Friday, July 3, 2015

Six Tips for Writing with Diversity

In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, there's been some wonderful conversations about the critical role of diversity in the books we write, particularly if we write for children. (By diversity, I mean any marker that society uses to categorize people: race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, geographic location, age, class, (dis)ability and so forth). As Marieke Nijkamp writes:
But when our stories don’t include characters readers can relate to by shared experience, shared background, shared ability—in fact, when our stories continuously erase those characters—we teach readers that their stories don’t matter. We teach them that their voices don’t matter. We teach them that they don’t matter. . . . Representation matters for readers without marginalized experiences, too. To introduce them to other perspectives and other world views. To teach readers that the world is far richer than their experiences alone. Because there is no one way to be different, and this world is not inhabited by stereotypes and tropes, but by real, multidimensional people.

But these conversations about diversity also tend to generate anxiety for writers who want to write outside of their own experience: what if we get it wrong? What if we offend someone?

To some extent, particularly if we're already coming from a dominant culture, I think these are good anxieties to have: it doesn't hurt us to recognize our own privileged positions. Such anxieties keep us honest--and respectful of other cultures.

The truth is, we all write outside our own experience (unless we're writing memoirs, and even then we write fictionalized versions of ourselves). Avoiding diverse characters because we're afraid of getting them wrong can be nearly as damaging as simply appropriating such characters.

In the interest of full disclosure, as an English/Scottish/German/Scandanavian/North American thirty-something, married woman raised primarily in the mountain west, my experiences with diversity are not the same as others. I'm by  no means an expert on the topic, but trying to recreate the experience of 19th century Hungarians and Gypsies has taught me a few things about writing with diversity.

1. The best way to encourage writing about diversity is to support writers from diverse backgrounds.

Read books that stretch you, particularly books written by authors whose experiences do not mirror yours.

2. Do your research.

If you don't have experience with a particular culture, don't let that scare you away from writing about it, particularly if the story is one you feel called to tell. But do be smart about it.

Start with primary sources wherever possible--don't rely on popular culture to inform your understanding of a particular minority group. Nisi Shawl has a terrific article on ways to learn about another culture, including reading about the culture, talking to members of the group, visiting ethnographic museums, and more.

For my book, I read many history books, including travel narratives and other eye-witness accounts of nineteenth-century events. I also read more contemporary books describing current Hungarian and Gypsy culture to compare with the accounts I was reading. While none of these is a perfect source, they all contribute toward a fuller understanding of the cultures I'm writing about.

3. Be respectful

Think of how irritated or hurt you feel when writers and reporters get aspects of your own background wrong. Do your best to respect the culture you are writing about. Part of this respect comes from detailed research (see above). But it also involves avoiding cultural appropriation: don't use elements of another culture simply to dress up your story or make it more marketable. Whatever cultural/racial/sexual/disability elements you choose to use should be central to the story you tell, not simply window dressing.

Here again, Nisi Shawl has some helpful insights, suggesting that writers can find a space between appropriation and cultural erasure by acting as cultural tourists, rather than invaders--maintaining an open mind, engaging in conversation, and giving back where possible.

Respect also comes from the ways you depict your characters. Avoid stereotypes and cliches, including descriptions of characters of color that involve food. N. K. Jamison has an excellent series on how to do this. Consider also the questions Mitali Perkin's raises about our use of racial (and other) identifiers.

4. Remember that cultures are never singular.

Culture, race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, (dis)ability and more all feed into an individual's identity. But no two people wear that combination in the same way. Though your characters may belong to different cultural groups, they are individuals first, and they should feel well-rounded. Don't let a single character signify for an entire culture.

5. Find culturally-fluent readers

Tu books, an imprint of Lee and Low, regularly employs consultants to ensure cultural details are accurate and respectful. I think this is a good model to follow. For my upcoming novel, I wanted to make sure I was accurately representing both Hungarian and Hungarian gypsy culture. Though my novel is set in the 19th century, and none of my consultants (obviously) have experience with exactly those cultures and time periods, I had a Hungarian friend read through scenes involving Hungarian characters and their language, and she referred me to a Hungarian gypsy who was able to give me some terrific feedback and corrections on character interactions in the novel. I'll admit that it was frightening to reach out to someone I didn't know, but my story will be better for it.

If you don't have direct access to a member of the culture you're writing about, look for internet groups or discussion boards and ask for help. As long as you're coming from a place of respect, you'll generally find people willing to help you.

6. If you mess up, apologize--and keep working.

If someone calls you on a legitimate error or misrepresentation, be humble enough to apologize, and learn from that mistake. Do better next time. None of us are perfect, and as writers especially we need to be careful not to let our egos get in the way of becoming better writers--and better people.

More resources:


We Need Diverse Books

CBC (Children's Book Council) Diversity
DiversifyYA
School Library Journal articles on diversity


What resources or tips have you found helpful in writing about cultures outside your direct experience? 




Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she's often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Fall 2016 from Knopf. She's represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.
 


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Striking the Write Life Balance

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Melanie Jacobson!

Since becoming a stay-at-home mom, writing has saved me. But wait—I prefer the term homemaker, because that’s what I spend most of my time doing: trying to make a home and life for my husband and three ridiculous children. Who I love, bless their pointy little heads. (My husband is not ridiculous nor is his head pointy.)

And I recognize this as my most important work, but I’m not sure it’s healthy in life to ever just be one thing and only one thing.

I had a rich career as a teacher before I stayed home. I’m Type-A and hard driving, so teaching was never a forty hour a week gig. It was late nights and weekends and extra responsibilities and giving up lunch breaks and conference periods to work with students. And I loved it.

But it was really hard to downshift and go from that to having a kid in school all day and sitting home pregnant with my second with nothing to do until Kid 1 got home from school. So I immediately jumped into learning the art and craft of writing. My Type-A tendencies took over again and I was lucky enough to have my first book accepted for publication, but it meant I couldn’t write when I felt like it anymore. My publisher wanted two books a year and that meant deadlines.

Over the years I’ve made it work, mainly remembering that there are times and seasons for everything. When I have to trot that reminder out, it means I haven’t been paying enough attention to my kids and I need to rebalance.

But there are times that I need to rebalance the other way too. When I recognize a certain restlessness in myself, kind of like wanderlust without a need to be anywhere specific, that’s when I realize I’ve been neglecting my writing too long.

Summer is always the most difficult time to strike the balance. All my kids are home all day. I have to keep them busy enough not to kill each other while still finding a way to meet my obligations.
But most importantly, in the summer more than any other time, I have to be aware of my limits.
During the school year, when I have my mornings free with my youngest in preschool, an average writing day for me is about 2000-3000 words. In the summer, I do a 1000. And even those words are hard to come by.

It’s not because my life is hard. It’s not. I’m typing this at the beach, in fact. Try not to hate me. But I have to type this at the beach instead of listening to the waves and playing in the sand because . . . I have a deadline. They never go away.

So I’ve learned some tricks and tips and found some tools to help. Even if you don’t have deadlines, you need to create space for your writing every day in your life. And if possible, they need to be uninterrupted minutes. So here we go, the practical how-to for keeping YOU in balance by making sure your work fits around your other demands, whether it’s your primary career, your parenting duties, your summer schedule or all of the above:

1. Say it out loud every day if you need to, but remind yourself: “My writing matters.”
It matters that you give your creativity an outlet every day. You WILL be better for your family if you do this.

2. Find the time that works for you: if your kids, or even one of your kids is old enough to get breakfast for themselves and younger siblings (my 7 year old is in charge of making a microwaved quesadilla or pouring a bowl of cereal for his 5 year old sister in the morning) then right after you wake up might be a good time. I’m willing to suffer for my art but not enough to get up earlier than my kids in the summer time. If you’re willing and able to get up before them, go for it. You’re a super stud and I bow to your awesomeness.
If you write better after kids are in bed, do that. I don’t like night writing because that’s my time to spend with my husband catching up on the day or vegging and watching TV together. I’m also just not as good at slipping into flow at night.

3. If you can’t find regular time, learn how to carve it out wherever you can. I bring my favorite tool, my Alpha Smart Neo, to the park while the kids play or to gymnastics or swim lessons. I can get a minimum of 750 words done in a 45 minute swim practice.


Some days, though, I have to do it at the beach or the pool while the kids play, glancing up after each paragraph while they’re in the water to check on them. It’s not ideal, but I can work, and as soon as I hit my word goal, I put my keyboard away. Done is done and I can rest easy that I’ve exercised discipline by doing the work, but also had the luxury of spending some time playing with words.
If you can afford them, summer camps can be your friend. My kids do a week of Vacation Bible School. They’re only gone for the morning, it’s a whole week, it costs me a whopping $50 each, and I get 15 hours of writing time. That’s huge. I’m really happy after that week because I’ve been able to really dig into my work and run with it, spending my time in “flow” instead of stops and starts.

4. Reinvest in your career. Consider a mother’s helper. Maybe there’s a 12 year old in the neighborhood or at church who can come over one morning a week or month. You pay her to hang with your little kids while you shut yourself in a room and work like crazy.
I’ve earmarked 10% of what I earn in royalties for childcare when I need it, like right before deadlines when I need to take a few afternoons to just knock something out. This doesn’t make you a bad parent.

5. Produce every day. Promise yourself that no matter what, you will spend some time with your work. Try to commit to a minimum of 500 words. It’s not much, it won’t take long, but it will add up. Then let yourself spend the rest of the day taking care of everything else or just playing. You won’t have that nagging feeling that you should do some writing or the resentment of not getting to write. It’s done and behind you and now you can focus on other things. If even 500 words is a stretch on a given day, at the very least promise yourself you will read the last two pages you wrote and write 3-5 sentences about what you will write the next day. That way, when you go back to it, it won’t take you so long to get into the head space you need to be in to write.

It’s worth it. If you can find a neat box to fit your writing in so that it doesn’t bleed over and dominate the rest of your life, your family isn’t going to resent it. And if you can protect a part of each day, even if it’s the smallest fraction, you’re not going to resent the parts of your life that keep you from writing.

And you balance. And your world stops wobbling on its axis.

Go ahead. Balance. Your family deserves it. But YOU deserve it.

______________________

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie's contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Creating Quality Characters

In the world of writing, the question that can appear most often is which comes first. No, not the chicken and egg conundrum. The plot vs character debate.

I just started drafting a new story, one that I've been thinking about for over nine months. My writing energy and focus was on editing and revising a different book, but every once in a while, I'd get a glimpse at these new characters. Then, while waiting for beta feedback, I had to come up with something to remain sane I started outlining a new book.

I'm firmly planted in the Create Character First Camp.

Once I get a feel for the characters (names, setting, occupations, family situation) I always take time to get to know them. Usually, the questions go something like this:

What does this character want, more than anything?

What is it that makes them lie awake at night, pondering the what ifs?

Where can they go, or what can they see that creates an ache in their chest because of complete longing?

What is holding them back from trying? What set of circumstances will make them try?

And, the biggie, what happens/how do they react when they fail?

You might be thinking that their success is the biggie. But think, for a moment, about the successes you've had in your own life. Which ones created the greatest joy for you? Which ones left you laughing and crying at the same time? Chances are decent that the successes that fall into this category were rarely, if ever, challenge free.

We need to see the failure of characters to discover who they really are. We need to see them hurt and long and look about their world in lost confusion, uncertain about nearly everything before the transition to joy can have an impact.

Please note, when I start with these characters, even though I'm considering them, I don't nail each of these aspects. I can't even identify them in myself and I've been living with me for a long time.

But getting a feel for them helps guide the plot, helps me know what kind of people would make life more difficult, which characters they need to encourage and guide them in the direction of their dreams.

And, somehow, helping our characters work through failures often increases our ability to do the same.
________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Doing Something Different

So I think after you've been drafting, revising, editing, querying, drafting, revising, editing, querying for a while, you can fall into a routine.

I've found myself there. So I've decided to switch it up a bit. Move outside my comfort zone. Do something I haven't done in a VERY long time.

I mean, we all know that saying. I looked it up, and found that it was Henry Ford who said it.



And in all honesty, what I've been doing hasn't been working the way I'd like it to. I want different results. Which means I need to do something different.

So I've decided to revise my next manuscript, which is drafted and has been edited by "normal" way a couple of times. I've had a few betas read the first few chapters.

Now it's about to get crazy.

I'm going to print it. I bought 5 highlighters in different colors. I'm taking some independent study courses from Margie Lawson -- basically, I pay the $22 fee and I get to download all her course notes. (Click on LECTURE PACKETS if you're interested to see what she's offering.) I've purchased three of her lecture packets, and I'm working through them with some writing partners.

And I'm almost ready to start putting highlighter to paper. I haven't edited on paper for YEARS. It's much slower, if I remember right. I'm not sure I've ever had a system quite as detailed as what I'm about to try.

But then again, I'm hoping that I'll get a result that I've never gotten before.

Have you ever done something radically different than normal? What was the result? 

-------------------
Liz Isaacson writes contemporary and inspirational romance when she's not teaching. She is currently revising her inspirational romance manuscript and blogging about writing, reading, and life. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children, where she serves on her community's library board and attends various writing conferences around the state.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Getting That First Draft DONE - 8 Tips




I draft fast, and I think it’s the one thing I get asked by other writers more than anything else, so I thought I’d write up what works for me.

Fast drafting is definitely not for everyone, and it means one messy first draft. I know a lot of people who write much slower than I do, but in the end, it takes us both about the same amount of time to get our books ready for agents and editors. They spend more time drafting. I spend more time editing/revising/shifting.

However you work best, here are my 8 tips for getting that first draft finished.


ONE

Turn off the internet. Seriously. Just turn it off. Set a timer for at least 40 minutes, and TURN OFF THE INTERNET.


TWO

Don’t be afraid to skip things you don’t know. The number of people named XXX in my rough drafts is a LOT. The number of times I leave myself little notes like – SOME KIND OF CAR HERE – before jumping right back into action and dialogue is a lot. DON’T GET BOGGED DOWN IN THE DETAILS.

THREE

I’m not at all afraid to write out of order. This is actually why I started writing novels to begin with. The moment I realized that not everyone begins their novels at the beginning and ends them at the end, I thought- I CAN DO THAT!!! And then I did. Only it was a little trickier than that…

FOUR

Sometimes I’m writing in the middle of a scene, and suddenly the guy behind the coffee bar has a line of dialogue, then another one. Now I’m thinking, hmmm, maybe he owns the place. Maybe he’s kind of a kooky guy. Maybe he’ll be this kind of all-knowing, all-seeing guy who puts the pieces together for my MC. But maybe not.
Do I stop?
Try to figure that out?
Nope.
I tuck it back in my brain just in case I need it later on, and continue writing the scene. This is something I’ll think about on my next run or when I’m doing something mindless like dishes, sweeping, laundry…


FIVE

I reach a point where I’m not sure how the scene ends. That’s okay. I sometimes know what happens next so I can skip and write that. I can do the rest of this later. I type something random like –
I’m pretty sure this scene isn’t done.

The thing is, you and I, and everyone who has a few books under their belt, knows that I’m going to read this MS what feels like a million more times. Maybe on my next run-through I’ll find the perfect thing to say. Maybe later on I’ll write something that needs to be foreshadowed in this scene. The thing is? I don't have to know that now.

SIX

I totally skip ahead and write the good stuff. First kisses, endings…
The chances of those scenes staying the same by the time I get to them is slim to none, but I write them anyway. It keeps my momentum, and for me, momentum is so important when I’m drafting.

Eventually, I end up at that scene I wrote a long time ago, which has been completely out of place until now. Sometimes that scene fits, and sometimes it doesn’t. Was it wasted?
Nope.
I learned more about my people, and found one way I DIDN’T want something to happen.

SEVEN

If I feel my fingers slowing down, I’ll make a Pinterest board, or a song list, or just find pictures that look like my people, places that have the same feel as my setting, write lists of character traits until something I see or hear sparks my imagination.

AND FINALLY –

I’m not afraid to set a book aside that’s not flowing. I have no problems setting projects on the back burner, unless I’ve already sold them and need to finish. That’s another blog post.

Really, a first draft (for me) is all about basic plot points and really knowing my characters. Very often I don’t really know what the book is about (you know, that deeper meaning) until the book is finished, and I’ve had some time away from it. <-- Time away is totally the best self-editing tool by the way. Reading out loud is close, but not quite the same.

So, that’s how I get draft one DONE.


Any other tips out there?







Monday, June 22, 2015

Take the Time to Nourish Your Story

On December 5, 2013 I sent my first chapter of the book I'm writing to my critique group. I was revising another book at the time, but had this story idea that needed to come out.

In June of 2014, I realized I had started the story in the totally wrong place. I was over 40k into it, and nothing was salvageable. I paced my backyard, swore, sent a venting email to my critique partners (there might have been more swear words), paced my backyard again. Then, I bought me a fresh Diet Coke, broke out my colored post-it notes and started re-plotting the book.

Because the story that I have been writing for a year and a half is a story of my heart. When I first had the idea for the story, I sat at my laptop and jotted down some scenes, getting a feel for the characters, and connected with three of them so deeply that writing their experiences made me cry. Because when I closed my eyes, I could see these women like the tangible people of my life.

But it is more than that.

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins discusses the manner in which a person need to pursue a craft, hone a talent, discover a passion.


I have had writer friends talk about "the book that tried to kill them" on several occasions. The plot was hard, the language challenged them, creating the desired emotional impact took a toll. But these people soon discovered they had put their heart and soul into the book, the quality of their commitment became lovely through the challenge, and the thing they were creating would not let them settle for less. They put in the time.

This is why good writers revise.

This is why good writers receive feedback from critique partners and writing groups.

This is why good writers revise again.

This is why good writers receive feedback from beta readers - preferably those who frequently read and/or write in that genre.

This is why good writers revise again.

Again.

Because, you see, your story, just like anything else worth having, requires you love the work. And it will be work. Two more thoughts from The Art of Work.
*** 
You must love the work. Not until you find something you can do to the point of exhaustion, to the extent that you almost hate it but can return to it tomorrow, have you found something worth pursuing. 
***
True practice is not just about learning a skill; it's about investing the time and energy necessary to discern if this is what you are meant to do. It's about using difficulty to discover what resonates and what does not. 
***

Think about the story you are writing. Has it frustrated you? Made you talk to electronics? Created a whisper of self-doubt that at times grows in such strength that you question if you can write the story at all?

Do you still come back?

Why?

If you are at all like me, you come back because the thought of not completing it to the best of your ability is worse the the screaming self-doubt.

You have come back because you see a spot where you can start fixing, where you know what you meant to say, and if you know how to fix that part, you can probably fix it somewhere else too.

You come back because you know that hard things in life are often followed by great joys.

And you come back because you have a story to tell. A story that only you can tell. A story that means something to you, that might, maybe, mean something to someone else, and maybe, just maybe, what you wrote will allow readers to engage with you. Maybe you'll have, what Cheryl B. Klein calls the ultimate engagement, which is "when readers care so much for the characters that they feel everything the characters feel in the action of the novel: their triumph, their love, their excitement, their pain" (from Second Sight).

When you hear about someone who created their story in months or weeks or days, when you are tempted to send out a query too soon, when you think about quitting, ask yourself if you can?

Truly?

If you say yes, there is absolutely no shame. Find a passion that stirs your soul, that makes you want to be better because life is to short to be passionless.

If not, listen to the passion lying in you, yell at the computer if you need then treat yourself to something as a reward for dedication and perseverance, and make your story the very best it can be.

_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Friday, June 19, 2015

15 Pinterest Board Ideas for Writers

Are you a writer and a Pinterest junkie user? Are you addicted to Pinterest like you're addicted to chocolate? Or do you fear you'll get sucked into the vortex and therefore shy away from Pinterest like you do from decaffeinated coffee? I'm a Pinterest user that stands somewhere in the middle ground. I love it for inspiration and find it very useful as a resource, but I admit that I use the mobile app to skim and quickly post things so I don't get sucked into it for hours and hours (because the potential of that happening is real).

Bottom line: Pinterest is a great way to find and share writing inspiration and useful information, connect with other writers and readers, and make your brand (i.e., YOU) more visible to others.


Here is a sample list of boards that you might find useful as a writer. I've included examples of boards for each of these categories (some of which I follow and others that are mine). If you're not on Pinterest yet, this comprehensive list might appear overwhelming, but I suggest that you start with one or two boards that you find most helpful to you and slowly build up your boards with time. The key to successfully using Pinterest is to pin things that are useful, interesting, and aesthetically inspiring to you.

1. Character inspiration board
Models, fashion, hair, style, other pins to capture your characters' personalities and voices (for each project or character)

2. World-building/scene inspiration board 
Scenery, locations, historical settings (for each project)

3. Writing resources & tips board
Favorite writing tips, how to's, advice on writing craft

4. Favorite quotes board
Writing inspiration, general inspiration, writing prompts

5. Favorite reads board
Books you've loved, books on your TBR list, book teasers, book reviews

6. Favorite writing songs/bands board
YouTube videos, playlists, song quotes, lyrics that inspire you

7. Writing-inspired accessories/must haves board
Shirts, scarves, mugs, bookshelves, furniture, other decor for your writing space

8. Blogging board
Links to posts from your blog (include a custom graphic with a watermark from your website or with your name if possible; see tips at the end of this post)

9. Writing conferences/author events board
Links to events you're attending, on your wish list to attend, and/or meet-up places that you recommend to other writers and readers

10. Writing opportunities/contests/competitions board
Writing contests, writing competitions, writing and publishing opportunities

11. Writing retreat locations board
Locations, destinations, settings for your dream writing retreat (also serving as inspiration)

12. Your books/WIPs & press board
Your own books, works-in-progress, book trailers, and any press-related items

13. Writing snacks board
Recipes to satisfy your writing munchies

14. Quick-prep meal board
Shopping lists and easy recipes for when you need more time to write and are sick of take-out

15. Easy kid crafts
If you have kids, easy crafts for them to do, possibly even while you're writing


A few additional thoughts for pinning:

You can designate any of your boards as "secret" if you don't want to share the content of your boards.

Like all social media, everything you post publicly will reflect upon you as a writer and will influence the types of followers you attract.

For your original pins/images, it's always a good idea to create a watermark of your name or website on the pin. Re-pinned pins often lose original captions, and a watermark will maintain your name/brand's visibility.


Do you use Pinterest to help you with your writing-related activities? Do you have any other suggestions for boards? If so, we would love it if you would share them with us!
_______________________________________________

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors of the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT. She is mostly on Pinterest when she needs to do book research or needs to find recipes.