybe after you finish a draft of your new WIP, you can read a craft book while you let it sit before revising. There are so many different craft books. The dense ones like Truby’s. Short and snappy ones (I’ve heard great things about Take Off Your Pants!) The classics like King’s On Writing and the inspirational ones like Bird by Bird. Find one you enjoy! Or one that challenges you but in a good way.
  2. Go to the movies. For some reason, it is often easier to pinpoint plot devices in movies than in books. Maybe it is the visual aspect and the music that work together. But if you’re struggling with plot structure, I can’t recommend watching good movies enough. Pixar is a master of storytelling. Watch a Pixar flick to finally understand turning point, midpoint, dark night of the soul, and climax. Superhero movies will show you how to continually raise the stakes. Watch a chick flick to understand how to set up romantic tension. You get the idea.
  3. Read a book with a highlighter. I did this with Ally Condie’s Summerlost for the first few chapters (until I lost my highlighter and got so sucked in I couldn’t pause to stop.) But think about something you are struggling with and then go to a well-reviewed book in your genre and look for it, highlighting the passages that apply so you can see it and learn from it. With Summerlost, I was trying to see how humor is braided into a very heavy story to make it manageable for the MG reader. So I highlighted every instant of humor. It let me see how often it came up, but also how little space it took up on the page. It was super helpful. You can do this with show, don’t tell. Internalization. World Building. Backstory. Whatever it is you need to get better at.
  4. Go to a conference. I can’t recommend conferences enough. Size doesn’t matter. I attended a very small conference back in February and only attended one workshop and it helped me tackle a huge edit in my debut. You don’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of more regional and affordable conferences to go to. I personally love the Storymakers conference. Best classes and best price for any conference I’ve attended. The big national conferences can be good, but from what I’ve heard, they aren’t necessarily THE BEST. So don’t feel like you need to attend unless you really want to.
  5. Get on Twitter and follow your favorite authors and other writers. Writing Twitter is awesome and a lot of times writers will have really helpful threads on things you might be struggling with. Choose who you follow carefully if you want to keep it from being a timesuck. But there is a lot of really good FREE information on Twitter.
  6. Offer to do a lot of CPing and beta reading. Critiquing others work was probably the best thing I did for my own writing those first few years. Having to pinpoint what was working and wasn’t working in others’ stories allows you to come back to your story with fresh eyes and a better understanding of how everything works.
  7. Try to teach what you know. I’m a Pitch Wars mentor. And the mentoring process has forced me to nail down and be able to explain the parts of writing that can sometimes feel very fuzzy and ephemeral. I’ve had to think about it a lot so that I can put it into words instead of just feeling my way around it. That process has forced me to actually do a lot of analyzing and discover things about craft that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

So, feeling inspired to go study some craft? I hope so. What are some ways you study craft?

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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.

The Simple Secret to Writing Better

We are thrilled to welcome Ella Joy Olsen as our guest today!

I recently started teaching a course through Lifelong Learning at the University of Utah. The emphasis: How to Write Historical Fiction. While I had one historical fiction novel published and another in the hopper, I couldn’t imagine teaching a class on my process.

But then I started really thinking on it. Being self-taught didn’t mean I didn’t have anything to teach. Sure, I’d cobbled my knowledge from a variety of sources but I’d still written a book.

Where had I learned the very most? From reading. That was my first big ah-ha. And that’s how I decided to teach. During the first session I had the class brainstorm a time period or place they were interested in writing about. Some came to class with an idea already percolating; some didn’t know what they wanted to write about at all. We repeated the exercise three times.

At the end of the class I sent them home with instructions to decide on one historical period then make a trip to the book store and find a recently published and well-regarded historical fiction. One that matched either their chosen time or place (or even better, both). This would be their text book. The best text book ever, in my opinion.

Then they were to read the book slowly, paying close attention . . . like a writer: They were to find the inciting event, they were instructed to make note of what made the characters sympathetic and interesting in the first few pages. I asked them if they wanted to keep reading the book after the first scene, and why? What hooked them? We picked apart how historic facts were interwoven into scenes which added to the texture of the story instead of being info-dumped.

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And then we started writing. Turns out that’s the next big ah-ha. Pretty simple, right? There’s no magic bullet, no secret passed through the ages that allows a person to write the next great American novel. First you read. Then you write. And write. And write. Or as Stephen King put it:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Sure, there are things to think about as you write: plot, story arc, conflict, language. But until you actually put words on the page these are all abstract ideas. You can’t tell if your story is arcing until you have the story on the screen. You don’t know if your conflict needs to be amped up until you’ve written a tense scene. You can’t read and edit your writing until it’s…wait for it…written.

That’s what my students needed the most. Encouragement or a kick in the pants (gentle, of course) to get their butts in the chair and their fingers on their keyboards. Even if they didn’t have a distinct plan, they needed to write something. Everything else could be worked out, refined, and smoothed after they had actual words on the page.

After imparting all of my sage advice I have a fresh concern: I’m teaching a whole semester on this subject and as it turns out, the secret is really pretty simple. How will I ever fill my course hours?

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Ella Joy OlBiophoto2.JPGsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

Learning from Picture Books and Why Non-Picture Book Writers Might Want to Try Them

Recently, I took a picture book class. Although I’d played around with picture books in the past, this was the first time I’d seriously applied myself to it. To be honest, picture books had always kind of scared me. I’d hear people talk about them and they would talk about how hard picture books are, how every word counts, and basically how every page is born out of blood, tears, and pain.

And I don’t really like blood, tears, and pain. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs.

I signed up for the class, though, because I wanted to try something different. I needed a break from what I was working on and picture books—despite the blood, tears, and pain—would be vastly different.

Rather to my surprise, I found that picture books aren’t born solely from the author’s misery. There are miserable, hard moments, yes, but there’s also joy and fun and play involved in them as well. I learned many things from that class that have helped my writing in other areas.

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1. Freedom to write badly. One of the best things for me about this class was how freeing it was. I had no expectations of writing anything great, especially not a first draft, and that let me experiment and try things I never would have tried before. All too often, I have an idea and a story that I love, but the first drafts are so very drafty. It’s discouraging, especially when I thought it would be so good! (I know first drafts are supposed to be bad, but I often don’t internalize that.) Writing in a new genre and giving myself space to write imperfectly, to learn, and to grow was so freeing for me.

2. Structure. I also loved looking at structure in a new light. I’ve often struggled with structure, but picture books were short enough that I could really start to pick out how the author was using structure to tell the story. This was so helpful for me!

3. Playing with Words. Another thing I learned from picture books was how to compact words to speed up a story or how to spread them out to slow it down. This kind of goes along with structure, but applies to the individual scenes instead of to the story as a whole entity.

4. Visualization of scenes. I am not an artist, but trying to visualize my words, trying to imagine them as illustrations, was such a good exercise. It’s one I’ve started to use with my work aimed at older audiences. If the scene couldn’t be illustrated with more than one picture (ie, if no one is doing anything besides talking for pages), then there’s a problem.

5. Change in Perspective. Most picture books are aimed at kids between the ages of 3-8 years. Kids that age see the world very differently. For me, the exercise of trying to slip into that very young perspective was both challenging and exhilarating. They are fascinated by things I scarcely notice, they want to learn and to know and to understand. This was an exercise that has also helped me with my work for older readers. I’ve started to think of my characters in terms of how they see the world, what they notice, what they want to know, and what they want.

I don’t know if I will become a picture book writer or not, but the things I’ve learned from this class will be invaluable for me in the future. If you’ve never tried to write them, go ahead and let yourself play! Give yourself permission to write badly and you just might learn something.

Have any of you tried writing in a completely different genre?How did it go? What did you learn?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Storymakers Conference

Many of our contributors are teaching and volunteering and learning at the Storymakers Conference in Provo Utah today. Checkout #storymakers17 on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to get insights to help your writing along with us. Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.29.32 AM.png

See you with a regular post Monday!