What Are You Waiting For? – WFMAD Day 31


We’re here!!

The end of WFMAD, Year 5. How was it?

Writing this blog every day turned out to be good discipline for me. I have been a wretched excuse for a blogger in the past year. A blog post is an essay. I would rather work on my novels than write an essay several times a week. But I seem to have no problem posted to Twitter, or to Tumblr, or to Facebook. No essays required there, I guess.

It takes me an average of about four hours to write a WFMAD blog. (Now you know why it takes me so long to write a novel.) I deliberately did not review my previous WFMAD blogs, but I realize that I may have unintentionally replicated some topics. For those of you who have been following for five years, my apologies.

I’m not sure if I’m going to do this again next year because of exactly that issue; there are only so many things one can say about this bizarre little practice of dreaming up worlds and then committing them to paper. I’m thinking about writing a small e-book that would contain whatever it is I think I know about trying to combine life and writing. Not sure.

Would you rather see the e-book or will you be here in August 2013, waiting for the next blog entry?

What did I do this month? Good question.

Along with writing this blog, I’ve been working on my YA novel every day. And we welcomed our first grandchild into the world this month. And we almost finished the mammoth house renovation project that has consumed the past 18 months. And I went to a lot of doctors and I kept the gardens almost weed-free and took care of various and sundry matters for various and sundry relatives and friends.  Took a quick trip to Montreal. Answered a lot of email. Read some great books. Watched Olympics. Ate astounding tomatoes.

Life happens whether you are writing or not. You don’t have to wait for the right time, or that Muse-blessed idea or a fellowship to a writing colony or a winning lottery ticket or anything. You just have to give yourself permission to take seriously your writing dream.

Do you dare?

Why the hell not?

Is it not better to to have tried – to have lived and loved and failed…. but laughed – than to never have lived at all?

You can do this. You have permission.

I double-dog-dare you.


Today’s Quote

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.”

Neil Gaiman


Today’s prompt: How many days did you write this month? What happened to take you off track? How did you feel about that? What did you do the next day to change things? Looking at the next four months, what time of day is the best time for your to write? (You only need fifteen minutes! Write on the toilet, for cripes sakes!)  What writing project do you want to finish before August 1, 2013?



Whose Story Is it? WFMAD Day 30


Google Analytics tells me that this blog is read by people all over the world. Hello, Egypt! Hello, Germany! Hello, Brasil!

Today I am going to focus on an issue central to life in the United States, so I beg forgiveness of those readers who don’t live here. I would, of course, love their opinions about this post, because I imagine their perspective on what I’m about to say would be fascinating.


A lot of white people in the US don’t know they’re white. They think they just are, they think they are the default setting.

Am I talking about you? Might be. Are you white? Do you realize how relatively easy your life has been when compared to people from non-Caucasian backgrounds? Do you understand the phrase “white privilege?”

If the answer to that last question is “not sure or “no,” do yourself a favor and read this classic essay by Peggy McIntosh.

White people have had a whole lot of blood on their hands for the last four hundred years. It is not my intent to address that right now. I want to focus on storytelling. Specifically, white writers writing outside their (dominant) culture.

This brings up the larger question: whose story can you tell?

How should we write about people whose experience is different than ours? Is it appropriate to write from the perspective of a different gender, a different sexual orientation? What about religion? What about age? What about someone from a different ethnic background or culture or country?

I believe the answer is yes.

I believe that artists are called to be humble and lower their own sense of self so that they can be open to the experience of others and transform that into their art.

I believe that artists are called to lead the culture, not to wait until it’s safe to take a stand.

I’ve written from the male perspective (Twisted, Forge), from the African-American perspective during the American Revolution (Chains, Forge), and about children in different countries (a non-fiction book about Saudi Arabia, and my first picture book, Ndito Runs, about a Kenyan girl).

I was criticized by both white and black Americans for Chains and Forge, though not as much as I thought I’d be. The criticism from some white people has been along the lines of “Why do you have to write about that slavery stuff? That was over a long time ago. We’ll never move the country forward if people like you keep bringing it up.” The criticism from a few black people was that these are not my stories to tell.

The reason America struggles so much with the evil of racism is that we’ve never had the courage to study the history of our slavery and deal with its legacy. I’m the Queen Of The Elephant in the Room, folks. I’m going to keep on talking and writing about things that make us uncomfortable.

There is not much I can say to change the opinion of people who think that I shouldn’t write from a slave’s POV because I’m white. No doubt there is a long and painful history behind that opinion. White people have been stealing stories (and music, and dance, and etc.) for as long as we’ve been stealing peoples and nations. I respect that opinion, but I disagree with it. I thought and prayed a long time before I wrote those two books. I spoke to friends and educators of all backgrounds  trying to figure out if and how I could write from the perspective of Colonial-era slaves.

I decided, in the end, that it was my story, too. Slavery is not only an African-American experience. Slavery is an American experience. If I, a middle class white female writer, with all the privileges that entails, could not find a way into the hearts and souls of Isabel and Curzon, then there could be no hope for my country. But to do the job well and responsibly, I had to research the topic like no one ever had before, and then have historians comb over my manuscript to make sure I got it right.

Researching the experiences of other people means checking your assumptions at the door. You need to seek out primary sources that were composed and controlled by the people you seek. You must study the broader world of your character so that when you come across “facts” you can analyze them within the context of their time and space, and with a critical view toward the source of the data. You have to be willing to approach people who know more than you do and ask for their guidance and help. And you must listen to them.

We read to understand people whose lives are different than our own. Some writers will feel called to write about people who are unlike themselves.

You can do it, but you must do it with humility, respect, and a lot more research than you realize.

There are two bloggers you simply must read if you are thinking about writing characters from non-white backgrounds. The first is Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. A former professor in American Indian Studies, Debbie is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science with the goal of establishing a library and tribal archive at Nambe. Her wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature  looks at the way Native Americans are portrayed and represented in children’s literature.

Debbie writes: “Though I am certain that no author ever sets out to deliberately misrepresent who we are in his or her writing, it happens over and over again. Information is the only way to counter those misrepresentations. On American Indians in Children’s Literature, I publish analyses of children’s books, lesson plans, films, and other items related to the topic of American Indians and/or how we this topic is taught in school. “

Her blog is a wealth of information. To start, check out “Authenticity and Sensitivity: Goals for writing and reviewing books with Native American themes,” which she wrote for School Library Journal.

Thank you, Debbie, for encouraging me to write about this topic today!

The other blogger is my friend and wonderful author, Mitali Perkins. You should be reading her blog anyway, if you want to publish for children. But her posts Ten Tips About Writing Race In Novels  and her  “writing race checklist” are very good tools.

Sci-fi and fantasy author Nisi Shawl has a great post, Transracial Writing for the Sincere. And the almighty and ever-amazing Cynthia Leitich Smith (yes, she of one of the best children’s literature websites out there) wrote an “It’s Complicated” post about writing outside your culture.

I suspect I’ll be writing more about this once WFMAD is over, but this is a good start to an important and complex topic. If you know of other websites or resources that would be helpful for folks looking to write outside their own experience, please let me know in the comments section.

Today’s Quote

“You just keep the words coming. No trick to it at all if the writing is in you. Nothing will come if you haven’t got the stuff. It comes natural or it doesn’t come at all. Everything comes; the people, the place, the story, and you just act like the fella feeding the corn shucker. Keep moving about and filling.”

William Faulkner 

Today’s prompt: What kind of character would you feel completely unable to write about? Why? List five things that would start you on the path to understanding that character well enough to start writing.



Art Is All – WFMAD Day 29

Source: Britannica 


When people find out how busy the last fifteen years have been for me, they are often confused.

“How did you find time to write all those books?” is the common question.

The answer is simple.

I turned off the television.

I’m not an anti-TV vigilante. I’ve always had a television.  I got cable when they started televising professional women’s basketball. Every once in a while I’ll be hooked by a series (Game of Thrones) and Beloved Husband and I will make the time to watch it, though rarely when it is first aired.

We have one television in our house. It’s in the basement, in the man cave. We mostly use it to watch sports.

If you love television, that’s awesome. I don’t judge. Maybe it works for you. Maybe it feeds your Muse. Maybe you are one of those people who can pound out three pages an hour watching Dancing With The Stars. 


If you are one of those people who is always bummed out because you don’t have enough time to write, then count up how many hours of television you watched last week. Did you love each one? Were they all worth an hour of your life? If you could go back and unwatch them, and use those hours for writing, how much time would you get back?


Today’s Quote

“The days you work are the best days.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Today’s prompt: Write out an estimate of how you spend the 24 hours of each day. How much do you sleep? Spend with family? Work the day job? Errands, laundry, organizing your sock drawer, etc.? How much time do you spend writing? How many hours do you watch television or movies? How much time to you spend goofing around on the Internet?



The Quest of Character – WFMAD Day 28

I adore Dr. Maya Angelou. She is my hero.

::Sighs in contentment::

::Pauses to gather self::

Yesterday a reader wrote:  “How do you plot for characters that don’t really have an outward goal or problem they can solve? I’ve relied on yearning for this, but I’m curious how books like Speak and Twisted came about plotwise.”

It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to complete a novel without knowing what your character wants out of her life. I guess maybe you could write an experimental book that way, but I’m probably not the person to ask about that, because I doubt I’d read it.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are all about quests. Good word, “quests.” From the Latin, quærere “seek, gain, ask.” See also: query.  Clearly a word that carries a lot of weight for writers.

Sometimes the quests are small, like finding a pair of jeans that fit.

Sometimes they are larger, like reconnecting with a child given up for adoption or figuring out the meaning of your life before you die. To fall in love. To trust yourself. To craft a life that is balanced. We are all on quests all the time.

The trick to good fiction writing is for the writer to be aware of the main character’s quest (sometimes when the character is not aware of it) and to construct the world of the novel so the interior and exterior lives of the character, and sometimes the lives of other characters, drive relentlessly through the ups and downs of the story in pursuit of those quests.

When I started SPEAK, I did not know what Melinda’s quest was. I just had the voice of a depressed, isolated teenage girl in my head. So I listened to her and I wrote. Eventually I figured out what happened to her and the plot of the book took shape. More or less. She wanted to find her voice. She wanted to be able to tell people what had happened to her, to tell them what she was feeling. But she had to reclaim herself before she could reclaim her voice.

TWISTED was different. I knew I wanted to write about the experience of a teen-age boy. After talking to guys for a couple of years, I knew that my character’s father, his peer group, and the girl of his dreams all had to play a role in the story. I started that book and wrote the first fifty or so pages about six times; each draft was completely different than the one before it. I struggled until the voice of the character came to me clearly, and I understood his quest: he wanted to be a man, but nobody would show him how. Once I knew that piece, the writing flowed easily.


Today’s Quote

 “Don’t be in too much of a rush to be published. There is enormous value in listening and reading and writing—and then putting your words away for weeks or months–and then returning to your work to polish it some more.”

Sharon Creech


Today’s prompt: What does your character thinks she wants in the course of your story. What does she really want, but is not yet aware of? What obstacles prevent her from attainting what she wants? Whose world changes when she gets what she wants?

Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Advice and Whatnot – WFMAD Day 27

Question: How do I get an agent or editor to give me feedback on my manscript?

Answer: With one exception*, the only way you’re going to get feedback from an agent is to be signed up by one. Not all agents offer feedback. Mine doesn’t.

An editor who likes your manuscript but feels it isn’t quite good enough to be published yet may offer to buy it “on spec.” That means that publication is not guaranteed, but the editor is willing to work with you on a revision and give some feedback. This is how SPEAK was published; the editor bought it on spec, gave me feedback, I revised and then it was published. If I had not done a good job on the revision, it would not have been published.

BTW, I didn’t have an agent when I sold SPEAK. I didn’t have an agent for my first seven books.

*The exception is that SCBWI conferences often have manuscript critique services. You send in a specified number of pages ahead of time and at the conference, you get a face-to-face meeting with the published author, editor, or agent who critiques the manuscript. I got very helpful feedback from Harold Underdown about FEVER 1793 this way.

Question: Have you ever not listened to a story idea or a character in your head?

Answer: Nope. If they speak, I scribble. Not every idea or character is solid enough to be turned into a full-length novel, but at the very least, it’s good writing practice.

We’re almost to the end of this year’s writing challenge. What questions would you like me to answer, or topics to tackle in the next few days?

Today’s Quote

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”

Eudora Welty

Today’s prompt: Dig a little deeper into your character so you can understand her better. Where do her family’s roots like? What were her great-grandparent’s lives like? What would she do if she found a bag with $500 on the street? What about $5000? Who in her ife is likely to die in the next year? What would she do if that happened in front of her? Ask the unasked question and you’ll find riches.

Scribble… scribble… scribble…