Faith – WFMAD Day 26


I spoke to more than a thousand kids a day at the Youngstown State University English Festival for three days at the end of March. I saw them in “smaller” groups throughout the day, then gave a final presentation to everyone before they went home. It was a life-changing experience to be in a room with a thousand kids who were completely stoked about books and reading and writing. I adored all of them… and their teachers who worked very hard to prepare them for the experience.

I signed books for about three hours each day. Several times the organizers had to cut the line short so that I could give my next presentation. A girl named Faith was crushed when she made it to the front of the line (after waiting an hour) only to be told that she would have to wait until after the presentation. (I had already snuck several kids past the organizers and was pushing the limit in a big way.) The look on her face  slayed me, so I wrote her name on my arm and swore a holy oath that as soon as I was done talking, I would find her and sign her books.

Which I did.

Faith was patient and mature and responded beautifully to a situation that she was not happy with. I will always remember her. Having the word “Faith” written on my arm at the end of the three-day festival summarized perfectly my relationship to my work and to my readers. (The photo above was taken shortly after I signed Faith’s book.)


Today’s Quote

“Art glows with faith even in its weakest parts. At every moment, writing is an act of self-confidence – the sheerest, most determined, most stubborn self-belief. You CAN have faith and doubt at the same time; the most insecure writer on the planet has faith that shines just as bright as her doubt, and she deserves props for that. It might be hidden deep, she might not feel it and you might not see it, but it’s in there, or she wouldn’t be able to write.”

Kristin Cashore

Today’s prompt: What is it about your writing that you want to give up on? What causes you to think of quitting? Who would be happier if you stopped writing? Who would be crushed? How will your life change if you quit? Make a promise to that scared part of yourself that is having doubts. Write down that promise and put it where you can see it daily.

Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Shining, Hidden Stars – WFMAD Day 25


I woke up at 3am today in a total allergy meltdown. Medicine, shower, tea. It was clear I wasn’t going to get back to sleep so I sat outside and watched the Milky Way overhead. All in all, it was not a bad way to start the day.

Which is why I am feeling brave enough to say a few things about revision.

The concept of Revision is one of the hardest for new writers (and a few not-so-new) to wrap their heads around. You’ve put years into your story, you understand the lives of your characters, you’ve been polishing that climatic scenes in chapter 37 until it glows in the dark and by the gods, you are not going to change anything. You can’t. You shouldn’t, because it is perfect.

I get it.

I totally get it, because writing is hard. Writing can be a real bitch sometimes, and after a while, you can’t see the forest for the trees, or, more precisely, the story for the words. In a dark corner of your mind, you recognize that there are aspects to your story that don’t make total sense, or perhaps a few inconsistencies of character, or unmotivated plot twists, but it’s hard, and  you really don’t want to… change… anything.

Let me give a few quick tips (I can talk about this for days on end, but it’s the weekend and I’m sure you have other things to do.)

1. Revision is your friend. Trust me on this. The mindset that you have about this is critical. If you dread and disparage revision, you won’t do great work. You changed the universe by writing the drafts that you have already written. Change it again by refining the story. Revision is not punishment for a life of sin; it is how you breathe life into your story.

2. Early drafts are created with the passion of a new love affair. Revision is undertaken with the trust and commitment of a good marriage. There is still a lot of love there, but it is a love that seeks the truth and what is best for the book.

3. Make sure that every scene has a purpose; it must move the plot forward, give us critical insights into a character, or both. You will find scenes that are little more than a bunch of people standing around and talking. Either take whatever dialog is important (assuming there is some) and weave it into a different scene, or change the setting so that there is action and growth.

4. That last point is super important, so I will yell it loudly. BE WILLING TO CHANGE THE SETTING. This hit me upside the head when I was revising Part Two of my novel this week. I was cranky because so many scenes were set in the same places – school, home, bus, blah, blah. What was missing were settings that would  give the reader more information about the life of my main character. And then my brain went a little fuzzy and drifted off to that place between thinking and daydreaming and suddenly it hit me: LAUNDROMAT! When I finish this post I’m going to make coffee, grab some breakfast and go work on a Laundromat scene. (I’m very excited about this!!)

Did you see what I did there at the end of Point #4? I said I am excited about revising Part Two. I am going to insert a new scene in a Laundromat. I am probably going to the condense the activity that is currently in Chapters 34-38 into two chapters, because really? There’s a whole lot of silly drama in those chapters that is useless. But the point about the deepening relationship between my main character and her friend Gracie, that is critical, so critical that I want to slow down the unfolding of it. So I will keep that big, scary thing that happens at Gracie’s house in the about-to-be-remade Chapters 34 and 35, then I’ll cut to Chapter 39. The Laundromat scene will probably become the new chapter 41.

The sun is up now and I can’t see the stars anymore. But I know they are there, patiently shining and wait for the dark. The great potential of your story is waiting, too.  You must take a risk, walk into the night. Be willing to look at your story honestly. Listen carefully to comments from your early readers. Accept that inspiration and revision are the inhale and exhale of writing. Breathe deeply and get to work.


Today’s Quote

 “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?”

Susan Sontag


Today’s prompt: Spend some time on the CCBC’s The Westing Game Manuscript website. It shows Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game (1979 Newbery Medal winner) as a work-in-progress, including pages of her story notes, and crossed-out, marked-up pages of the manuscript. Then brainstorm a list of scenes in your work-in-progress that could be cut, moved or added.



  Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Curing The Suckitude of Writer’s Block – WFMAD Day 24

If you’ve never had writer’s block, go away.

If you’ve never had writer’s block, you should be writing this blog.

If you say you’ve never had writer’s block, I don’t believe you.

Writer’s block is actually several conditions masquerading as one. Saying, “Help me, I have writer’s block” is as useful as going to your doctor and saying, “I feel icky.”

You must figure out what kind of writer’s block  you have in order to cure yourself.

Blank Screen Writer’s Block, Type 1 – You stare at the screen or the empty page and you cannot think of a single thing to write. You want to write, but you have no ideas or words.

Blank Screen Writer’s Block, Type 2 – You stare at the screen or the empty page and you are so overwhelmed by ideas and words that you don’t know where to start.

Ticking Clock Writer’s Block – You put off starting a project and now the deadline looms and you are paralyzed.

Hysterical Monkeys Writer’s Block – Tribes of hysterical monkeys inhabit your brain, screaming about what a crappy writer you are. This, understandably, makes it hard to write anything.

Obsessive Compulsive Writer’s Block – Whenever you sit down to write, you are seized by the uncontrollable urge to clean your oven, scrub your roof shingles, or alphabetize the entire Internet on a hand-crocheted doily that you will then use as the signature item in the Etsy store that you’re going to open in time for the holiday sales rush. You forget about your novel until your writing time is up and you snap out of your fugue state.

The first cure is a simple one. Step away from the desk and go for a long walk. Or a run. Or swim. Something that will warm the muscles and cool your fevered brain. You might want to carry a scrap of paper and pencil with you (not in the pool) in case a line or two pops up. Regular exercise is an under-appreciated part of the writing process.

If you are suffering from Blank Screen Writer’s Block, Type 1 or 2, grab a book off your shelf. Any book that you enjoyed will do, though I prefer poetry for this remedy. You can also use the Poetry Foundation’s browsing function or mobile app. Copy a few lines from a poem or a novel and then treat those lines as a prompt and freewrite from them. (Do not use those borrowed lines in your novel; that would be called “stealing.” Use them to kindle your imagination only.)

Ticking Clock Writers Block can be cured by telling your editor or professor or whomever that you are going to be late, or by pulling up your big-girl pants and recognizing that fretting about how much time you don’t have is actually a way of creating drama in your brain so you don’t have to deal with the real issue; what is the next sentence you are going to write.

Hysterical Monkeys Writer’s Block is best dealt with by picking up all the monkey shit they are throwing at you and fling it back in their faces. Write on an index card in large letters, “CHILL OUT. IT’S ONLY A DRAFT.” and post it just above your screen. Be sure to preserve the first draft of your novel so that you can compare it to the final draft. That will shut up those dumb monkeys.

Obsessive Compulsive Writer’s Block is kind of magical. Recognize what you are doing and why, and then very quietly sit down with paper and pen. Write a list of all of the things that you could do when you are in this mindset, from braiding your nose hair to teaching the cat how to operate the coffee maker. The list can contain up to 4,000 items. Then list five things that you want to do for your story, like brainstorm character names, decide on a setting for one chapter, or writing a short bit of dialog between Character A and Character B. The trick is to give yourself a small, manageable task and ease into the writing.

There are several other small variants of writer’s block, but I don’t want to discuss them publicly until I finish my quantitative analysis on them. In fact, I might make this the topic of my dissertation, and then I can submit papers to pompous academic journals and maybe I’ll be invited to present at the Pompous Academic Writing Forum next year in Mongolia, and I should look up how much it costs to fly to Ulaanbaatar and…..

Or I could just sit down and write.

Yeah, that’s what I really want to do.


 PS – For another author’s take on the whole “To MFA or not to MFA” question, read Maureen Johnson’s blog.


Today’s Quote

 “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

Hilary Mantel


Today’s prompt: Write a letter to your writer’s block. Describe how it works and how you really feel about it. Then serve it with eviction papers and write out precisely what you are going to do the next time it kicks in.


  Scribble… scribble… scribble…

The Best Part About Bad Guys – WFMAD Day 23

So my ex-husband and his wife spent the night at our house last night….

You could use that half-sentence as a writing prompt. Those characters all lined up in row – the narrator, her ex-husband, the ex-husband’s new wife and whomever the character(s) are that lead the narrator to use the word “our,” create conflict and tension just by being in proximity to each other.

Conflict – interior and exterior – is a critical component of fiction. Without conflict you have characters limping around on the page boring themselves and the reader into a coma.

It is tempting to make your main character the good guy and create a bad guy who is the source of much of the conflict that your character must overcome in your story. I’ve critiqued a lot of manuscripts that are structured that way. It’s a good start, because it lets you get the characters in the page and basic plot elements.

But you can do better.

Characters who only have “good” qualities and habits are boring. So are antagonists who are purely evil. These are what editors call “flat” characters because they are one-dimensional.

Make sure that your characters are like real people, that they have positive and negative qualities and quirks. Give the good characters flaws, bad habits and a few awful secrets. Allow your bad characters to have redeeming qualities and wonderful secrets. It will ramp up the tension and give you more opportunities for plot twists.

By the way…

My ex-husband and his wife did spend the night at our house last night. They were up here to drop off her son at a college that is about an hour away from our house. We had a great dinner and enjoyed celebrating the fact that the village of parents that the four of us created about a decade ago has launched the final kid from the nest and into his adult life.

Here are the four of us at our daughter’s wedding in May.

Isn’t that a nice change from divorced people who are always angry and spiteful? A real-life plot twist!


Today’s Quote

 “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

Stephen King


Today’s prompt: Come up with a sentence that puts two characters who might understandably be at odds with each other in a setting or situation that is going to make sparks fly. If you have the right degree of tension, the next fifteen minutes of writing are going to fly out of your fingertips.


Scribble… scribble… scribble…

Co-conspirators & Other Partners In Crime – WFMAD Day 22


I was once on a panel with the amazing and wonderful Walter Dean Myers, who is serving now as our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. (I mostly sat quietly and absorbed everything he had to say.) Walter was asked about the amount of competition and jealousy among those of us who write for kids and teens.

“We are not competitors,” he said. “We are co-conspirators. We support and encourage each other so we can make the very best books for our readers.”

This is a common sentiment among the authors that I know. It may help explain why so many children’s authors have critique groups or critique partners who are also children’s authors.

It can be a challenge to find the right critique group. I went through several when I was starting out, trying to find people whose approach to the work was similar to mine, and whose opinions I could trust. I tried a couple of groups in which I was the only person writing for kids. That was a nightmare. I had a critique partner for a couple of years who eventually soured on the business aspects of writing and gave up her writing. I finally found an amazing group that met once a month for an entire day. I worked with them for almost ten years until I moved out of the area. Since I live in the boondocks and travel so much, it’s been hard to be a regular attender at the great group  I found up here. I trade manuscripts with a few trusted writer friends and get feedback that way.

If you write for kids or teens and you are in search of critique partners, your local SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators) will be able to help you. (If you don’t belong already, join SCBWI. It will be the best money you spend all year.)

 Critiquing friends and other co-conspirators are not just there to point out the holes in your plot. They’ll support you as you support them through the ups and downs of the creative journey. Writing is a solitary craft. Making sure that you have people in your life who respect and understand your work is vital.


 Today’s Quote

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C.S. Lewis, who was in a critique group with  J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and  others


Today’s prompt: Write about a time when you worked on a creative project with a friend. See if you can go back to your childhood for this.

Bonus points – if you don’t have a critique group or a critique partner, start the search for one today.


Scribble… scribble… scribble…