Category Archives: Writing

The Joy of Teaching

I recently had an incredible experience—guiding my six-year-old as he wrote his first story. I abandoned my Ph.D. track partially because my time as a T.A. in World History 101 convinced me I despised teaching, but helping my child discover the joy of storytelling was truly amazing. And a lot of hard work, for both of us.

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This journey began when I saw a post about the PBS Kids Writers Contest. I just knew my precocious kindergartner would latch onto a project like that, and he did. I took dictation as he spun an imaginative tale about his stuffed orca coming to life as a real whale. In no time, he had a complete story—or so he thought. But as every writer knows, that’s just the beginning.

The first thing I taught him was the concept of the first draft and that every story you read has been through several rounds of editing and rewriting. His face fell, but he wanted this story to be good. We used worksheets from the PBS website to break down his story structure. His story naturally had a good beginning, middle and end, but the worksheets helped him find ways to strengthen the final problem and resolution for a more satisfying ending.

He still wasn’t done, though. His story was now over 500 words, and the contest limit was 200. That meant he had to do a lot of cutting. We went through every sentence, talking about whether that sentence contributed to the story he’d outlined on the worksheets. He especially hated cutting the paragraph about his little brother’s stuffed seal, but he recognized that it wasn’t really part of the story. We searched for anything that was unnecessary or repetitive until the story was finally under the limit.

There was still plenty of work to do since the contest called for illustrations and Mean Mommy made him write his story out by hand (not required for the contest, but I wanted him to practice his handwriting), but for this post I want to focus on just the writing process. What really struck me was how similar this was to the way I craft a story. Whether it’s a full-length novel or a 200-word children’s story, many of the ideas and processes remain the same.

My child and I both invested many hours in this project, but it was time well spent. It was wonderful sharing something I love with my child. I ordered a hardcover version of his story for myself, and I’m going to treasure that book—and the memories of the time we spent together—forever.

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Oh, and in case you’re wondering, his entry took first place in the kindergarten category for our region and also received an honorable mention (second place) in another contest for 6-11-year-olds sponsored by the Springfield-Greene County Library. I can’t wait to see what he writes next!

How Good is Good Enough?

I wrote about this topic in my latest President’s Address for the Ozarks Romance Authors newsletter and decided to open it up for discussion here. When is your manuscript good enough? It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I wrap up revisions on THE AMULET OF ISIS.

At this month’s ORA meeting, speaker Jacquelynn Gagne lamented that so many manuscripts go out the door before they’re ready. With the wealth of publishing opportunities available today, it has become all too common for books to be released while still riddled with basic errors. There’s a deeper level of story editing that’s often missing as well.

Agents and editors often tell us we need to have that manuscript perfect before we submit. But perfection isn’t possible. We can hire professional editors and enlist the aid of critique partners, but even then, our literary creations will still have flaws. Even the professionally edited books released by the big publishers contain errors. So when is enough enough?

The answer will be different for each of us depending on our goals, writing styles and supply of patience. Some authors turn out a book each season, while others spend years perfecting a single masterpiece. What kind of writer do you want to be? How good is good enough for you? Tough questions for all of us.

Bring On the Pain


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I’m a glutton for pain. I must be.

Getting a manuscript ready to release into the world involves revision and feedback, but how much is enough? Critique groups, contest judges, strangers on the internet—some chapters of my book have had dozens of eyes on them. The rest have been read by my go-to critique partners, the two most thorough, insightful and brutally honest reviewers I could find. These ladies know how to make me cry.

That means I’ve had a lot of practice lately accepting criticism. I thought I’d share a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Don’t Respond

One of the rules in the Ozarks Romance Authors’ critique group is that the author listens and does not speak. That’s a hard rule to follow, but a good one.

Sometimes we want to explain the bit the reader didn’t understand or why we wrote that passage the way we did. Don’t. If it requires an explanation, it doesn’t work. The writing must stand or fall on its own.

Other times we want to argue and show the critics why they’re wrong. Definite no-no. Hearing criticism of our work is painful, and the natural reaction is to become defensive. Remember that the people offering feedback have given their time and creative energy to help make your work better. Be grateful for that gift, even if you don’t like what they have to say.

Don’t Follow Every Piece of Advice

Although you shouldn’t tell your critique partners they’re wrong, sometimes they will be. Some suggestions won’t be right for your voice, your genre or your characters. Some advice will be just plain bad. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your vision for your book.

However . . .

Don’t Dismiss Good Advice Too Quickly

Some critiques are easy. We know the commenter is right, and the change is quick and simple. Or we know the suggestion is wrong for our book, and we can ignore it.

A lot of comments require a tough judgment call, though. Maybe they’ve pointed out a real weakness, but we’re not sure how, or whether, we can fix it. Or maybe we’re not sure whether we should use the suggestion or not. That’s when things get tricky.

Give yourself time to let your knee-jerk defensive reaction fade before you make a decision. The comments that made me the angriest often led to the best revisions. I think that’s because, deep down, I knew the criticism was valid, but I didn’t want to face the problem. Make sure you’re not dismissing valuable comments based on wounded feelings.

And finally . . .

Don’t Take it Personally

They’re critiquing the writing in front of them, not your value as a writer. You WANT them to find problems. That’s what helps you make it better. You didn’t think it was perfect, did you? If you did, why did you ask for feedback in the first place?

I’m going to keep repeating these phrases to myself, because an important lesson I still need to master is how to take in all this criticism without becoming discouraged. You’d think with all the supportive encouragement, positive agent feedback and competition successes I’ve had lately, I’d be immune to self-doubt. Not so much. Although my work may be good, it can be better. And I’m going to make that happen.

What about you? What are your experiences with critiques? What do you struggle with?

Tag! You’re it!

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Author Jeanie Franz Ransom recently invited me to join a blog hop. She compared it to a kids’ game of tag—she tagged me, now I answer her questions, then tag three more writers who will continue the game on their blogs next week. Swing by Jeanie’s blog to learn more about her and read her answers. What a fun way to get to know other bloggers and learn a few things about old friends, as well!

What are you working on right now?

An upper middle grade fantasy adventure called “The Amulet of Isis.”

While traveling in Egypt, four kids find a magical amulet that transports them back to ancient times. Before they know it, they’re swept into a whirlwind of murder plots, vengeful mummies and a perilous trip through the dark underworld.

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you probably saw last week’s post celebrating the completion of the first draft. Woohoo! Now I’m knee deep in the first round of edits.

How does it differ from other works in its genre?

I’ve seen a lot of time travel fiction that is almost entirely a product of the writer’s imagination—inspired by history, but not truly rooted in it. Those stories can be a lot of fun, but for me, this genre offers an unparalleled opportunity to whet kids’ appetite for history and mythology, firing their imaginations and making them want to learn more. I take plenty of artistic license to create a magical, fast-paced adventure, but it’s always grounded in the real history and mythology of the culture they’re visiting. Education can be fun!

Why do you write what you do?

I LOVE research. I completed most of a master’s degree in ancient and medieval history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Although I decided teaching was not my calling, I could happily spend days on end reading about the wonders of ancient civilizations. History is full of fantastic stories screaming to be told, and I want to bring them to life.

What would you like to try as a writer that you haven’t yet?

I love writing in a middle grade voice, and with so many cultures to visit, I could spend many years writing about my time-traveling kids.

There’s something else, though, that I need to write someday—a set of adult historicals set in sixth-century Gaul. I spent years compiling research for this project. I envision novels combining the epic life-and-death political struggles of “Game of Thrones” with the intimate female characterization of Philippa Gregory’s work. They’re truly compelling stories that few people have heard.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about me and “The Amulet of Isis.”  Now I’d like to hear about you! Please drop me a comment sharing why you were drawn to your current project.

And don’t forget to check out the fantastic authors I’ve tagged for next week!

Beth Carter, July 24th at http://banterwithbeth.blogspot.com/

A. M. Buxton, July 26th at http://ambuxton.wordpress.com/

Virginia Lori Jennings, July 26th at http://www.virginialorijennings.com

Riding High

I FINISHED IT!

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The first draft, anyway. 12:27 a.m. Saturday, July 6.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, then I’m sure you’ve already heard the news. I sat in my bed, my husband half asleep beside me, shouting my joy from the virtual rooftops.

This must be the highlight of the whole writing process—the afterglow of a freshly finished manuscript. Any author will tell you that writing is an emotional rollercoaster, full of highs and lows, but this has to be the highest of the highs.

Part of me never believed I could do this. Somewhere along the way, it would become too difficult, or I simply wouldn’t know what to write next. Well, those moments happened. There were days when I actually cried because it was so hard and scary. But I pushed through.

I slogged through the tough parts, cleaning up the mess later and shaping it into something worthwhile, and by the end the words were flowing easily. On Friday, I didn’t want to step away from my computer. I took it with me on our family day at the lake, squeezing in words here and there between boat rides.

When we took our final evening ride to watch the fireworks show at our local marina, I knew the end was within reach. I was only pages away, and could finish it that night. I sat in the boat with my family, watching the reflections of the fireworks sparkling across the water and listening to the booms echoing off the hills, and felt like this was my own personal celebration.

I can’t imagine a better feeling.

Now I know there’s still a tough road ahead. I’m already deep in my first round of edits, with at least two more rounds planned after that. Perhaps far more. Then it will be time to face the almost inevitable heartache and rejection of the querying and submission process.

But for now, I’m riding the high, and life doesn’t get much better than this.

Does Editing Kill your Creativity?

I’m closing in on the end of my manuscript, with just five or six thousand words yet to write. I am SO excited about that! And even though I haven’t quite made it to the end yet, I’m already starting to look back at the process that got me here, comparing my methods with those of other writers I know.

I love to read my friends’ blogs—I learn so much about how different people approach the challenges of writing that way. I recall one friend in particular, Sheila McClune, writing about her difficulties switching between “writer head” and “editor head.” Once she stopped working on her first draft to go back and edit, she had a terrible time beginning to write again. That internal editor just wouldn’t shut up and let her create.

One would think I would have learned from her experience and avoided editing until I had a completed draft in hand. But no.

From the very beginning, I’ve been obsessively editing and seeking feedback to help me identify my personal foibles. Some chapters have already been through multiple rounds of revision and more than a dozen beta readers. I know writers who would cringe at the idea of letting so many cooks spoil the broth.

So was it a mistake? I don’t think so. As long as you get to your goal, it’s all good, right? No doubt I could have completed a first draft more quickly, but since this is my first attempt at a novel, I was on the steep part of the learning curve. Having that ongoing feedback helped me identify mistakes early on, and my writing improved immensely because of it. I may eat these words in a few months, but I’m hoping that means I’ll have less of a mess to clean up when I officially enter the revision stage.

The biggest thing I have learned is that every writer is different, and no single approach works for everyone. So how about you? Do you edit as you go or wait until your first draft is finished? I’d love to hear your experiences!

When Life Gets in the Way

I often hear my friends say they couldn’t write this week/month/year because life got in the way. And I’m as guilty as anybody. It’s easy to imagine that once we finish this project/season/insert-almost-anything-here, life will calm down, and we will be able carve out a peaceful space for our writing. Yeah, right. Never happens.

What I've been doing this week--vacation with the family.

What I’ve been doing this week–vacation with the family.

Because life goes on in all its messy glory, continually bringing new chaos. Work, kids, health problems—everybody’s challenges are different, but we all have them. Now sometimes there truly is something extraordinary happening in your life that requires all of your attention, but what about the rest of the time? How do we continue to make progress under less-than-ideal circumstances? Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

Prioritize. Take stock of your life every once in a while and think about what is most important to you, then continually remind yourself of those priorities. Don’t let all the ephemeral day-to-day concerns, like whether your house is perfectly clean before your friend comes over, steal all your productive hours.

Clear out the clutter. Hey, wait, didn’t I just encourage you not to spend so much time cleaning your house? I mean life clutter. Facebook games and TV shows you don’t even care about and all the little time sucks that are lurking out there waiting to get you. I’m soooo guilty of this one.

Find your happy place. Maybe you have or can create a home office. Maybe you like to write in a coffee shop, or a park, or your bed. The brain learns to respond to familiar stimuli, so having a favorite writing spot can help you slip into your creative mode more quickly.

Schedule writing time. Make it sacred. Make it happen. It works best if you can set up a consistent time, like writing an hour or two every morning before you begin your day. If your life doesn’t allow for that, don’t worry—you’re in good company. Look at your schedule for the week and find some time each day you can devote to writing. If you don’t plan ahead and put it in your schedule, chances are your day will slip away without a good time to write ever presenting itself.

Get your family on board. Let them know that writing is important to you and what a challenge it is to find time to flex your creativity. Make sure your family knows when you’ve scheduled certain times for your writing. If they understand what you’re doing, and that you’ll be available to them again soon, they’ll be more likely to leave you undisturbed.

Find a writing buddy. If making a commitment to yourself to write at certain times isn’t motivation enough, make that commitment to someone else. Set a date to meet a friend for writing time, either in person or online. Agree to write for half an hour, an hour or whatever works for you, then compare word counts at the end. The goal isn’t necessarily to write quickly, but simply to stay focused on the task for that period of time.

Grab snippets of time where you can. I haven’t been able to make this one work myself, but I have a friend who turns out amazing word counts this way. Carry a small computer or notebook then add a few sentences whenever you find yourself with a free moment—waiting for your lunch order, at the doctor’s office, you get the idea. Just like adding pennies to a jar, these little bits add up.

And with that, I’m off to squeeze in a few words before a vacation day of go-karting and swimming with the family. What are your ideas? How do you keep life from getting in the way?