Writers Block: Myth or Man-eating Monster by Jill MacKenzie

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Photo credit: photosteve101

Before I ever sat down to actually become this thing called “writer,” I had heard of this other thing called “writer’s block.” I knew that it was some kind of halt in inspiration. An obstruction of the creative kind. The feeling that even though you wanted to write something (see: had to write something) the words or ideas or characters just wouldn’t come.

Flash forward ten years and here I am, an actual, real-live writer. But other things happened to me in those ten years, too. I got married. I bought a house. I became a mother-times-two. I went back to school to finish my undergrad and, after that, went back again to obtain my master’s degree. These days, I’m so incredibly busy that, admittedly, I’ve found myself silently scoffing at writer’s who talk of writer’s block. I only wish I had time for writer’s block. I’ve heard it in my head at least a dozen times this year. If you were as busy as I am, you wouldn’t get blocked either.

While it seems, at first glance, a little righteous and self-pitying, the truth of it is that the reason I’ve gone through life and several written books claiming that writer’s block has never happened to me, is because I’ve never taken time to really dissect why it is that writers get blocked and what that block looks like for me.

We’re all familiar with the image: the frazzled author-man in a stained, white v-neck t-shirt, multiple coffee mugs strewn around him, crumpled pages at his feet like an unnavigable sea. This is what we tend to imagine when we think of writer’s block. And yeah, I’ve never had this kind of writer’s block before. Instead, my notebooks are carefully stacked and organized (sometimes even color coded), my outline in front of me, my critique partner’s notes stuck to the sides of my computer, re-written on little stickies, in chronological order. But here’s the thing: for a solid amount of the time I’ve reserved each day for getting words on paper, I’m not even in front of my computer. During these times, it’s true, I’m not pulling at my hair while staring at the blank screen, worrying about my word count or stewing over my subplots. No, during these times, I’m folding laundry, talking on the phone, cleaning my already clean bathrooms or checking one of the multiple social media sites designed to help facilitate the careful art of procrastination.

But it isn’t really procrastination, is it?

That’s what I’ve learned here. After some pretty careful self-evaluation, I’ve realized that I’m no different than those writer’s block writers. Why? It’s simple. The reason my butt isn’t in my writing chair is because I’m not yet ready to write that scene. It might be my characters (it’s probably my characters.) Or it might be my plot (it’s definitely my plot.) Either way, if I were to sit in front of my computer, determined to get those words on page, I would look like that frazzled guy (without the chest hair creeping out the top of my robe, of course.)

But it’s all the same, no matter how you look at it. Writer’s Block. Now I know that it’s less being able to think of what than it is being ready to face what you’re writing because facing it, at times, feels as impossible as slaying monsters. And ever since I’ve realized that, instead of tsking at writers who talk of the block, I nod my head knowingly, lean toward them and tell them my secret: today, instead of writing, I spent three hours cleaning my baseboards with a Q-tip.

 

Jill MacKenzie is the author of YA read SPIN THE SKY, which will be released by Sky Pony in Fall 2016. Because Jill is currently completing her MFA at the University of British Columbia (which is kicking her a** so far she can’t even see straight), Jill spends every single second of her time writing and, of course, reading banned books. 

www.jillmackenzie.com | www.whatchareadingnow.com

On Revision Caves and Taking Care of Yourself by Jessica Taylor

 

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Photo credit: Rsms on Flickr

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, the answer is that I’ve spent most of the summer deep in my revision cave*. Now that I’m peeking my head out, I’ve been thinking about some decisions that have made my time away more manageable. This was a productive and mostly low-stress time, which I attribute to two things: For one, I allowed myself to check out of social media. Second, I splurged on a few things and invested in myself. I hope some of it is useful and inspiring to my colleagues in the revision trenches.

*For the record, these full-immersion revision binges are self-imposed. I just work better when I live and breathe a novel. Everyone I work with is beyond nice, and I’m sure they’d be more than willing to let me work at a more leisurely pace if I asked.

Allowing Myself a Social Media Break

I love social media as much as the next writer, but with good news and bad news coming from all directions—especially during this interesting election season—Twitter and Facebook are providing a little too much stimulation. I have a book out now, so I feel some pressure to keep up with readers’ tweets and messages, but it all became a little too much. So, while I was busy, I let myself check in a couple times a week. I’ve found that if anyone really needs to find me, they do—such a delightful and freeing surprise!

Splurging—or as I Like to Call it, Investing in Me

Nobody would really describe me as thrifty, but I do work hard to only spend money on things that are necessary (or just really freaking awesome). During the summer, I decided to spend on a few luxuries. It started with a few pair of Athleta sweatpants, which are awesome quality, breathable, and perfect for long stretches at my desk chair, but last month, I caved on something bigger—an Amazon Fresh membership.

When I was at my busiest, I tried out a free trial of Amazon Fresh. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a grocery delivery service with free same-day deliveries on orders over $40. I know myself well enough to recognize that eating well is essential to keeping my body well and my mind producing my best work. For me, the actual cooking isn’t the issue, but shopping for groceries is a major time suck. I’m a picky eater and sometimes I go to five stores just to complete my shopping. When the free trial ended, I coughed up the $299 and signed up for a year-long membership. It’s stress-free and so exciting to wake up with all my groceries cold, fresh, and sitting on my porch in their insulated green bags!

These are the splurges that made the biggest differences for me, but I’ve heard of other authors investing in baby sitters, house-cleaning services, dog groomers, etc. The important part is recognizing that what we do is important, and investing in our health, happiness, and well-being is never a bad choice.

 

Jessica Taylor adores atmospheric settings, dangerous girls, and characters who sneak out late at night. Her debut novel, WANDERING WILD, received a starred review from VOYA and is available now. Her next two novels, starting with A MAP FOR LOST GIRLS, will be published in fall of 2017 and 2018 by Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin. She lives in Northern California with a few degrees she’s not using, one dog, and many teetering towers of books. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaTaylorYA and check out her website at http://www.jessicataylorwrites.com

On Being in the Publishing Industry by Ava Jae

Photo credit: boxman on Flickr

Being in the publishing business requires a strange combination of traits. We have to always look ahead—publishing plans for things way in advance, there are already book scheduled for 2018, 2019 and beyond. Authors have to think about what books they have contracted, what books they want to have contracted, and what that means in terms of keeping on top of deadlines and deciding what to write next.

But at the same time, writers also have to stay in the present. We have to remind ourselves to enjoy every step of the way, to keep on top of our daily tasks, to make sure we meet our deadlines. A lot of the publishing world is thinking ahead, yes, but it’s also keeping focused on the now and putting everything we can into this draft and this revision.

All the while, we have to be patient. There’s so much waiting in publishing—so much, and it truly never ends. Whether you’re waiting to hear back from your critique partners who have your manuscript, waiting to hear from an agent you queried, waiting to hear back from your agent who is looking at your newest revision, waiting to hear back from editors who have your book on submission, waiting to see your book’s cover, waiting for your book to be available for pre-order, waiting for your editor’s notes, waiting for your ARCs, waiting for your final author copies, etc. etc. there’s always something to wait for in the publishing world.

Emotionally and mentally, sometimes the publishing world can be a lot to handle, especially for writer-types who often (though not always) deal with insecurities and various mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. It can be hard in a field where there are no guarantees, where the pay is unpredictable and there often isn’t much career stability, especially at first. It can be scary knowing just how much is truly out of your hands, and how outside factors can so drastically change a writer’s career.

But it can also be incredibly gratifying. To be able to work in a field that you love, to be able to write stories and share characters and worlds with readers, to be able to gush about books and write one story after another—I truly feel so blessed to be part of this industry.

It’s not always easy, and sometimes it’s downright challenging, but it truly is incredible to be able to do work that I love, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

 

Ava Jae is a YA writer, an Assistant Editor at Entangled Publishing and freelance editor, and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. Her YA Sci-Fi debut, BEYOND THE RED, was released March 2016 from Sky Pony Press, and the sequels INTO THE BLACK and THE RISING GOLD will be published Fall 2017 and 2018, respectively. When she’s not writing about kissing, superpowers, explosions, and aliens, you can find her with her nose buried in a book, nerding out over the latest X-Men news, or hanging out on her blog, Twitter, Facebooktumblr, Goodreads, Instagram, or YouTube channel.

Self-Care for Writers by Michele Bacon

This week, I’m breaking with tradition. Instead of writing about your craft, I’m writing about you.

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You can’t pour from an empty cup; take care of yourself first. You’ve heard this, right?

Today I’m imploring you to fill yourself up. As writers, we pour ourselves into our manuscripts, our words, our stories. We spend much of our lives alone at our computers, snacking on whatever it is that keeps the words flowing.

Chasing stories is the world’s best job, certainly. With your new manuscript, your new synopsis, the shiny new idea that may someday become your personal best seller, you are growing as a writer.

Are you growing as person?

How are you?

Writing is rough emotional work. Did you know that our job category—artists, entertainers, and writers—is the one most likely to be associated with a major bout of depression?

And don’t get me started on anxiety.

Maintaining your mental health is one crucial aspect of self-care, but there are many other ways to practice self-care. (Personally, I don’t ego-surf, read any reviews of my work, or follow negative people on social media. Long ago, I gave up on being relevant on Twitter or Instagram. For my own emotional health, I decided to be myself in those spaces instead of branding myself. YMMV.)

Today, I’m asking you to fill yourself up. Take a step back. You have writing goals, right? 1,000 words a day, 2,000 words a day, 5,000 words a day (you ambitious wonder!)

Over the next five months, can you stick to some personal goals to maintain your own emotional health? Can you practice self-care on a regular basis?

We’ll do this on the honor system. Today, start with one daily and one weekly goal for self-care. For those of you who have been chained to your desk for too long to imagine this, here are a few ideas for self-care:

Daily

  • Take a 10-minute walk every hour
  • Take a 60-minute walk
  • Meditate for ten minutes
  • Bathe in sunlight (and sunblock) for 20 minutes
  • Trade an hour of writing for an hour of reading (whatever you want)
  • Smile for five minutes straight. It’s really tough, but worth it.
  • Go to bed an hour early

Weekly

  • Meet one friend for tea/coffee/wine every week.
  • Take one day a week away from writing.
  • Every Sunday, go somewhere you’ve never been before.
  • Learn a new board game
  • Practice yoga
  • Pamper yourself with a massage—professional or otherwise
  • Change your route to work (or the library, or the bookstore)

At the end of August, add a weekly goal and add (or replace) a daily goal. Repeat until the new year.

See what we did there? You may now have four social engagements a month. Or you’re walking miles and miles every week. Good for you! Taking time away from writing to practice self-care also will improve your writing. You will stumble upon new characters quite accidentally. You will play with language in new ways. Disengaging your brain from creative endeavors—even for a short while—will allow your brain to process your work.

Practicing self-care will improve your life and your writing.

I am inviting you right now to fill yourself back up. What do you love that is not writing? What are you writing about? Go do that. Go mountain biking, practice Parkour, swim in the nearest body of water, hit on your neighbor, put on your tap shoes, walk on your hands to the grocery store, stay out clubbing all night, put on a musical with friends, drink beer on a dock.

Go do what you love; you can write about it later.

I love my children. Board games. Yoga. Nature. I’m going outside to play.

Step away from the computer. Spend the rest of the day outside. Yes, the rest of the day. Sit in one spot for an hour. Meet a friend in a park. MAKE a friend in a park. Do whatever it is you love.

Go fill yourself up, and come back tomorrow.

Right now.

Go.

 

Michele Bacon is the author of Life Before, which will be released June 6, 2016. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three children. For more information, follow her on Twitter or head to her website.

Kate Ormand Interviews Alice Smales About Writing and Editing

Today I’m chatting to Alice Smales, Consultant Editor for my agent at Creative Authors Ltd. Alice has also worked with me on my YA novel, The Wanderers, which is published by Sky Pony Press.

Kate Ormand: Hi, Alice! Thanks for chatting with me today. First, can you tell us a bit about your editing process? What do you look for/make note of when reading a new submission?

Alice Smales: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me! 

Editing, for me, is a mixture of objective and subjective. There’s the technical side of things – misplaced commas, spelling mistakes – and then there’s the way things feel. That’s where it gets interesting, when you really dig down into the meat of the story, put on its skin and walk around in it. I think that’s the most important bit, but it’s also the bit that’s hardest to describe. Sometimes things will leap out at me and I know they need looking at or changing, but sometimes it’s not until I take a second look that I know why that thing needs to be changed. It’s almost an instinctual thing, feeling my way through the rhythm and connotations that make up compelling prose.  

When I’m reading a new submission, the first thing I look for is character. If you have an interesting and vivid character with a true real voice, then I will be with you until the final page. Good spelling and grammar are important, but if you’ve got a character who I can root for or be interested by, then I’ll look past pretty much any other mistakes you might make. It can be hard to show a character right from the beginning without an info-dump, but it can be done! Often I can tell from the first page whether I’m going to like a submission or not, so first impressions are vital. 

KO: What stuck with you after reading The Wanderers for the first time?

AS: Flo’s transformation into a horse! I couldn’t think of another story with a horse shapeshifter – wolves and bears and other predators are more common choices. I loved that Flo’s animal shape was something that showed her vulnerability as well as her strength.  

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KO: How does editing other work help you with your own writing?

AS: It makes me a lot more conscious of what makes a story work. When you’re picking apart other people’s words and seeing what’s effective and what’s not, it means you can apply that same critical eye to your own writing. For example, since becoming aware of how important the first page is when reading submissions, I’ve spent much more effort in trying to make my own first page and opening line as strong and memorable as they can be. 

KO: Flip the question! How does writing help you edit other work?

AS: There’s a knack to giving critical feedback that you become very aware of once you’ve been on the receiving end. If someone says, “Eh, it just didn’t click with me, I couldn’t sympathise with the character” it’s nowhere near as helpful as someone saying, “This dialogue here felt stilted, and here, why did the character act in this unnatural way?” Being specific is key. 

KO: What do you write and what are you working on at the moment? 

AS: I pretty much always write stories with a fantasy element, and I love taking a historical setting and adding something supernatural or paranormal. Currently I’m working on a novel set in Victorian London, where a guy from the streets with no magic is blackmailed into serving a rich wizard. Working together, even though they hate each other, they try to solve a case of kidnap and end up unravelling a conspiracy with personal roots for both of them and which may affect the whole future of magic in London. Fun features include demons, colourful insults, magic gangs, and fireballs.  

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KO: And to finish, can you give us a selection of your favourite books?

AS: Ooo, that’s a hard one. Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man and Assassin books are a firm favourite, as is anything by Rosemary Sutcliff, especially The Lantern Bearers and her Arthurian trilogy. Also, PG Wodehouse. His books make me laugh like a demented hyena. 

Twitter: @themagickind 

Blog: i-will-eat-dynamite.tumblr.com

Writing samples (as A.S. Olivier): asolivierwriting.tumblr.com

Kate Ormand: DARK DAYS, THE WANDERERS, and THE PACK (Fall 2017) with Sky Pony Press.

Kate Louise: THE UPSIDE-DOWN FISH, PIERRE THE FRENCH BULLDOG RECYCLES, and TOUGH COOKIE (3 Nov 2015) with Sky Pony Press.

Website: www.kateormand.wordpress.com | Twitter: @kateormand | Facebook: Kate Ormand, YA Author

See More from Kate Ormand

Revealing the Character of Secondary Characters Through Description by Jessica Taylor

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Photo credit: mark sebastian on Flickr

Young adult is typically written in first person, giving the author the ability to reveal the main character through interiority. This combined with snappy dialogue leads to fleshed-out main characters readers can root for. But writers don’t have that advantage when it comes to secondary characters, sometimes leaving these characters flat and uninteresting, especially in contrast to the main character. Here are some tips I use to make secondary characters feel every bit as compelling.

Individual Description      

Individual description is the first place where most writers start. It’s important to avoid laundry list descriptions of physical attributes—these make characters read like caricatures. Focus on one or two traits at a time and make these traits specific and unique to the character.

The Items that Fill Your Character’s World

While individual description is a great place to start, it’s usually not enough. Next, consider the items that fill a secondary character’s world, such as their clothing and possessions. Ask yourself these questions: What’s inside their locker, car, backpack, purse? What’s on their grocery list or for sale at their garage sale? The more unexpected, the better! Maybe you have a secondary character who carries a briefcase whenever he meets with the debate team. One day he opens it and all that’s inside is a bottle of gin. By having your main character noticing this, you give your reader clues about the secondary character without being quite as direct.

Action-Based Description

The trouble with description is that it’s often boring, leading readers to skim. Description that’s filled with movement has a better chance of holding a reader’s interest. We all know to avoid be verbs such “am,” “are,” and “is,” but we don’t often consider the value of strong verbs when it comes to description. Don’t let your characters just exist in their world. Let them move through their world. Place objects in their hands and let them react.

Tools in Action

Here’s an example of a bad description:

“Michael is tall with brown hair cut into a crew cut, blue eyes, broad shoulders, long legs. He’s wearing a jersey, a baseball cap, and Chucks.”

This laundry-list description is flat, poorly written, and lacking movement.

Here’s an example of a better description:

“Sloane wears an old ripped tee shirt every Sunday morning to the dance studio. The Pistols, it says on the front. Jenny next door told me the Pistols were Sloane’s father’s band before he left town. Sloane watches herself in the mirror whenever she dances—but never when she wears that shirt.”

This description isn’t perfect, but unlike the bad description above, it avoids be verbs, has movement, and uses an item within Sloane’s world. Most importantly, this is the kind of description that tells us not only about Sloane but about who she is in the eyes of the main character.

Using these tips, a writer can begin to create fully-fleshed-out secondary characters that feel every bit as lively and compelling as main characters. What are some of your tips for creating secondary characters?

 

Jessica Taylor is a young adult novelist who adores sleepy southern settings, unrequited love, and characters who sneak out late at night. She lives in Northern California with a sweet-yet-spoiled dog and many teetering towers of books.

Letting Go (of My Novel) by Michele Bacon

25164437In the beginning, Xander Fife was a 35-year-old woman named Kat Walsh. I wrote her story with flashbacks of abuse and escape.

The manuscript didn’t work, so I rewrote it as a YA novel, with a 17-year-old guy living through that abuse and escape in present day. I loved him and his friends. I wanted to protect them and keep them safe. They belonged to me, in the way only characters invented by a writer can belong to someone.

I let go of Xander a little when I first shared my manuscript with beta readers, who critiqued and molded the book. I also let go of [one particular description that was so cringe-worthy I cannot mention it here], character names, and plot points. Little bits of my manuscript no longer belonged to me; we owned it collectively.

Already, it was miles from the book I had envisioned originally, but together we had improved it immeasurably. I started sharing it with people I didn’t know: agents and editors.

My editor had some great suggestions when she bought my manuscript. (Chapter thirty-five. Jeepers!) We removed some certainty and put my protagonist in peril. I strengthened the writing, and it went to press. It was still mine, but very, very different than my initial story.

And then, as soon as we sent out the first ARCs, the book belonged to a lot of people. The Xander in my head is merely one version of the dozens that now exist among ARC readers. They have their own ideas about what happens after the last page. My characters now live in their brains.

My book releases officially tomorrow, but many people received it from Amazon nearly two weeks ago. I’ve been talking to booksellers and teachers about it for several weeks.

(This is the hardest part, by the way. As much as the book is not me and I am not the book, most readers have never met me. They’re judging me based on the book. That’s hard.)

I feel like it’s not mine at all.

Readers want to change it: they want it to be a thriller, or they want a different ending, or they wish Xander’s best friend was male.

And here’s the thing: they can wish whatever they want, because the book is not mine anymore; it’s theirs. Where Life Before is concerned, we now are all the same. I have lost my author’s privilege of tweaking characters and adding scenes. The book is finished and we all have the same text. I have a copy, you have a copy, and it belongs to all of us equally.

I have let go.

 

Michele Bacon is the author of Life Before, which will be released June 6, 2016. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three children. For more information, follow her on Twitter or head to her website.