Friday, July 13, 2018

'Tis Easier To Give Than Receive...Compliments (by Jodi Moore)

"You'll recognize my mom. She's the small, bouncy woman who'll gush about your performance and crush you in a hug."

That's how our son described me to his fellow cast-mates I would have the privilege to meet later that night following a show.

I suppose it was fair warning. Because I am, and I did.

 To me, this was a wonderful description. A totally “Tiggerific” compliment.

You see, I’m not great at accepting compliments, but I’m passionate about giving them. Years ago, I worked as an administrative assistant to the executive director of an arts festival. While she oversaw hundreds of volunteers and many committees, she'd always make sure that if someone sharpened a pencil for her, he/she knew it was the best darn point she’d ever seen.

Consequently, while working there I witnessed some of the best darn smiles I’ve ever seen.

Yes, I know some people think withholding praise will only make others strive harder to achieve their goals or attain that recognition…and I’m not saying that never works. But the journey – for all involved – is so much more pleasant when the road is paved with compliments and smiles.

As a writer, I face rejection on (almost) a daily basis. It goes with the territory. Most of the time, I can handle it.

But not always.

About a week ago, I was feeling a bit more “Eeyore” than Tigger, for a variety of reasons, some personal, some writing-related. So, my sweet husband stepped in. He peeled me away from my novel-in-progress, booked me a massage, took me out for a cute little lunch, and capped off the day with tickets to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (The Mr. Rogers documentary – if you haven’t already seen it, you must!)

The movie is a tear-jerker (but in a good way), and as we drove home, I found myself snuffling into my tissues and blubbering, “See? The world needs more Mr. Rogers – did you see how he made those children smile?”

And Larry said, “Don’t you see? That’s what you do with your books. And that’s why you have to keep writing.”

He reminded me of this letter I had received from a fourth grader after a school visit.


And while it's still easier for me to give than receive compliments, I realized that was exactly what I needed to hear at that precise moment. It was the hug I needed. And I accepted his compliment...with thanks, and a HUGE return hug.

After all, I am known to be a small, bouncy woman who crushes people in hugs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Write it on my memorial (Maryanne Fantalis)

The world is pretty crappy these days, right? I mean, I don't want to talk about it, but I seem to be walking around with a churning, acidic hole in the pit of my stomach.

And even though social media is supposed to make us happier, well, we all know that's not the case.

But some people on Facebook and Twitter are trying to fight the good fight, bravely posting videos of sweet puppies and adorable kittens and even, sometimes, baby goats in pajamas. I mean, these people are heroes.

And sometimes, the folks on Twitter try to help each other feel good in other ways, asking their friends to share happy or funny things. About a month ago, someone posted a tweet asking what was the best compliment you ever received.

I would embed the tweet here, but her account is suspended. I guess all of us reach a breaking point...

Point is, let's focus on good things for a change, shall we?

Let's talk about compliments.

The best compliment I ever got about my writing was the time an editor who read my YA fantasy told me that my first-person narrator's voice reminded her of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.


I mean, I Capture the Castle is a classic.

It was the first book written by the author of 101 Dalmatians, another classic, and I Capture the Castle, while less widely known, is famous as a story that speaks to young people, especially those who love books. The heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, lives in a tumble-down castle with her family, and the novel is written as a journal of her observations of life.

Just a few minutes perusing Goodreads reviews or blogs will show you how much people adore this book as a comfort read that they return to over and over, or how frequently they compare the author's observations to Jane Austen's, or how they describe the novel as charming, intelligent, playful, and delightful. At least one Goodreads reviewer says this book changed her life.

One of the undeniable strengths of this novel is its first-person narrator. As one reviewer for the New Republic puts it, "She is a narrator who should rank with Jane Eyre, Pip, Huck Finn, Scout, and Holden Caulfield." J.K. Rowling herself has said, "This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I have ever met."

Wow. To be compared to that?

That's the kind of validation that carries you through years of rejection and self-doubt.

In case you're wondering, that book has not been published.

In terms of personal compliments, this is the story behind my favorite compliment. Ever.

I love a lot of different musicians, but if I could only listen to one artist for the rest of my life, it would be Peter Gabriel. He embodies a variety of musical styles, collaborates with musicians from around the world, and writes lyrics so powerful and personal, it feels like he's speaking not just to me but for me. Now, he's been performing (first with Genesis and then on his own) since I was a little kid, but I had never seen him live until 2002. I was thrilled beyond measure to get those tickets and I did not care that they weren't the greatest seats.

The night of the concert, I was quivering with excitement. I bought the $50 tee shirt. Once the music began, I was out of my seat the whole time, dancing and singing. Since I own some concert videos, I even knew some of the dance moves the band was doing. I probably -- no, I surely made a bit of a fool of myself, but I really don't care because THIS WAS MY FIRST PETER GABRIEL CONCERT.

When the concert ended ("In Your Eyes" is the final song, of course), I was floating. Did not want to leave. So happy.

These guys in the row behind me were also getting ready to leave and they were kind of laughing and nudging each other and I almost wanted to apologize to them because I knew I was standing and dancing and screaming the whole time... but then one of the guys said to me, "Hey, I just gotta say, you are one kick ass Peter Gabriel fan."

Yup. That's going on my memorial:
Wife. Mother. Author. Teacher. Kick Ass Peter Gabriel Fan.

Here's "In Your Eyes" in concert. Get up and kick some ass...

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Compliment Goggles--By: Kimberly Sabatini

Listening to a compliment can be similar to looking at an eclipse. 
I don't dare stare at it. 
But silly me, believing I have to wear protection.
Compliment goggles? 
And even though kind words can't possibly burn my retinas--they still somehow have the ability to blind me. 
To the truth? Or to the truth as I suspect it.
Or expect it.
Unsure of what to do in the moment, I look to the wayside.
I blink.
But even so, you should know...
 I wanted to hear that compliment again and again.
And again. 
So, don't think your kindness hasn't found it's mark.
It's after the compliment's been given that I'm able to savor it and watch it in my mind's eye, where it's once again illuminated, like the moon having bypassed the sun.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Am I? Musings on Compliments and #humblebrags and Other Such Stuff (Joy Preble)

Like a lot of us this month, I'm finding myself a bit flummoxed talking about the best compliment I ever received. It's easy to say nice things about other people. It's harder to believe nice things that someone else says about me. "Whatever," I usually say, sounding like a petulant twelve  year old. When what I should almost always say is, "Oh. Thank you. That's very kind of you."  (honestly, sometimes people just say things, right? "You're a great cook" they'll say and we all know that is patently untrue unless they've lived under a rock and never tasted food.)

"You're brave," a friend told me once, and I knew she meant it because she elaborated. While I appreciated this one, I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. The things she felt were brave-- like doing book travel to cities I've never been to and managing to find my way around-- were brave to her (she does not like to travel alone) but to me seemed just part of book promotion.

Compliments on my writing are tough for me, too. I can always think of a dozens of other authors who are brilliant in ways I have yet to achieve. Like I said, I KNOW I should just say thank you. But it's hard.

My mom was superstitious like that. She was definitely of the 'knock on wood,' 'pooh pooh' school of thought. Brag too much or agree with people's praise too loudly, and the universe will snatch it back was her general philosophy and that of her siblings and my grandmother as well. Don't show off was the message I got loud and clear. Just do what needs to get done. I think of all that every time I post a selfie, even a no-make up unfiltered one. "Really?" my mother's voice says in my head. "Who needs this nonsense?"

And speaking of self-compliments, the whole #humblebrag thing is like the worst, right? Please feel free to let me know if I ever post one something like "Oh I feel like such a loser. I've only published 5 books and I'm so behind on the three contracted projects and I'm not even packed yet for my European book tour and I still have to go to the publisher's special dinner party at BEA." Because seriously. SERIOUSLY.

So what are my favorite compliments?

"You're great at hand selling books to customers," my bookstore manager told me recently. Now that  I accepted graciously with a thank you. It's nice to have my efforts noticed. And it's quantitatively measurable, so I know it's not just blowing smoke.

Specific compliments about my own books are nice, too. If I can tell you read, and you're telling me about how I developed a specific character or whatever, I'll take that and smile.

Maybe specificity is the key. Yeah, I think it is. Not just you're a good cook, but "That chicken pot pie you made the other night was seriously tasty. What did you put in it? Really? And it wasn't organic free range artisanal, locally sourced chicken? Amazing."

(Okay, maybe I won't believe you if you go that far.  I have, after all, been known to throw around a few shallow compliments myself on occasion. Zipping my lips on what they are. I may try to use them on you at some point.)

Feel free to tell me you loved this blog post. But be specific.

Friday, July 6, 2018

What Big Eyes You Have! (Mary Strand)

As I sit down to write this, I’m utterly stumped by this month’s theme: the best compliment I’ve ever received.

I have no idea.

I think of compliments as fleeting at best and sometimes awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassing.  Did they really mean it?  Am I supposed to compliment them now, too?  And what if I disagree with the compliment?

Worse: is the compliment from a guy who’s actually being sexist and/or misogynistic, and should I take this as a good moment to leave him splattered on the sidewalk?

I do think most compliments are sincere and not given by jerks.  If a guy is wearing a cute jacket, I say so.  If a guy says my hot-pink Converse high-tops are cute, that’s sweet.  When I was practicing law, I felt the same way about compliments, even though most lawyers are pretty skittish about saying (or hearing) anything that could possibly be interpreted as sexual harassment.  I still said, “Nice tie!”  And male lawyers who knew me also knew I wouldn’t be offended if they complimented me on what I was wearing.

But, seriously, some people try too hard.  I hate false or clichéd compliments.  I love surprise ones.

I have blue eyes.  Telling me I have nice blue eyes seems a bit, well, stupid.  But saying my eyes look like ferocious storm clouds when I’m pissed is a great compliment.  (Also, according to my brother, true.)  A friend once asked if I was wearing bright-blue tinted contact lenses, because my eyes couldn’t possibly be that blue.  I laughed uproariously but actually liked that one.

My favorite compliment from a guy in a bar, who was hitting on me, was “You have nice skin.”  Seriously.  Who says that?  But it was original and sincere, and although I had less than zero interest in him, I loved it.

In high school I heard from several guys that the wrestling team (which practiced on a balcony overlooking the gym) voted me “best legs in gym shorts.”  I have the long, slightly bowed legs of a basketball player, NOT the cute, perfect, stick-straight legs of a cheerleader, or the general cuteness of a gymnast.  I LOVED that vote!
My hair is strawberry blond, which I loathed as a kid but am cool with as an adult.  It’s not dyed.  Not a single gray hair has yet hit.  [Insert pause while I knock on all wood in sight.]  Men don’t typically notice or care about things like that, but I love when a female friend compliments me on whoever dyed my hair this color, and I reply that it’s actually my natural color ... and she says, “Bitch.”  From a good friend, THAT is a compliment.

As a writer, I’ve received compliments, but I fear they’ve often been drowned out in my mind by the criticisms, so I often brush them off.  Yes, I’m told I shouldn’t do that.  I am not perfect.  I do brush them off.

As a mom, compliments from my kids are also often drowned out by the criticisms.  A few years ago, I went through some nightmarish times with my daughter, who told the whole world (including me) how much she hated me.  On a daily basis.  She was going through hell at the time, and I was a convenient and safe target.  (Yeah, yeah, my friends reminded me of this on a daily basis, too, but it still resulted in severe PTSD for 18 months.)  One night during this awful period, as I was saying goodnight to her and she said yet another truly horrible thing to me, I finally snapped and asked her if there wasn’t ONE SINGLE GOOD THING she could say about me.

She glared at me.  Silence.  A horrid, lengthy silence.

Finally, she sighed.  “You’re a good writer.”

Okay, that was my best compliment ever.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Thursday, July 5, 2018

"You're Not A Normal Girl"

by Fae Rowen

The summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I attended a six-week NSF program at San Diego State University. Fifty chemistry students and fifty math students from around the country attended this pre-college summer session. We lived in the dorms, the girls on one end of the campus, the boys on the other end.

We had a seven o'clock curfew. The boys didn't. At night, they would come over to our dorm to hang out in the rec room until nine o'clock, when the Resident Assistant booted them from the building. There was a television set in the far corner of the room, but we played ping pong, trading places at the single table. This is where I fell for a guy in the chem program.

He was smart. Funny. And a very good ping pong player. I was better, thanks to years of playing against the skills of my father. Night after night he returned and waited for his chance to play me. The "ping pong protocol" had evolved into a simple procedure: The winner played the next person in line. Since none of the other girls wanted to play (they spent their time chatting up and flirting with the guy of their choice) I played most of the evening, until I begged off to go upstairs and do homework.

By the second week, John would arrive around seven and wait his turn to challenge me. Once I beat him, we'd walk around in the courtyard and talk to each other. A few times I arranged to sign out with him as my escort. I had to check in with the RA when I returned by nine. We went to the weekly amphitheater screenings of movies that were no longer in the theaters, along with the regular college students who were attending the university summer session.

By the fourth week, John and I were "an item." The frat guys were coming over to play ping pong with "the high school girl." I remained undefeated, and a lot of money changed hands...I think.

By the fifth week I was tired of the homework and the difficult level of the classes. I much preferred helping the chemistry girls across the hall with their labs. There were only fourteen girls between the two programs. That gave us our pick of eight-six mostly nerdy guys.

But John played varsity football. He was the captain of his high school's debate team. And he certainly didn't look—or act—like a nerd.

During our last week, we both felt the tension. We lived over five hundred miles apart. We'd probably never see each other again. He took me out for an ice cream cone. As we talked about what we expected from our senior years and what colleges we hoped to attend, he looked at me and said, "You're not a normal girl."


Did he think I was...weird?

I bit out the words, "What. Do. You. Mean?"

At that point he knew he was in trouble. If he'd been trying to break up with me, it was the perfect line. But his face told me he wasn't being mean.

He explained that it was compliment. That I was different from any girl he'd ever met. I didn't let him win at ping pong, even though he admitted his ego had been bruised in the beginning. He liked that I didn't care if he thought I was smart. I was the prettiest nerd he knew. And he wished we could go to the same college. And eat ice cream on a bench every week.

Somewhat mollified, I considered that I'd never felt like I fit in with other girls. I didn't like to gossip; I didn't like to talk on the phone for hours. I didn't like to flirt or manipulate guys. I knew what I wanted as an adult, and I was determined to have that life.

John sat on the bench we were sharing and looked at me while I processed what he'd said and what I thought about it. When I took a deep breath, he rushed out, "It was a compliment. I meant it as a compliment."

I smiled. "I know. Thank you."

I saw him twice my senior year and we exchanged a few letters during our freshman year at college. I haven't heard from him since. But the compliment helped me during the rough times in college, when I was the only female in upper division math classes. It helped me when I became the first female secondary math department chair.

And it probably saved my future husband from a black eye when I asked him why he wanted to marry me. His answer? "Because you're not a normal woman."

Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard, putting the finishing touches on P.R.I.S.M. Book Two.
P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, lies, and love.
When she’s not hanging out at YA Outside the Lines, you can visit Fae at  or

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

With My Compliments

About [*number redacted*] years ago when I could still stay awake past 8 o’clock, I was with friends at a pub, enjoying a beer and bopping to some fiddle music when this guy blustered up to me and said, “Hi. You have beautiful eyes, beautiful teeth, and beautiful sneakers.” He capped this bizarre list of my attributes with a grin as wide as Montana.

Weird, huh? And weird that I remember with such clarity after so many years. 

I guess this ridiculous compliment sticks with me because it was funny. If smiley guy had dropped a more conventional pick-up line at the foot of my beautiful sneakers, it—and he—would’ve been forgotten long ago.

The kicker to the story is this—though I remember the compliment in full detail, I can’t for the life of me recall my response. I probably stammered and hemmed and hawed and giggled uncomfortably until Smiley wafted off to compliment some other young woman’s footwear.

So, what does this absurd anecdote have to do with this month’s YA Outside the Lines theme, The Best Compliment I Ever Received? Not much, but it does show my life-long inability to take a compliment. Don’t get me wrong, I love compliments. I’m just a failure, flop, and fiasco at responding to them.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem. When we hear something positive about ourselves, we tend to brush it off, stammer, or outright reject such positive sentiments. We think the person complimenting us doesn’t mean it. Or we pull that old Three Stooges routine of looking over our shoulder to see who he/she was really complimenting.

Why? Because we’re human. We are our own worst critics, plagued by self-doubt and insecurity. And no human is afflicted by this plague with more severity than a writer.

This is partly because we are so often knocked down by outside forces—rejection, bad reviews, and a total of 1 person showing up to our book signing (not to buy a book, but to ask directions to the rest room). 

That stings, but the larger part of our insecurity comes from within, that self-doubt that tickles at the back of a writer’s brain whether they’re writing their first book or consistently hitting the bestseller lists. Is my idea unique? Are my characters fresh? Is my writing good enough? Will people like my story?

Compliments may not be the cure to that self-doubt plague, but they sure are good medicine. And when a compliment comes from another writer, well, that’s the best.

One of the best writing-related compliments I ever got came from another writer. She had read two of my manuscripts and said the voice of each story differed so much that if she didn’t know both books were mine, she would’ve thought they were written by two entirely different authors. Not great for my brand I suppose, but one book is a time travel, the other YA sci-fi. My voice for each book was intentionally different. I meant to do that—and she got it. 

And you know what I did? I said thank you.

It’s funny how we have so much trouble recognizing something in ourselves that others pick up on right away. Writers need other writers, as one of my earliest writing teachers was fond of saying. We need to support each other and boost each other up. 

Let loose with the compliments and don’t hold back! 

Janet Raye Stevens writes YA sci-fi and paranormal and contemporary romance. She’s been getting a lot of compliments lately in the form of writing contest finals and wins, including finalling in the Romance Writers of America’s 2018 Golden Heart contest.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Human Speed Bumps (Brian Katcher)

When I learned that the June theme was 'human speed bumps', I was very excited. Then I realized it didn't mean what I'd originally thought. Pity.

Instead, we're talking about dealing with things can can interrupt the writing process: illness, family, job, prolonged incarceration, etc.

Now when most people imagine the life of an author, they picture a dingy office, cluttered with stacks of paper (much of it wadded up), empty whisky bottles, putrefying plates of half-finished egg salad sandwiches and coffee cups, all barely visible through the nicotine haze as the author bangs furiously on a typewriter, bleary eyed and stubble faced.

This, of course, is 100% correct. But this is not my entire life. Every few days my wife, decked out in her housecoat and curlers, will pound on my office door with her rolling pin and demand that I leave the house and earn an honest living. Tramping over the piles of rejection slips and cigar butts, I'll pull on my battered fedora and try to earn a few dollars working as a chimney sweep or bootblack.

While I inevitably blow my earnings at the local gambling hall or gin mill, this all goes to prove a point. Time not writing is time wasted. Do you think Hemingway spent his precious time at PTA meetings? Did Poe write stuff like that because he wasn't a raging alcoholic? You think Kafka had a fulfilling social life?

In conclusion, life is short. Very soon, you will die. And do you want to lay...lie...lay? there, probably on the very sheets you slept on last night and think 'If only I'd spent more time writing and less time thinking of others'? Hell no, you don't! Stop being so selfish! Why are you messing around on the internet? You've got stories to tell and a liver to destroy!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Be Kind to Yourself and Persevere by Dean Gloster

            Back when I was a lawyer and I wanted to learn a new area of law, I would offer to give a talk on that topic to some attorney organization.
            Scheduling the talk, in turn, forced me to learn the area not only enough to understand it, but well enough to explain it to a room full of skeptical lawyers, often holding sharp knives as they cut their banquet chicken.

            I always over-prepared, because I expected hostile questions or interruptions from some Theodore Knowitall: (*huffy voice*) “Well, actually, if you pay attention to footnote 17 of the Supreme Court opinion in…” (There is no mansplainer quite like the one with a law degree, showing off for his peers.)

Did you hear about the mansplainer who fell in a hole of his own making?
It was a well, actually…

            So that’s what I’d like to do today: Write about what I most need to learn, to keep myself moving forward as a writer. In explaining it to you, I hope some of it will sink in for me.
            Our topic this month is perseverance, but the blog administrators can’t jolt me with Internet-delivered electrical shocks if I meander slightly off-topic. (I’ve tested that, with prior posts.)
            Writing is difficult. Writing for publication, for money, is even harder. An important component of how to persevere in the face of those difficulties is to figure out how to be kind to yourself in the process. When you write novels, for most of the time you are your own boss, so you might as well set up humane working conditions, just as you would for someone else.
            One difficulty in writing is that you have to master two separate skills, at odds with each other. First, you have to let that raw creativity flow, honoring the unconscious, fanciful, and unharnessed.

            Second, you have to bring your more analytical craft- and editorially-focused skills to shape, trim, craft, plan, and revise that wilder work.
             But you can’t do both things at the same time.
            Writing while constantly interrupting yourself with criticism is a little like singing while bashing yourself in the throat with a rake.
            It’s a bad idea.
            So bad, I’m pretty sure that’s how we got Nickelback

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it
Is that the perfect place for a Nickelback concert?
    I type new material in a separate document from my manuscript, to signal to my harsh inner critic that I’m just playing around with words, and that it’s too early for him to get involved. I sometimes write new material longhand, in a notebook, for the same reason.
            When it’s time to revise and polish, I have all kinds of tricks to make me look at the manuscript with fresh eyes: I convert it into a different font, revise from the back to the front, look at each character’s dialogue (or each subplot) separately, and—for sections of scenes that aren’t working—even put that part into free verse lines, and tinker with it as a poem.
            Whatever works. But find a way to be kind to yourself.
            Writing is difficult enough without causing more problems for yourself, letting your own premature criticism drag concrete blocks through the delicate machinery of your creativity.
            And have fun. Writing is way more enjoyable, really, than lecturing to a room full of lawyers with glittery knives.
            Persevere, persist, resist, and be well.

Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The limits of perseverance (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Perseverance has its limits.

The way to face the wall of obstacles is not always to pound on it until there’s a breakthrough.

Sometimes when we step back, we spot a doorway in the wall, or a ladder over the top. It’s not right in front of us, but off to the side. Where we hadn’t even been looking.

Sometimes we have to step way back to see it.

Tunnel vision can lead us to think that there is only one way, only one chance, only one road. It’s this dream agent or nobody. It’s this grant, this book deal, this story, this gig, this conference, this editor, or all is lost. It’s now or never.

But that’s rarely true. There’s a difference between the “now or never” pep talk that rouses us out of procrastination or laziness or fear of failure, and a “now or never” urgency that makes us pin all our hopes on one shot. The former may help us move forward, while the latter can close our eyes to the full range of possibilities.

Sometimes something isn’t working because it isn’t meant to work. It isn’t the right time, the right story, the right market, the right publisher. Sometimes we’re not ready yet. Sometimes the world isn’t ready for us yet.

There is more out there. It is possible to step away—to another story, another market, another genre. Another path. It is possible to step back and try again later. It is possible to try something different now.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Relax, If You Can (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

In September 2014, I had a baby and published a novel within a two-week period. I have not written, much less published, another novel since. People think it's because of my child, and I cannot tell you how much this annoys me to no end.

It annoys me because I hate that people automatically assume that if you have a child you can't have a creative career, but it annoys me more because I promise you it is not for lack of trying.

I have plenty of time to write, thanks to being able to afford childcare and having a husband who is not only not a Neanderthal but who also doesn't expect me to do all the housework, which I hear is still a thing in a lot of households. He does his own laundry and makes our dinners. He told me to stay away from his Father's Day meal prep, lest I ruin it. (#gladly)

I have written and published many smaller pieces in this time, but no novels. I've done a bunch of research. I've had several false starts.

About halfway between then and now came November 8, 2016, a date which will live in infamy.

Like many of you, I cried off and on and used sleeping pills for a month (or maybe longer). My already bad anxiety frequently became crippling. Since then, as our country has gone from one dumpster fire to another, as I have watched people I once loved turn into people I do not recognize, EVERYTHING has felt so high-stakes that I have really questioned what possible good I am doing as a writer.

Because, let's face it, I am not a big deal. No one is hanging on my every word. I am in no way a leader in this space. I am hopeless at social media. Maybe 2000 people read my first novel. Maybe. I am being generous because a lot of libraries own it; I know because I checked WorldCat. I got some good reviews. I even got a shiny medal. But what good did it actually do? What good would my writing another novel do?

I have no idea, but here I am writing another novel, a story that came to me so powerfully that it demands to be written whether it does any good or not.

It's an "adult" novel, this time, though I really hate those distinctions.

The Fates are laughing at me because it might be considered a "Civil War novel." I was born in South Carolina and have been running fast and hard from the Civil War my whole life, with the result being that I keep tripping over it and have already written two theses on Civil War literature. (I blame my advisors, who constantly said, "Build on work you've already done," and other things that made sense.)

I believe in this story so much that I spent this past weekend immersed in a "book boot camp" while my family went to the beach. (I kind of hate the beach, so that helps.) In some ways, the Civil War is the obvious place to go at this historical moment, but I hope I have taken it in some less obvious directions.

And meanwhile I am despairing at the state of our country and at the same time beating myself up about that despair because I know that I have it so much better than so many people, so is it fair for me to feel like I can barely function because of the madness?

I don't know.

I've always loved Mary Fahl's "Going Home," which was the opening theme for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. My book does not in any way resemble Gods and Generals, but it is very much about the meaning of home and of exile, and I've taken it as the first song on my novel playlist. Faults of the film aside, I find it to be a healing song, and one that is useful to me in terms of thinking about themes. (My working title is The Cold Months of the Year, and it is a little bit about what life is like when everyone you grew up with thinks you are a dirty liberal who has betrayed them, and when that is in fact true. Ahem.)

All of this, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying I wish I hadn't been so concerned about shoving out another novel immediately to prove to myself and others that I'm a real writer.

Sometimes, stories just come when they're meant to.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Club 100: Getting Back in the Saddle - by Brenda Hiatt

I can think of few things more likely to make someone frequently consider throwing in the towel than attempting to make a career out of writing novels. Succeeding as a novelist is a long game. Because, let’s face it, novels are long. There may be a few phenoms out there who can write a book in a month or even a week (or so I’ve heard) but I have yet to hear about anyone ever writing an entire novel in a day. 

Writing a novel (usually defined as a work of at least 40,000 words) takes dedicated time. Time with fingers on keyboard or pen in hand or microphone to mouth—though those last two methods still require transcribing at some point. Then that messy first draft has to be revised into some semblance of a real story, then polished to within an inch of its life, edited…you get the idea. Not something you can dash off in an afternoon. 

But, as we all know, life has a way of getting in the way. The things that push writing to the side for an hour, a day, a week, a month, can be wonderful or awful. Weddings, new babies and cross-country moves to a better place/better job can be just as disruptive as unexpected illness and loss. Perseverance is about getting back to the writing every time life derails you, for whatever reason.

As an aside, I’ll just say here for anyone who might be thinking about writing as a career, that one of the very first things you need to succeed is joy in the process. This job is too damned hard if you don’t have that, because external rewards are never guaranteed (no matter what some self-proclaimed guru might claim). However, if you have that fire in your belly and writing makes you a whole lot happier than not writing... 

Anyway, back to the issue of persevering when life throws you curve balls—which it will. Over the years I’ve been pulled away from a regular writing schedule on many, many, many occasions. From the time I started writing “for real,” I think my record for going without writing at all was a little over a year. More often, I was only derailed for a few days or weeks at a time. However long it's been, it can be hard--really hard--to get back in the saddle when you’ve been out of it for a while. Here’s a tool that has helped me do just that, multiple times, and I share it here in hopes that it might help you, too.

It’s called Club 100. It was started by a group of writers online back in the dark ages before there was a real internet, just online services with electronic bulletin boards. One of those services was GEnie (so named because, I believe, it was owned by General Electric) and one of the boards was called RomEx, short for Romance Writers Exchange. One of the ongoing topics on that board was Club 100. 

The premise is actually very simple. Every day that you manage to write 100 words—that’s right, just 100 words—you get to count that day. Most of us used stickers or stars on calendars to mark our progress. Once someone completed 100 writing days, we celebrated. The object is to get you working on your current book every single day, even when you don’t feel like it. Because, hey, anyone can write 100 words, right? It’s a couple of paragraphs. Takes 5 minutes. Thing is, once you’re back inside your story, you’ll find it’s very hard to stop at just 100 words. Many is the time I told myself, "Just five minutes before bed," and ended up with two or three new pages.

Since those old GEnie days, I’ve used the Club 100 technique to get myself “back in the saddle” more times than I can count. And it has always, always worked. Which is great, because nothing beats that awesome feeling of accomplishment that come from a great writing day! I know, because I’ve had a few of those recently and I’m feeling on top of the world as a result. 
Sure, it won’t last. It never does. But I have a strategy to get back into that saddle the next time life knocks me sideways. No matter how many times it happens.

Brenda Hiatt is the author of the bestselling 
Starstruck series of YA science fiction romance 
novels. Last year she released The Girl From Mars, 
book 5 in the series. After several life interruptions 
(all good this time around!) she is currently hard 
at work on book 6.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Find Time to Feed Your Soul by Christine Gunderson

When we talk about “perseverance” we tend to think about pushing onward against terrible, unexpected difficulties like erupting volcanoes, economic collapse or chronic illness. I am in awe of the obstacles my fellow blogger Patty Blount has overcome to continue with her writing.

But when I think about perseverance, I think about a Tuesday in March, when I plan to write and then the downspouts clog in the middle of a thunderstorm because, unbeknownst to me, someone hit a baseball and it got stuck in the gutters, and the washing machine stops working and the kids spill maple syrup on the dog. 

I can be somewhat heroic in the face of a crisis, because a crisis is an unusual event of short duration. But my writing can get completely derailed by the small emergencies of daily life. Like my children.

Obviously, I love my kids. They’re adorable. And funny. And smart and creative and all those things kids should be. But it turns out raising children is a lot of work. I was a child myself once but had no idea I required so much attention. Who knew?

I will lay out a careful schedule involving word targets for each day. Then, instead of going to school as planned, my children will take turns getting strep throat. I will spend the week at the pediatrician’s office and on the couch with a feverish child binge watching Star Wars Rebels. I loveStar Wars Rebels, and snuggling with my kids, but this isn’t helping me put words on the page.

And because Jeff Bezos still has not invented the Overscheduled Child Transportation Drone, I spend huge amounts of time in my car. You can do a lot of things while driving a mini-van, but writing a novel is not one of them.

This is where perseverance comes in.

I prefer to write alone at my desk, in a silent house, for five or six hour stretches. These are optimal writing conditions for me. But I’ve learned that if I wait for the optimal, I will never write at all.

This blog post was written at the pool during swim team practice, at one of those trampoline-jumping places, and in my kitchen as I wait for the water to boil.

Perseverance means looking for slivers of time and taking them wherever I can find them.

I finally realized my children will never come up to me, after a two week stretch where everyone had the stomach flu and say, “Mother, you look rather harried. Why don’t you recharge your batteries by doing something you love? We’ll quietly review these math flash cards and play educational computer games while you finish up that proposal for your agent.”

Mothers don’t actually have time to drive kids to soccer and tutors and practices, to help them with homework, to plan birthday parties and Christmas. But mothers make time for these things because it’s important to their kids. So, it becomes important to them.

Writing is no different. Neither is scrapbooking, square dancing, gardening, genealogy, listening to live music, painting, singing karaoke, exercising, prepping for the apocalypse or any of the other things that bring people pleasure and joy. (I have personally never experienced any pleasure whatsoever from exercise, but some people claim to like it, so I threw it in there.)

If a child shows an interest in dancing, we sign them up for dance. We spend enormous amounts of time and money enriching our kids. But if you’re a mother, when was the last time you spent time and money to enrich yourself?

We don’t give up our minds and personalities when we have children. Motherhood should expand us, not diminish us. But once we have kids, the things we do for pleasure rather than money are somehow considered non-essential. These soul enriching pursuits, the activities that make us who we are, get pushed to the bottom of the pile.

I struggled with this when I started writing. Going to Starbucks for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon to write seemed selfish.

And then I looked at how I felt after I wrote. I was energized. Happy. Relaxed. Kind to my spouse. Patient with my children. Making time for writing feeds my soul and brings me joy. It makes me a better person and a happier and more pleasant parent. 

Two hours in my kitchen microwaving chicken nuggets and unloading the dishwasher does not have that effect.

It’s easy to find excuses not to do this. Years ago, a mother explained to me that it was okay that she never took even a minute of time for herself because motherhood is “a season.” 

That sound you hear right now is me snorting in derision and aggressively rolling my eyes.

It takes five months for wheat to ripen. That’s a season. It takes 18 years, and sometimes much longer, for a child to grow up. That’s not a season. It’s hard time for armed robbery. Don’t wait until your kids are grown. Do this now. 

During the summer when my kids are out of school I wake up at 5:00 a.m. so I can get my words in before they wake up. I get out bed, go to my desk and do my thing. I walk away two hours later happy, energized and satisfied. My soul is full. But only because I made time to fill it. 

Maybe you’ve told yourself the thing you love is frivolous, that bronze age historical reenactments or raising show chickens or Olympic ice curling or dressing up like Chewbacca and attending Star Wars conventions is unworthy of time away from your family. 

But the question is not: Is this a silly waste of my valuable free time? The question is: Does this bring me joy?

If the answer is yes, make the time. Take the time. Your brain and your soul will thank you. Your spouse and children will thank you. And if you’re one of those weird exercise people, your body will thank you, too.

Will it be easy? No. People will try to stop you. The universe will try to stop you. 

Do it anyway.

Perseverance is doing something hard because it’s important. You are important. Your mind and body and soul are important. Give them the time they deserve. 

Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog.  When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion or unloading the dishwasher. 


Friday, June 22, 2018

Writing Through Pain by Patty Blount

Perserverance should be my name. Like Temperance Brennan on Bones, I could be Perserverance Blount and fight crime with a hot guy played by David Boreanaz.

Back here in the real world, there's this old adage that writers, like most artists, suffer for their craft. Boy, howdy, I can attest to this.

In 2015, I was laid off from a job I'd held for thirteen years, a job that afforded many liberties like working from home when needed, flex time when needed, and an on-site fitness center and chiropractor that I used regularly. It also offered me a 30-minute commute.

I was lucky; I found a new job in a few weeks, but the new job's commute was an hour and 30 minutes.

Each way.

It had none of the flexibility I'd grown used to either.

In May of that year, I had this bizarre swelling in my hands. A finger would randomly swell to three times its normal size and the pain is utterly indescribable. At one point, I sobbed to my husband to take the hedge clippers and lop it off. I couldn't so much as tap a cell phone with the entire hand, let alone the swollen finger.

Brooklyn, 2015 - CLMP Firecracker Award for SOME BOYS along with my then-editor, Aubrey Poole. This was the first flare I had -- I was unable to straighten my arm and so, it bent awkwardly. Not shown is the swollen finger on my other hand. 

It happened three times, to three different fingers. I'd been to an emergency room, had x-rays and blood tests and enough medication to open a pharmacy. The diagnosis is psoriatic arthritis. It's disfiguring, it's excrutiating, it's permanent, and it's a vicious cycle. I have to take meds to manage the flare-ups, manage the rash, but the meds cause side effects like osteoporosis and weight gain and insomnia so I have to take more meds to manage those. I frequently don't sleep at all and then have to drive that 90-minute commute, work all day, and commute back home.

In 2015, I didn't get much writing done. It took me months to figure out how to squeeze writing back into my new world order. I have to exercise because, as my rheumatologist says, "motion is the lotion" that keeps my joints lubricated. But it hurts! Oh, it hurts. I have to lose weight to decrease the burden on my joints, but let's face it -- writing is a sedentary occupation. Thanks to the steroids, I'm now shopping for plus sizes and this just KILLS me.

So... I didn't write. I gave it up for months. And an interesting thing happened. I felt like I'd been lobotomized, like half of me was missing. At first, I blamed this on all the new meds and the disease. But then I realized it was ME. I'd let it go when what I should have been doing was clinging to writing like a piece of driftwood after the boat sinks.

I'm fighting back now. Instead of saying, "I can't! It hurts." I say, "I will. I'll feel better."

I began waking up at 5:45 and getting to work around 7:30, before traffic begins to get awful. That hour earlier cut my morning commute down to about 40 minutes instead of 90. I can't do much about the evening commute so I endure it. With the office empty, I have a leisurely breakfast so I can take my meds on a full stomach and then write until 9 AM.

The medication wallet I must now carry. 

At lunch time, I walk. If the weather is bad, I may write some more. When I finally get home, it's a victory when I do so before 6:30. I do my physical therapy exercises  -- stretching is critical for me. Dinner. Laundry. Dishes. I don't watch much TV now. When I sit down, it's for social media tasks, maybe to re-read what I wrote that day and plan tomorrow.

For a long time, I was bitter about no longer being able to write 1500 or 2000 words a day. Now, a good writing day is 300 words or so. I had to adjust my attitude on a lot of things -- like giving up sugar. I LOVE chocolate. Chocolate is like a religion for me. Giving that up -- well, let's just say I thought about the pain and wondered if I could live with another round of prednisone -- it wasn't easy, but I decided sugar had to go.

(Still haven't lost weight, BTW)

So, we're in 2018. It's 3 years and I haven't had a flare up! I've had lots of other issues but I manage them as they strike. I've learned how to keep writing on the days when even my hair hurts (I have psoriatic spots on my scalp.)

  • I use dictation software. 
  • I have my son edit for me.
  • I plot and research rather than sit 'butt-in-chair' on high-pain days or no-sleep nights because let me tell you, writing on no sleep is like drunk-dialing somebody. Nobody wants to see that! 
  • I stop beating myself up over the 200 word count days. I write every day, even when I'm fried, so I don't 'fall out of the habit.' It may not be actual word-count writing (could be plotting, etc.) but it's time on the WIP. 
  • When I have days to devote to my writing, I'm careful not to spend hours sitting. I set reminders to get up, move around, exercise so my back doesn't spasm and undo my progress. 
  • I don't make decisions on days where I'm going without sleep. 
  • I stay off social media on the days where I'm going without sleep. 
In 2017, I wrote 2 full-length books and didn't die. This was a personal goal I'd set and I'm so proud I managed to achieve it. I have the same goal for 2018, but we're in June and....nothing. I have no ideas. Usually, panic sets in around now, but I'm just going with the flow. 

I figure my body is telling me "Rest." So I'm researching some back story for one kernel of an idea, to see if it germinates into a full story. 

But I'm not giving up. Writing is part of who and what I am. I do what I have to so I can keep this disease from stealing more of me than it already has. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Human lives are not writing-conducive. They’re just not. They’re full of triumphs and heartache and ups and downs and chores and most of the time, it seems amazing to me that any books ever get written at all.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is find a way to shake the world off--all the have-tos and the responsibilities and the routines--and reconnect with yourself. Then, your mind can focus better on your project.

A few ways to shake off the world:

Do some yoga
Walk the dog
Sing a song
Go to the farmer’s market
Cook something you’ve never made before
Take a class
Scratch a home repair off the honey-do list
Watch a classic movie
Learn a new hobby—sewing, painting, etc.
Change your hair
Explore a new corner of your city—somewhere you’ve never gone before
Take a drive without a map
Eat an ice cream cone
Pay a compliment to a stranger
Wear something (a piece of jewelry, perfume, etc.) you usually save for special occasions
Play one-on-one
Eat taffy
Dangle your feet in the lake
Howl at the moon