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.

Bite-Sized Goals and Mousey Nibbles: Managing Lengthy Projects

Working your way through large, lengthy projects, like . . . oh, writing a novel, for instance, can be overwhelming, can’t it? First you have to write down the words, then you have to fix the words, then you have to fix them a second time, and possibly a third or fourth or fifth time. Then you have to figure out how to get those words out into the world, whether via traditional methods or indie. And while you’re trying to accomplish all of this, you have everyday life stuff to deal with too: jobs, family, chores—as well as non-everyday stuff, such as illnesses, vacations, bad mental health days, holidays . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, it helps to get organized by setting goals and deadlines—to mark on your calendar in bold when you want your first draft to be finished by, when you need to be done with the first round of edits, and so on. But when setting these longer deadlines, it’s easy to underestimate how long you’re really going to need.

I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ve tried to prevent it by calculating out how many words I need to write each day leading up to my deadline in order to reach it—making room for days when I know I’ll have less time to write. As long as I write the prescribed number of words each day, I’ll be perfectly fine, right? But then, life throws obstacles in my path, and soon I’m failing to meet my word counts and falling behind. The farther behind I fall, the more frustrated I get. I move my deadline out. I recalculate my word counts. Then I fall behind again. I get discouraged and overwhelmed over, and over, and I start to think I’ll never finish this darn thing.

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you do well with large goals and a daily word count system. Maybe that’s all you need in order to get things done. If so, that’s fantastic! It’s common advice, so it must work for a lot of writers, right? But if it’s not working for you, just as it hasn’t been working for me, I’d like to suggest a few things that have been working for me lately, in the hopes that you, too, will find them helpful.

Make 2-3 Bite-Sized Goals At A Time

I still plan out the large goals (finish draft, revise draft, edit draft.) But I’ve lessened their importance in favor of smaller, bite-sized goals (that, I must stress, aren’t word counts,) and I only plan out a few of these goals at a time. For instance, my goal this weekend was to re-examine my outline, because I’ve discovered I need to throw out some scenes and replace them with brand new ones. I wasn’t writing the scenes this weekend—just taking a look and deciding what I need those scenes to do. My next bite-sized goal will be to outline those scenes. The bite-sized goal after that will be to finally draft those scenes. And . . . that’s it. That’s as far ahead as I’ve planned. Obviously, I have an idea of what I’ll need to do after that, because I know that my ultimate goal is to finish revising this entire draft. But for now, I’m not going to worry about anything further than getting through these next few scenes.

Keeping my goals small and few in number helps me feel like I’m actually making progress. If I look at it in respect to the larger goal of finishing my revisions, it won’t feel like I’ve done much at all. I’ll feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, and I’ll get frustrated. So I don’t do that.

Only Work Under Your Best Working Conditions

Pay close attention to when and where you do your best work. Do you get more done in the morning? Then work in the morning and don’t try to squeeze more work out of yourself past that time (unless you absolutely must.) Do you have specific days when you’re less likely to be able to focus? Keep your expectations low on those days. I have a standing appointment every Tuesday morning that tends to throw off my concentration for the rest of the day. I’ve come to accept that if I do get any writing done on Tuesdays, it’s a bonus. I’m better off using Tuesdays to catch up on chores or other things that don’t require me to think too much. I’m having a harder time convincing myself that writing post-children’s bedtimes is also a lost cause. But it’s a fact that I’m usually too tired and brain-drained to do much of anything by then. My best times for focusing are late morning and early afternoon when the kids are at school, so that’s when I make myself sit down and work. I also pay attention to my energy level. If I try to work with my laptop on the couch, am I more likely to nap instead? If so, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and work sitting up at my desk. Is my back bothering me to the point where sitting at my desk will make the pain worse and/or distract me? Then maybe the couch would be better after all.

Just Take a Mousey Nibble

Okay, this one probably needs some background. My oldest son is a very picky eater. Always has been. He has texture issues and we suspect he may also be a super taster, because he will often complain about things tasting “too strong.” There was a period when he was younger where he was so anxious about trying new foods, that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion. That is until one day, he told us that maybe . . . maybe he could just try a mouse-sized bite. A little mousey nibble. A nearly microscopic taste that, like sticking a toe in the water, would help to alleviate some of his fear of the unknown. This still works with him. “Just take a mousey nibble, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay,” we tell him. And so he does. And then sometimes, all on his own, he will decide to take a larger taste afterward.

If, even with your bite-sized goals, you’re still feeling anxious about sitting down to work, or you’re not sure how to get started, or you’re just plain unmotivated, tell yourself that you only have to take a mousey nibble. Open your document and commit to five minutes. You don’t even have to type anything. You can use those five minutes to look over your last paragraph, or glance through your outline, or heck, just stare at the blank screen. Chances are though, once your timer goes off, you’ll be able to settle yourself into your task. And if you still can’t, that’s ok. Take a break and try another mousey nibble later. Maybe it’ll taste different next time.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve that help you get through large projects? Please share them with us in the comments.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard, Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele, knitting, or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys and three mischievous cats. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Setting Goals for Solitary Souls

We are so excited to welcome our newest contributor, Crystal Liechty!

This week, I made a vision board. It’s my first time undertaking such an endeavor and I felt a little silly the whole time. But I have several friends who highly recommend this process for goal setting so I decided to go for it.

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For those who don’t know, a vision board is when you find pictures or keywords for goals you have (a pile of money for more income; or a place you want to travel to; a new bookshelf, etc) and you arrange them on a poster, then hang it somewhere you will see it every day. The hippies say this shows the universe your intention and calls forth these things to manifest in your life. I just think it’s a good way to help you focus on what you want so you don’t get distracted by squirrels or Netflix marathons.

As I considered my goals and gathered pictures to represent them, it got me thinking. Goal setting is kind of a lonely process. I’m a very social person, so I feel the sting sharply. Here is my goal, I tell everyone, participate in it with me! But you can’t because my goals aren’t your goals. You can cheer me on and in fact, having cheerleaders in your life is very important. But you can’t set the goal for me. You can’t want the goal for me and you definitely can’t achieve the goal for me.

See what I mean? Lonely.

I recently read a study that said people who declare their goals to their community, via Facebook or whatever, actually fail at accomplishing those goals more often than people who don’t announce them. I was surprised by this because in my mind, announcing goals to those around you would make you more accountable, wouldn’t it? But that’s not the reality. Once you shout out your goal and get all the “huzzahs!” and “you can do it!”, what’s the point after that?

Maybe goals are supposed to be lonely, solitary things.

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Guess what is also a very lonely undertaking? Writing. And to write, you have to set goals. Lots of goals. And then some more goals if you accomplished the first goals. (Someone keep track of how many times I use the word “goal” in this blog.)

If you’re an introvert, this prospect is probably less terrifying to you. I’m an social vampire, feeding off conversations, Facebook likes and retweets. Perhaps that’s why I constantly find myself in a goal whirlpool, struggling to know what I want to do next. Struggling even more to get myself to do it.

But fear not, my fellow social butterflies! I have found a few tricks to escape the desolate wasteland that is writerly goals. One is writing communities. I love my various online writing groups, where people ask writing questions or seek life advice and just in general, human together. Accountability partners are another way to lessen the loneliness. I have a great one who checks in with me daily and makes me feel like someone out there sincerely cares if I write 1,000 words today.

Writing conferences are an extrovert writer’s holy land. I’m never more inspired or fired up than after a good writers conference. They can fuel me for months and I probably get more done immediately after a writers conference than any other time of the year.

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Only time will tell if my vision board helps me. Only practice will help me learn to set and follow through on my goals despite the loneliness. Only good friends will keep me sane through it all.

How do you  handle the loneliness of goals?

Writer, Defined

Last month, I wrote a pep talk of sorts for people dealing with an existential crisis about being a writer. I received a lot of positive feedback from friends who said that it really helped them. And while I’m thrilled to hear things like that, I have a confession: I wrote that post as much for myself as anyone. This post is a companion to that one, in which I am, to reference the name of this website, just thinking through my fingers.

I’m about to do something that promises to be even more mind-blowingly meta than the time I ran the operation instructions for my new paper shredder through the paper shredder. I’m about to look up the definition of the word “definition” in the dictionary. I hope the universe doesn’t collapse in on itself.

Definition. Noun. (deh-feh-ni-shun).

From the Latin “definitus,” meaning, “set within limits.”

  1. A statement expressing the essential or intrinsic nature of something.
  2. The action or power of describing or explaining, or of making precise, specific, and clear.

As writers, definitions are absolutely crucial, because words are our business, and meanings matter. Indeed, definitions are the standards on which all language is based, and the very load-bearing beams of civilization itself. If people cannot agree on what words mean, then all communication breaks down, understanding falls apart, and confusion and chaos will be all that is left! Dogs and cats, living together…MASS HYSTERIA!

But I digress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about definitions, about how we as writers define ourselves, and about what definitions we choose to accept from others. When did you first think or yourself as a “writer?” When did you first respond with “I’m a writer” when someone asked what you did? What qualifies one to say, “I’m a writer” with confidence?

For some, the answers to those questions are simple. They’ve been thinking of themselves as writers for much of their lives, and they have no problem saying it to others, because they see the word “writer” as the expression of their essential or intrinsic nature. It’s clearly and precisely who they are. It’s their definition.

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For others, however, that definition doesn’t come quite so easily. I have enjoyed writing for a good portion of my life, but it has always been hard to refer to myself as a writer. Even when my first book was published, I found myself struggling to say “I’m a writer” when talking with others. I always pictured “real writers” as people who wrote full time, who earned every penny of their income from words they wrote, and who took up several inches of shelf space at the bookstore or library. But that definition didn’t seem to apply to me. Defining myself as a writer felt inauthentic. It felt fraudulent. After all, I only had one book published, and I still had a day job. How could I call myself a writer? Instead, I would tell people “I wrote a book,” and even that would come out rather sheepish in tone, bordering on apologetic, as if I was about to follow that statement up with “…and I’m sorry.” To this day, in fact, even with multiple books under my belt, it still feels a little weird to say the words “I’m a writer” out loud. I half expect someone to vocally challenge me every time I say it.

Definitions such as “writer,” like so many things in life, are often easier to see in others rather than in ourselves. What is much easier, unfortunately, is to accept the negative definitions that come from others. We allow ourselves to be set within the limits that other people have chosen. We base our entire identity off of one bad review that some thoughtless person pounded out in a fit of anger. We define our self worth based on the amount of our royalty checks—or the lack thereof. We are so quick to give buoying words of support to other struggling writers, yet just as quick to dismiss those words when offered to us.

We’re an interesting bunch, aren’t we?

One of my all-time favorite films is The Iron Giant. In that story, a gigantic extraterrestrial robot falls to earth and, because of damage to its head, suffers from a sort of amnesia. The giant has no idea what he is at first, and gradually learns to see the world through the eyes of a young boy who becomes his friend. The boy tells the giant that he can choose to be whatever he wants to be. The giant, having heard his new friend tell stories about a comic book hero, decides he wants to be Superman. However, the giant eventually discovers the truth about his identity—that he is, essentially, a giant weapon. But the giant refuses to accept that definition, stating clearly, “I am not a gun!” He then flies away to save the boy’s small town from being destroyed by a nuclear missile, and his last word before sacrificing himself is said almost as a smile: “Superman.”

The most powerful lesson I take away from that story is this: No one gets to define me but me. I am a writer because I write. You are a writer because you write. It doesn’t matter if you’re published, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make any money at it, and it doesn’t matter if you only do it because you enjoy it.

Say it with me: I. Am. A. Writer.

Now say it again.

Now one more time, with feeling.

Scribo ergo sum. I write, therefore I am.

That is who I am.

That is who you are.

No one else gets to define me but me.

No one else gets to define you but you.

Is that clear enough? Is that precise enough? Is that enough of an expression of your essential nature? If not, let’s go to the dictionary for another definition:

Writer. Noun. (rie-ter).

  1. One that writes.

Synonyms: author, wordsmith, scribe, novelist, essayist, storyteller, biographer, journalist, tragedian, poet, scrivener, litterateur, blogger, columnist, scribbler.

SEE ALSO: YOU.

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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.

Allow Room for Some Praise

Perhaps this post is just for me. It happens sometimes where you have several ideas rolling about in your head, but that one you keep ignoring keeps fighting until you submit. What’s been nagging at me is the fact that I can’t receive positive feedback. Calm down, I can hear your eye rolls but hear me out.

Recently I had my evaluation at work. Nothing special just a job I’ve been at for the past nineteen years. There’s never been an issue performance wise, in honesty I wanted to speed through so I could get back to work and go home. This year we have a new president at our job and a new manager. We went through the whole rigmarole before the part came to manager notes and president notes. Usually it’s nothing other than keep working hard. On this occasion I got rave reviews on my work ethic from my manager and the president who I only met three times. I was, for the first time in my life, finally able to accurately emote being gobsmacked.

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But in spite of that I sat there and said “Oh, okay…can I go back to work?” I kicked myself later for not letting a bit more gratitude show. Afterwards though I looked back at my life and realize I usually default to not accepting the darn compliment or believing something good is going to come.

So what the heck does this have to do with writing? When you put yourself out there you leave yourself open to rejection, to hurt, to negativity. I think any writer or creative person you have to build up a thick skin, to portray that everything is fine when in actuality you want to scream or cry. I spent several years trying to get my book Beyond Here traditionally published. There were a lot of times where I questioned the purpose of writing. Through all the rejection it was hard to hear that it was worth putting it out into the world. All I heard was the negative and my thick skin wouldn’t allow any praise to come through.

What I’m trying to say is: keep going. Roadblocks and tribulations will come, but along the way there are paths of stability to give you respite. Breathe in these times. Take it all in. Don’t allow your tough skin to push you out of the life you want, from creating what you were meant to create. Taking in that positive feedback here and then can be that spark to light your way when things seem dark. Just keep going and trust in you.

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 building the inkslayer army you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. You can read his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem, along with a few projects with his other daughter. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Discouraging Encouragement for New Writers

I recently got to message with someone who is just getting started with this whole writing thing. She had lots of questions, worries, and insecurities. About a year ago, my husband was thinking about writing a book he’d had in his head for ten years! He also had lots of questions, worries, and insecurities. I gave them both the same exact advice, but they reacted to it differently. My friend said, “Okay, good to know. That’s exciting. I can do that.” My husband said, “Nah. Nevermind.”

What was the difference?

Mindset.

So, if you are just getting started writing or are thinking about writing or dreaming about thinking about writing, I want you to put on your “Growth Mindset.”

Got it in place? Okay. Let’s go. I’m going to quote the most common concerns I here from new or aspiring writers and then answer with…

The most discouraging encouragement you will ever get.

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I don’t know if I’m any good. I think everything I write is terrible.

Truth: Chances are good that you AREN’T any good…yet. Probably everything you are writing is deeply flawed and, yes, pretty terrible. But guess what? The vast, vast majority of writers start out that way. I don’t personally know a single writer who started out AMAZING! Is there such a thing as natural writing talent? Sure! Does it matter if you have it? Not a bit. Because even the people who start with “natural talent” start out terrible.

Think about learning to play the piano. I had a “natural talent” for music. Do you think I sat down at the keyboard for the first time when I was five and pounded out Beethoven? No! That’s ridiculous on its face. Writing is absolutely, 100% no different.

So you suck right now and you know it. GOOD! The worst writers are the ones who think they are amazing at it. The ones who never realize they are terrible. Realizing you aren’t a very good writer is important, it is what will propel you to actually work and study and get better. It will give you the motivation to revise and improve.

Ask almost any author about their first writings and you will get groans and laughs and eye rolls. It’s something we all go through. And even all those writers who are published? They still think they are terrible. They still write crappy first drafts. They are still learning and figuring this whole thing out. So get comfortable with the feeling. It will never go away completely.

Okay, so how do I stop sucking?

There are no shortcuts. Write consistently. Read widely and as much as you can. Get on writer Twitter. Read writing blogs and craft books. What would you do if your dream was to become an artist? Musician? Dancer? Do that!

Practice.

Learn.

Practice.

I can do that. But how long will it take to stop sucking? When is it realistic to expect publication?

That is a great question that I can’t answer because everyone is different. Some people publish their first books (the rest of us secretly hate them.) Some people don’t get published until their 10th book. Even the lucky first book people have mostly been working on their writing for years.

When I first started writing, I read a lot of “success” posts and realized that most people write 3-5 books before getting an agent or getting published. Most people work 4-6 years before hitting those “success” milestones. And being in the book world for the last few years has born out those statistics for most people. Even me! I got my agent almost 4 years after I started, with my second book. My debut will come out 6 years after I started writing.

There are never any guarantees, but I honestly believe it is really good to go into writing expecting at least five years of work before you see any results and planning on your first 2 books, at least, being practice books. And I don’t mean that you should query them or try to get them published, I think you absolutely should. You should use your practice books to practice querying too. I just think it’s nicer to be pleasantly surprised rather than crushed and disappointed.

So you are saying I should work really hard on something and then let people reject it? I don’t think my heart can handle that! That’s so scary!

Meh. You’ll get over it.

I know that sounds heartless, but you will.

Really. I’m not trying to blow off your pain. Believe me, I’ve been there. I have sobbed over rejections before. I’ve complained to friends and mentors and talked about giving up. That the pain isn’t worth it. But you know what? I wrote the next book and it was always better and it distracted my heart and that made the rejections hurt less. “Okay, you don’t want that book? That’s alright, I have something better coming down the pipeline.”

Actually, if you can believe it. You’ll get a little bit addicted to the adrenaline rush of querying and rejections and requests. You’ll realize that your book is not for everyone and that’s okay.

There will be bad days where you cry and eat chocolate and think about giving up. But there will also be good days where you realize that writing is important not just for the success side of it. That you are not your book and it says nothing about your worth. That there is always hope. That you are getting better. That you will just keep going!

Some days, rejections will roll off you. Other days, they’ll stink or even break you. But eventually, the pain numbs and you keep writing. You can not get published without at least risking rejection. So you’re going to do it and you will survive. Not only that, you will become a braver human being in general because of it.

So there you go. My discouraging encouragement. You probably do stink (I still do in a lot of ways.) You will probably have to put in years of work before success. You will get rejected and it will hurt.

But it will be okay. This is what it is to be a writer. WELCOME!
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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. Her debut novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, will be published by Boyds Mills Press September 2018.

On Teaching

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” –George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

We’ve all heard this phrase before, often times in jest. I’ve spent most of my life as a teacher of some kind, from working at a tutoring center to teaching high school algebra and even homeschooling my kids for 11 years. In fact I’d guess that most people have taught in one form or another many times, whether at church or school or within their own families.

There is currently a severe teacher shortage across the nation. It’s no secret teachers don’t get paid much and are often underappreciated, but the shortage is so bad there are salary wars and schools scrambling to get anyone in the door so they have someone to sit in the classroom, no matter their credentials or lack thereof. There are also many college incentive programs and scholarships for those pursuing teaching to help counteract this education crisis we’re facing.

Why the abandonment of teaching? Some of the greatest minds in history were also teachers: Aristotle, Galileo, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking. They didn’t just research or study. They didn’t just write and publish. They also taught.

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In recent years a lot of the teaching I do is about writing at either conferences or schools. Though far from an expert, my brief experience and study of the writing craft is sometimes valuable information for others, and I enjoy encouraging aspiring authors to keep learning and moving forward. After all, I was in their shoes just a few short years ago, and it was the help of other authors who encouraged me to do the same.

Writers are some of the most giving people in the world, often sacrificing their time and expertise to teach and help those who want to write as well. But I often notice that at a certain point in their careers, some authors will stop teaching or interacting with aspiring writers altogether. I am 100% behind the idea of protecting one’s time and energy, something that becomes much more precious the busier we get. I am no stranger to saying no when I can’t help, but I think that amongst all the no’s, there should be an occasional yes. It would be a sad thing if those who can teach, just do.

I am in awe of those writers around me who give so freely to aspiring authors. They teach and they support and they uplift and they encourage. I would have quit this writing gig years ago if it weren’t for people like them. As we enter writing conference season, I would encourage everyone to thank those teachers and editors and behind-the-scenes helpers you run into for what they’ve given so freely, solely motivated by their love of writing. I’d also encourage authors to find an opportunity to say yes, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve taught others along their writing path.

Because I believe that those who can do, teach.

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.