Writing Process Snapshot on EMU’s Debuts

My latest post over on Emu’s Debuts is called Pantsing, Planning, and Whatever Works.  Here’s a snippet:

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When I first started writing – really writing, trying to make whole stories hang together so that I could share them with other people – I was what’s now known in the writing community as a pantser, or a novelist who flies by the seat of her pants when writing a novel. I had a vague plan, but I just wanted to dive in and get going.  All that plotting and outlining wasn’t for me – I wanted to write, not think about writing.  So I’d write and write and write, and get it all out.  I completed some novels that way.  They weren’t very good.  They weren’t even salvageable first drafts that might work upon revision.  They were just sort of… puked up.  Some authors swear by pantsing, but it doesn’t work for me.
Neither does planning.  A planner is a novelist who knows in advance exactly what’s going to happen in the novel. As I became more intentional about writing, and especially when I decided to tackle writing a fantasy series, I turned to hardcore planning.  I wrote documents, sometimes fifty or seventy pages in length, describing what was going to happen in a given novel.  And then I’d go to write the actual living novel, and everything would change on me.  Characters who had been docile and compliant in the outlining phase turned mutinous and ran wild, knocking down the rest of my beautifully arranged plot dominoes.
Well, what then?  How should I do this?

Click here to read the answer on EMU’s Debuts!

A day late and a dollar short.

For the second time, I’ve missed my self-imposed “every two weeks” blog deadline, and I’m seriously annoyed.  And can’t think of what to write.  So I’ll get someone else to do it.

***

Hi, this is Megan’s husband doing fill-in duty because my wife is doing so many things that if she does another thing, she will go out of her mind.  So, what will I, a completely not-published human being, tell you at this time?

First, if you are the spouse of a first-time author: read everything when they want you to if you possibly can.  Also, try not to say “That was good” and leave it at that…give them a compliment.  Make one up if you can’t think of one: “The margins are so even!”

If you are the infant or toddler of a first-time author, please route all requests for Cheerios to the other parent if possible.  Listen with understanding when the non-author parent says: “Those banging and screaming sounds are normal–Mommy’s writing!”  Above all, do not pour juice in the keyboard, no matter how satisfying the sizzling sounds might be.

If you are the parent of a first-time author, talk about how you knew your child would be successful even if it’s not true.  You probably shouldn’t say things like, “Oh, that was a nice first draft, when will it be revised?”

If you are the pet of a first-time author, stop gnawing on the computer’s power supply and quit puking on the darn bed.

That’s about it.  I bought my wife two weeks for Mother’s Day.  Top that.

Spring “Break” 2: The Final Score

New pages written that are not (yet) in the deleted scenes file: 94

Total pages created this week: 159

Drafts completed: Still 0

Brain: Liquified

Guess I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow and teach!

Spring “Break”

Spring Break Stats

Pages written, rejected, and thrown into the deleted scenes file: 14

Pages fully revised because of a storyline change: 51

New pages written that are not (yet) in the deleted scenes file: 53

Total pages: 118

Drafts completed: 0

Brain: Jelly

The Great and Powerful Online Presence

When I was fifteen, my family moved from Los Angeles to Seattle.  Socially, I had to start over again, which might have been daunting for a popular kid, but for me it was an opportunity to rebrand.  I had never been a popular kid.  Maybe, as a stranger in a new city, I could make myself different.

There’s a book in there somewhere, and we know how it ends.  I wasn’t able to make myself different – although I did try.  I transferred from a private to a public school and traded my uniform for regular clothes, which gave me a chance to experiment with identities.  One day I’d be the girl in khakis and a Gap button up with a baggy sweatshirt (this was the early 90s; don’t judge).  The next day, I was Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful.  I went hippie; I went grunge; I went team captain, student council, and drama club.  But none of my costumes or labels, however defined and protected they sometimes made me feel, meant anything, because I was still me.  And I didn’t entirely know who that was.

Now I’m revisiting that same mental and emotional place.  I’ve moved suddenly from private to public; my writing, which previously mattered to a very limited audience, will soon be published.  So I’m working on developing my online presence, because that’s a Thing I Need to Do.  I look around Twitter and Facebook and Blogger and WordPress and Tumblr and Instagram, and I see that I need to figure out where I fit into it.  But I don’t know who I am.

How am I going to frame myself up?  What should I delete?  What should I talk about?  What should be off limits?  Should I try to be funny?  Political?  Wise?  Intellectual? Should I be informational?  Squeaky clean?  Should I share like the whole world is my best friend?  Should I give advice on writing as though I’m an expert?

Should I even be writing this post, or will I regret it?

I consider the people whose online personalities I admire, and the truth is, there’s no one style or type that I’m drawn to; what makes me stick around and read somebody’s work, in any forum, is authenticity of voice.  I like people who sound like real people.  People who are themselves.

And maybe who I am is just a person with a lot going on, who rarely has anything pithy to Tweet, who can only get around to blogging every two weeks, and who just writes whatever is on my mind when that deadline creeps up on me (like it did today).

I could try to finesse that point of view.  Focus it.  Turn it into something thematic, and brand myself in an easily recognizable way.  But the point of getting older, I hope, is to learn something, so I’m looking back at fifteen-year-old me and taking a lesson.  I can try on a new online presence every day, hoping to fit myself into clear categories because I’m not sure who to be.

Or I can write what I want, when I want, and let the figuring out part happen whenever it happens.

B sounds like a lot less hiking to get to the same place.

I’m going with B.

Good and Bad

The good:

I’m so deep in the writing place that I can barely tear myself away to plan my lessons for the week.

The bad: 

I have to write lessons.  So I have to tear myself away from the deep writing place.

The deep, deep, where you can’t hear what anyone’s saying to you because right now, the real world is the one you’re writing place.  The fog is so thick, in here, that even though I know I have to wake up and plan these lessons, I’m having a very hard time.

I thought maybe writing a blog post about it would help.

It isn’t.

Rocking the Common Core: For Writers Developing Curriculum Guides and School Visits

What this post is not: My personal opinion on the Common Core.

What this post is: An attempt to use my classroom teaching experience to help fellow writers approach the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in a way that may be useful in developing school visits and marketing their books to teachers.  
What is the Common Core?
The Common Core is a set of standards that describe the skill sets that students at different grade levels should ideally be able to master.  These standards are currently available for Mathematics and English Language Arts (in this category, literacy standards have also been developed for grades 6-12 in history, science, social studies, and technical subjects).  
Whether you regard the Common Core standards as a boon or a curse (or perhaps you have no opinion on them at all), the fact is that more and more states are requiring that teachers use the CCSS to guide their instructional decisions.  
What this means for authors 
As a teacher, I’m held accountable for finding ways to help my students reach the bar set by the Common Core.  Every lesson I plan is therefore designed with an end in mind – and that end is always tangible evidence of learning.  They have to be able to show what they know.  
So if I’m going to teach a new novel, it helps if the author has already done some deep thinking about how that novel connects to the Common Core standards that I’m responsible for teaching anyway. Or, if I’m going to bring a special writing program into my classroom, I may be tempted by an author who has created a delightfully engaging and informational visit that students will enjoy.  But I’ll fill out that budget request form faster for an author who also advertises that her visit will result in a tangible outcome: evidence that my students have learned a skill or concept that I want them to learn.  
Also, quite frankly, when getting approval to include a new novel or invite a classroom visitor, I may first be asked to prove that my choices connect to the Common Core.  If I have to spend a lot of my limited time trying to figure out how to prove that, I simply might not get around to it, and wind up going with another book or author instead – one who has already done this thinking for me.
Connecting your work to the Common Core
Many writers pay people to write curriculum guides, the meaning and importance of which are beautifully explained here by Jill Corcoran.  If you’re not in a position to pay somebody else and you’re taking a crack at writing your own curriculum guide or developing a learning objective for your school visit program, then the first step is to figure out what the Common Core and your book have in common.  How can what you’ve written be used in a classroom context to help students build their literacy or mathematical skills?  
Pick your target age group, and skim through the standards first, looking for those that have obvious relationships to your work.  For some books, connections will leap to the eye.  
Other connections will require a little more digging to uncover.  This is where knowing how to unpack the standards is handy. 
Take this very spare-looking 7th-grade ELA standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).
Many standards, like this one, appear at a glance to address one skill; however, a student must understand multiple concepts and master several skills in order to meet this standard.
  • ANALYZE
    • What does the word mean?
    • What do we do in our minds, as readers, when we analyze?
      • We notice.
        • At the expert level, we do this automatically, but with students, it’s important to ask them to do it consciously, and with a specific goal in mind.  “Notice the protagonist’s feelings about her sister. What is his/her emotional perspective, here?”
      • We make inferences based on what we’ve noticed.
        • Again, expert readers do this without meaning to, but young readers (even really good ones) benefit from specific questions and structures. “You’ve noticed the protagonist’s feelings.  Why does s/he feel this way?  What events or personal values might be causing these feelings?  Can you show me examples in the text to support your idea? What in your own experience reminds you of this?” (Text-to-self connections can help readers step into the situation, which in turn allows them to better process the nuances in a scene.)
      • Our inferences allow us to draw conclusions, comprehend the author’s intended meaning(s), or find a meaning of our own.
  • STORY ELEMENTS
    • What are the elements of story?
    • What does it mean to interact?
      • How does the setting shape the plot of the story?
        • “This book takes place during World War II.  What effect does that have on the events in the plot?  What would be different about this story if the characters had access to cell phones?”
      • How does the setting influence the characters in the story?
        • “In the classroom scenes, the protagonist is silent and embarrassed, but in the scenes with her sister, she’s loud and bossy.  What might that tell us?”
      • How do the events in the plot shape the characters?
      • How do the characters shape the events in the plot?
      • How do the characters influence and change one another?
    • What conclusions can we draw from all of this interaction?
      • Drawing conclusions about how story elements interact and why the author chose to craft those interactions the way s/he did is a huge step toward identifying emerging themes, which brings us to another standard:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

Try unpacking this (or any) Common Core standard for yourself by asking these questions:

  1. If I had to prove that I possess this set of skills, what would I do?  (Write an essay? Conduct an interview? Give a speech? Create a map?)
  2. What steps would I have to take to successfully achieve that outcome?  
  3. What mental moves would I make while taking those steps?  
    1. This is where doing the work yourself first is very handy.  Create your own product that shows the skill required, and keep track of all the little decisions you have to make in order to achieve a successful result. (This is also important because what you create can potentially be used later on as a model for students.)
  4. In what ways can I help teachers and students make those mental moves visible and tangible? (Worksheets? Inquiry-based activities? Free writes? Group or pair projects/conversations? Dramatization? Artwork?)

List all the answers you can think of, and find ways to build your best, most engaging answers into your curriculum guide or school visit.

Whatever individual teachers’ opinions may be on the CCSS, one thing is always true: we’re overwhelmed with all that is required of us.  Any time someone reaches out to support our work in an intelligent and targeted way, we are relieved and grateful.  So help a teacher out.  Show us how your work and our work connects, and turn us into allies who passionately spread the word about your books. 

Signal Boost

My friend Melissa Anelli has been stalked online for five and a half years.

I realize as I type that that it doesn’t sound as frightening and horrible as it is.  The idea of stalking is so often turned into a joke (“OMG, he was totes stalking me all night”) that it’s not always clear how sickening and terrifying the real thing is.  And of course, it’s much easier to grasp the scariness factor of live, in-person stalking. Cyber-stalking shares a weird place in the moral universe with cyber-bullying in that it has the stigma of not being quite real.  The attitude of some people seems to be that if you’re being stalked or harassed online, you should just get offline, or go to a different web site – or that you should toughen up and shrug it off.  After all, it’s just the Internet.  It’s not like it happened in real life.  Sticks and stones, man.

As kids continue to commit suicide after being bullied online, however, more and more people are beginning to comprehend what those of us who are active in online communities already knew: that the Internet, while not a face-to-face environment, is still a real place, where people deal out real wounds that have very real consequences.  More and more, the Internet is real life, because – often regardless of how we feel about it – we are expected to conduct our daily business here.  We’re blogging, tweeting, e-mailing, Googling, networking – I’ve never had a single job, in my adult life, where I did not have to use the Internet on a regular basis for something.  The point is that we don’t always choose to be here – this is just how things are done now, and we’re all here together.

That means that all the creeps are here too.  They’re here, and they’re faceless, and they can ooze into any laptop they want, at any time.  As many times as they feel like it.  And there’s a creep in New Zealand that’s been doing sick things to my good friend – on a daily basis – for five and a half years – and though serious legal measures have been taken, nothing has stopped this creep so far.

Please read Melissa’s post here, and reblog if you’re on Tumblr.

Please also read these two posts, which include much more information and context than mine: Maureen Johnson’s tumblr post; Cheryl Klein’s blog post.

Be careful out there.  And when somebody tells you that someone hurt them on the Internet, for the love of God, take them seriously.

What Writers Need Most

Is someone to say “Yes you can,” and “Yes, it’s good,” as many thousands of times as it is necessary.
I’m very, very fortunate to have that someone. 
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.  

Making Time on EMU’s Debuts

The eponymous post – and I posted it elsewhere!  Here’s the beginning of my second entry on the EMU’s Debuts blog:

I’m here to share a secret with you all.  Gather near.  Lean in.  Shh.
I have a superpower.
No, I can’t fly, become invisible, or see through walls.  My power is far more useful and pragmatic, and it’s also transferrable; after reading this post, you can assume it for yourself.  Are you ready?  Here it is:
I can make 25 hours out of 24. 
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This photo might not fully illustrate my point, but I saved a little time by not caring.
Think of me as an extremely low-level Time Lord.  If I weren’t one, I’d be in big trouble.  I’m a debut author, which means that I don’t have a steady stream of authorial income; instead, I’m a full-time middle-school teacher with three preps, I have a three-year-old son, I just turned in the revision of my first novel, and in five months I have a second manuscript to deliver. Somewhere in there, there’s also a husband who is fighting the good fight with me. I think I glimpsed him at one point yesterday.
I want these demands to be made upon my time.  These are good things.  But to juggle them requires superhuman effort. So for all you new and aspiring authors out there who are trying to make your writing a priority right alongside your job, your family life, and whatever else is competing for your time and attention, I’m here to help you. Just follow these steps, and you too can squeeze an extra hour out of the clock each day.

To read the rest of the post, click here.

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