Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Keeping My Story Close

These days, I'm not writing as often as I like. Now that I'm a student again, I'd hoped to have more time, but most of my time is spent studying. At first, I was dismayed. I knew that there wouldn't be much time for writing when I decided to go back to school. I just assumed that there'd be a little time left over each day. But that hasn't been the case. And as an unhealthy distance began to grow between me and my novel, I knew I had to change tactics.



So, I gave up my large chunks of writing time and instead, learned how to keep my story close. I bought a small, thin moleskine notebook that tucks into my bag without taking much room and weighs almost nothing. Perfect for a bag as overloaded as my schedule. I started working in the "off" moments, even if only for a few minutes. Even if it was just adding one thought, or one sentence. My brain is more full of biology terms and nutritional concepts, than the plight of my characters, but they are always nearby. And by grabbing a minute or a quarter hour on most days has kept me close. Now, as I'm approaching spring break, I'm not worried about trying to 'find' my character and plot again. Because it's still fresh. It's still close.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Facing Fear

Sometimes timing is ironic. A few weeks ago, I decided to write a post for Kidliterati on the nature of fear and how stories use fear as a driving force (You can read it here). But little did I know that just days after I started researching this topic, I’d come face-to-face with perhaps the greatest fear I've ever experienced. The kind of fear that shudders in your bones and makes your heart forget a few beats - it’s the fear of losing your child. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, we could have lost our child to an adverse reaction to an antidepressant. However, I first want to say that I’m grateful for antidepressants. They’ve made my child’s life a lot brighter and happier. She is more successful academically and socially because of them. They are generally well tolerated by most people and they have improved and saved many lives. I would never say that people shouldn’t be on one if they need to. People, like my child, need antidepressants. 

For months, she’d been one type of medication - the one that made her brighter and happier. But at the beginning of last month, her doctor thought it was time to try something else. An SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) because it was tolerated better over a longer period of time. But… as we found out, the black box warning is REAL. Most likely, if you take an SSRI, you’ll be fine. If your teenager takes and SSRI, he or she will probably be fine, too. But again, the warning is real - especially for teenagers and young adults. 

My child was fine one day, then compulsively suicidal the next. 

As for fear? It was in every direction I turned. That first night when we knew something was wrong, I slept on the floor of her room, my feet pressed against her door to keep her in, afraid of what might happen if she wandered the house at night. The next morning when she was worse and I was driving her to the emergency room, I was scared of how the staff would treat us. In the psych room at the hospital where they locked away all the medical equipment and locked us into the room, I managed my fear by reading out loud to my daughter for an hour and a half. But then that moment when the doctor told us she had to go to a behavioral hospital until the medicine had passed out of her system, fear turned my knees to jelly, my brain into a jumble of stunned neurons.

By then, I was emotionally exhausted and fear was clawing at my mind, and prickling along my skin. I called on one of my friends and my family to help me dig up the courage I desperately needed, because I could not afford to come unglued. No matter how afraid I was, I had to do the best I could to give my daughter every ounce of strength that I could before she went into a hospital that I could not enter. Where I could not protect her. 

I knew she needed to go - her compulsions were so strong, and there was no way I could make my house safe enough. And, I realized, I could not keep my eyes on her every single minute for an undetermined amount of time. But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to face. It was a week of constant stress. A week of fear. A week of pleading with God and begging the spirits of all four of her great-grandmothers to watch over her because I could not. 

Over all, we were lucky. She never harmed herself. She’d suspected right from the start that this was from her medicine which helped her to fight against the darkness of her racing thoughts. The staff at both hospitals were wonderful. Even though the behavioral health hospital was literally falling apart, the nurses, therapists, doctors were kind and spent time with her and the other patients instead of brushing them off. 

I am grateful I took her symptoms seriously and didn’t downplay them. I’m grateful that my daughter and I have a strong relationship and she could tell me what was happening and what she was thinking - instead of trying to handle it on her own. And I am so grateful for the medical staff that treated her and kept her safe. She told me a week later that she’d needed to be there - even though it was awful. She said that they’d saved her life. 

Today is World Mental Heath Day, and my hope is that people are not afraid to seek the help they need. My intention was not to scare you, but to spread awareness. If a medication is prescribed, give it a try. But please - pay attention to the warning labels. Suicidal ideation is a rare reaction, but if it’s a possibility with a medication you or a loved one is taking, be aware that this can happen. And if it does, take it seriously. 


Today, my daughter is still tired and has a lot of catch up work to do for school. But she is safe. She is on her original medications and is back to normal - healthy and happy. When you come through such an experience that causes so much stress and fear, you don’t take heathy and happy for granted. You see it as a true gift.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron


If you follow me on Twitter, you might have guessed that I’m in love with Lisa Cron. Her book, WIRED FOR STORY is my favorite book on the craft of writing. 

I love books about writing - I’m always curious about the process by which other writers write and what tips on craft they have to share. But what sets WFS apart is that Cron focuses on what happens in the brain when we read stories. There’s a biological reason why we cried when Beth March died and why we swooned when Mr. Darcy said, “But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe, I thought only of you.” 

All by itself, that information on how our brain responds to stories is fascinating and helpful. But Cron doesn’t stop there. She teaches you how to evoke emotions and how to construct your story, scenes, and characters to give our brains the stories they crave. Do you want to know why you sometimes stay up long past your bedtime because a book is too good to put down? Or how to keep your readers from abandoning your story? Pick up this book! 

I’ve only had it for a few months but it looks years old. The cover is scuffed up, many pages are dog-marked, and I’ve annotated the hell out it (Yes, I’m a monster, I know!).


This book has changed the way I think about what a story actually is and how it functions. It made me realize why some plot points in my WIP weren’t working and how to fix them. I fold pages and write notes, and take it on road trips because it's not a book I read once and put on the shelf, it's one one with ideas I want to absorb.

As I get ready to open my current project, Lisa Cron’s new book, STORY GENIUS, is slowly starting to get that beat up look. I’m only about fifty pages in, but the concepts and exercises on character have already made a huge difference in my WIP. I can't wait to see where I'm at when I finish reading this one!

If you haven’t picked up Lisa Cron's books yet, do so. Soon. I’m willing to bet you’ll fall in love with her too. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Family Traditions

I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions lately and how they help define who we are. (See my post on how to use traditions in your writing here.) They can have a powerful influence on the decisions we make in life - both good and bad. As I struggled to bring my  protagonist to life, I realized that her heritage was only skin deep. There were no long-standing traditions or beliefs that influenced her. Even though she spends very little time with her family during the course of the story, she still should be deeply influenced by them. So, I started to think about traditions that are specific to me. 

One of which, I’d like to share with you. 

This tradition started during The Great Depression and family became more important than ever. My great-grandmother had been recently widowed and she had a lot of children to raise and support. Her older son, James, could have stayed independent or started a family of his own, but he didn’t. He moved back home and helped support his mother and siblings. But, times being what they were, the family still struggled and James was determined that special occasions, like birthdays, would not pass unnoticed.  

James couldn't let a birthday go unnoticed, so he created a birthday tradition of his own. The night before one of his brother's or sister's birthday, James would make a unique 'happy birthday' sign and put it in the child’s room while he or she was sleeping. He also left a small bag of candy. When the child awoke and saw their special sign, they were delighted. They loved a sign that was just for them - more even, than the treasured bag of candy. And of course, when James’s birthday rolled around, his room was filled with little signs and a bag of candy from all the kids who adored him. 

When James’s siblings grew up, many of them passed along his tradition, including my grandmother and then my mother. My mother, however, changed it up a bit. She opted for balloons and streamers rather than a sign and candy. But the intention was the same. Waking up to a room decorated with balloons and streamers is magical and you can’t help but start your birthday with a smile. It is one of my favorite memories of childhood.

I can barely remember my Great Uncle James, for he passed away when I was quite young. But he is still well remembered and his acts of generosity and love have continued on. Sometimes I think of him when I’m standing in the kitchen late at night, blowing up balloons. Did he have any idea that this tradition he started would last four generations? And hopefully more? 
Now that my kids stay up late studying, I decorate their rooms while they're at school.
This allows for more complex designs, like this one. 

This tradition isn’t the kind that sparks a story-worthy question, but it is the kind that strengthens the bonds of family. The kind that rounds a person out, or fleshes out a character. Now, as I work with my protagonist’s backstory, I think of all the traditions that may have affected her life. Those that might influence her inward journey, and those that round out her life. 


 As you think about your own work, what traditions do your characters follow? Which ones to they rebel against? Consider how deeply tradition affects your life and use that richness to strengthen your stories.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On Tights and Thyme

What do you do when TWO of your friends have their debut books releasing on the very same day??? 




You spend the day celebrating because, WOW! How cool is THAT???

Congratulations to Brooks Benjamin, author of MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS and to Melanie Conklin, author of COUNTING THYME!


About the books:

MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS

Dillion wants to be a dancer. He and his friends have formed a freestyle dance crew called the Dizzee Freekz. But Dillion doesn’t feel like a real dancer since all of his moves come from the martial arts instead of ballet or jazz. When the best studio in the area, Dance-Splosion, announces a contest to win a summer scholarship, Dillion decides to compete. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And his friends want him to win the scholarship, then use the opportunity to tell the studio how their strict rules strangle creativity. 

At first, Dillion decides to go along with his crew’s plan. After all, creativity is important, right? But as his dancing improves, he begins to wonder if studios aren’t quite so evil as his friends say they are. As the competition gets closer, Dillion realizes he has a chance to win. What is he going to do?

SEE THE HILARIOUS TRAILER HERE!

This middle grade novel is as funny as it is heartwarming. Brooks gets the joys and awkwardness of middle school exactly right - from wardrobe malfunctions to a first crush. It’s a fast-paced book that explores the difficulties of going after your dream - and why it’s important to go after them anyway. MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS will make your heart dance as you turn the pages! 

The expression on Brook’s face when MSGLIT arrived on his doorstep proves that dreams ARE worth chasing!




COUNTING THYME

Of course Thyme agrees to move across the country to New York City with her family. Her little brother has been accepted into a new cancer drug trial that might save his life. But leaving her best friend and her grandmother behind is harder than she expected. Thankfully, this move is just temporary. If she can hang in there at her new school and new city until the trial is over, everything will go back to normal in a few months.

But will it? Her father has accepted a full time job in the city and the cancer treatments seem to be working but the trial doesn't have an end date. Thyme is grateful that her brother is improving, and she’d do anything for him to get better, but she can’t help longing for her home in San Diego. Despite her resolve to get home as soon as she can, Thyme is slowly growing roots in New York, too. New friends, new school, and a first crush help her to realize that home can be anywhere joy and love are found.

CHECK OUT THE ADORABLE TRAILER HERE!

I loved this book. It is filled with strong and quirky characters - the kind that make me wonder what they’re up to long after I’ve put the book down. There are so many layers to it. On the surface it’s about the sacrifice people make for those they love, and how extra hard that sacrifice is when you’re still a kid. But it’s also about finding your place within your family and friendships. Yes, I did need a few tissues when I read COUNTING THYME, but the tears came from powerful revelations, not deep sadness. I highly recommend this book.

Doesn’t COUNTING THYME look at home on a bookshelf? 





Find these books at your favorite bookseller! 
Congratulations Brooks and Melanie!!! 


About the authors: 


In sixth grade, Brooks Benjamin formed a New Kids on the Block tribute dance crew called the New Kidz. He wasn’t that good at dancing back then. But now he’s got a new crew—his wife and their dog. They live in Tennessee, where he teaches reading and writing and occasionally busts out a few dance moves. He’s still not that good at it. His first novel, MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS will be released by Delacorte/Random House (April 12, 2016).

Brooks is represented by the fantabulous Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary. Visit Brooks at http://www.brooksbenjamin.com/



Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and all-around lover of words and those who create them. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs.
Melanie’s debut novel for middle grade readers is COUNTING THYME (Putnam & Sons, Winter 2016). The novel follows 11-year-old Thyme Owens, who moves from San Diego to New York City after her brother is accepted into a cancer drug trial. There, she discovers that hope can be found in everyday miracles: in first crushes, in budding friendships, in school plays, and in a sister’s love for her little brother. Visit Melanie at http://www.melanieconklin.com/

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: BIG MAGIC, CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book has earned a permanent place on my desk. It keeps good company with Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT series as well as a few other beloved titles. In BIG MAGIC, you will not find one lesson on grammar or usage. There's no talk of fleshing out characters, or how to rescue that ever sagging second act. This book is about the magic of ideas and the joy of choosing to live a creative life. 

Her thoughts about what ideas actually are was a little hard for me to swallow at first. But as I kept reading, I realized how right she is. Ideas, or the Muse, or the Universe, wants its stories told, its art created. After she explained how she came to believe this, I embraced her theory because I too, have had similar experiences. When I was writing what would become my first published story, I remember pausing, deciding on a word. But as I typed it, my finger twitched, hitting the wrong key. That twitch created a different word than I had intended, and ultimately, changed the entire direction of the story. I’ve also had dreams of characters and stories, and amazing synchronicities (See My Own Real Life Example of Big Magic, below). All of this, Liz says, is normal. It’s the intention of Ideas and by living a creative life, these experiences are likely to happen to you, too. 

And what about that living beyond fear part? Well, Liz climbs into your brain and lays out all of your fears about your artistic ability as well as your fears about success and failure. She then gives you a rough road map on how to live with fear. Because, unfortunately, fear is not going anywhere. But it also doesn’t have to be the loudest voice on your journey. 

Throughout the book, Liz shares many beautiful anecdotes about the joys and pitfalls of living a creative life. She talks about how artists lose and re-gain their creativity (and how you can too!) and that being blocked is a normal part of the process. She also addresses the darker side of artistry and how NOT to live a creative life. She discusses whether or not graduate school is worth the investment (Spoiler alert! The answer is, no), and the common pitfalls that lead one into the life of a ‘tortured’ artist. She also talks about treating your creativity as someone you love and respect. She writes:

“Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.” 

She also says you shouldn't demand your creativity to support you financially. If it does, that’s great, but if you expect too much of your creativity, it might not bother to visit. And, as she says that each of us are meant to express creativity, it would a tragedy to scare it off. 

At times, it felt like I was being beaten over the head with the same message, which almost made me stop reading, but I’m glad I didn’t. The anecdotes at the end were too funny and inspiring to miss. This is a book that will make you laugh, give you a hundred new ways to befriend your creativity, and stoke your ambition. I highly recommend BIG MAGIC, CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR.  


My own real life example of Big Magic:

Years ago, when I wrote picture books, my daughter came up with the most brilliant character name ever. That name, Carolina Carrotworks, unleashed a super-fantastic idea for a book. I rushed to my laptop and started writing. Carolina had an amazing amount of hair that could do things all by itself. And it wasn’t always well behaved. In fact, kindergarten was quite a nightmare. It was a funny story. And I was completely enchanted. When I finished, my critique partners loved it. My family loved it. And, after many revisions, I still loved it. So, I took the next step and starting drafting a query letter. 

Before I could mail it off, however, my mother-in-law called. “I need to come over,” she said. “Today.” Now, my mother-in-law lives an hour away so if she’s going to make this trip to tell me something, it was not likely to be good news. When she arrived, she looked heartbroken as she held out a book to me.

It was a picture book. With MY story in it. The one I had just finished writing the query letter for. This book had been recently released by a different author, and… it was beautiful! Oh, there were some differences, of course. But mostly, it was the same story. Even the hair color was the same (red). My first thoughts were a less polite version of, “GOLLY GEE! WELL, DARN!” 

But then I checked out the author and nearly fainted. Not only was it someone well known, but someone whose work I deeply admired.


I started to laugh. And cry. Because the Muse or Idea Goddess that talked to me also talked to other authors that I loved! So here I was, holding this book, laughing and crying and babbling about muses, and my mother-in-law, clearly thinking that her son had married a lunatic, took several steps back and reminded me that this was, in fact, a library book and that I probably shouldn’t cry on it. But holy mother of amazing! My story had made it into the world - just… not through me. 

I was a little mad, but I also saw it as a clear sign that I was on the right track towards publication. My ideas were solid. And my execution was too - as the structure and rhythm of both books were similar.

That, Elizabeth Gilbert would say, is Big Magic at work. 


I can’t help but agree. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart

Joseph Johnson is on his own. He’s lost his mother and sister to typhoid and his father in an accident. All he has left, is his horse, Sarah. But when Sarah is stolen and sold to a horse trader, Joseph decides to go after her - no matter how long it takes, or how far he has to go. After all, Sarah is the only family he has left. 

If you are looking for a BOY HAS AN EPIC ADVENTURE story, this book is for you! It’s full of sticky situations and great escapes that will keep you turning the pages at a fast clip. But SOME KIND OF COURAGE is so much more than that. It is also about the very roots of friendship and family. At the beginning of his journey, Joseph meets a boy named Ah-Kee. Ah-Kee is also alone and searching for something, but as he speaks only Chinese, Joseph and Ah-Kee can only communicate through gestures and facial expressions. Through their adventures, they learn that true friendship isn’t based on words at all, but on kindness and trust. 

While there is much joy in this adventure, the loss of his family weighs heavily on Joseph’s heart. The only link to his past, the only one he loved as much as his family, is his horse, Sarah. But once he is reunited with Sarah, would that be enough family? Joseph must decide what family means to him as he and Ah-Kee chase the horse traders across Washington state. 

This book is told from Joseph’s point of view and he is a highly entertaining narrator. Dan Gemeinhart never overburdens the reader with long passages of description, but effortlessly shows his love for his home state through Joseph’s eyes. He includes the right amount of details to make the story feel authentic in its historical setting. 

I highly recommend SOME KIND OF COURAGE. It’s a story that will make your heart break, your soul sing, and your belly ache with laughter.