Writing Gratitude Countdown (2) The Gift of Permission

A stone face with a water spout mouth. Pink flowers behind.
Give yourself permission to spout off. Get writing! Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the second post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s my way of re-discovering the richness of the creative life. You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.

2. The Gift of Permission: the value of allowing yourself to create

Giving yourself permission to write is a way to counteract the doubts that come when we face a blank page:

Is it good? Am I a writer? Should I write more? Have I got a story here?

Permission is a cycle. It starts and ends with you, the writer, and in the middle are all kinds of readers.

a. You: Giving yourself permission to take time to learn, create, and revise.

The people who helped me most with permission are the ones closest to me. My husband takes on childcare so I can go to writing conferences or local writing groups. My children patiently traipse through research museums with me, take photos of settings, listen to garbled explanations, and put up with slapdash meals because the creativity was all used up by the time we got to food.

When other people make sacrifices for your dream, it’s the most tangible kind of permission there is. Thank you darling family!

b. Readers: Friends who read books agree that what you’ve written sounds like a “real” story.

At the beginning of the writing life, it’s hard to find other writers. The closest you can come are people who read a lot of books. They have taste and experience.

Sometimes the most encouraging people won’t be your “target audience” that is, they don’t read the kinds of books you’re trying to write. Don’t forget to value them.

Our dear neighbor Rebecca told me once that she didn’t like novels because she didn’t enjoy reading about the conflict between good and evil. But because she was a reader and valued books of all kinds, she still encouraged me to write. I still miss her.

Other friends have promised me that they will read or buy my book when it comes out even though their personal and professional interests are in totally different areas. It’s a special vote of confidence.

Librarians and teachers are a special category of experienced readers. I hope you have many special ones in your writing life!

c. Writers: Other people who write make it all seem normal.

My husband’s cousin is a talented furniture maker. He knows all kinds of people who makes things with their hands. (He put in our kitchen–Thanks, Matthias! We enjoy it!)

I’ve been writing for a while and I have so many writer friends I can’t list you all! It’s natural and wonderful. Thank you writer friends!

It’s fun to “talk shop” when you’re learning a new skill. Comparing tools, asking for opinions, and practicing getting the words down together can be a blast. An afternoon of writing prompts at a local coffee-shop, a day-long local workshop, or book festival can re-charge the writer batteries.

Watch your local newspaper and library bulletin boards to see what writers in your neighborhood are up to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re still looking for your own set of writers, you might enjoy: Six Tips to Find Your Online Writing Community and my round-up of middle grade writing communities: Writers Working Together: 8 Things We Can Do Better Together.

(More about my current critique partners is coming in a later post, so stay tuned!)

d. Authors: Published writers (or any writers ahead of us on the path) share insight into the whole writing and publishing path. Secret handshakes are also a kind of permission.

It’s always an honor when someone who does something well treats your early attempts with respect. Susan Gilbert-Collins is a published novelist (Starting from Scratch) and much more experienced writer than I am. I’m so very grateful for her generosity. She read my “trunk novel” graciously and I’ve lost count of the number of times she has read and praised my middle grade work-in-progress. Thanks a million, Susan! I’m looking forward to your next novel!!

Tracy Barrett is the author of 22 books, including Anna of Byzantium. and a brand-new The Song of Orpheus: the Greatest Greek Myths You’ve Never Heard. She’s also an active and generous member of SCBWI. (If you write children’s books and want to find like-minded people, visit the SCBWI website and extensive discussion forums.) Tracy gave me a personal critique at an SCBWI Germany & Austria workshop and I’m still referring to her notes. Thanks, Tracy!

PitchWars is a classic example of authors giving back to the writing community. Author mentors coach mentees through an extensive 3-month revision and then help them connect to a stunning list of literary agents. The generous Brenda Drake (Thief of Lies) has been organizing this amazing growth opportunity for writers since 2012. Thank you Brenda Drake!

Author Michelle Hauck (Grudging) runs several contests, including the New Agent Contest. I won the chance for a mentor to get my query and first 250 words in good shape. My mentor was the wickedly smart and amazingly tactful author, Wade Albert White (The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes). Thanks Michelle Hauck! Thanks Wade White!

e. Agents and Editors: People who can assess writing for its qualities and marketability.

The first time a real live agent or editor seriously listens to your pitch or reads your query while you’re sitting there is amazing. I’ll never forget watching the classy Meredith Bernstein consider my written pitch at a conference years ago or her hand-written comment on my manuscript: “You deserve time and attention.” Now maybe she writes that on other people’s manuscripts–I have no idea. She gave me written permission to write and to persevere. Thank you Meredith Bernstein!

f. Reviewers: People who assess published work for its qualities and marketability.

Here we’re back to experienced readers. I don’t have any reviewers (Yet ;)) but I review books I enjoy and try to nudge them towards friends who’ll also enjoy them.

g. Readers: People who want to read the next thing we write.

Seth Godin coined the term permission marketing and explains it better than I can. People who voluntarily give their e-mail addresses in exchange for finding out when your next book is coming out give you the ultimate permission.

They want to read things you haven’t even written yet. They are inviting you to write something new. Thank you so much to all my e-mail subscribers! It’s an honor to have each and every one of you!

h. You: Giving yourself permission to try something new.

And that brings you back to the blank page where you need to give yourself permission all over again.

Happy writing!

So that’s my second installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.) More to come! If you’d like to share about people who gave you permission to write, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!

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Round-up: Self-publishing and Children’s Books

Steel automat vending machine with tiny windows and coin slot. It says "Stockings" across the top, in German.
“Strümpfe.” An old vending machine for stockings is conveniently located right on the street in Altenahr, Germany. Stockings (and books) are sold differently these days. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Self-publishing gurus abound these days, but many of them don’t mention children’s books. Since it’s worth learning self-publishing skills no matter how we publish, I’ve collected the best resources I can find for children’s authors. If I’ve missed good ones, please feel free to mention them in the comments. Thanks!

  • Does self-publishing children’s books make any sen$e?

U.S. sales and strategies from Daniel Kenney on Amazon’s kboards. “My latest milestone and what I’ve learned about Middle Grade Fiction.” (June 11, 2015) and the follow-up post “6 Weeks, 4,000 Print Books: What I’ve Learned” (December 13, 2015). More details are in his funny and inspiring post on Hugh Howey’s blog. He’s had better success with lower Middle Grade.

Sales in Germany. “Middle Grade Fiction Sales in Germany in 2015” by bilingual German writer and translator, Anja Bauermeister. (January 12, 2016) She’s also on Episode 136 of the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast: “Self-Publishing in the German Market with Anja Bauermeister.”

Sales in the UK. UK author, Karen Inglis reports her sales numbers on her Self-Publishing Adventures blog. Here’s her post on marketing tips. She has lots of tips about formatting e-books in Word if that’s your thing. Scrivener’s done a great job for me creating e-book files, so I don’t do the Word conversion for Smashwords.

Or if it’s not all about the money, read this warm fuzzy story about a picture book published in Sri Lanka“Why I Write and Self-Publish Children’s Books”. I love the cover.

  • Where can I find a simple plan to see what’s involved?

Susan Kaye Quinn’s free e-book Quick-Start Guide to Self-publishing and the blog version of her Indie Author Survival Guide. She’s updating the Guide (3rd edition) on her blog. The first chapter is here. You can get her free e-book, Quick-Start Guide to Self-publishing, at the same link and sign up for her For Love or Money Facebook group.

Both Susan Kaye Quinn and Anja Bauermeister have rocket-science backgrounds. Self-publishing children’s books is an experimental world, so maybe that helps.

  • How can I get involved in a community of self-published children’s book authors?

Sign up for Darcy Pattison’s Indie Kids Book Listserv (Yahoo discussion group) about self-publishing children’s books. The same page links to more posts about self-publishing children’s books and marketing picture books with Pinterest. Or listen to Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast’s Episode 48: Making a Living with Children’s Books with Darcy Pattison (May 22, 2014).

The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has a new moderated discussion forum on self-publishing on their Blueboard. You need to register(free) for the Blueboard or login as an SCBWI member to see the discussion forum.

Have you self-published a children’s book? What challenges did you face? Do you have tips to reach older middle grade readers? Please comment below.

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Writers Working Together Online: 8 Things We Can Do Better Together

House with lit up windows as night falls in winter. Bare trees, green grass, pale blue sky.
12, Rue Cortot, Montmartre, Paris. This house in Montmartre housed a community of Impressionist painters and writers and is now a museum. © Laurel Decher, 2013.

Have you noticed all the different kinds of group writing blogs on the internet? They range from #pitchwars mentors and debut authors with books coming out in the same year to industry gurus.

It’s easy to see the advantages for mutual support. (If you need to brush up, read Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit about the power of creative collaboration.)

  1. Authors target readers. These blogs focus on the world of middle grade books:

From the Mixed-Up Files “In the spring of 2010, a group of nearly thirty authors banded together to form a website and blog like no other in the history of the internet. As writers and readers of middle-grade books, our goal is to bring awareness and enthusiasm and celebration to books for 8-12 year olds, creating a *home* for anyone and everyone who loves books for this Golden Age of Reading.”

Middle Grade Mafia “The mission of the Middle Grade Mafia is to provide a refuge, a klatch, for established and aspiring middle grade authors. The purpose of the site is to share knowledge, inspire each other, and celebrate good news. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, but when you are part of a family, you are never alone.”

Smack Dab in the Middle “a middle grade authors’ blog”

Notes from the Slushpile “a team blog maintained by seven friends who also happen to be children’s authors at different stages of the publishing journey.”

2. Contest collaborators talk behind the scenes. Author mentors, literary agency interns and editors who donated time to PitchWars “behind the scenes” continue their collaboration.

Writing with the Mentors “Tips, tricks, and techniques, from Agented/Published Authors, Interns, and Editors.”

3. Debut authors band together.

The Sweet Sixteens 2016 Young Adult and Middle Grade Debut Authors. I love their “Find an Author Near You” option.

4. Industry experts weigh in.

Writer Unboxed  “about the craft and business of fiction.”

5. Indie publishers show us how its done.

Alli Alliance of Independent Authors blog about self-publishing.

Group blogs on writing are probably only a small part of the internet, but they signal something important. We need each other to navigate this vast virtual sea of interesting stuff. This shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does.

Getting the words down is easier alone. But finding readers, giving critique, releasing books, interpreting the publishing industry, querying, editing, revising, and self-publishing all look a heck of a lot easier in a group.

The Museum of Montmartre is a lovely example of writers and artists working together, but the internet means we need each other more than ever.

What are you still trying to do all on your own? Should you be collaborating with someone?

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The Reverse Backstory Tool Brings Your Characters to Life

Guilded and white marble Roman Emperor with ermine cloak looks lighthearted.
This character is ready to walk right off the building. Statue of L’Empereur Romain on the front of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Reverse Backstory Tool – Becca Puglisi

Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s Reverse Backstory Tool in THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS is the perfect way to jumpstart a new story or re-animate a faded character.

It’s not an eye-color checklist. It’s a way to discover the inside workings of your character that drive your story.

Take ten minutes to see what I mean. (Download it here.)

  1. Fill in:
    • the character’s inner and outer motivations Hint: what the character wants (outer) links to why (inner) he or she wants it. In a middle grade story, maybe Penelope wants to buy school lunch (outer motivation) instead of bringing it from home. She wants to stand in line with her friends instead of sitting alone at a table waiting for them. (inner motivation)
    • the positive trait(s) that will help the character achieve his or her goal. Penelope is CREATIVE and her creative problem-solving will help her reach her goal once she thinks of using her creativity in this way.
    • the negative trait(s) that will get in the way. Penelope can be INATTENTIVE, especially by lunchtime, because there are so many things to think about.
  2. Add the character’s:
    • wound–that painful happening in the past that made them who they are today. Penelope lost her lunch money twice and once a bully took it. Now her parents won’t send her to school with lunch money.
    • lie–that automatic belief that gets in his or her way. The character must overcome this lie to grow into the hero who will triumph. Penelope believes she’s not good with money.
    • Appendix A of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS suggests needs and the lies characters tell about them.
  3. Feel the tension. It sounds hokey, but once you’ve filled this out, your character is fleshed out because you’ve found the inner conflict. Once you have a “want” and a “need” pushing against each other, the character is kicking and struggling to get out of your imagination and into action.
  4. THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS and THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS are fun and inspiring ways to find your raw ingredients. You can also find traits that will lead to built-in conflict in sidekick characters and villains. With characters like these, the story energy keeps building.

Does this sound too cookbook-y to you?

At first I also thought, “Oh, no, if all writers use these tools, we’ll all be writing exactly the same stories.”

Of course that isn’t true. If you’ve ever written from a prompt in a large group, you know 30 writers will come up with 30 totally different stories based on one writing prompt. If you’ve never done it, try it. It’s eye-opening.

Actually, these writerly catalogs free up my writer’s brain and let me riff at a much deeper level. They also make it a lot more fun.

Want another example? Read Becca Puglisi’s post for 7 more ways to use these excellent tools during drafting and revision.

Have you used any of these tools before? How did they work for you?

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6 ways THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET shows its warm and funny heroine

1 Image of handout available as pdf. Link is below image.

Click here to download Six Ways to Reveal Character handout as a pdf with links to Karl Iglesias’ website and to WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT.

I’ve been studying Karl Iglesias’ insightful and practical WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT while reading Nancy J. Cavanaugh‘s funny, charming, and warm THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET for Middle Grade readers.

When I went back over my notes, I realized that THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET uses all six of Karl Iglesias’ ways to reveal character on the page. The strong characterization kept me reading, even though the story has a potentially challenging structure: Ratchet’s handwritten language arts assignments. The story is so well constructed, I stopped noticing the writing assignments.

Note: the handwriting font worked perfectly on my Kobo e-reader and was very easy to read.

  1. NAME AND DESCRIPTION. The main character goes by the nickname of Ratchet. Cavanaugh ties the unusual name to the universal emotion of a father’s love for his daughter. Ratchet got her nickname because of “the way [her] help makes all [her father’s] jobs easier.” She describes her father “like a young Albert Einstein wearing a greasy T-shirt and ripped jeans.”
  2. CONTRAST. Ratchet’s internal conflicts come out in her writing assignments: “And wish/ I didn’t wish for so much/ Because I know Dad/ Tries real hard.” She and her environmental activist father are a classic “odd couple.” She’s longing for shiny new school supplies and clothes and feels like a “fish out of water” in the rec center’s GET CHARMED class.
  3. OTHER CHARACTERS. The boys yell insults based on the current gossip about her father whenever they walk by Ratchet’s house. Her father’s activism affects Ratchet directly. Other characters are affected by Ratchet’s behavior and her willingness to share her mechanical knowledge.
  4. DIALOGUE. Because the book is in journal-format, the whole story is told in Ratchet’s voice. She quotes her father and his attitudes, background, and worldview shine through: “Those idiots would spend their time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They don’t even have the sense to use the brains the Good Lord gave them.'”
  5. ACTIONS, REACTIONS, DECISIONS. Much to Ratchet’s embarrassment, her father wears T-shirts with slogans like: “Is it me or is this place a festival of idiots?” to the city council meetings. As the story progresses, the slogans change. Both Ratchet and her father keep secrets from each other, but I won’t spoil the story by saying what they are. There’s a great incident where Ratchet helps someone the reader really doesn’t think she will help. Both Ratchet and her father are put under pressure in ways that really make their true character visible.
  6. MANNERISMS, SYMBOLS, PROPS. The story is told in Ratchet’s “Homeschool Language Arts Journal” so the book itself is her prop. Then there are the mechanic’s tools and engines that play such an important role in making the story go. And a very important box.

These 6 Ways to Reveal Character are from one tiny section of Karl Inglesias’ WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT. It’s worth reading the whole book, even if you’re a chicken like me and have to skip the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ examples. There are also a few FINDING NEMO examples. Maybe someday he’ll write a new edition including Middle Grade books.

You can probably tell how much I enjoyed reading THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET and how inspired I am by Nancy Cavanaugh‘s craftsmanship. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d love to know.

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

Interior view of castle with people standing in the open gate and sunlight behind them.
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

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