All The Way YA

On beauty, and ‘perfection,’ and the elusiveness of words

Sometimes I think it’s my mother’s fault I started writing.

When I was young, long before I could read, she got me books-on-tape and because I’m ADHD (read:  ‘can’t fall sleep’) I’d listen to stories long into the night.  The earliest books I remember are full of magic and beauty, of hope, love, and loss, of longing and good-versus-evil and the gray in between.

I think that built up who I am inside.  I’d like to imagine I’d be me without it—that without those words I’d still be who I am. But I think, in a way, I wouldn’t exist.  Because those words not only taught me to think as I do, they made me crave a ‘moreness’ I could only half see—a sort of pocket of truth hovering just out of reach.  And they reminded me writers can reach out and touch it, bring back an echo of truth to those who read their work.

I also blame my mother for the misguided notion that I couldn’t write myself because the industry was closed—a notion I warped not to mean I couldn’t get in but that the story I told needed to open doors through its utter perfection.

Now I don’t mean perfection in the strictest sense.

I’m not sure I ever thought what I read was flawless, but I saw in stories an undeniable truth, something the author could see in a way I couldn’t.

It took me to age fourteen to realize I was wrong.

I’d been visiting my grandparents and was bored out of my mind because I’d finished all my books and their TV lacked channels, so I’d finally picked up a novel my mother had packed.  (You see a theme developing? It was her book not mine.)  But the book was—well—boring, quite appallingly bad.  The characters hung flat.  The plotline ran dull.  There was no magic, no spark, just an excellent idea that had died under poor writing.  And I realized in that minute, I could do that too.

Because if that story was published then why shouldn’t mine be?

I know, I know—that’s awful, right?  Never say, “Well, if that book…” and expect logic like that to justify your own poor writing, but as a teenager dreaming that wasn’t the point.

I didn’t need to know how not to write.

I just needed to know I had permission—to write, to dream, to find a ‘moreness’ of my own.  And I needed to realize ‘perfection’ wasn’t perfect.  Which was an immense relief:  I’d never wanted to be perfect.

Well, time went by and I got some degrees, first in journalism, then in history, all the while writing and studying and working myself so I could finally get there.

You all know what I mean:  to that nebulous ‘there’.

I think we, as writers, all define our ‘there’ differently.

My ‘there’ held two meanings, one I’ve realized, one I’ve not.  The first was a ‘there’ that surrounded my concept of beauty—of darkness slashed with light, of hope rising from sorrow—so my first attempt at ‘there’ was simply writing that story, that one in my heart that held beauty for me.

My second ‘there’ is something I haven’t accomplished, and I know beyond doubt I never will because my second ‘there’ isn’t a thing or a place I can get to—it’s finding utter perfection in the strictest sense, that one perfect story that will answer all of my questions and fulfill all of my hopes.  And that’s far too big a thing for me to ever reach, which means, practically speaking, I’ll always be challenged, always have something to learn, always have better stories to write.

I suppose, in a way, that’s how I like things.  Just a little beyond me.  Just a little too big.

So maybe I would have become a writer after all.

Because I needed a career that would always somehow elude me.

That’s one of the paradoxes of being a writer:  the inability to catch what we see in our eyes.  That dream—that story—may be as solid as anything, but when we approach it turns to an elusive mist.  I think what I saw as perfection as a child was really that mist—someone else’s ‘there’ or ‘moreness’.  And I suppose that’s part of why we writers write:  there’s this shadow of potential encased in our words, but that shadow is never the same book by book.  My ‘moreness’ isn’t your ‘moreness’; our perfections are different, yet we’re all on a quest to create beauty and worth.

My second ‘there’—that goal of getting to utter perfection—is so much less a thing or a place I can reach and so much more a part of my deepest longings because while I don’t want to be perfect, I do want to find it.  I want to reach into that ‘moreness’ and hold onto that mist, which means as long as my grasp falls frustratingly short, that ‘there’ will always elude me, and there’s beauty in that.

Hillary FazzariHillary Fazzari is a YA writer from the Pacific Northwest. She holds degrees in journalism, Celtic studies, and history and writes both fiction and academic material. When she’s not researching long-dead kings or writing about teens in trouble, she can be found reading or haunting her local library. You can follow her on Twitter: @HillaryFazzari.
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A Letter To Doubt

I’m in the middle of taking book coaching classes from Author Accelerator, and one of the assignments I completed this week was a letter to my doubt. I’ve never been much for grand statements, and honestly, writing this letter felt a little wonky to me. But, my doubt is a real thing. I wouldn’t say it holds me back, but it’s definitely an ever present entity in my mind.

Taking responsibility for somebody else’s words in incredibly humbling…and nerve-wracking. And facing the fact that I’m scared and unsure ended up feeling liberating. I acknowledged my doubt instead of letting it control me. I admitted that I was afraid.

It was weirdly…easy.

The final part of the lesson was to share my letter, which I did in the Teachable app where the classes are (the only one so far. Come on guys, no need to be shy!). Then I shared it with my critique partner, who encouraged me to share it with the world.

I think everyone can find value in recognizing and acknowledging their doubt. I hope all of you sit down in the coming week and draft a letter to your doubt, whether it’s about writing, coaching, or some other aspect of your life. It’s a uniquely powerful experience. Feel free to share in the comments below.

Dear Doubt,

 

I’m not sure where you came from. Seems to me you’ve always been there, whispering to me on long, sleepless nights. Maybe I’m a writer, but I’m not a good writer. Maybe I have an agent, but I’ll never sell my book. I think I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been to countless classes. I’ve worked hard to get here, but you’re probably right. There are things I still don’t know. Holes in my knowledge that must be filled.

 

And now I want to teach others? Take responsibility for their failures and shortcomings, and let them become my own? Who exactly do I think I am? Not a guru, for certain. Not an expert.

 

Since you’re already here, and it doesn’t seem you’ll be leaving anytime soon (or ever), I’ll deal with you the same way I always have, by proving you wrong. Just like my writing has grown and evolved since I first put pen to paper, so will my knowledge as a book coach. Circumstances, whether easy or hard won, will lead to experience. And with everything I learn, you, my doubt, will lessen.

 

Putting myself out there, taking a risk, and learning something new doesn’t make me unworthy. I’m not less simply because I’m inexperienced. I am clay, malleable and mold-able, ready to transform into something new.

 

I am brave.

 

It’s getting difficult to hear you over excitement in my thoughts. Hard work got me here and hard work will continue to sustain me. Maybe you’ll always be there, whispering, but I’ll talk louder. I’ll fill the world with my intentions and my support and my drive to give back as others have given to me. And maybe, with all the noise and change I’m creating out in the world, in the lives of other writers, I’ll forget to listen to you. I’ll help others find their voices, and they will rise up better for my help.

 

Instead of taking on their failures, I’ll take their successes.

 

Hear that doubt? It’s getting awfully loud in here, and I’m just getting started.

 

K.C.

qcglzchm_400x400K.C. Karr writes about brave teenagers and unfortunate situations. As a former high school winterguard coach, she finds that young voices tell the best, most truthful stories. She’s been an editor, a social media director, and longtime member of the critique group Flint Area Writers. K.C. is currently working toward becoming a certified book coach through Author Accelerator and is a proud YA mentor in this year’s #WriteMentor contest. www.kckarr.com

Because Books Don’t Go Away: Racism in Historical Kid Lit

Several months ago, at a used-book sale at my local library, I happened upon The Mystery at Lilac Inn, by Carolyn Keene. I scooped up the dark blue volume, with its orange silhouette of the famed “girl detective,” and paged through it. I realized my good luck on the copyright page: I had scored a first edition! But after that first page… it wasn’t the story I remembered from middle school. And more than once, it made me cringe.

This was 1930s Nancy Drew, created by a syndicate of ghostwriters. In the late 1950s, she was remade by a new syndicate of ghostwriters. (And in recent decades, she’s been remade by other syndicates of ghostwriters.) 1930s Nancy, I discovered as I read the first edition, was bold and sassy—with mortifying drips of racism clinging to her like a vestigial tail.

1950s Nancy, the one I knew as the “classic,” was rewritten to be more ladylike and naturally good at literally everything. And the manifest racism was gone… if only because any characters of color were erased and replaced with white ones.

What’s to be done with books like these—books with racism stitched into their bindings?

Some say we should consign such books to a literary dustbin: that classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are fundamentally flawed and should be replaced, especially in schools, with works by marginalized authors. Others argue that removing historical books with racist content is tantamount to censorship, a slippery academic slope.

As a writer, I’m fundamentally concerned with how my work will be consumed by present and future young readers. As author Malcolm Jones puts it, “the troublesome thing about books is that they never completely go away. And a lot of the books with offensive material are in fact classics, so the whole [children’s publishing] industry is saddled with an ugly past that keeps breaking in on the present.” To build a better literary landscape for the future, then, I think we can and must learn from the past.

Examples of racism in children’s literature persist on bookstore shelves and in classrooms. Some, such as the Nancy Drew series and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have been updated for modern young audiences (the latter by eliminating the original description of Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas as black cannibals).

Others—including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—have retained their original material. Huckleberry Finn, viewed as anti-racist satire, is still taught in schools despite its controversial, frequent use of the “n-word.” To Kill A Mockingbird’s perennial place on school book lists has also been challenged, given its “white gaze” perspective on racism, especially as marginalized voices are now gaining long-overdue traction in children’s publishing. And the widely beloved Little House series bluntly presents Ma’s hatred of Indians and Pa’s participation in a blackface minstrel show.

Examples like these run deeper than the Nancy Drews and Willy Wonkas. They reflect the times in which they were written, racist warts and all. To eliminate them completely from classroom discussions does a disservice to students. Critical thought and understanding of historical facts are indeed critical elements in our country’s education of its children.

Attempting to sanitize books of their racism is often seen as an alternative to vetoing those books outright. Sometimes, as in the Nancy Drew series and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this kind of “updating” can be done without impact to the larger story. But for books like Huckleberry Finn—where racism is a load-bearing wall—editing out supremacist ugliness amounts to whitewashing, an erasure of important historical lessons. In the words of African-American literature scholar Fatima Shaik, “Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary.”

So, how should we handle these complicated, not-going-away classics?

In a word: responsibly.

Educators who include historical books with racist content have a responsibility to their students: to provide context and the opportunity to process these works through an honest, modern lens. Conversations about racism are often difficult for students—for adults, too—but such conversations will never get easier if they are not constructively guided early on.

Parents who share beloved classic books with their children are responsible for helping them recognize outdated, offensive content. Newbery medalist Grace Lin compares books such as the Little House series to out-of-touch relatives: “You can still love that relative, and you can still let them be a part of your child’s life. But because you know they might say something you don’t like, don’t you try to keep an extra ear open, in case they say something in front of your child? And then, don’t you explain afterwards?”

Then, there are writers like me who hope to reach hordes of young readers. We have responsibilities as well, both to our own stories and to promoting the stories of writers whose words have been harder to hear in a system that was built to exclude them. Especially as a reader and writer who has never struggled to find representation, characters who are essentially like me, I need to write characters of different backgrounds respectfully and responsibly.

I also may need to engage the valuable services of sensitivity readers—as author Anna Hecker aptly calls them, “diversity editors.” For my work-in-progress, a fairytale retelling that features a diverse cast and a white supremacist antagonist, I know I’ll need to check my privilege and ask for help (more than once) to make this story complete and genuine.

In short, writers are responsible for producing and supporting the most authentic, fulfilling content we can for present and future readers. If we can do that, then maybe someday next-generation readers will scoop up first-edition copies of our books at library sales.

And maybe, hopefully, we won’t make them cringe.

Joy Givens espressoJoy Givens resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. Joy primarily writes “fresh, fantastic, fierce” young adult fiction. Her novel UGLY STICK, short story collection APRIL’S ROOTS, and nonfiction guide THE NEW SAT HANDBOOK are available on Amazon.com. Joy’s short fiction has also been published by WOW! Women on Writing and Cat & Mouse Press (BEACH LIFE anthology, 2017). In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee

Feedback: Too Much of A Good Thing

Feedback.

It’s highly regarded in the writing community, and for good reason. An experienced critique partner can catch a plot hole the author might miss because they can’t see the whole story. Grammar mistakes are easier for a secondary person to notice because they don’t know what the text says until they read it.

But feedback is dangerous if you don’t know how to handle it.

The most popular pitfall of feedback is mental drain. Criticism can be tough to take. But this post isn’t about the difficulties of accepting feedback. This post is about the danger of too much.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to join an incredible studio full of writers who were all passionate about craft and wanted to help their peers succeed.  Everyone was excited to give feedback, which meant I got tons of it. Every page of my work was covered in grammar tips, character arc opinions, anything and everything that could possibly be covered. It was amazing!

Image result for editingDiving in with voracity, I took every suggestion to heart. My character’s drives aren’t clear? I’ll clarify! This area of dialogue drags? I’ll spice it up! Maybe a, b and c aren’t necessary? Cool, they’re tossed! I was not going to be one of those writers who was unwilling to rewrite. Writing is rewriting. Kill the darlings. I aspired to implement everything.

That was a mistake.

The problem was, all these critiques and opinions were based off 20-25 pages of a 280 page novel. These CPs were critiquing one puzzle piece, so when I changed the piece according to their ideas that piece no longer fit with the rest of the story. Week after week, I made the same error. I ended up with a pile of beautifully edited words and tight scenes that led to nowhere.

It was a disaster. How had I let this happen?

Image result for ruined books

I’d done what a writer was supposed to do. I kept an open mind, listened to other’s opinions, and was more than willing to change my words.

Writing is hard. We all want to get better. I was so desperate to avoid being one of those writers who refused help I ended up giving comments too much weight. It hurt when I came to the rough realization that I had let of go of what I was trying to build. My characters’ desires had taken a back seat. I was writing for other people.

I forgot that the story I was working on was exactly that: My story.

Putting that novel in a drawer felt like locking away a piece of soul. There was so much potential in those pages, but I was caught in a feedback whirlpool and I was too tired to swim out. The novel sat in my “later” file with it’s adequate word count and inadequate pacing and plot. Two weeks later, after my mind stopped spinning, I started working on a new project.

This time, I paid attention to the craft mistakes CP’s were consistently pointing out in my work. When I took this new book to critique group I focused on my personal goals for each sample. Any feedback that conflicted with the chapter theme and direction was marked but not implemented.  If an area was brought up more than once, I would note it, but didn’t always follow their exact suggestions. Too be honest, I almost never did. But I’d mark the area: “Something is wrong here. Revisit. It’s not working.” I’d fix it, but I made sure it fit with the rest of the story.

Looking back, that feedback debacle was a blessing dressed as tragedy. It taught me the importance of sifting through comments while staying true to my story. It also highlighted the importance of picking the right CPs. A person who doesn’t like a story because of conflicting taste isn’t a good fit.

Recently, I opened the drawer and wiped the cobwebs off the tragically over-edited book. The pages of feedback I received last year now look like suggestions.  It’s easy to see where I went wrong because I’ve finally figured out how to handle the comments correctly. Pacing is important. If a scene is slow, fix it, but it can be fixed in many ways. Plot holes are an issue, but story is a matter of taste– a sweet romance writer might not like dark fantasy; in return, a fantasy writer might think a sweet romance is too slow. Style varies. Characters are important–if no one likes them or they’re acting outside of their personality, there’s a problem.

But the best lesson I learned is a happy one: everything can be fixed.

The “drawer book” is different than it was when I first started, but all books go through metamorphosis. It’s a better book because of the journey it went on, even if it was a painful one. I’ve added many of the old scenes back, but they’ve been tweaked to a higher level. Several scenes were tossed, because critique partners are often right. That’s the key to feedback. Balance. At the end of the day, the story belongs to the writer.

312185_2077885938c24faca78ead0529a48c82-mv2Jessica Grace Kelley is an accountant by day and writer by night. She greatly prefers her night job. She’s an author and poet, and her young adult novels have received over a dozen awards and contest wins, including the Daphne du Maurier, the YA Authors.Me contest, and the Emma Merritt. Jessica holds a BA in Finance and Accounting. When she isn’t buried in books she spends her time writing music and co-teaching a teen writing class. Sometimes she tries to be a painter, but the product of her efforts proves it’s all in her head.

The Problem With #ownvoices

Most people would agree that marginalized voices need to be heard more often in the publishing world. We want a diverse cast of characters in novels, and we want a matching diverse cast of authors to write them.

If only it was that easy.

There’s a catch-22 when it comes to #ownvoices novels. The idea behind the movement is that agents/publishers want marginalized people’s stories told by the people from the marginalized groups. Stories about Asians should be told by Asians. Stories about LGBTQ people should be told by members of the LGBTQ community. Stories about Autism should be told by people with Autism. The stories should be told by the “own voices” of people who have lived out these experiences.

On the surface, I agree with this 100%. I myself identify as an #ownvoices author. I have bipolar disorder, and my protagonist does as well. I want more people to know what that experience is like, and I would love to break some of the stigma surrounding what it means to live with this disease (spoiler alert: we’re not all serial killers! A lot of us are deliciously boring!). Let me use my own experience as an example for the problem with #ownvoices:

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, 2.6% of Americans have bipolar disorder.

Out of that 2.6%, I have no way of knowing how many of them are writers. Let’s go with a wildly high guess and pretend 50% of them are. That would mean 1.3% of the population would even care to write about their experience as a person struggling with bipolar disorder. Now, again looking at a wildly high guess, let’s pretend that 50% of that group actually completes a novel with a bipolar protagonist. That’s 0.65%. That would mean, optimistically, I have around a half a percent of the American population that would even be able to even pitch an #ownvoices book about bipolar disorder, let alone one that is good enough to get picked up by an agent and sold to a publishing house. That’s not going to leave many books getting published about bipolar disorder.

I agree that #ownvoices is a best-case scenario. For example, if I’m learning about the Vietnam War, it would be great to have a soldier who was there come and tell me about it. That would be a riveting story, and it would certainly be an accurate portrayal of that soldier’s experience. However, if no Vietnam War veteran is around to tell me the story – stick with me here – I believe that their stories still deserve to be told. They should be told in history books. They should be told in historical fiction novels written by people who did extensive research. Their stories should still be out there.

While I am an #ownvoices author, I have not yet been successful in selling my book. I would love if someone more talented than me was willing to take the time to thoroughly research this disorder and write a book that could reflect the experience. They could get people with bipolar disorder to do read-throughs and help modify places that may not seem authentic. Any writer should do extensive research before taking on any voice, whether historical or contemporary. Sensitivity beta reads are very common, and they are important.

We shouldn’t be shaming people who truly research and try to represent these underrepresented voices; we should be applauding them and helping them tell our stories as accurately as possible.

I want people with bipolar disorder to be able to pick up a book and say, “Hey, I recognize that. I’ve been through that. I don’t feel as alone anymore.” If the author of that story has bipolar disorder, great. If not, at least the story was still told. At least the marginalized character got her voice out there, regardless of who created her.

No one, #ownvoices or not, can fully encapsulate the experience of a group as a whole.

I can never say “All mentally ill people have this story.” They don’t. They each have their own. It’s the same way with any other marginalized group. In order to see as many of these stories as possible, I want a plethora diverse characters to come to life. I would love if the ones breathing life into them could be people who share their same backgrounds. But, like an adopted child in a family who has no genetic connection to him, I also want these marginalized characters to be represented when their authors don’t share their same backgrounds. I want these books on shelves, and there aren’t enough of us marginalized authors putting good enough books out there right now. We’re trying. In the meantime, I’d love for people to come along side us and boost the signals we’re trying to present. If we’re all only allowed to write from our own experiences, I fear the diversity we’re seeking will take a very (and maybe impossibly) long time to be accomplished. #ownvoices books are phenomenal, but I fear they are not enough.

hazelHazel Hillboro blogs on hazelhillboro.com about bipolar disorder and also life in general. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing with her bug-eyed pug or hiking. She collects haunted birdhouses and antique ice trays (sans haunt).
Just kidding. She only collects stories, true and false, and reads and writes as much as she possibly can.

#DearLaura

#DearLaura

#DearLaura

 

When you receive multiple offers from agents, how do you choose?

 

Sincerely,

Too Stressed To Be Excited

 

Dear Too Stressed To Be Excited,

What a good problem to have! Firstly, congratulations on attracting the interest of not one, but multiple agents. This is a very important relationship you’re embarking on and it pays to be choosey. There are a few things I would do right away if you haven’t already:

  1. Check their recent sales and existing clients at Publisher’s Marketplace.
  2. Stalk them on social media.
  3. Ask for a couple of their current authors as references.
  4. Schedule a telephone call to talk about your project and their vision for it.

To expand a little on number 2, social media is a mere glimpse into a person’s personality, but the more important thing, is to be on the watch for red flags—Are they professional? Do they keep author information confidential? Do they seem to have a good online reputation? Are they a “good” person?

Along a similar vein for number 3, you want to ask their references about their working relationships—Are they respectful? Do they give good feedback? Are they timely and transparent in their communications?

For your telephone interview, I would ask some in-depth questions focused more on your story and their long-term vision for your career. Some agents have a short-term view of “I can sell this story” and some agents are more focused on building your career over time. It may seem far into the future, but I would challenge you to take a long-term perspective on this, and ask yourself where you’d like to be in ten years. You might also ask the agent for a couple of examples of their authors’ trajectories to get a glimpse into how committed the agent is to helping their authors build a base over time. Another way to put this, is that it’s easy for an agent to point to their shiny bestseller success stories, but you might learn more from how they manage an author with a slow build.

Some other things to consider are the agent’s experience, years they’ve been in the business, whether they are full-time or part-time agents, and whether their agency has added bonuses like foreign sub-rights or connections with film studios.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both seasoned and baby agents. A seasoned agent will likely have built a solid reputation and long-standing relationships with editors, but they might also have a full list of clients and not a lot of time for one-on-one attention. A baby agent may still be elbowing their way into a crowded room, but they are likely hungrier and more willing to invest the time and attention in your career because their success is more closely linked with your own.

These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly veteran agents who stay hungry and baby agents who have connections, but these trends may help you in thinking about how to frame your questions: How much feedback do you tend to give to authors? What do you do if a project doesn’t sell?

This is a bit of a tangent, but something I wish that I had asked my agent: in looking at the story I sent you, how would you try and shape my career and build my readership over time? If your debut novel is successful, likely the publisher will want more of the same, only a little different. So if, for instance, you are a genre jumper, it would benefit you to have that conversation with your prospective agent at the outset. The more you know about yourself as an artist, the better equipped you will be to find an agent that suits you.

I would also impart as a last bit of advice, to go with your gut. This is perhaps harder to quantify, but in reflecting on your conversation with a prospective agent and the email exchanges you might have had, do you feel like you can trust them? Do you feel safe? Do they seem to be responsive to your needs? Of course sales matter, but so does personality, and if something the agent said or did rubbed you the wrong way, the two of you might not be the best fit for this kind of long-term partnership.

And if you’re really bold, you can ask them their birthdate and look them up in this book or enter their information at this website to compare your astrological charts.

Good luck!

Laura Lascarso

Do you have a question for Laura? Leave it in the box below for a chance to have it featured in June’s #DearLaura post!

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Laura Lascarso is the author of several young adult novels including THE BRAVEST THING, which won a 2017 Rainbow Award for best gay contemporary romance and COUNTING BACKWARDS, which won a 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for young adult literature. If you have a burning question about writing or publishing, please tweet @lauralascarso and include the tag #dearlaura

Learn more at www.lauralascarso.com

Living in the Arctic, World Building and Point-Of-View

Pic 1 DVL town

Greetings from 78°N and -16°C! I have been up here since the beginning of March when I arrived a few days before the celebration of the sun’s return… Longyearbyen is on the largest island of the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, approximately 1,200 kms north of the Arctic Circle. There are no trees, just mountains and glaciers and a relatively thin layer of snow. And not too many people either. Longyearbyen’s population is around 2,200 and the entire archipelago has less than 3,000 residents.

– um, OK… *sounds cold* but what does that have to do with world building?

Everything! Although it’s easy to see details of world building when you read about Middle Earth or Starships, a contemporary novel set in a real place also has a distinct world that the author has created – either by constructing a fictional setting or by choosing which parts of an existing setting to include or to omit.

The purpose of world building is to create a setting for your story. It is the structure in which your characters evolve and your story arc unfolds.

– But what does that have to do with point of view (POV)?

The world your characters inhabit shapes how they view the world and how they react. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, the world you create informs the story problem and its themes.

– And that connects to living in the Arctic… how?

A character’s POV and the world they inhabit are intricately inter-linked – and no place shows that better than here in Longyearbyen where some of the things we take for granted living below the Arctic Circle just don’t hold true anymore.

– Like what?

Like ‘day’ and ‘night’. Day is when the sun is up. Night when it is down. Right?

– Well, duh.

Nope. Not here. In Longyearbyen the sun dips below the horizon for the last time on October 15. And stays down until February 15 – although in Longyearbyen, because of the mountains, you don’t actually see the sun until March 8. And from April 20 to August 20 the sun stays up 24 hours a day – it circles around the sky going higher or lower, but never dipping below the horizon. Which means that when you go out with friends in the summer you stumble out of the pub into broad daylight at 2 in the morning. And when you meet a friend for lunch at noon in January, it looks like you are meeting them at midnight. Right now, the twilight goes on for hours giving a fabulous blue light.

Pic 2 DVL Blue Light

– So daylight and darkness have more to do with the seasons than with day and night?

Absolutely! And a person/character who has grown up here (or in any other community north of the Arctic Circle) will have a different idea of what it means to walk home in the dark than those of us who grew up with dark meaning night – and as a girl growing up in Massachusetts I was brought up to understand that dark meant danger.

– Yeah, but being in a big city like NYC the night doesn’t feel the same either – there are always so many people out.

True. And that’s just another example of how the place you live affects the way you see the world – or even what makes sense to have happen in a story. Take for example the idea of having a character find a buried treasure, hidden by a pirate a hundred years ago, in their backyard. For a character growing up in Cambridge, MA that would make sense. But not if your character was in NYC or in Longyearbyen. In NYC there aren’t any backyards (so the treasure would have to have been buried in one of the city parks instead?) and in Longyearbyen the city is built on permafrost (so maybe it was hidden in a nearby glacier that is now slowly moving down the valley?).

Pic 3 DVL nature shot

– Wait. You live on permafrost? Isn’t that like really cold?

Yes and no. As with night and day, it’s relative. After graduating from high school my twin brothers and I took off for college. I headed up to Alaska, one brother went to California, and the other stayed close to home. By the time we gathered again at Christmas and went out to a local bar to catch up, we realized we were all dressed for different types of weather. I had on a light sweater. The brother from California had a double layer of jackets and scarves and was still cold while the one who had stayed at home looked like everyone else walking down the street with a ‘normal’ coat, a hat and gloves. So you adapt (and get the right clothes). Just the other day, when it was only -10°C out, everyone commented on how warm it was – and went out with a layer or two less. It’s all a question of what you are used to and that’s what I meant about how world building and point of view are connected: what you experience (the world around you) shapes the way you see the world (POV).

– So if it’s like winter all the time, does everyone drive a snowmobile or something?

Pretty much, actually! But that’s also because there aren’t many roads. In and around Longyearbyen there are only about 42 kilometers of roads after that it’s just open nature. The ‘two-vehicle’ family has a different twist up here since many have both a car and a snowmobile. Basically, if you want to get out of town in the winter/spring, you have to have a snowmobile. In the warmer months, when the sea ice has melted, you can also go places by boat.

It also means that teens, when they get their first permits, drive snowmobiles to school. Snowmobiles are a real source of freedom for teens – there really isn’t much you can do in a town of 2,200 people where everyone knows everyone. And believe me, they really do know how to drive them. I went for a drive with a teen the other day and he was hanging off the side and standing on the seat as if it was a BMX – whereas I felt adventurous just standing up!

Pic 4 DVL snowmobile

– Have you seen any polar bears?

No, they aren’t often close to town even though the archipelago is home to several thousand polar bears. Which means you can’t leave town without a rifle and a flare. Since they are a protected species, the idea is to be able to scare them away. If you do shoot one, there will be a major investigation where you have to prove it was in self-defense.

But I have seen reindeer! One of the first mornings I looked out the kitchen window and saw one – and completely forgot about my coffee (which is saying a lot!). I took about a hundred pictures. A few days later I realized that reindeer are in and around Longyearbyen every day – much the way squirrels are in Massachusetts. But I still stop and take pictures of the reindeer when I see them, marking myself off as someone who isn’t from here.

Pic 5 DVL Reindeer

So, when writing a book about a high school kid living in Longyearbyen, I’ll have to have them ignore the reindeer, drive a snowmobile to school, know how to tell a fox track from a husky track and to wear jeans around town even when it’s -18°C. And to have them find something long buried in the ice when they are out on a glacier…

Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic
artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. She
is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her
husband, two children, three horses and a cat. Her debut YA Fantasy,
DRAGON FIRE, was a finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year
Award, in the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and in the 2014 Readers’ Favorite
Award.

Shelving My Emotions

The Order of the Key was my dream novel, the book of my heart. I invented the idea for it when I was fifteen years old and I never expected to be shelving it, unpublished, twenty years later.

Jeez. Twenty years later. I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms.

To be fair, I haven’t been working on it this entire time, and the book I’m stuffing in the musty shelf of my mind is definitely not the book I started with. The version I’d created at fifteen contained a completely unlikeable, hormonal, emotional (possibly based on myself) super-cool highly powerful sorceress teen, and she hunted vampires as she romanced her way through a team of stalwart heroes. Hey, cut me some slack. It was the age of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it showed. The current, much cooler, much more mature version involves a fun and likeable geek who blunders her way through a semi-corrupt organization that fights interdimensional monsters and manages to find herself leading the rebellion to overthrow the corrupt portion of it.

When I say it has grown by leaps and bounds, I’m not just talking about its intriguing premise. The writing of the original novel was horrid. But it was the first thing I’d ever finished. I was proud of it.

I took a long break after the initial trilogy I wrote, always planning to write a book four, but college got in the way. I majored in Creative Writing and quickly learned all the reasons why Origins of a Hero (the original title) sucked horribly. It definitely needed a rewrite, and I would get around to it. One day.

And then I gave birth to a baby, who suffered through colic while I suffered through post-partum depression. The first six months of his life were honestly the hardest of mine. When we both thrived, I realized I could do anything–I returned to writing in earnest.

That’s when The Order of the Key was born in its true form. It was accepted by a small publisher after only a few months of querying. Then that publisher crashed. I jumped to another small publisher run by people I had met at the first one. That time, my book was sorely mistreated, sometimes put on the backburner, other times edited in a way that tore at the heart of the story. The arguments over the direction of the story (and the direction of the company, as I had taken a job there) eventually came to a head, and I requested my way out of the contract. Shortly after I left, that publishing company folded.

I was heartbroken. I had wasted over a year promoting a book that never came out, and that now, may never come out. I had signed with both publishing companies out of an emotional need to see my book in print–no matter what it took.

But that’s the wrong way to go about all of this.

Leading with my emotions, with my intense love for these characters who had dogged me since I was a teenager, made me make foolish decisions with my work. All at once, I understood where I had gone wrong. By being desperate. Desperate never got anybody anywhere but humiliated.

I shut down my fear and entered Order in a contest called Pitch to Publication, where you work with an editor and get your story showcased in front of agents…and I won.

It returned my confidence to me. Suddenly, I just knew I’d be on the way to publication in 2017. I’d worked with a professional editor and the book was better than I’d ever envisioned. I had honed my query until it was sharp as a spear and was ready to take aim. 2017 would be my year.

2017, as it turned out, was not my year.

I queried. And queried. And queried. And got all of two requests for more. I wanted to keep trying. This was the book of my dreams. The book I most wanted to see in print. But I’d sworn to myself that emotions were where bad business decisions lived.

I’m shelving the book. It’s the hardest writing choice I’ve ever made. For two decades, my main characters shared prime real estate in my noggin. I cared about these characters. I wanted everyone else to get to know them and to love them as much as I did. But I had to accept that the market simply wasn’t interested in the book I was trying to sell. At least not now.

I’ve written a new book. I’m editing it now, and I’m also excited to get this book out into the world. It’s not the same excitement.

The Order of the Key was like my first love. Exciting and new and wrought with tension and a roller coaster of emotions. It may never see the light of day, and despite the pain that causes, I’ve gone through my grief stages. I’m ready to move on. I am a widow remarrying, and my journey is far from over.

Justine Manzano PicJustine Manzano lives in Bronx, NY, with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Things You Can Create and Best New Writing 2017, as well as Sliver of Stone Magazine, The Greenwich Village Literary Review, The Holiday Café, Twisted Sister Literary, The Corvus Review, and Fiction on the Web. She received the Editor’s Choice Award for her work in the Best New Writing anthology. She currently maintains and runs a free editing service, The Inkwell Council, and her own blog at JustineManzano.com, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery.

How (Not) to Get Past Impostor Syndrome

I used to think I’d feel like a real writer the first time I finished a book. For a long time, I could never stick with a project past the 30k mark, so getting all the way to the end of a novel-sized project would make me a writer, right?

But when I had my finished and revised book in my hand, I still didn’t feel like a writer. This time, I was sure being unagented was the issue. Having an agent would mean someone believed enough in my work to tie their name to it in a professional capacity. Surely that would make me feel like a writer, right?

Now I have an agent, and I’m seeing all these people announce their book deals, and I just know once I sell my book I will feel like—

Wait.

Do you see the pattern?

It’s often said writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and I could not agree with this more. But people often fail to mention that it’s a marathon where the finish line is moving faster than you are. First you think it’s about having the book, then the agent, then the book deal, then beating the sophomore slump, then winning awards, then maintaining an established career and so on and so forth. It doesn’t help that thanks to social media, we see—or think we see—where every other runner in this race is. Someone who started their book after you has their agent before you? Someone who writes in the same niche genre publishers have rejected you for eight million times is now winning piles of awards?

Clearly they’re doing something right and you should go sit in a hole and weep for a few hours.

But having talked to people at so many different stages of the process (querying, agented but revising, agented but on sub, preparing their debut, established, etc.) I’ve come to a simultaneously sobering and freeing realization:

The impostor syndrome never ends.

In some weird, reverse psychology-esque way, this realization has made me feel so much better about where I am in the process. If I’m never going to feel like a real writer, then I may as well keep doing what I’m doing anyway. Instead of letting the feeling consume me, I let it move alongside my process like an ever-present companion.

As writers, it can be difficult for us to internalize our accomplishments because there is always another step ahead of us. But most people never get to the stage of even trying to write a book. There is value alone in the attempt. This is doubly true for marginalized peoples who have extra institutional powers keeping them from devoting the time or advancing forward in publishing as a career in any capacity. In a world that devalues our work and sneers at our profession or tells us our genres are frivolous wastes of time, there is power in simply putting the words down and not stopping no matter how long it takes.

That isn’t to say there is no power in outside validation. There is no guarantee of anything in this line of work, so it’s important to celebrate milestones. Yay, you got an agent! Yay, your book sold! But it is important to remember the smaller milestones that may not stand out on social media are equally worth celebrating because they are markers of progress all the same. Yay, you finished your first draft! You, you revised your query! Yay, you wrote 500 words you don’t hate!

It’s been said a million times, but that’s because it’s true:

Writing makes you a writer.

So let yourself feel the impostor syndrome. Let yourself feel like you’ve fallen behind everyone and you’ll never catch up.

Then keep on going.

You have writing to do.

New HeadshotRosie Brown is an immigrant from the West African nation of Ghana and a graduate of the University of Maryland, where she completed the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. She was an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing, and her work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets. She currently teaches in Japan, where in her free time she can usually be found exploring the local mountains or thinking about Star Wars. She is represented by Quressa Robinson of Nelson Literary Agency.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rosiesrambles

 

 

Why Do I Do It?

When I was much younger, I wanted to be professional soccer player. My favorite team was the now defunct Pittsburgh Spirit. I loved going out in the yard and kicking my soccer ball all around the grass. I imagined myself scoring the winning goal in the championship game. I loved it so much that I joined up for my school team. As it turned out, the talent I had in the yard against invisible competitors didn’t carry over to the field when the action was live and the people real. Never mind the fact that I failed to realize actual games lasted more than the half hour I would play in the front yard. It was real work to play a full game, and that wasn’t my thing. I just couldn’t keep up, and in the end, I didn’t really want to. I ended up sitting on the bench most games and passed out the Gatorade to the better players. I did this for one full season and then retired the cleats for good. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t just go back to playing in the front yard and dreaming the biggest of dreams in my head like I did before. I mean, the joy of just kicking the you-know-what out the ball was what I really liked. I should’ve just returned to that. But I quit completely because I wasn’t recognized as having talent or doing anything great on the field. I have never kicked a soccer ball since.

Now this article isn’t about quitting and giving up, rather it is about establishing and identifying what your true goal really is. I am sure you’re asking yourself: What does my quitting soccer have to do with finding your true goal? Well, maybe it has nothing, but then again, maybe it has everything to do with it. Quitting is very similar to rejection. When you quit, you are rejecting something. We writers know everything there is to know about rejection. It’s an everyday occurrence for me in some shape or form. Maybe its an idea I’m rejecting, while other days it’s an actual rejection letter from an agent or editor.

I wrote my first story around the same age I started soccer. I showed it to nobody as it wasn’t very good, but I kept writing. In the early stages, I didn’t open my work up to critique out of fear that it wasn’t any good. I was worried that I would quit just as I did with soccer. I so wanted to have talent, but I didn’t want to bear the thought of someone telling me I didn’t have any. So I kept things incognito and wrote in silence.

When I was much older, and after I got married, I decided that I wanted to try to be a writer. I wanted to be published. I wanted to see my name on the bookshelves. I had practiced my craft for years, surely by now I was ready and had done enough to warrant being published. Those years of sitting alone in my room scribbling on tablets made me want people to recognize what I had done and the talent I surely cultivated. I started sending my work out. But was I prepared for the outcome of such an act? Not at all.

The rejection letters piled in. Over the first few years of sending my work out, I got thousands of rejection letters, and each one hurt a little more. I could hear them saying: “You’re no good. Just quit. Give up like you did in soccer. You have no talent.” The editor or agent writing the letter didn’t mean for his/her words to hurt, and deep down, I knew they weren’t rejecting me as a person. It was purely a mental thing. But I couldn’t keep myself from dwelling on each and every letter. I read them over and over again searching for some nugget of goodness to attach to. I never found one. I grew frustrated. I ended up quitting writing just as I quit soccer all those years ago.

Two years clicked by without me writing a thing, until one-day things changed. My then 12 year-old son found one of my manuscripts. He liked it, and he was exactly my target audience. I was thrilled. His words made me try again, and they also made me think differently. Rejection letters still poured in like rain through a ripped screen door, but my reaction was different. The words on the page didn’t hurt anymore. Why? The answer is simple: My perception changed. In the time I stopped writing, I gave up on the entire “being published” thing and learned the true reason for writing. It is not for the agents or editors that I write; it’s for the little boys and girls of the world. It’s to make them smile, laugh, and even cry sometimes. When I write now being published doesn’t even enter my mind. Sure, it’s still a goal that I’d like to happen, but if I’m not happy and content without it, I’ll never be happy and content with it. In the end, I write to make me smile.

Writing and being published are two very separate things. One can be a writer without being published, but one can never be published without first being a writer. It’s the latter that we should all strive to be—the writer. Sounds simple, right? It wasn’t to me early on. I thought being a writer meant you had to be published. I was so focused on the end result or “the prize,” I neglected or forgot about the love for the thing I was doing.

I still write today. I still send out submissions. I still want an agent. And I would like to someday be published. But I no longer write just to be published. I can be a writer and a very good one without ever being published. One day, I am going to leave this earth. And when I do, there will be stacks of manuscripts waiting to be read and enjoyed by those who love me most. And that is enough.

So if rejections bother you to the same extent they did me, ask yourself this question: Why do I write? The answer may surprise you. Stop focusing so much on the end goal and just enjoy the moment. Live in the pure joy that you created something special and unique. The rest simply doesn’t matter. Don’t let the rejections stop you from doing what you love to do. Perhaps one day I will get to see my name on the bookstore shelves. Perhaps you will too. But if not, knowing that we just wrote a great story should be good enough to keep the blues away.

 

image1Thomas Wright is a writer of middle grade and young adult novels. His first book Ansburry Tales: The Redeemer was published in 2013. Book two of this five-part series is scheduled for release in 2018. Other completed projects include a YA novel, Catching Tomorrow, and a middle grade series entitled, The Adventures of Spikehead and Fred. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wonderful family and far too many dogs.

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www.thomaswrightbooks.com