Thursday, August 6, 2020

Ace Teen Poet ... In My Own Mind (Mary Strand)

This month we’re blogging at YA Outside the Lines about something funny or embarrassing that we wrote in our teens.

Dear Lord, please shoot me now.

Although I PLAN to write about my high-school life as a poet laureate - ha ha - I’ll first share that nanosecond of insanity in eighth grade, in the patriarchal world in which I grew up, when I filled half a page with a scribbled “Mrs. John Doe” or “Mary Doe” or “Mary Strand Doe.” (The name of John Doe has been changed for obvious reasons, including that when I last saw him at a high-school reunion, his ego wildly outstripped his apparent merits, and I laughed at my shallow eighth-grade taste.)

What’s funny and embarrassing is that I would’ve ever thought even for a moment of changing my name to some GUY’S name when I got married. I was totally over that by high school, I know, because I had a MASSIVE (and mutual!) high-school crush that never involved my dreaming of a name change, which is lucky since he never even asked me out, in his case because he loooooved basketball ... and I was better at it than he was.

(Never fantasize about insecure guys, even if they’re cute, which he was. He was also smart, funny, and nice, but ... yeah. A girl’s basketball skillz will weed out the weak ones. If his pet nickname for you is “Superstar,” run. This is good to know in the long run, but in the short run, not so much.)

(Now you know why I write YA. Clearly, I never left my teen years.)

So. Um. Poetry.

I was really into it in high school: reading it, but especially writing it. I wrote our class poem for our yearbook. (Not as big a triumph as you might guess, since I was co-editor of the yearbook.) Someone else recited it at graduation (since I was actually shy at that point in my life, which is even more hilarious than anything else I’ll write about today), and my poems LITTERED the pages of my high school’s annual literary magazine.

Today I read all of those poems from junior and senior year. They were filled to the max with angst and despair, which is particularly funny since I was (then as now) mostly a clown. But I did have deep thoughts (then as now), and back then I apparently wrote Every Single One Of Them in a poem and then unfortunately submitted all of those poems to the literary magazine. Dark stuff, sometimes brightened (inexplicably) in the last line of the poem, as if I didn’t want to scare people.

Not that this worked. The day the literary magazine was published each year, I always had at least half a dozen people, including a teacher or two, ask if I was “okay.” I had no idea what they were talking about. I was a jokester who happened to write dark poetry that, once written, was in my distant past. I wasn’t REALLY a dark, gloomy, angsty person. I just played one in the literary magazine!

Worse (yes, it gets worse), I loved to write poems about how horrible it was to be under the thumb of my Cruel Mother — because TEENAGER — and then, when I finished the poem and thought it was a good one, I’d always show it to my mom! lololol. I can still remember her wide eyes as she read those poems, her indrawn breath, and finally the faint, “Er, that’s very nice.” 

I think those memories helped get me through my own daughter’s teenage years, when I was the Utterly Unreasonable Adult in the room.

I was going to post one of those psychotic poems here, but (1) this is already too long, (2) I used “different than” rather than the correct “different from” in the poem in question, putting my street cred as a grammar geek at risk, and (3) you will not benefit from reading it.

But I did. Because (hysterical) laughter is good for the soul, right? Right!

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 30, 2020

An Embarrassment of Riches (Brian Katcher)

Like most authors, I have a 'real' job: teaching. And during a normal year, my free time is precious. When my wife and daughter go to bed around 9:30, I have two hours (three, if I'm willing to be loggy in the morning) to write. Even during summer vacation, we're usually on the run so much, I still have to budget in time for writing.

When the COVID hit, we were began teaching from home. Then, when we realized it wasn't going away anytime soon, we cancelled our vacation plans. We've done a lot of reading, binge watching, and various other projects. My lawn looks great.

When I realized I was going to be restricted to barracks for so long, the silver lining was that at least I would get more writing done. I could stay up all night! Lock myself in my room for days! Crank out an entire novel by the time this is over!

My 1000th Shining reference on YAOTL

In the two or so months since I stopped teaching online, I've written about 100 pages. That's about average for me during a regular school year. What happened to this great period of productivity I was expecting?

Well, part of the problem is I didn't want to isolate myself from my already isolated family. The plague robbed our daughter of vacation, drama camp, swimming, and her friends. I didn't want to make her even more alone. On the other hand, she's thirteen and doesn't exactly want to hang out with her father all day.

Mostly, though, it was just sloth. Why beat my brains out to finish a chapter tonight? I have weeks and weeks of free time! And how can I write with that leaky toilet staring me in the face (metaphorically)? And that garden isn't going to weed itself.

Also, I used to limit video game binges to once every hundred pages I wrote. Now I find myself playing for hours a week.

I used to pray for a day just for myself. Now I'm getting weeks and months. And it's unclear whether this will end when school is supposed to start.

Sadly, the extra free time has made me less disciplined. My goal is to have a novel finished by the new year. Watch this space.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Time Is Always Now by Dean Gloster

“All of us had an ample share of the treasure, and used it wisely or foolishly, according to our nature.”—Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We all respond initially to a crisis according to our patterned behavior. So I—of course—used some of my time in this pandemic hassling myself for not being more productive.

            On an even cheerier note, William Carlos Williams said, “Time is a storm in which we are all lost.”

            But we are not lost yet. And I’m not the alleged President, and this isn’t Twitter, so I’m not going to just whine. Life is to be lived forward. There will still be plenty of this pandemic left to decide how to spend what time we have.

            I’m still in the desert mirage phase of finishing my current novel, where I think I can see that cool, tear-watered finish line, but while I stride purposefully toward it, it steadily moves away, at almost the same pace.

            But I am getting closer, even if the progress sometimes involves cutting words and removing my favorite jokes, because they don’t serve the story. (And, sadly, they don’t.)

            So I plan to finish that novel, and to give a Zoom class on how to write the YA novel, which could be fun. (Or not.) And to take delight in my friends, who I still get to hang out with on Zoom and on Twitter and in the back yard at separate tables for shouted socially-distanced dinners.

            A little distance teaches us how precious connection really is.

            Wear your masks and take care, all.

            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 from Merit Press/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.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 57 percent of his soul.

When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing--and, let's face it, there's less of that right now--he’s on Twitter: @deangloster

Friday, July 24, 2020

Learning to be kind…to ourselves (Brenda Hiatt)

I’m clearly not the only writer here learning new lessons during this unprecedented time of stress, quarantine and involuntary restructuring of our daily lives. One biggie for me has been the importance of kindness. 

I've always tried to be kind to others, of course, but that seems more important than ever as we’re all buffeted by the changes forced on us by current circumstances. Since March I’ve made a point of tipping more generously, paying more compliments, offering words of encouragement whenever possible and reminding friends and family members to be gentle with themselves right now. In other words, I’ve gone out of my way to be kinder than usual to everyone…except myself. 

Like many/most writers, I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic. We need to be, or we’d never get all those books written. Not when it’s so easy to procrastinate with virtuous-seeming tasks like research, world-building, office reorganization, promotion (and everything that goes with it), financial spreadsheets…the list is endless. And that’s completely apart from all the regular Life stuff, which in my case has involved three moves in less than two years. 

Since leaving traditional publishing and taking control of all aspects of my writing biz a few years back, I can honestly say I’ve never worked for a more slave-driving bi**h of a boss in my life. She makes me work through breakfast, lunch, in the evenings after dinner, and on weekends. (Shoot, I’m typing this during what’s supposed to be happy hour, though I do at least have a glass of wine within reach.) 

If anything, I’ve been harder on myself than ever in recent months.

Since early Spring, I’ve been promising my readers a Summer 2020 release of my next Starstruck book. This book took a lot longer to write than usual, because it’s been so difficult to focus and sink into my story world with the stress of this new reality. I kept plugging away, though, and I was finally able to announce in my June newsletter that I’d finished the first draft.  

I took one week “off” (hah!) by doing my taxes, then dove into revisions, still envisioning that Summer 2020 release date.

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the book needed a lot more work than I’d realized when I typed “The End.” Among other things, I apparently left out most of the conflict necessary for an engaging story. An author friend with a similar issue theorized that we’re avoiding conflict in our writing because there’s so much of it in the outside world  right now, between the ongoing pandemic and the increasingly frenetic news cycle. Um, yeah.

I’m currently fixing that and other problems and the book is getting better and better, much to my relief! But it’s a slow, slow process. Because I hate to miss deadlines, even self-imposed ones, I’ve been pushing myself harder and working longer and longer hours trying to make that Summer release happen. Yet here it is late July, and I just spent the last three days rewriting—and rewriting—chapter 12 (out of 27).

Kind to myself? Not so much.

After what amounted to an intervention by family members, I hope to change that. In the July newsletter I just sent out (today), I let my readers know I’m reluctantly pushing back the release date for the book—and why. It was that or risk damaging my health, marriage and sanity, or all three. I hope my readers will forgive me.

Going forward, I plan to build more downtime into my schedule. Here’s hoping I can remember how to relax and actually enjoy life, for at least a few hours a day. 

If by chance you’ve also been beating yourself up over how little you’re accomplishing right now, please stop! While we navigate our way through the sometimes overwhelming challenges of this time, we all need to be extra kind and gentle to ourselves, as well as to others.

Take a break. Read a book. Binge-watch a show or series. Listen to music. Make cupcakes. Do something nice for yourself.

Eventually we will get to a new normal, but until then simply surviving each day as it comes is a triumph. Celebrate that.

Peace and love to you all.

Brenda Hiatt now hopes to release Convergent, the next book in her Starstruck series, in Fall 2020.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Writing During Covid-19 by Christine Gunderson

Writing, or not writing during Covid-19 is our topic this month and it’s a good one. I’m wondering how other writers are doing during this time, because to be honest, I’m struggling.
At first everything was fine. I liked not having to drop three different kids in four different places at five different times. I liked the fact that my husband was home instead of travelling. There was more sleep and less yelling in our house, and the constant pressure to be somewhere at a certain time was gone. At first it was like a forty-pound sack of potatoes fell from my shoulders and I was free, even though I was confined to my house.
That was back in April. What I feel now, all these months later, is a sense of loss. Last year at this time I was in New York city as a finalist in the Golden Heart contest. I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with fellow blogger Mary Strand, one of the most hysterically funny people on the planet, at the Day of YA. I went to workshops and met with my agent. I was with hundreds of other writers, the only people who really understand the ups and downs of the writing life, the disappointments and the pleasure of putting words on paper. 
That’s all gone now.
Covid-19 has shown me that although writing is a solitary endeavor, I need a writing community to keep me motivated. Unfortunately, community is another casualty of the pandemic, so I have to find ways to re-create it. Some writers from my Golden Heart class are starting a Zoom accountability group, where I’ll be forced to make goals and speak them out loud to other people. It will also give me a reason to connect with other writers on a regular basis. It’s not the same as going to conferences, but it’s better than trying to do this alone.
The pandemic has also created practical problems, like less writing time. This is the first blog I’ve posted in months because I am interrupted. All. The. Time. 
While attempting to proofread this I was interrupted to look at a loose tooth, to find a missing Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, and to mediate the fight over the missing Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. My train of thought has been de-railed so many times that my ideas have abandoned the platform and are now looking for a new form of transportation.
There are emotional problems, too. I’m lucky, because most people in my area wear masks. But some don’t, and this fills me with flashes of big, ugly, unusual-for-me-rage. 
When I go to the grocery store and see a person without a mask, I grind my teeth, bite my tongue and hold my breath all at the same time.  I have fantasies about a dystopia where the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers can live together in clueless harmony on a different planet, while the responsible people of the world work together to stop the spread so we can all leave our houses again. But I don’t want to walk through the world angry at other humans. I want my heart and mind to be clear, so I can write. But most days, it isn’t.
So, these are my challenges. Time. Community. Anger.
There’s one bright spot however, and that’s the writing itself, the actual act of sitting at my desk and putting words on the page.
I try to get up at 5 a.m. so I can write before my house wakes up. Those two or three hours alone at my laptop are the best part of my day. If I can do that as much as possible, and not beat myself up when I don’t, I might get through this with something resembling sanity and a new manuscript. Because at the end of the day, writing has always been and continues to be an escape for me, as it is for most writers. 
And maybe that’s our purpose. Maybe our gift was endowed for times such as these—to craft an escape hatch for others when reality is way too real.  
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter 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. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Change the refrain by Patty Blount

Like most of my writer colleagues, writing in the middle of a pandemic has been nearly impossible for me.

Nothing matters.

It feels so pointless right now. I can't concentrate, can't find my flow, can't find the spark that so often fuels my writing process. I keep trying but it's simply not there.

And I'm not alone, as others have written in their posts to this blog. In fact, it appears that a lack of creativity for artists is almost as pandemic as the pandemic.

A friend of mine once gave me a gratitude journal. The premise is simple. Fill each page with 3 things you're grateful for each day.

I grabbed a pen and ....nothing happened. I couldn't think of anything to be grateful for. I mean, sure, I'm grateful for my family but the journal also had space for WHY. Why specifically am I grateful?

That took some effort.

The human brain is wired for negativity. It's part of our fight-or-flight response. We can instantly spot things to be afraid of, to run away from, to hate, to fear. Just stating the things I'm grateful for fell flat and felt empty of any meaning.

So, how do you identify the WHY for all the things you're grateful to have? Spotting those takes some practice. I had to dig deep. It took me several days -- weeks in fact, to be able to change the refrain in my mind. Instead of saying, "Well, of course, I'm grateful for my family. Isn't everybody? I have children who love me, a husband who works super hard for us.... blah blah blah..."

I changed the refrain so it wasn't forced, wasn't a greeting card commercial, wasn't an expectation or a demand, but a genuine, from-the-heart, affirmation. Specifically, I used a post another friend put in a Facebook group that began with the words I GET TO.

  • I get to hang out with my son who likes to spend time with me and actively seeks me out to share games and books, invites me to join him with his friends, and plans activities like these so we can spend even more time together. (Not just, "I'm grateful for my son.")
  • I get to text and Facetime with my son who lives out of state and help him plan special events for his girlfriend because he values my opinions and wants to make these events fun for the young lady he adores. (Not just, "I'm grateful for my son.")
  • I get to watch my sons make decisions that will impact their lives. (Not just, "I'm grateful my sons are good people.")
  • I get to fuel my body with the foods it needs to manage inflammation and pain so I can function with fewer meds and less pain.  (Not just, "I'm grateful for my health.") 
  • I get to go to work each day in exchange for benefits and a paycheck where I engage with people I respect and learn from. (Not just, "I'm grateful I still have a job.")
  • I get to be / stay married to a man who works his butt off to provide us with the life we enjoy, who loves me as I am, and can be trusted with my heart. 
I started using the I GET TO refrain with my writing. It's no longer, "I have to write a thousand words" or "I have to revise an entire chapter." 

Instead, it's "I get to create a whole new scene today." Or perhaps more to the point: 

"I get to sink into a world of my own creation where COVID19 does not exist nor have any impact." 
"For the next hour, I get to hang out with people who exist only in my own mind where there is no chance I will be infected." 

Just using the words, I GET TO helps formulate the statement that follows as an affirmation of gratitude. 

If you're feeling completely empty, creatively-speaking, how can changing your refrain help you? Tell me in the comments. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Coronavirus, Writing, and Uncertainty (Holly Schindler)

Like Alissa, I'm wrapping a series this year--my Ruby's Place Christmas series, to be exact. I've been publishing installments since 2017.

I'm also finding great comfort in having a self-imposed deadline. I already set the goal to put that last book up, and I'm determined to do so. I've got the cover designed, and am in the midst of revising and formatting the e-book and paperback. As soon as it's up, I also need to update the previous installments, including buy links and information on the series as a whole.

Some of it is the juicy nitty gritty of writing, which we all love. I just don't feel like me if I'm not writing. Some of it's busywork--as so much of self-publishing is. But right now, the busywork feels pretty fantastic too. It offers me a chance to make much smaller goals than writing a novel. Goals I can easily accomplish and quickly check off a to-do list. I'm making strides, one foot in front of the other.

Those smaller jobs give me a little slice of certainty during the most uncertain time in my life. There are so many questions: How long will the pandemic last? How quickly will it spread through my community? What activities are truly safe? Even should I let strangers pet my dog on our walks? There are no answers. There's nowhere to go get answers.

But at least I can answer the question of how I'm going to fill my days.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with putting writing aside during this time, either. There's plenty to accomplish elsewhere: gardening, bettering cooking skills, reading, letter writing, home repair projects. The list goes on and on. My grandmother used to say when she got to worrying too much, she knew it was time to scrub the kitchen floor. I think about that often during this time. A goal, a daily task, a way to get busy--it's helped more than I can say these past few months.

Stay safe and healthy--

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Writing a Book Series During a Pandemic (Alissa Grosso)

Although I'm self-employed (alas, I don't make anything approaching a full-time income from my books) like everyone else the Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact on my employment and income. For awhile there, I dreaded waking up in the morning because I knew there would be news of one more of my income streams suddenly getting shut off. In fact, if Zazzle hadn't gotten into the face mask game, I probably wouldn't have had any money at all coming in.

But the one upshot of the whole pandemic thing is that, it did give me some more time to focus on my writing and books, and that's good because long before I had ever heard of something called Coronavirus I had plans to publish my first ever book series in 2020.

Shout out to Staples that managed to supply me with all sorts of paper, both paper for printing out hard copies of my books, and a case of toilet paper that should last until I write my NEXT book series!

Before the pandemic got underway here, I was getting pretty close to finishing up the first draft of the last book in my series. As it would turn out when I took another look at it, that first draft was in pretty sad shape and needed some extensive rewriting. So, when I wasn't spending all my time trying desperately to secure a pick-up slot to get groceries or find places that still had basic essentials in stock, I was able to get that rewrite done.

And as the country (prematurely as it turned out) began to reopen, I stayed home and worked on revising and editing the four books in my series. Which is pretty much where I'm at right now. I would say I'm somewhere in the middle of the revising and editing process. By summer's end the books will be ready to go off to a professional editor, and maybe, just maybe if 2020 doesn't throw another curve ball our way, I'll get at least the first book in the series published before the year's end.

The great thing about staying home and editing my books is I don't need a face mask, but if you are headed out of the house make sure you wear yours!

Having a project and a goal has helped me to stay sane during these crazy times. It turns out that when a pandemic hits, some of us do jigsaw puzzles, some of us make sourdough bread and some of us write books.

Alissa Grosso is the author of 6 published novels for teens and adults and she's hard at work on 4 more while she eagerly waits for the world to return to normal. Find out more about her at

Monday, July 13, 2020

Writing During the Pandemic (Jodi Moore)

This post is hard for me to write. Heck, everything lately has been hard to write. Which is, well, weird.

From the time I can remember, I’ve always found solace in the written word, whether it be reading a story written by another or creating my own. Stories helped me make sense of the world. They were my safe place. My literal and literary shelter from the storm. And the door was always wide open and welcoming, like a soft, reassuring hug.

Until now.

Sure, I tried opening the door. I opened files to write, but the words wouldn’t come.  It’s okay, I tried to convince myself. You just need to fill up the well. So, I reached for a book. Then another. Then another. I read the words, but nothing resonated. I couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t connect. Not even with my old favorites. The words fell to the floor like forgotten confetti from a party long abandoned.

Music seemed to help, but only while it actively played. As the sound wound down, so did the effect.

Somewhere, somehow, the door had become locked from the other side. Maybe my heart was trying to protect itself from the chaos outside. Maybe it had grown weary from reading so much depressing news. Maybe it had broken once too many times and had forgotten how to piece itself back together.

In the midst of a pandemic, when people should be working toward a common goal – toward a common good – the world felt crueler than ever.

Then I remembered something else I’d buried a long time ago. When I was a child, I loved picture books not only for the words, but for the illustrations. I wanted to be an, as a child, I was an artist – untethered by expectation, rules or critique.

Somewhere along the lines, however, someone told me I wasn’t good enough. They ridiculed my sketches. Laughed at my attempts. And even though I designed the insignia for my elementary school in sixth grade, I soon found myself comparing my work to others’. Doubt seeped in, drowning any small amount of self-confidence I had. That ‘someone’s’ voice became my own, echoing inside my head.

I locked the dream away.

I don’t know if my heart stumbled upon that old dream because they’d bolted themselves into the same room or whether it had been screaming for recognition the whole time. But I’m grateful, because somehow, when I tried to connect to my creativity once again, I found a tiny note that had been slipped through the keyhole.

Art, it said.

My brain snorted. All the festivals, theaters and museums are closed.

No. ART, my heart whispered.

Art. I let the word sit, savoring it for a moment and I felt my heart twitch. Art? Like a verb...?

Yes, it said.

A few memories bubbled up about how much I used to draw. How even after I stopped drawing for others, I still used to draw for myself. How it calmed me. How it helped me make sense of the world.

When had I stopped?

It doesn’t matter. Start, my heart said. Art again...

That’s when I realized my heart hadn’t locked itself away. It was me who’d done so. I was the one who bolted that door. But as my heart demanded, it was time to open up again. Time to reconnect. Time to art.

So, I did some research and signed up for a drawing class through Storyteller Academy.

Now, this may sound dramatic, but it’s true. I believe – no, I know – this class saved me the past nine weeks. It reconnected me to my very soul. There are days I’ve spent 10+ hours drawing – no lie – only realizing the passage of time as the room grew dark. I’ve developed new characters for my stories and fleshed out ones that already existed. I’ve been able to read again. I’ve been able to me again.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening. Little by little. My own personal reawakening.

It was no surprise to me that creativity needs to be fed. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes there are extra mouths in the nest that have been too long ignored.

What needs to be fed to spark your creativity?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

First Draft Fear by Kimberly Sabatini

This month on the blog, we're talking about FEAR. And while I often appreciate a nice broad topic, at the moment, this one feels a little unmanageable because of politics, pandemics and other planetary problems looming so large. Just thinking about all of it can make me feel like this...

So for my own mental health, I'll be narrowing things down a bit and talking about fear of first drafts. Although, you should be warned. 
Writing a first draft can, also make a person feel like this...


BUT since I recently finished a draft that has been frightening me for too long, I'm currently feeling pretty darn brave!!!!
 And I'm here to remind you...

THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF--until you have to do another first draft!

Just kidding.

Sort of.

*looks over shoulder*

The truth is we all have our own process or lack of process for getting that first version of a story out of our brains and onto paper--where we can revise in order to make it consumable for readers. And it's a sigh of relief when I get to the revision part of the process. I LOVE that part. But regardless of which part of the book creating process is your favorite and which part makes you feel like this...

We still have to do ALL of them--even the ones we fear.

 I can tell you how I fight the fear. (And I'm going to) But what you should know is...what works for me, might not work for you. 

But even if everything I do doesn't resonate with you, you still might be a collector of different bits of advice and methodologies. Over time these bits of scavenged material can become the building blocks for your own way of doing things. Think of it as the difference between getting a brand new box of Legos (where you have to follow the directions very specifically to get the desired end product) and the opportunity to go diving into the big bucket of mixed-up, multicolored Legos--pieces from all kinds of sets. 

I believe writing advice is usually best studied by looking at the full and detailed packages (like the new box of Legos), but individual process development is best discovered by pulling from the miscellaneous pile (of Legos or writing advice) to create your your own way of building something.

Here are the building blocks that help me to have less fear about writing a first draft. Where possible I'm also pointing you in the direction of the book or class where I dug out the bricks that work the best for me.

*I use the SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody to create a 15 point outline for my story idea. I've explored many structures and seen many examples of how to use them. This one fits me the best.

*I use  STORY GENIUS: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before you Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron. I use this method of writing useful and effective back story. It's also really helpful for me to understand what is driving me to write that particular story and how that might relate to themes.

*This might seem strange, but I've learned to follow the universe's humorous displays of coincidence. I can't tell you how many times I've followed up on the urge to read or explore something completely unrelated to my manuscript--only to unexpectedly find the solution to my problems. I've become sensitive to things that cross my path when I'm searching for my story. The universe likes to sprinkle the answers right in front of me. I just have to pay attention.

*I've learned I can only write forward until I can't. I now recognize that my deceleration can usually be attributed to two things...

                             -I've taken a wrong turn and my subconscious knows it. And I have to fix it to know how to move forward.


                             -I've lost track of what I've written and need to reread what I have to reboot my brain.

*It's really helpful to get comfortable writing your first draft in broader strokes. (Full disclosure: This is still a work in progress. I know it works when I do it--but I have to force myself to do it more because old habits are hard to break.) It's so much easier to move story components around, for the benefit of the book and reader, when I have not fallen blindly in love with my own prose. If I expend less detail building the skeleton of the story I am not so resistant to moving the bones to make the BEST story. NOTE: the more time you spend inserting detail when you should be doing broader strokes, the harder it is to move or remove what is not pushing your story forward. If a moment of brilliant and witty dialogue comes to you--by all means--don't pass it by. But working a first chapter to death when you don't have the last done (which always changes the first chapter) is a time suck I DO ALL THE TIME. *slaps hand*

*I've started thinking of the brainstorming/outlining/broad strokes version of my work as my first draft, whether it's notes, bullet points or something that feels more like a synopsis. The first draft is a mental hurdle that makes me feel like this...

If I can KNOW my story from beginning to end at a much earlier leg in the writing relay, I can trick myself into being less afraid of the same challenging work. It's not the effort of writing the manuscript that is intimidating, it's the translation of the story in my head to the story on the page. I

f I can give myself scaffolding that can carry me consistently upward from the beginning--like this...

I do better.

On the other hand, when I don't take the time to build structure and support from the beginning, I find myself spending lots of time at the start, jumping up and down, trying to figure out how to get to the first landing. (Where I can do the thing I love--Revise.) 

*Despite all this planning, I also know to not OVER PLAN the details of my story. I still want to have the joy of being surprised by my writing and my characters. I've learned what I need that element of discovery in order to have a good book journey. 

It's about balance.

I CAN'T be the writer who gets a wild hair, hops in her car and drives across the country on a whim-- without planning anything. But I also AM NOT the writer who sits down and plans the location of every meal and rest stop along the way. 

But I AM the kind of writer who needs to know the route I'll be taking so I can have a hotel reserved in my name when I arrive at my new location. And if there's hard to get tickets for a special event--I want those locked in, too. But I can find a restaurant when I get there. I can wander a little once I arrive and the locals give me some recommendations.

It's about balance. 

For road trips and for first drafts, I need sign posts and reservations for the important stuff--to guide my way.

*And I continue to take classes and read books on crafts so I can continue to fine-tune my process and grow as a writer. Some of my newest resources...

                      -Maggie Stiefvater's online class, available on ETSY--Writing With Maggie Stiefvater

                       -Anything by Donald Maass, but I'm currently working through his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK.

Phew! That was a lot of stuff. Are you still with me?

Good--so let me recap why these things work so well for me.

The simple answer is because I tested them out and they *ahem* work for me. 
The more nuanced answer is...

Because too many unknowns make me afraid and I don't do my best work.

Because spending months and years to find I've gone down a dead end is frightening and demoralizing.

Because drafting feels more like revising when I institute these "hacks," making the process more enjoyable to me.

Because what often feels obvious and intuitive isn't. And what often feel cumbersome and unhelpful is just unpracticed.

And because I hate looking like this...

I hope you've found my process and recommendations helpful. And I hope, in this time of overwhelming fear, something here sparks your writing process, making writing a safe place for you to spend time, when the world feels like it's too much to bear. 

Feel free to explore and steal what has already been explored and stolen by me. Writers are the world's biggest thieves. And knowing that--I'd love you to allow me to explore and steal from you. Don't be afraid to share your best advice and resources in the comments--I'd love it!

Monday, July 6, 2020

Writing — Or Not — in the Time of COVID (Mary Strand)

This month our YA Outside the Lines group first discussed blogging about HOW to write in these seemingly never-ending days of COVID-19 ... but then someone mentioned that she HADN’T been able to write, period, and wondered if anyone had any advice.

Others, similarly afflicted, chimed in.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me what I’m writing these days, then didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t believe me when I said I can’t write right now. Like, at all.

“Of course you can. Why not?” I explained that I’m supposed to be working on revisions, and revisions (unlike first drafts, which I could probably write while half asleep or drunk, although I’ve never tried it) require pristine working conditions: dead silence, 100% intense focus for extended periods, and basically having it all together.

My incredulous interrogator (also known as “the muggle”) then said, “Okay, so just write a first draft of something new.”

Suuuuuure. When the revisions I need to do are to book 1 of a planned six-book series, and I need to then revise books 2 and 3 (UGH!), and I was halfway done with the first draft of book 4 when the editor’s comments on book 1 arrived, but — tra la la — I should just drop the whole thing and write something new.

About what? Believe me: my well is as dry as the Sahara dust cloud blowing our way.

The songs I’ve written in the last few months — because I CAN still write songs these days, thank God — have already brought to the surface an extremely dark side to my humor, and I’m not known for dark humor. At least, not publicly. Plus, I no longer have live music (listening to it OR playing it, except alone) to inspire and soothe me. Plus, I can’t bear to read anything right now unless I’ve already read it or unless the (happy) ending is a sure thing. Plus, I can’t travel anywhere, so there goes both inspiration and the calm that comes from physically escaping from the here and now.

Writing isn’t like churning out widgets on an assembly line. People who don’t live a creative life (muggles, muggles, muggles) often don’t understand that. Yes, some writers can write during a pandemic, or hurricane, or the death of someone close to them. I’ve been on both sides of that coin: when my brother Patrick died in January 2007, I stopped writing altogether for four months. Four months after his death, my sister Sheila died (yeah, not a good year) ... and I started writing again the next day. Totally illogical, and I was a logic tutor in college. 

So, ultimately, I don’t have an answer for the muggles who insist on asking why I can’t write these days. More importantly, I don’t have an answer for myself. So I read as much as I can, and take long walks in which plots no longer bubble in my head, and I wait for my creative life to come back.

All I can do right now is hope that it does.

By the way, WEAR A MASK. Think of it like a seatbelt — no biggie, right? — and do it for yourself and everyone you care about. As my daughter (and my YA characters) might say, it’s not that deep.

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

Monday, June 29, 2020

Emily Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (Brian Katcher)

So what's the scariest book you've ever read? Turn of the Screw? Call of Cthulhu? The Shining? All frightening tales, of course. But it was not until the quarantine that I stumbled across a true tale of terror: Emily Post's Guide to Etiquette (1934), which I'd picked up at a book sale for four bucks. Oh, the horrors within. Apparently I've been using the wrong forks, the wrong stationary, and the wrong footmen for years. But nothing will prepare you for the gut-wrenching terror of the subsection THE DINNER PARTY THAT JUST DIDN'T GO VERY WELL.

I have include a youtube video of me giving a dramatic reading of this horrific story. I must warn away anyone of a nervous disposition. This tale of a young wife giving her first dinner party is not for the faint of heart. Spoiler alert: THE SOUP WAS OFF-COLOR!

You have been warned.

No, I haven't gone quarantine crazy.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Heroes Wear Masks by Dean Gloster

            I have a complicated relationship with fear. Before I learned the truth, I used to think I was brave. In my twenties, I did stand-up comedy. In my 40s, I took up downhill ski racing. In my 50s I took up Aikido. After 30 good years at it, I gave up a successful career as a lawyer to go back to school and start over, and now I write novels for young adults.

Some of these activities require even more bravery
if you do them with my personal high-enthusiasm-to-skill ratio.

            But it turns out—sadly—none of that was actually bravery. I have some PTSD from a complicated childhood that I wrote about here, and my PTSD manifests through what’s called a counter-phobic mechanism: I don’t like feeling afraid or vulnerable, so—paradoxically—I move toward scary or dangerous things, in order to not stew in that discomfort:

And I’m drawn to things that involve a practice of mastering fear, because the feeling—fear, vulnerability—seems more important for me to vanquish than the risk of physical injury itself. I’m literally more afraid of being afraid than I am of getting hurt.

I spent most of my life not knowing about this stuff, but in therapy I’ve figured out some of it, and I’m working on some of the rest. In my latest YA novel-in-progress, Just Deal, my teen protagonist has a traumatic background and the same kind of counter-phobic mechanism I do, but (like me at his age) doesn’t know it. That makes the book fun to write, because I have a sense, as he wrestles with his stuff, that in the process I’m also wrestling with some of mine.

So you’d think I’d have just a teensy more sympathy for the people who, even in a deadly pandemic, won’t wear a mask.

(*Sigh*.) No.

The most common way the Covid-19 virus is transmitted between people is by droplets sprayed when we sneeze, cough or—especially, because it’s more common—speak. When we speak, we spray 2600 tiny droplets per second.

Here’s the captured droplet pattern from the “th” sound when you say, “Stay healthy”

Two studies have now found that about 40% of the people infected by Covid-19 are asymptomatic, but still transmit as much virus as those with severe symptoms. Even if you don’t have a fever or dry cough, you may kill people if you go out without a mask.

There’s a simple solution to our current pandemic: If almost everyone wears mask in public, the transmission rate of Covid-19 drops sharply, and each case results in fewer than one new case. When that happens, the epidemic dies out. It already has in places like New Zealand and Iceland.

It could also help some of us branch out from novel-writing to freelance stage coach robbery

And the coronavirus dies out without more extreme—and less-effective—measure that hurt the economy. In Japan, where there’s a tradition of widespread mask wearing, their incidence of Covid-19 is less than 1/50th of ours, per population—even though they haven’t shut Tokyo subways or even closed karaoke bars.

As a whole, the U.S. has done terribly in this pandemic—with 4.4% of the world’s population, we have 26% of the Covid-19 cases, and our infection rates are getting worse, unlike other first world countries.

In U.S. states where masks have been required, however, Covid-19 cases are down 25%. In states where no masks are required, Covid-19 cases are up 84%.

In the hard-hit Northeast, where mask and stay at home measures were introduced—and are being widely followed now—deaths and new infections are down, as they are in Europe. But the U.S. South, with the effort to “reopen” early and only limited mask use, cases are spiking, looking more like Brazil.

 The messaging around masks has been confusing—initially, the CDC didn’t recommend masks for the public because there weren’t enough masks for critically-needed health care workers. But the science is clear. Masks prevent transmission. Masks save lives.

There are several reasons, however, many people in the U.S. still don’t wear masks.

First, at least until you get used to wearing them, masks are a mild hassle—new, different, and your glasses fog up. As those of us who write fiction know, change is hard for people—that’s why such terrible things happen to protagonists: It takes a lot to make us change. But we’re there—in the U.S. this pandemic has already killed more than we lost in all of WWI. Wear a mask.

Second, masks remind us there is a deadly pandemic. That’s scary and emotionally difficult. They remind us about danger and mortality, and our culture is especially terrible at thinking about death. But the one thing we should have learned by now from Trump’s White House is that just pretending the pandemic will go away is the worst, deadliest response. Plan to wear a mask instead.

Third, there are the folks who think selfishness and entitlement are virtues enshrined in our Constitution, so they can’t be required to do something for the public good. (“FreeDUMB!”) Yes, there’s a First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, but it doesn’t mean you can stumble into Safeway during a pandemic without a mask, any more than the Second Amendment allows you to fire rifles into crowded apartments. That’s compounded, especially among some insecure men, by the need not to appear “weak” by visibly acknowledging the pandemic. You know it’s bad when even Dick freaking Cheney—in between shooting lawyers in the face—pauses to put on a cowboy hat and a mask for his daughter tweet out with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks:

(In fairness, I was always going to wear a mask around Dick Cheney.
I didn’t want him to recognize me as a former lawyer and shoot me in the face.)

Finally and unfortunately, mask wearing has been politicized by many Republicans. Our alleged President has downplayed the extent of the crisis—and his failure to respond to it—and much of his party followed that lead. Trump doesn’t wear a mask in public even when legally required, and he has encouraged his followers not to wear masks, which he claimed this month were used “to signal disapproval” of him.

Today the Texas GOP announced they’re going ahead with their 6,000-person state convention next month in Covid-19 hotspot Houston and will not require masks. Thursday night, Republicans in the North Carolina GOP legislature revived a statute criminalizing wearing masks in public, effective August 1.

A crisis like this is a test of culture, a test the U.S. may fail. We have a less inclusive, and more employer-dependent, health care system than many other countries, and less of a safety net. Making that worse, this week the Trump administration filed a brief seeking to terminate the Affordable Care Act, under which 20 million of us Americans get their health insurance—including those like me, who no longer have an employer. And we have a cult of selfish entitlement that makes it harder for us all to follow guidelines to help others.

Wearing masks only works if most of us do it.

Some of the people we love are—because of pre-existing conditions—puddles of gasoline in this pandemic, and those of you who don’t wear masks are juggling flaming torches around them.

            But people aren’t persuaded by facts, they’re persuaded by stories, so I’ll tell you one. There’s an E.R. doc, Tanya, the first member of her family to go to college, let alone medical school. She has $220,000 of student debt her parents have personally guaranteed, although without her income, they’ll never be able to pay it.

If you go without a mask, the guy you infect will end up in Tanya’s hospital, and if she has to do an emergency intubation to keep him alive, she will.

And when she dies of Covid-19 three weeks later, after her parents bury her, they’ll have to pay that $220,000 back.

Because this is America.

Wear a mask, please.

I get that we’re afraid, that we’re uncomfortable, but we have to do better. For each other. The world needs us to behave as grownups, regardless of our stuff. The world needs us to behave as decent humans.

Wear a mask.

Unless you do, I’m afraid a lot of us won’t make it.

Heroes wear masks.

Be a hero. Wear a mask.

            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 from Merit Press/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.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul. You know: stuff happens. 

When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing--and, let's face it, there's not as much of that going on right now--he’s on Twitter: @deangloster