Lessons from Chickens #3

As my husband and I were climbing into bed, we heard screams of sheer terror coming from the chicken coop. The chickens have freaked out at night before, when strong winds blew off their nest box door. At the time, I thought that was the worst sound I’d ever heard. And it was, until now. These screams were different. Primal. There was no question that something was attacking our chickens.

It was a possum. The girls are all okay, other than being terrified. We think the possum was looking for eggs, but he could have injured or killed my hens. Luckily, they called for help.

Lessons from chickens #3: If you need help, ask for it. Whether a possum is in your bed, or you need to brainstorm a writing project, or you are having thoughts of harming yourself. No matter what you need help with, ask. You don’t have to work through problems alone.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

“Sometimes in life, you fall down holes you can’t climb out of by yourself. That’s what friends and family are for-to help. They can’t help, however, unless you let them know you’re down there.”

–Meg Cabot

Openings #1 (MG)

Openings are my favorite part of a story to write. So, occasionally I may share one here. I’d really like to finish Rowena’s story someday, even though it’ll mean subjecting her to the hellscape of junior high.

Three periods into seventh grade, and I’m looking for an escape hatch. A quick glance around the cafeteria tells me there’s no hope. Kids are streaming in one door, waiting for their turn in the slop line. Lunch monitors stand guard at the other door.

I’m trapped.

I have two choices: a) continue to stand here with my tray on my hip, looking like a friendless loser, or b) find a place to sit. When Macey and I were BFFs, this was never a problem. I scan the room until I find her, which takes about a nanosecond. She’s sitting in the middle of the room with her new friends–the popular girls, the pretty girls, with their yardstick legs and flat stomachs. They whisper to each other behind purple fingernails, looking around the cafeteria with narrowed eyes, zeroing in on the zeroes.

The outfit I spent days putting together suddenly feels too bright, too tight, and much too in sight. I start walking, hoping to find a table far away from Macey. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to have had the same idea. All the tables in the back of the lunchroom are full.

I spin in a circle, frantic now. There has to be somewhere to sit. Somewhere I can blend in. I spot Macey again, laughing at something Chandra, her new best friend, has said. They’re looking in my direction.

“Rowena! Sit over here,” Macey calls. Chandra grins and waves me over.

I look around the room for someone to save me, but it’s clear everyone else is happy to feed me to the sharks. If I’m the victim, they won’t be.

Chandra moves over to make room for me, and pats the bench beside her. I sit down and quickly assess the group: Chandra, Paige, and Macey–the Holy Trinity of Junior High, looking as though they walked straight off the pages of Seventeen–and the cutest boy I’ve ever seen. I’m in the shark tank, with no cage to protect me.

Bad Writing Advice

An overwhelmed new writer recently asked me for advice on writing a book. Since “One word at a time, until you reach the end” wasn’t particularly helpful–though 100% true–I thought a few blog posts on the topic may be helpful.

There are countless resources out there, from craft books to websites to podcasts, but there’s also a ton of bad advice floating around. So, we’ll start there.

BAD ADVICE: 

On Writing:

  1. You have to/can’t start with a bang.
  2. You have to/can’t have a prologue.
  3. You have to/can’t write in 1st person, 3rd person, present tense, past tense, etc.
  4. You can not use contractions.
  5. No incomplete sentences.
  6. Never use the word “was.”
  7. Never use the word “that.”
  8. Never use an adverb.
  9. Always show, never tell.
  10. Use unique dialogue tags instead of “said.”
  11. Write what you know (everyone knows only vampires can write about vampires!).
  12. Never work on more than one project at a time.

On Publishing:

  1. Query publishers and agents before writing even one sentence of the book; that way you’ll know if there’s interest. (Yeah, no. Don’t do that.)
  2. You have to have an MFA to get published. (I don’t even know where this idea comes from. The vast majority of writers do not have an MFA. If you want to go to school, go to school. I’m sure MFA programs are useful, but a degree is definitely not a requirement for selling a book–nor is it a guarantee that you’ll ever be traditionally published).
  3. Self-publishing is easier and you’ll make more money. (Most writers who self-publish make no money at all. Some make a great deal of money–but they put in a ton of time and work (and money up front). It’s not easy).
  4. Quit your day job; you’re a writer now! (Absolutely don’t quit your job unless you have another source of income first. Publishing is a slow business and it’s rare to make a living from writing alone, especially in the beginning of your career).
  5. Cold call agents and publishers. (This will never lead to a sale. Ever. Follow the rules like everyone else).
  6. If you’re writing a novel, you shouldn’t be reading books. (Writers read. The good ones do, anyway).
  7. Avoid friendships with other writers; they’re your competition! (No. Just…no. There are enough readers to go around).
  8. Don’t bother editing; that’s the editor’s job. (Good luck selling a book full of lazy errors…).
  9. You have to pay for an editor before querying agents or publishers. (No, you don’t. Critique partners and beta readers can be a great help when self-editing your book. If you want an editor to review your novel–and you have the money for it–there are certainly good freelance editors willing to do the job. But it’s not a requirement).
  10. New writers have to pay to have their books published. (Absolutely not true. Steer clear of publishers or agents who require a fee. See Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum and Writer Beware).

The gist? Write the best book you can, do your research, follow the guidelines.

So, help me out, fellow writers! What would you add?

 

Lessons from Chickens #2

A few years ago, on a gorgeous fall afternoon, I came home to a horrific sight: a yard full of chicken feathers. So. Many. Feathers. I feared the worst: that one–or both–of my chickens had been attacked and killed by a predator. In a panic, I ran around the house to search for my girls. When I found them, they were happily scratching the ground, without a care in the world.

My panic didn’t end, though. Oh, no. One of the hens looked dreadful. Once a beautiful bird with shiny black feathers that shimmered in the sunlight, she was now nearly bald. I sent pictures to a chicken group on Facebook, begging for help in diagnosing the horrific disease that had befallen my cherished chicken. Needless to say, I was mocked mercilessly. I didn’t mind, though, because my chicken was fine. She was merely molting, a totally natural process. Shedding old feathers to make room for new ones.

We now have four hens in our flock. Two of them are currently molting. Black and red feathers are scattered among the fallen autumn leaves. The poor girls look pathetic, like zombie chickens that have clawed their way back from the grave. But I no longer panic at the sight of them. Before long, they’ll have beautiful new feathers, and no one will know how terrible they looked before.

Lessons from Chickens #2:

I struggle with first drafts. It’s hard for me not to edit each scene before writing the next. I want things to be perfect and hate myself when they’re not. I’ve been told countless times to just write the darn thing and clean it up later. Don’t get it right, get it written. You can’t edit a blank page. I’ve heard all the adages, but it was only a few days ago that I really got it. By watching my zombie chickens in the yard.

First drafts are like a molting chicken. Rough. Pathetic. Bald in spots. But the next draft? Okay, so it may still be pretty rough, like a chicken that’s mid-molt. But eventually I’ll reach the stage where my manuscript gleams like a full-feathered chicken–and no one will ever know how rough it was before.

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

 

 

10 Tips for Working with a Critique Group

Critique groups and beta readers are wonderful for growing your craft, whipping your book into shape before submission, and networking with other writers. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Take what makes sense to you–leave the rest. Don’t edit your book to suit someone’s opinion if you don’t share their opinion. It’s YOUR book.
  2. Not all critiques are created equal. For example, the advice of someone who reads widely in your genre may be better than the advice of someone who doesn’t.
  3. Not everyone will like you–or your writing. Taste is subjective. If the criticism is constructive and helpful in some way, fantastic. If not, don’t give it another thought. There are people who think John Green is long-winded, Stephen King is boring, and J.K. Rowling is unimaginative. TLDR: People be crazy.
  4. If you have more than one critique partner, you’ll receive conflicting advice. See #1. However, if more than one person shares the same opinion, listen up! You can still reject their advice if you disagree with it, but don’t disregard it without considering it.
  5. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to see your work torn apart, but even the harshest criticism is rarely intended to hurt you.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Never argue with a critique partner or try to change their opinion, but if something is confusing–or you need suggestions for how to fix the issue–ask.
  7. Choose a group that suits your needs. Maybe you need accountability, and sharing one chapter at a time as it’s written will work best for you. Or perhaps you’re not ready to share your work until the book is finished. Your needs may even require more than one group. I have a critique group for children’s books and another for romance.
  8.  It’s okay to walk away. If a critique group isn’t working for you, leave (politely, of course). Find the people who motivate and encourage you.
  9. Don’t discount online groups or forums. My critique group for children’s books is comprised of writers I know in real life, but my romance group is made up of women I haven’t met in person–yet. Note: Inked Voices is a great resource for critique groups that “meet” online.
  10. Reciprocate. Users are losers.

“Don’t take criticism personally; take from it what’s useful. Apply it and move on to something better.” — Catherine Tate

Coffee Injection, Stat

Finding time to write can be challenging. I’ve been stealing moments here and there when I can, usually in the evenings after work. There are lots of distractions, though. Stopping by the grocery, laundry, dinner, quality time with my husband, playing with the cats, making sure the chickens go to bed in their coop (instead of on top of it, or in a tree, or on the porch). Not to mention that I’m often mentally exhausted by the time I get around to turning on my laptop.

So, I’ve decided to try writing in the morning before work. I am not a morning person, so it hasn’t been easy. My friend Gail Nall is a talented Middle Grade author who gets up to write at 5:00 a.m. She’s been doing it for years and has several published novels to show for her hard work. I’m not quite ready to get up at 5:00 a.m., but for about a week now, I’ve been getting up every morning by 6:00 a.m.

I set an alarm and when it goes off, I pop up, ready to write!

Okay, you know that’s a lie. I hit the snooze button once — sometimes twice. Then I punch the start button on the electric kettle and pour 3 scoops of coffee into the French press. Less than 10 minutes later, I’m settled into my writing space with a warm cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to write. Right now, I’m getting in around 45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time. Eventually, I’d like to wake up earlier and write longer, but for now, the routine is working for me. I’ve written every morning.

And if I can do it, you can do it. Seriously. I fought to get out of a mandatory class in college because it was at 8:00 a.m. — and succeeded. I’m ready to go to battle for those few precious hours of sleep. But we make time for what’s important to us, right?

So, what do you say, writer friends? Would early-morning writing sessions work for you? Non-writer friends, is there something you’re willing to get up early for?

“Some people dream of success, while other people get up every morning and make it happen.” — Wayne Huizenga

Lessons from Chickens #1

If you had told me a few years ago that I would have chickens in my backyard, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a busy trial attorney who barely had time for a cat. I certainly wouldn’t have farm animals.

But here we are. I love having chickens. I have four laying hens and each have their own personalities. One is bossy, one is lazy, one is sassy, and one is really, really dumb. But I love the little dinosaurs — and not just because they each lay an egg a day; that’s just a bonus!

It’s amazing how much I learn by watching the silly creatures. So, I’ve decided to have a regular blog topic called Lessons from Chickens.

(Seriously, if twenty-something Ash traveled to the future and saw me (us?) now, she’d think I (we?) had been abducted by aliens.)

One of my hens is broody. She wants to sit on her clutch of eggs until they hatch. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize how babies are made. No rooster, no babies. Every day I take her out of the nest box and remove the eggs. Still, she won’t give up. She’s the Scarlett O’Hara of chickens. There will be more eggs to sit on tomorrow.

Lesson #1: Give it your best shot, but if/when it doesn’t happen, move on. Know when to walk away. As a writer, that may mean admitting that the opening to your novel just isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to scrap a secondary character that you absolutely love but isn’t doing anything to further the story. It may even mean shelving your book entirely. Maybe you’ll come back to it in the future. Maybe not.

So, what do you think, friends? Is it time for you to let something go?

“Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.” Aesop