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

 

 

I’m a Reader

My earliest memories involve books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t devour one right after the other, as quickly as I could get my hands on them. My parents are readers, so there were always books in the house, and we visited the library often. With its towering shelves and infinite number of books (or so it seemed to my wonder-filled eyes), the library was an enchanted place. It even had a cat, Spike, and every kid knows that cats are magical creatures and gatekeepers to parallel worlds.

Reading was always encouraged at home. We weren’t even forced to put down our books for meals; they were allowed at the dinner table. And you know who doesn’t mind being grounded? A kid who doesn’t need an excuse to stay in her room all day with a book, that’s who. My brother and I have long since moved away, but there’s rarely a conversation between us that doesn’t include a book recommendation. Books are the #1 gift at holidays. We share our beloved and tattered favorites, knowing it may be months (or years) before they’re returned to our shelves.

For a long time, I thought all families were like mine. Readers. It wasn’t until much later that I realized just how lucky I was.

According to Literacy Inc., 80% of families in the United States haven’t purchased a single book this year. EIGHTY percent.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how much I have benefited from literacy privilege. I take for granted that it’s a resource I’ve always had. Without basic reading comprehension skills, it’s nearly impossible to pass a driver’s test, find a job that pays a livable wage, read the labels of over-the-counter medications. Illiteracy is a trap and once you’re stuck, it’s nearly impossible to climb out. Always has been. Just look at the slaves who risked their lives to learn to read and write. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

And none of that even takes into account a good story’s ability to change lives. Countless stories have shaped who I am. Fiction is a treasure and books have made me rich.

It’s terrifying to think how different my life would be without books. That person would no longer be me. She’d be an impostor, a stranger.

Because I’m a reader.

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all. — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

I’m a Writer

Writers have to write. Those are four words that we hear again and again, on blogs, in tweets, at conferences. And sure, it’s true, if there’s more to the sentence. Writers have to write in order to finish a book. Writers have to write if they want their stories read. Writers have to write if they want to get paid. 

But more often than not, that’s not what the speaker means. They mean that writers have to write, as if their fingertips are possessed by the ghosts of authors past. William Carlos Williams said, “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” I’m sure that for some, writing is a compulsion; they have to write. But for most of us, I don’t think that’s the case.

It’s certainly not true of me.

Writing is hard. Most days, I’d rather read a book, or watch a movie, or take a nap, or stare at the sun until my retinas burn out.

I write because I enjoy it (sometimes). I write because I feel like I’m pretty good at it (sometimes). I write because finding the right word is more satisfying than finding a huge chunk of chocolate in a pint of Graeter’s Double Chocolate Chip (and let’s be honest, very few things are better than chocolate).

I write because I’m a writer. And I have stories I want to tell.

“I hate writing. I love having written.” — Dorothy Parker