The 2018 Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop…Wow.

Last Friday, I drove down the coast with a writing friend to attend this 3-day workshop put on by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. I had four picture books ready to share in critique and a new idea to work on. The two groups I was in were really wonderful, both because of the mentors who led them and because of the other writers who shared their feedback. The atmosphere was warm & friendly, but there was a layer of commitment and professionalism that–at least in my experience–isn’t as pervasive at other conferences. I’m not sure why. It could be the not-low but, for me, absolutely worth it cost. It could be the actual work–you need to be ready to participate in eight hours of critique, and it is strongly recommended that you use open hours to revise or write.

For me, I have been determined that I wouldn’t attend until I was at my own definition of ready–a combination of spending steady and regular hours on my craft this past year, being equipped with several manuscripts, and having a very strong sense that writing picture books is what I should be doing. The workshop more than met my expectations–I walked away with a new understanding and new revision ideas on all my stories. We had four hours to work on projects and, since I don’t revise fast enough to do a quick turn-around, I started drafting a new idea I’d been playing with. And I think it’s a good one. Somehow, the weekend was at once relaxing and energizing, cozy and effective, welcoming and empowering. Five out of five stars.

I’m going back next year. Which means 2019 is going to be busy. I’ll be:

  • Revising the four picture books I took down this year.
  • Writing and revising four new picture books to take down next year.
  • Querying agents with some combination of the above.

Last January, I didn’t choose a word for the year. I remember feeling so deep into the mess the outside world has become–all the hate, selfishness, and cruelty–that it was too hard to think of a positive word, let alone a positive word connected to my own dreams. And yet, as we’ve seen, creativity has become a refuge. So many times, a blech of a person would fill me with fury or grief, and I’d be on the phone to my reps or online to send money. And then–not every time, but enough times–I would remember how delighted all the blechs would be if their words and actions brought me down. And I would pick up a manuscript. The happiness this work has brought me, the absolute joy I feel when I look at stories that did not exist in the world until I wrote them, has been the balance and sanity I needed.

I don’t know yet what my word will be in 2019, but I am pretty sure it’s going to have to do with writing. I’ll be thinking on it.

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Book Moods (with Examples)

I don’t think I’ve ever been what I would call an “adventurous” reader: someone who reads widely in genre, age, length, era–mixing it up with every new book they choose. I tend to go in waves–a pile of MG books, a stack of fantasy, a single author for as many weeks as they have books for me. When I go to the library or a bookstore, I’m looking for more of the same, and I can be disappointed and frustrated when I can’t find the book that will keep my current wave going.

This happened yesterday. I’ve been reading a ton of YA fantasy, and I wanted more. I went to the bookstore and pulled book after book off the YA shelves, reading a page or two in each, putting them back. Nothing caught me; nothing looked as good. I ended up getting two books off the grown-up shelves that have some potential: Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling and Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library.

Then I came home and, of course, started in on the ebook sample of a history book, zero fantasy involved–The Romanov Sisters  by Helen Rappaport. Because book moods are, if anything, random and unpredictable.

Still, I think they come in various types–here are some I’m very familiar with:

Any moods (and examples) I’ve missed? Feel free to drop them in a comment.

Fall Writing Plans

For a while now, I haven’t put any real schedules on my writing. I had been in a bit of a slump for a year or so, and I was changing jobs, and…well, life. But the slump seems to have shifted away for now, and the new job came with new hours, which unexpectedly got me writing in the morning again. I feel as though I’ve landed in a good grove.

I still don’t want to squeeze myself too tightly into must-do goals, but there are a couple of things coming up that seemed worth planning around.

In December, I’m going to the Big Sur Writing Workshop for the first time. I’m really excited about getting to get critiques on some of the picture books I’ve been revising. If I had to set a goal for outcomes, it would be that the feedback and ideas I get there will help me get to the next stop on the writing path–querying agents for these manuscripts. I want to have some flexibility about what I decide to share in the critique groups, depending on how each session goes. I have one absolutely ready to share, two that I want to run through one more time, and a fourth that was a picture book, but that I have taken down to one or two bones and am building back up. I will have at least the first three ready by Big Sur, and I want to have the fourth at least to a draft I’m not embarrassed to put out there. Assuming no creeks rise, this all seems doable.

The second thing coming up is a vacation to Sedona. Of all the places we vacationed when I was growing up, this was one of my favorites, and my husband has never been. He loved Moab, and I feel like Sedona is Moab, but with a bit more up and down geology, cooler temps, and actual trees. We’re driving (Vanagon road trip!), so I’ll have a couple of days each direction to think about some project, talk out loud about it (lucky husband!), and jot down any ideas. Then, in Sedona, we’ll do our usual–split up for a few hours each day; my husband gets out on his bike, and I get into my writing.

I could save this for more revision, or for making big progress on the fourth picture book, but I think I want something looser, with more room for play. So I’ll be working on an idea for a chapter book. If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I’ve been inspired by reading Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi books. One of the things I absolutely love about picture books is how the short form and the young audience create constraints for me to work within, and it seems like chapter books have their own set of “specs.” I have one idea that’s been tickling my brain a bit, so the Arizona trip is for that. I may play with an opening scene; I may take a stab at an outline; I may decide the idea is not workable and brainstorm a few others. I may find out that I am totally wrong about chapter books and that it is not a genre I want to get into. But I don’t think so.

It feels so good to be solidly back on the writing path, even if I still (and always!) don’t know where it’s going to lead. Writing steadily and seeing my manuscripts and my crafts get stronger, having the energy and courage to dig into something new…this is my happy place. Fall is always my favorite season and, this year, I think it’s definitely going to be a good one.

Relationships with Agents: Some Links to Good Information

Recently, there was news about a former literary agent and the ways in which they essentially lied to the clients they were supposed to be representing. I’m not going into details or names here; this is just context for a couple of links I want to share.

The first is a link to a recent episode of Literaticast, the podcast of Jennnifer Laughran, a Senior Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. In this episode, Jennifer talks with Kelly Sonnack, another ABLit Senior Agent about their thoughts on what a client should be able to expect from an agent (with a little bit about what agents might expect from their authors). It’s a great discussion (like all of the episodes) and a good listen for anyone wondering about how the agent-creator relationship works.

This thread talks about what creators should expect from their agent.

And this one talks about things creators should watch out for.

 

After the episode aired, Kelly posted a couple of follow-up tweets.

Humiliation in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea Trilogy

I know, right? Humiliation? But I have been hunting for the right word as I try to explain to my husband what these books are like, and, really…the thing that is making them feel like something new is the way Joe Abercrombie humiliates his heroes. Or, if I’m looking at it from more of a craft perspective, the way  he uses humiliation to force his characters to change and grow.

I’m only halfway through Book 2 of the trilogy–Half the World. But Abercrombie used the technique in Book 1, Half a King, and I don’t see any reason to expect he’ll stop using it in Book 3, Half a War (which is on my nightstand, next in line to be read). So far, the protagonists have changed with each book, although Yarvi–the half a king from Book 1–has a major role in Book 2. While still young, barely a couple of years older than Book 2’s heroes, Thorn and Brand, he spent Book 1 growing comfortable with the person he is and learning to move, as that person, with power and impact on the world. So far, Thorn and Brand seem to be working their way along that same character path.

In Half the World, Thorn is the only girl to practice on the battle field, determined to be so good that she is sent to war with the boys. Brand is one of the three boys assigned to fight her together and to contribute not only to her being ousted from the army, but being thrown into jail for murder. Brand, trying to be the person who stands in the light, tells the truth about what happened. He, too, has his dreams of glory and wealth taken from him, as well as his determination to stay in the light. He takes to drinking and ends up, all too often, vomiting in back alleys. Yarvi steps in and pulls both out of what seems to be the lowest moments of their lives….only to make them consider whether they were wrong about that, too. Their journey with him to seek allies for their king slams them down, then down again, then down AGAIN.

Skifr has been hired to train Thorn into the fighter she already believes she is. A training session:

…Thorn dodged, wove, sprang, rolled, then she stumbled, lurched, slipped, floundered. To begin with she hoped to get around the oar and bring Skifr down, but she soon found just staying out of its way took every grain of wit and energy. The oar darted at her from everywhere, cracked her on the head, on the shoulders, poked her in the ribs, in the stomach, made her grunt, and whoop as it swept her feet away and sent her tumbling.

And it keeps getting worse. Brand, too, is embarrassed by Skifr, but he manages to stay firm to his dreams of glory until he has his first actual battle. He continues to have nightmares about the man he kills and, between that and the misery of the journey itself, his dreams are scrubbed clean.

…There was nothing in the songs about regrets.
The songs were silent on the boredom too. The oar, the oar, and the buckled shoreline grinding by, week after week. The homesickness, the worry for his sister, the weepy nostalgia for things he’d always thought he hated….The chafing, the sickness, the sunburn, the heat, the flies, the thirst, the stinking bodies, the worn-through seat of his trousers, Safrit’s rationing, Dosduvoi’s toothache, the thousand ways Fror got his scar, the bad food and the running arses, the endless petty arguments, the constant fear of every person they saw and, worst of all, the certain knowledge that, to get home, they’d have to suffer through every mile of it again the other way.

But here’s the thing. For both Thorn and Brand, and for Yavri in Book 1, humiliation acts as a crucible. It burns all away all the things they thought they were and all the things other people thought they should be, leaving only the reality of who they truly are. And, most importantly, who they want to be. And at that point, Abercrombie builds them back up. He takes the strengths they already have and make them stronger. He shows them their flaws in full clarity until they come to accept them instead of fighting or hiding them. He hones them like one of Skifr’s swords–so sharp and so fast that she could, if she wanted, slice you open without your seeing or–for a second–feeling it. And from that new place, they become critical contributors to their team, dangerous threats to their enemies, and true friends to their companions.

For the first half of Book 1, I was merely intrigued. I’m used to flawed characters who get trashed because of their flaws, then have to meet and beat obstacles so that they can grow. But I’m not used to the flaw being a self-perception that, on the one hand borders on cockiness and, on the other has a core of self-anger and self-doubt. I’m not used to an author taking their egos down a notch at a time and managing to do that with both humor and empathy. And I am so much more than intrigued. I am fully immersed, cheering on Brand and Thorn, and welcoming the solid and true character that Yavri built himself into in Book 1.

 

 

 

Roshani Chokshi: In Which I Go Down the Fantasy Genre Action & Philosophy Rabbit Hole

I was griping on Facebook the other day about needing some new fantasy novels to read, and a FB friend recommended Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. I hadn’t realized until I looked up Chokshi that she is also the author of Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book in her middle-grade series and the first book published by Rick Riordan’s new imprint. That’s been on my to-read list for a while, and I’m bumping it up to the top as soon as I finish A Crown of Wishes.

I love fantasy novels. The Hobbit probably started me off. It was the first book I ever cried over–I remember sitting up when I was 12, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, and whole-body sobbing as…!!SPOILER ALERT!!…Bilbo said goodbye to Thorin. (Do NOT get me started on Thorin in the movie version; what were you thinking, Peter Jackson?) And then, in high school, I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and I was a goner. In the past decade or two…young-adult authors have been adding brilliant worlds and works to the genre. Kristin Cashore. Sarah J. Maas. Laini Taylor. Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, just to name a few. I’ll take a leap and add Joe Abercrombie, even though, so far, I’ve only read Half a King

And, now, Roshani Chokshi.

I like beautifully written, fun, fast-moving fantasy stories. Throw in some humor–even better. I love strong world-building, and if you throw in a bit of philosophy to the mix, you’ve got me.

As long as the balance is right. If you lean too far toward the philosophy, with the action as a side-note, I’m gone. Keep things moving, keep me intrigued by the character’s actions and reactions, as well as their life-view…yes!

It’s not that easy. Terry Pratchett does it brilliantly, especially in his Tiffany Aching books. (I sobbed as hard, if not harder, with The Shepherd’s Crown as I did with The Hobbit.) Kristin Cashore rocks it, especially in Bitterblue (which I talked about here.) And Roshani Chokshi has mastered it.

Chokshi has set herself an extra challenge, I think, by setting her stories in a world where magic has layers and layers and where, when you step into the magic world, the shields (or scabs) you have built up around your vulnerabilities are ripped away. Chokshi’s magic gets into your mind and plays games, it grabs onto the big thoughts–the foundation of who you are and how you see things–as well as the smaller, not-fully-developed thoughts that flutter across that foundation to both threaten and promise. There are sections, long passages and chapters, where Chokshi’s characters essentially swim in this disorientation, sometimes struggling to even stay afloat. And you swim with them.

So many books, when they reach for this place, this kind of storytelling, get lost. As a reader, you feel swamped by beautiful words that are all thoughts, all philosophy. Often they are thoughts that are true to the characters the author has created, but–in the end–they are still just thoughts. Chokshi tiptoes up to the edge, she skims over its shore, but she never once falls in.

Chokshi’s characters are, much like Cashore’s Bitterblue, characters of the mind. The core of their being is the way they think–they way they see the world around them and the way they see their place within that world. It’s why they are so at risk–if the magic gets their minds, it gets their selfs. And so they fight it. And, I think, it’s the resistance that makes them so strong and that keeps Chokshi’s books concrete, active, and powerful. They have quests that force them into the magic and, to achieve those quests, they step in. Deeply. They immerse themselves in the magic as long as they need, and then…they jump back. Or draw swords against it. Or laugh at it. They grab for the pieces of magic they need to move forward; they dispose of the pieces that don’t. The magic is the vehicle for Chokshi’s characters; the characters are not simply vehicles for the magic.

Read any or all of the books I’ve talked about in this post. Just make sure you include Chokshi’s stories on the list. And cross your fingers that she has many more coming.

 

Shaking Things Up a Little

So I’m two weeks into the new job, and I’m loving it. I feel like, finally, I’ve found my day-job home.

The job is also having some unexpected benefits on my other life, the writing one. In the past, or at least since I haven’t been driving the boy to school, I’ve scheduled my work hours on the earlier side. I’m not so much a morning person as a not-night person. Getting home at a regular time has felt like getting home too late to do anything but eat, putter, and veg. Not to mention that, around here, later=more traffic.

With the new job, at least for a while, I’m working “normal,” 9-5 hours. Surprisingly, maybe because people are on summer vacations, commute traffic hasn’t been bad. And, even more surprisingly, I’m having extremely productive before-work hours.

I tend to wake up early, anyway, and I’m managing to push that back even a little more. I’m getting in my tiny fitness routine, and I’m having some reading time with my morning tea.

And then I’m writing.

*pause for cheers from the peanut gallery*

Yep. I leave an hour later than I used to, and I’m at my computer or a notebook for that hour. Not every single morning, and I’m not yet perfect at resisting the siren call of social  media. But I’m present, and I’m moving projects forward. I’ve refined a couple of picture books, pulled apart another one, and started letting my brain play with a new idea, inspired by a podcast episode. (Yet another benefit of staying away from the news during my commute.)

We get into ruts. We decide there is one way to be, one way to do things, and we decide we’re already doing it. And then Life happens, even a little bit of Life, and we find out there are other patterns available. When I was younger, I would have dug my feet in and pushed back on exploring those other possibilities. Silly younger me.

Will I keep up the later hours? For now, absolutely. When summer shifts away and night comes earlier, I’ll see if traffic also gets worse. And then I’ll look around at the next set of possibilities and decide which ones to check out.

What can you shake up in your life? When have things changed and led you down a different, better-for-now path?