Category Archives: Advice from the experts

How Does A Book Get Published?

You know you’re in trouble when an article about a writer’s path to publication brings you to tears, especially when you’re on a United flight from Chicago to Boston, in the middle seat, and you don’t know the people flanking you.

You also come to realize, once again, that you are a writer.

I just finished Keith Gessen’s powerfully written piece on his friend Chad Harbach’s 10-year journey to bring a debut novel, THE ART OF FIELDING, into the world. Gessen’s article, How a Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding  (Vanity Fair, October 2011), is outstanding. Some critics claim its focus is too narrow and only describes publishing from the viewpoint of the educated and privileged, but I feel privileged to read the inside scoop on this rapidly morphing industry.

Who needs to read the article? Let’s see:

Novel writers

Beginning writers

Anyone wondering how publishing works

Disillusioned writers who doubt they’ll ever be published

Anyone curious about eBooks and digital media

Someone considering a career as a literary agent or an editor

Why did I love it? Gessen details his friend’s path — beginning in Racine, Wisconsin, and rising to the top of the international publishing world – with such an honest and engaging voice that it felt like he’d written the piece specifically for (the anxious, unpublished, full-of-self-sabotage person that is) me.

Harbach worked on his novel for 10 years and received countless rejections. Many of his friends, including Gessen, thought he’d be better off moving on to another project. Time and countless distractions took him away from his novel, yet those very elements helped round out the final product.

It’s fascinating to read all the behind-the-scenes activity in the world of publishing, particularly the emails exchanged between Harbach and his soon-to-be agent, Chris Parris-Lamb just after the latter finished reading the first 250 pages of Harbach’s manuscript. I realized I’d been holding my breath while reading the agent’s emails. His enthusiasm for the project is what every debut novelist hopes for: an agent who unequivocally gets it, who promises to care for and protect your manuscript as if it’s his own, who feels honored to represent you.

I cut the emails out of the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair and copied them here for you. The first was sent after the agent read the first 250 pages. The second was sent once he finished the book, the next day:

The emails I dream of receiving...

I’m not naïve; the chances of receiving emails like this from potential agents are slim to nil, but just reading the account of how a passionate writer kept going, kept the faith, and kept improving his manuscript until he felt it was right…well…that’s the stuff that keeps me going when it just feels too hard.

It’s also reassuring to hear what industry insiders say about the changing face of publishing. Yes, eBooks are thriving, but as Amazon’s VP of Kindle content told Gessen, “The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers.  Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups.”

I’d highly recommend the article to anyone who’s in – or looking to enter – the worlds of writing or publishing. It may not make you cry, but it’s guaranteed to demonstrate how a writer’s dreams can really come true.

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For Kids (And Adults) Who Love To Write

Thank goodness you’re here, because I know you’ll understand what I’m about to say.

I’ve wanted to write since I was little. I know you have, too.

If I ever see a scrap of paper, I get excited. You know the feeling.

A blank Word document on a monitor feels like a gift.

My hands usually to catch up with all the thoughts in my head. I love the feel of a keyboard under my fingertips or a pen in my hand.

I used to be a kid who loved to write. I’m 43 years old now, and I officially began my “writing career” when I was 40. I still have so much catching up to do, but one of the things I promised myself is to share whatever I learn, especially to kids who were just like me.

So, here’s an open letter to any kids (or the adults they’ve become) who love to write and who want to do it as much as possible:

Dear Writer Friend,

You realize how good we’ve got it, right? Our love of writing opens worlds beyond description, and not just on the page. Writing things down is just part of the wonderful world we’re part of. Talking about writing, sharing our writing, and reading others’ work adds so many layers to our own writing satisfaction.

There are lots of people who write, but true writers share a language of understanding with one another that is like no other.

Those of us who love to write are so fortunate. Ask anyone who loves to write and they’ll tell you it’s just something deep inside that needs expressing, and the options available to express that need are limitless. Journals, essays, poems, novels, blogs, short stories and letters are only a few of our choices.

True writers cross-train when they’re “stuck”. A novelist can take a break from her conflicted characters and write a magazine article for other writers about conflicted characters. A magazine writer can stretch her writing skills by outlining a picture book. A picture book author can sign up for a conference on eBook writing to learn how to share her work with more readers. The options keep going.

The writing community is like a family. We’ve got the crazy uncles we’re a little embarrassed by, the gentle, grandmotherly types who remind us we’re the very best in the whole wide world, the bossy sisters who try to outdo us, the cousins we see only once a year and wish it could be more often. We’ve got younger siblings who look up to us, and older, wiser siblings who take risks and show us the way. The family of writers is full of opportunities to learn from others and, most importantly, about our own talents and interests.

Keep writing, even when you’re tired. Keep writing, even when you wouldn’t share your work with your worst enemy. Keep writing until you feel written out…then write some more. As a writer, the best part of you is your deepest, most honest core. That’s where your voice is. That’s where your strength is found. That’s the place you’ll want to write from. You won’t always reach it, but it’ll never, ever go away.

Sincerely,

Your Fellow Writer

P.S. If you’re a kid who can’t wait to be published, look into places like these to practice your skills.  Most of all, have FUN, and check out these great websites for inspiration:

Amazing Kids Magazine:  Here are the submissions guidelines

Click here for Websites for Young Writers.

Resources on Kids Learn To Blog

Genna’s World, endorsed by the Newberry Award Committee.

KidPub: Books and stories by kids, for kids.

Aaron Shepard’s Young Authors page.

The Young Voices Foundation, mentoring young writers.

The Betty Award writing contest.

Poetry and Essay contests: Creative Communication

Creative Kids magazine (and writers’ guidelines)

Launch Pad magazine

Stone Soup

Magic Dragons

Motivating Other Kids To Blog

Where else can kids hone their writing skills?

My First School Visit!

In my dreams, I imagine schools and book groups calling me to come talk about my novel and about what it’s like to be a writer.

First, though, I should probably get my book published.

While that process continues, I got my feet wet with my first official school visit as a writer, and I absolutely loved it.

My husband’s cousin, Kate, teaches 4th graders at W.C. Petty Elementary School in Antioch, Illinois.  We’ve talked at family gatherings about teaching and children’s books, and she asked if I’d be willing to come talk to her students about my writing process.  I’d assumed she meant 20 or so students — but she arranged for me to meet the entire 4th grade — over 100 eager readers.

It. Was. Heaven. I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more.

I brought a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted who I am and what I like to do.  I tried to include some fun photos, like me on a dune buggy, sailing, and holding my dog, just to demonstrate that I don’t sit at a desk all day and make up imaginary stories. I talked about some of my favorite books, including Rules, Kira Kira, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, So B. It and two by Brenda Ferber: Julia’s Kitchen and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire.

The kids asked a ton of questions and gave me lots of feedback, and every comment meant the world to me:

How’d you get started writing?

Does your hand get cramped?

Do you use a typewriter? (I think that kid figured I’m a lot older than I am).

Do you wear a lifejacket when you go sailing?

My personal favorite:

You know, you’re kind of like J.K. Rowling, before she got famous.

My second personal favorite:

Can I get your autograph?

The kids actually lined up for my autograph.  Aside from signing credit card slips, I’ve never been asked for my autograph by anyone.  I wanted to cry, especially when some kids chose not to use paper and have me sign their arms.

I’m never washing this arm again, they said.

The experience reminds me just how important it is to bring this book to market.

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Before I made my trip to W.C. Petty School, I put out a request to fellow SCBWI-Illinois writers, asking for any advice they had for me on my first school visit, as well as what I could tell 4th graders what some of my published author-friends feel like (I can only hope to join their ranks).  Here’s what some of them said:

Christine, your very enthusiasm – your excitement about writing – will carry through to the kids. You’ve probably already experienced that connection – that spark – through your talks to the Scouts and your Book Club. What you want to convey to kids is what it is that intrigues you so much that you want to capture it in words to share with others – that’s writing. 
And yes, this is what I hope I’ve done with my books – especially my middle-grade historical novels, Sean’s War and Sean’s Quest. With these books I wanted to show 12-yr.-old Sean’s struggle to understand the “whys” of conflict, whether political, as in the Black Hawk War of 1832 between the settlers and the native Americans, or personal, as in the “war” between his father and stepmother – and make it as relevant to today’s young people as it was to Sean in his time. 
Write on! 
Leone Castell Anderson

Good luck on this!  I have not been in class with this age group, so no wisdom to share, except…  DO make sure you areready to wander around and not stay in the same place the whole time… I think it keeps them awake! At least for middle school that seemed important.
Have fun
Lisa B.

Good for you for getting out there!  I spoke before I had a book too, and the kids don’t really care. I find that with fourth graders, it’s great to speak to them as “fellow writers,” and show them that you do the same things they do — revise, make mistakes, feel frustrated sometimes, etc.  I always tell kids that they’re just as much writers as I am.  I’ve just been doing it longer!
Good luck!!
Sara Shacter

Hi Christine:
Congratulations on your school gig.  I think they’re great fun, and 4th grade is the best–kids still interested in what adults have to say and awed by authors to ask questions and be excited yet old enough where you can explain more sophisticated ideas.
I, too, had a former life as a special educator.
As for what it feels like to be an author, I think it feels like I’m on an amazing roller coaster.  There’s the slow, steep climb that involves research, writing and rewriting, the exhilaration of reaching the top when I finish something I’m proud of or when a box of published books arrives (which never gets old), to the quick drop of receiving a rejection or not quite writing what or how much I intended on a given day.  Bu thten I start over on another day and begin my climb anew with the same ms. or another new one.
Hope this is helpful.
Enjoy,
Marlene
Hi, Christine,
I’ve spoken to quite a few schools and the best advice I can give is you have to be more expressive with slightly younger middle graders. When I spoke in Joliet’s junior highs, they had me talk to the grades separately, and I found younger kids don’t get dry, subtle humor. You have to smile and let them know you meant it. They’re sharp, but not yet very good at reading expressions.  I found the same thing talking to Girl Scouts. They may all be in the same organization, but there’s a huge difference between a fifth grader and a seventh grader.
But don’t go the other way and hit them like you would second grader.  So it’s a bit of a fine line.
My presentations are all humor, and if they aren’t laughing, you’re bombing.
Hope this helps.
Norm

Grouchy In The Morning

I’ll admit, I’m not a morning person.

Never have been.  Never will be.  It’s actually been confirmed by a doctor.  I have something called hypersomnia (a freakishly deep sleep)…and have had it most of my life.  I sleep through anything: ringing telephones, doorbells, alarms, thunderstorms, you name it.  Thankfully, my mothering instincts kick in when one of my children is in desperate need (ie., vomiting or screaming from a nightmare).

My idea of a perfect morning?  A warm bed, soft pillow, and hours of nothing but sleep in front of me.

I’ve always wanted to be a morning person:  I’d get up before anyone else, luxuriate over coffee and the paper, take a brisk walk, then write in peace for an hour or two.

Not gonna happen.

That Christmas morning smile hides the longing I felt for my pillow. My performance that morning was Oscar-worthy.

I’ve trained myself how to set my alarm at a screechingly high volume — out of bedside reach — so I’m forced to get up.

Waking up is a “process” for me.  I go through several stages of grief as I say goodbye to sleep every morning:

1. Denial: It can’t REALLY be 7am already.  I just fell asleep.

2. Anger: Why is it so hard for me to shake sleep off?  Why is it so easy for others? It’s not fair.

3. Bargaining: I’ll just snooze for ten more minutes.  After that, I’ll get up.

4. Depression: I. Hate. Mornings.

5. Acceptance: If I don’t get up now, not only will my kids starve, they might  get eaten by the dog who’s also starving.  Even if the kids are clever enough to outrun him, they need someone to get them to school.  If not, I’ll be arrested for child neglect and thrown into jail, where I’ll be required to rise earlier than 7am anyway.  Fine.  I’ll drag my butt out of bed and make some coffee.

As you can see, I’m dealing with my own demons every morning.  Throw a grouchy child into the mix (which I experience on an almost daily basis these days with my 8-year-old) and I’m near the breaking point.

Enter a wonderful bit of advice I just read this morning.  The Chicago Tribune Sunday section ran an article by Heidi Stevens called “Dealing With A Child Who Is Mad At The Morning.” 

Not my child...or my photo...but this picture says it all.

Like the Tribune’s Stevens, I seek humor in tough situations — it’s my coping mechanism.  The advice about using a kitchen cabinet or refrigerator door to “talk back” is simple, brilliant, and most of all, funny.  I think the technique might work with anyone who’s in a grouchy morning mood.

We might not be able to alter who we (or others) are at the core, but if we’re aware of our shortcomings (or those of others) and add a bit of humor when it’s appropriate, we just might get through tough times a bit less ruffled.

How Do I Start A Blog?

If the idea of starting a blog scares you, don’t worry.  This post will give you a little inspiration and explanation about the process, as well as some reassurance that every blog starts small and has the potential to bloom.

Why should I start a blog? Who’d read it anyway?

I asked myself those same questions. The fact you’re reading this proves people actually read blogs.

Why should I bother?  Shouldn’t I stick to my real writing?

I also wondered about this.  I worried that blogging would be just another distraction from the real work I’m trying to do (writing my first novel).  But, just as an athlete cross-trains, blogging keeps your writing muscles warm and ready.  Sure, you can distract yourself with thousands of non-writing tasks, like Facebook, laundry, TV, eating, organizing photos…or you can add blogging as another way to strengthen your writing.

Blogs are like roses.  With time, attention, and care, blogs, like roses, have the potential to grow stronger and touch many people in different ways.  When you first start blogging, you might struggle with the thorny “newness” of it all; as you cultivate it, you’ll develop your unique variety, watching it grow before your eyes.

Which varieties are best?.  Some simply look beautiful. Others bloom and die quickly from neglect.  The truly great bloggers are in it for the long haul, knowing the benefits come with time, determination and a passion for what they’re working on.

Pick something you like to write about…something you know…and you’re set.  Nothing’s too obscure.  In February 2010, Google reported 88 billion searches per month, so there’s bound to be someone somewhere looking for what you’ve got to say.

Don’t worry.  You don’t have to be afflicted with hypergraphia (the uncontrollable urge to write) to find time to blog.  Set your own pace. Twice a month is a good starting goal.

And sharing is what blogging is all about.  Whether you’re imparting advice, showcasing your writing talent, cataloging family history, recording the events that your children or grandchildren or students go through…it’s all worthwhile stuff that other curious humans want to know about.  Keep your ideal reader in mind when you’re blogging.  Think about him or her stumbling onto your blog and saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about.  I was looking for something like this.”

Each blog entry is a chance to connect with another human being, to share a common circumstance or impart wisdom or perspective.  Write confidently, knowing you’re able to do that.  Everyone is.  All you have to do is start.

Blogging’s good for you!

According to Scientific American, there are health benefits to blogging.  I also

really enjoyed this blog post by Ricardo Sanchez of On Techies, called

Blog More.  It is Good For You“.

WHERE TO START?

I love working with WordPress because it’s so intuitive.  It takes minutes to set up a blog.  Then, once you commit a few hours to playing with the buttons and learning your way around the dashboard, you’ll be up and running.

I know you might be scared to start a blog.  I was, too.  When I finally jumped in, it felt just like getting a new cell phone: exciting and new at first, then maddeningly frustrating learning all the new features.    You just want to scrap the whole effort and go back to life as it was.  But hang in there.  I found these links easy and essential to setting up my blog:

http://learn.wordpress.com/get-started/

http://learn.wordpress.com/

Once you’ve written a post (or entry), don’t forget:  people need to find it! That’s what TAGS are for.  Just think about TAGS as the words people will use to search for your blog.  For instance, for this post, I used the following tags:

Benefits of blogging

Why should I blog?

Why should I bother blogging?

Is blogging real writing?

How to start a blog?

I’m scared to start a blog

How do I start a blog?

Starting a blog

I love to write

Helpful hints

Scientific American

Hypergraphia

WordPress instructions

WordPress tutorials

Blogging

SPREADING THE WORD

When you want to increase traffic to your blog, you can utilize Google Insights for SearchClick here for the video to learn about what topics people are interested in around the world.

Here’s one of the most helpful posts I’ve read about increasing traffic to your blog.  My new favorite thing is linking your posts to blog carnivals, which collect and link blogs of similar topics, styles, etc. for readers to enjoy.

NAGGING QUESTIONS

You’ve got questions about blogging?  I did, too.  Maybe this virtual Q&A will help answer some:

Q: How long should a post be?

A: Brevity is key (I’m still working on that one), but pack your post with helpful info if possible.  Add links, pictures, opinions, ideas, questions, surveys.  Make your readers want to come back for more.

Q: How long does it take to get followers to a blog?

A:  Patience, patience.  It takes time and consistency. One extremely helpful activity is to check out other blogs, and leave comments on the ones you like.  It’s polite blog ettiquette to reciprocate a visit with one of your own.  Leaving a comment is always appreciated.  Here’s my analogy:  Every visit to my blog feels like a visit from Santa Claus; every comment left on my blog feels like Santa stayed, had some cookies, and left a note.

Q: Isn’t a blog just like an online diary that you’re sharing with the world?  Isn’t that weird?

A: I thought the same thing at first.  “What could I possibly share that other people will want to read?”  Ask yourself, “What’s my goal?” Do you want to show you’re an excellent writer?  Knowledgeable about a topic? Capable of organizing issues into a comprehensive format? Willing to update regularly? If you answered yes to at least two of those questions, you’re ripe for blogging.

Q: What if I make a mistake and the whole world reads it?

A: The good news is, the whole world won’t see your blog unless you know how to target the whole world (or your name is Facebook).  If you make a mistake, you can always go back in and change your post.  Nothing’s set in stone. You can edit or delete a post (minutes or months) after you’ve written it. The bad news is, once someone reads it, they’ve read it, and that’s that.  But be brave.  Everyone has something worth sharing.

Q: What separates good bloggers from bad bloggers.

A: No real answer here.  Every blogger is different.  Some bloggers are prolific and make me extremely envious…but that doesn’t mean they’re better bloggers than others. They just post more often.

In my opinion, good bloggers share things you’ll want to share with others.  That, quite simply, is the distinguishing characteristic between blogs and traditional diaries.

Q: What if I don’t want my mom to read my blog?

A: Then don’t give her the link.

Q: What if she finds it anyway?

A: Lie and tell her it’s not you.

Q: There are so many other bloggers out there with thousands of followers, professional photographs, eloquent words, and all the time in the world to write.  I work full time, want to blog occasionally, and don’t have the slightest clue where to begin.

A: First, they all started from zero, too.  If you want to build a huge blog or a massive following, you’re already doing the right research for it.  However, I think a great blogger does more with his/her life than just blog.  You’ve got to live life, breathe the air, be with people, and not just sit at your computer day and night accumulating posts.

And as far as where to begin, just follow the tutorials mentioned above.  It’s a process, but little by little, you’ll get the hang of it, and soon you’ll have a blog with archives and followers and — most of all — a stronger sense of your own voice as a writer.

Good luck, and keep me posted on how it goes.  I’d love to hear how your cultivation progresses.

Photos taken at the Merrick Rose Garden in Evanston, Illinois.

Teaching Writers How To Blog

My friends Sally, Francie and Lisa are interested in starting blogs.  I plan on putting up some easy-to-follow instructions for anyone interested in starting one of their own.  Would you like to read about that?

We are sitting in Wilmette, Illinois.

What Really Happens at A Writers’ Conference?

If there’s any advice I might offer aspiring authors, it’s to focus on the work — and not too much on your feelings.  Sound impossible?  Yup, it did to me too, especially when my heart broke a little at the beginning of this year’s SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Annual Conference in New York City.  Things definitely got better…but here’s a recap of what a writing conference can do for us, and how important it is to keep going, even when it gets so hard that you want to give up.

——————————————

How I Felt Inside While Editors Read My First 500 Words

My head told me to keep my expectations low, but I just couldn’t do it.

I brought my complete manuscript to the conference this year.  On Friday, the day before the actual conference began,  I attended the SCBWI Pre-Conference Writers’ Intensive, in which two “rounds” of meetings were conducted, pairing writers up with an agent or editor to read and critique the first 500 words of their work.

I attended the Writers’ Intensive portion of the conference last year with a much less polished and much less “finished” manuscript, and yet even back then, I’d hoped an industry professional could see exactly what I see, could feel exactly what I feel, after reading those first 500 words.  I left last year’s conference knowing I had a lot of revising to do, and I spent a year doing it. This time, my hopes were even higher than last year.  At last year’s conference, a woman sitting next to me was asked for her manuscript:  an editor took it on the spot!  I wanted to be that woman; I wanted my manuscript to find a home.  The same editor asked me if my manuscript was finished. D’oh! It wasn’t completely finished, but I had it all in my head! If it had been finished, I just know she would have taken it and presented it to her team and handed me a book contract, right? Well, with that kind of attitude, I went into this year’s conference with all the confidence in the world. I wanted the professionals to feel the love for my characters as I do, and to ask me for my full manuscript so they’d come to know, like I do, how worthwhile this story will be for young readers everywhere.

I. I. I. Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.

No one asked for my manuscript this year.  I had two copies in my bag, and that is where they stayed. I was crushed.

Oh baby…that’s not even the worst part.

One of the editors commented that I should really start my novel in the kitchen, where my main character learns some important news.  Problem is, that’s where the novel began last year; the editor’s comments then were that I ought to start the book with ACTION!  So, for this year’s conference, the book starts on the boat.  I began to feel a little bit of motion sickness myself with all the differing opinions.

I’m such a pleaser, and I’ve never worked so hard on a project as I have on this.  After the afternoon editors left the ballroom, I fought back tears.  The room was filled with hundreds of other writers who’d gone through their own critiques.  I was too embarrassed to look around to check if anyone else was crying.  Just the act of suppressing tears made it that much harder to keep them hidden.  Suddenly, my face was completely soaked with tears, but I couldn’t get up to leave, because then I’d have to walk through an entire room of people staring at the loser (me) who’d actually thought she’d get a book contract at a Writer’s Conference.

As if!

Lin Oliver, the SCBWI President, spoke to us at the beginning of the day about not taking things personally.  About listening to criticism, taking it in and working with it.  She reminded us of a line from the movie A League of Their Own:  “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Well, this isn’t baseball.  This is three years of critique groups, revisions, time away from my kids and my husband and my friends.

My. My. My.  Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.  Especially bad (and wrong and misguided) was my belief that I could hit a home run at the Writers’ Intensive.  It’s nearly unheard of.

So, there I sat, blotchy-faced and sweating, ducking my head into my conference agenda and praying for the tears to stop (and for another tissue as I sniveled all over my first 500 words…though at this point, who cares?).  A woman across the table noticed my distress and whispered, “How long have you been working on yours?” She’d also been given some not-so encouraging feedback about her submission from the 20-something editor at our table, though she wasn’t devastated like me.

I said, “I think I’ve been working on it for 3 or 4 years now.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “this is my 10th year.”

Now, if that isn’t perspective, I don’t know what is.  She wasn’t crying.  She wasn’t giving up.  She had just as much passion for her story as I do.

Another woman, this time to my right, also noticed my tears.  She said, “Hand me your submission,” then proceeded to make detailed comments all over it, suggesting new ways to look at things, circling the strong parts, and offering her email if I wanted to talk further.

My most painful day ended with a huge amount of compassion from fellow writers who’ve been there, who know how personal it is, no matter what, and how essential it is to keep on going.

Hotel Ice Bucket

What I love about ice buckets is their versatility.  Some might keep a bottle of wine chilled.  Some might cool down a caffeinated, diet beverage for an after-workout treat.  I, myself, like to keep it by my bedside for easy access to the ice I use for reducing eye puffiness from crying.

The Do’s and Don’ts for treating red, puffy eyes while staying in a hotel:

Do NOT walk across the street to the Duane Reade pharmacy looking for a cosmetic solution for red, puffy eyes.  The pharmacy staff will stare at you, then ask if everything’s okay (which it is not, especially in a crowded pharmacy at 5pm in New York City).  You will begin to cry again.

Do NOT purchase a product called Eau Thermale Avene, even if the bottle says, “Redness relief soothing cream”.  It will be very expensive.  It will not work.  You will not be able to pronounce it.  And, your purchase will be accompanied by a free gift at the checkout counter, which the clerk will have trouble finding the barcode for, delaying your egress from the busy pharmacy at 5pm on a busy New York City night.

Do NOT take the free “gift” from the clerk, even though it comes in a cute white cosmetic bag with orange trim because you will go back up to your hotel room and open it up (whispering to yourself, “Well, at least SOMETHING good happened today”), only to discover the free gift is a bag of cosmetics for the aging woman.     You will begin to cry even harder.

DO glob on tons of concealer, even though it pools in the creases of your swollen eyes.  Any attention you get will remain focused on the horrific makeup rather than on your sadness.

DO turn down the lights. Do avoid the mirror.

DO go to dinner with a college friend who’ll make you laugh immediately with his honesty. “Wow,” he’ll say. “You weren’t kidding.  You really WERE crying hard.”

DO put your pride aside and share your sob story with your friend.  It’s guaranteed to make you both laugh until you begin crying again.

DO reconnect with another old friend with whom you haven’t seen in 20 years!  Melissa (Carey) Shanker and I started at Leo Burnett on the same day (I believe it was June 22, 1990).  We’ve both since ditched our advertising careers to become happy moms and aspiring children’s writers, and it was fantastic spending the weekend with her.  Here we are, just after we’ve seen each other for the first time in two decades (note my puffy eyes):

Christine and Melissa (Carey) Shanker. It happened to be Melissa's 43rd birthday. She might be taller than me, but she's a LOT OLDER (by 70 days).

DO go back to your room and fill your ice bucket.

DO get a wet washcloth and lay a row of icecubes on the washcloth.

DO roll the ice cubes into the washcloth.

DO grab the plastic bag provided in the ice bucket and wrap it around the washcloth.

DO lay down on the bed, turn on your favorite TV show, and lay the ice-roll on your eyes.

DO replace the ice every fifteen minutes.

DO feel like you’re doing something pro-active, even though the swelling doesn’t really go down at all.

———

The Official Conference Begins…

How could I forget all the important reasons I came in the first place?

In my insane effort to hit a home run during the Writer’s Intensive, I’d let myself forget the primary purposes of attending a Writers’ Conference:

–Camaraderie

–Motivation

–Empathy

–EDITORS’ and AGENTS’ CONTACT INFORMATION

While my conference experience focuses on children’s writers and illustrators, I’m confident there are parallels across many genres.

Writing can be a lonely sport. But when you’re gathered with 1100 other peers who want the same thing you’re working toward, it’s a sign you’re doing something worthwhile.

Despite the emotional breakdown I felt on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were packed with useful, inspiring messages. By Sunday afternoon, I left the conference feeling ready to take on the world.  I was fortified with understanding and new friends and energy.  I left with contacts to send my manuscript to and a greater sense of where the children’s publishing industry stands.  Here are the highlights I took away from the conference:

Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry — an exquisite writer and presenter.  Demonstrated in her speech that even the tiniest comment can turn into a novel if you let it sink deep enough into your psyche.  Sees the innocence of children and the power of their wonder. Appreciates their questions, even when those questions focus incessantly on dogs.

During Lois Lowry’s presentation, I happened to be sitting next to an Evanston native, Alison Cherry, who’s working on a Young Adult novel.  We laughed and shared our manuscripts with each other.  I’m so grateful to have connected with her.  Even though she now lives in New York, she’s an example of a woman raised in Evanston, who attended ETHS, then Harvard, and went on to lead a fabulous independent life in NYC.  I can only hope to raise children as wonderful as Alison.

Christine and Alison Cherry, current and former Evanstonians. Stay tuned for her debut novel, RED, coming out in 2013...

I attended three breakout sessions with editors from various publishing companies.  When you register for a conference, you’re allowed to select from a list of speakers whose discussions fit the needs you have.  For some just starting out, it’s important to learn the difference between an agent and an editor.  For the seasoned writers who’ve got their manuscripts ready (or close to ready), it’s important to hook up with editors representing the publishers you admire and hope to work with.  I selected three editors looking for middle-grade novels and listened to their opinions on the state of the industry.  Everyone seems to offer similar messages:  no more vampire stories needed; electronic books are real and here to stay; voice is key — it must be honest and believable; middle-grade novels are selling big right now; it’s hard to get boys to read Young Adult novels; middle-grade boys are still interested in reading; it’s easier to get girls to read boy books than the reverse; Borders Books is near collapse, which poses an interesting situation — everyone hated the Barnes & Noble and Borders for stealing sales from independent bookstores, but now that Borders is drying up, we’re bummed our books are losing another home.  As much as editors have asked for series in the past, a good novel must stand on its own two feet; having a literary agent is key.

But WHY do I need an agent?

Jerry McGuire, the sports agent. Good literary agents are out for more than the coin. Their mission is to handle the business end of things so you can focus on your writing; the exceptional ones provide editorial feedback to make your work the best it can be.

An agent will be your advocate throughout the process of selling your book.  (S)he will guide your manuscript to its finest form before submitting to editors, then navigate the business dealings throughout a sale so you can focus on the work of writing your next great book.  Many editors won’t look at unagented submissions; their time is stretched so thin with this economy that a manuscript better come ready to go if it’s worthy of even opening.

One editor confessed she doesn’t do any manuscript reading during her workday.  She reads after work hours, because her day is filled with the business end of being an editor (she didn’t elaborate, but I assume that means meetings, paperwork, phonecalls and discussions with peers and agents, etc.).  She said she’ll generally read 50 pages of a manuscript (and know much earlier if it’s a keeper), because even if a story starts slow, it might take 50 pages to convince her to put it down.  If she gets through 3-4 manuscripts a week, she’s thrilled.

R.L. Stine

Author R.L. Stine gave the luncheon keynote, and was he amazing.  The modesty and humor this man has astounds me.  I’d expected a creepy, slightly dorky guy, but he’s actually witty, silly, and a confessed humorist-turned-accidental-horror-novelist-for-kids.  I loved how honest he was about stumbling into writing horror for kids.  “Never say no.  Always say yes to opportunities,” was his primary message.  “You never know where an opportunity may take you.”

When the day was over, I met with members of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI for dinner at Grand Central Station.  What a refreshing evening.  We shared opinions about the bad experience I’d had at the Writer’s Intensive (because I just couldn’t let it go) and how to keep going when it feels hopeless.  We laughed and traded stories that only writers can appreciate about avoidance, perseverance and hope.

Sara Zarr

Sunday morning’s keynote speaker was Sara Zaar.  I’d never read her work, because she’s a YA novelist, but I was moved to tears (are you sensing a theme?) by her speech.  Here are my notes from her 45 minute talk:

At the 2001 conference, she’d been writing about 5 years.  She was a bit “angry” then.  Wondered why no one took her writing seriously.

At the 2005 conference, she’d been writing about 9 years.  She was beyond frustrated.  And, she lost her purse in the hotel.  Figured it was a sign.

They say you write the book you want to read.  She wants to give us the speech we want to hear [how did she know how I was feeling?].

Her agent says the time between when you’re no longer a beginner — yet not officially in the business — is the longest and hardest.  No one knows how long that time is.  That’s why it’s important to attend to the rest of your life during that time.  Rejection can’t take that away from you.  Keep creating.  That may be the only thing that’s completely yours during this time.  Crafting a creative life is essential — but let it also be quiet and normal and growing…a life you can center yourself within…calmly…in order to let yourself grow.

Here are the characteristics of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. It must be sustainable. You’re doing this for life.

2. It must be engaging.  It must move you.

3. You must invite company.  Seek a mentor, even if it’s a dead mentor.  Be a mentor to someone, and be as open as possible.

4. Know when to send company away.  Recognize when you need privacy with your work, your characters, your time.

5. Your work must be faith-based.  Not the religious faith, per se, but HOPE.  Especially before you’re published [my hand’s raised], people with hope are the people who write novels [she quoted someone “Flannery” about this…].

6. It’s a life that gives back.  Do what you’re meant to be doing, but then give back to those who are meant to do it, too [for instance, that’s why I’m blogging].

Here are the obstacles of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. Unsustainable habits — not taking care of yourself.  Many of us joke about being stressed, under deadline.  Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and do the other half well.  Figure out what sorts of habits and routines facilitate your creativity.  She recommended a book called The War of Art (eliminating drama in life).

2. Obsession with process vs. craft.  It’s so important to finish…not just to think, tweet, talk, workshop, analyze.  If you only see your work as commodification of a market, you’ll lose your creativity.  Yes, it’s important to understand the marketplace and your value in it, but don’t judge yourself against others’.

3. Being in the wrong company.  Agents, critique groups, support networks…it’s so important to have writing soulmates [I feel like I do have that…my critique group, my husband and children, my parents, the subscribers to this blog, my friends who check in and ask how I’m doing.  I appreciate them all.]

4. Self obsession.  Living inside our own heads can make us forget our lives and how to engage.  Make sure to do things for others.

5. Lack of faith.  Don’t let doubts of hopelessness override belief in self.

6. Disenchantment.  This is the opposite of engagement.  Cultivate and care for your creative self.  The answer is in the work.

Sara received a standing ovation after her speech.  Her acknowledgement of how hard this calling can be was met with appreciation and support by everyone in the room.  Hers was a speech that exemplifies why we go to these conferences.

A panel discussion about HUMOR followed, including three authors:  Mo Willems (www.mowillems.com), Marvin Terben and Lenore Look.  My stomach hurt from watching the men exchange witticisms and ad-libbed humor.

Linda Sue Park

The closing keynote was given by Linda Sue Park, who wrote the Newberry Award winning A Single Shard. Her website is http://www.lsparkreader.livejournal.com.  She was wonderful and inspiring and everything you’d hope from a closing speaker.  The best message she left for me was to focus on the work — and not how I (as a writer) compare to anyone else out there.  She was asked to write book #9 in the Scholastic series “39 Clues”:

Park said she’d been completely intimidated when her editor asked her to write book #9 — after all, big-time authors had written other books in the series, including Rick Riordan (The world of Percy Jackson ) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (what excitement hasn’t she written?).  What she learned, however, was not to compare herself to the other writers and their bodies of work…but rather focus on the project in front of her.  “I stopped making it about myself…and then I was able to write.”  Sounds simple, but if you’ve played the comparison game (to other writers, to colleagues at work, to other parents, friends, neighbors), you know how paralyzing it can be.  I loved her advice.

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So, after the closing keynote, did I check out of the hotel and hightail it to LaGuardia?

Absolutely not.  I left my bags with the bellman and walked…and walked…and walked.  I’d always wanted to visit Ground Zero, but so many friends and family members had said, “Why?  There’s nothing there to see these days except construction.”  Well, I walked from the Grand Hyatt to Ground Zero (stopping three times: once for a New York City pretzel; once for a New York City hot dog; and once for a new pair of boots.

Note the bootstraps. Helpful after a Writer's Intensive like the one I attended.

The boots I’d brought for the trip had holes in the soles. The new ones actually have “bootstraps”…a fitting accessory that I plan on using after my experience at the Writer’s Intensive.

Ground Zero

Here’s the video I shot of my visit:


When I finally reached Ground Zero, I didn’t expect much.  I followed a loud gentleman who appeared, well, delusional, spouting facts and figures about the events of 9/11.  He stopped at the corner of Liberty St. and Greenwich St., right in front of NYFD Ladder Co. 10’s station, and opened a binder filled with photos and maps.  A small crowd gathered around him as he spoke of the disaster with emotion.  He stood in front of the Firefighters’ Memorial (on the side of the fire department, overlooking fences surrounding the site.  The space that was once The World Trade Center now appears to be a massive construction site.  Still, there’s a feeling of solemnity when standing near such a place.  People walk slowly past the fences, trying to peer inside.  Twisted metal juts from some spots in the ground, leaving us wonder, “Is that left over?  Is it new?”  The snow has buried all the dust around the site, but if I could see it, I’d wonder, “Are there victims in this?”

Though I was told not to expect much, I felt more connected to the events of 9/11 than ever.  When I watched the scene unfold on television nearly 10 years ago, I couldn’t believe it was happening in my own country.  New York City seemed so far away…so unreachable…so much a part of other people’s lives.  Standing here at the corner of Liberty and Trinity Streets, I gained a greater sense of just how massive — both physically and emotionally — this event was.

I videotaped the man on the corner, who said his name is Harry John Roland, a.k.a. Ground Zero Man or The World Trade Center Man.  He said he’s on Youtube, and that he’s there every day, rain or shine, to let visitors know what happened on 9/11.  He said he worked in one of the 7 buildings destroyed on that day.  When I got back to Evanston, I found a Youtube video someone else posted, and the comments under the footage ranged from grateful to disgusted.  Some people find his facts and details enlightening.  Others criticize him for making a profit off others’ misery.  I can only say I appreciated his reverence and his dedication to the memory of the place.  So many do not know what happened, and whether his facts are 100% accurate or not, I felt his heart was in the right place.

I couldn’t stop researching him…trying to find some more details on this man.  Then, I ran across an NPR story on him (I’d been misspelling his name).  I realized he’s not a homeless man.  That he has a family.  That he’s not doing this for money.  That he’s out here, every day, to heal himself.

And as I write this, I realize Harry John Roland and I share a bit the same attitude.  We’ve both felt pain, and we both keep going. We’re not sharing our messages for staggering sums of money, but we both have important messages to share.  Some people think we’re crazy. Some criticize us for not presenting our messages in just the right way.  But our messages are our messages, and we have the right to share them as we know them.

And so, to writers out there, I say: attending a writing conference is exactly what you make of it.  You can choose to listen, to engage, to search for meaning, to find a single nugget that moves you forward…or not.  It’s up to you.

Ground Zero. January 30, 2011.

As one editor said to me during the Writer’s Intensive, “Listen, you don’t have to do what I’m suggesting.  It’s just an idea, and it’s your book.”

How very true that is.