Month: August 2016

Open the Gates

Flipping through the channels the other night I stopped at Charlie Rose on NPR. He was interviewing Jimmy Walker  professional golfer and the 2016 PGA champion. No, I’m not a golfer, not any good at it at all. I play golf like a tennis player, which I am. But I do like to listen to people talk about their success–how they got they, what they think it means, and what happens going forward.

The stats for Jimmy are interesting. 187 events without a single win. Wow! Then three wins in 2014 then first major title in 2016. He said he would win big. He said he believed. He said “once you know you can do something, then the gates open.”

I get that. For me the gates have been closed at submission. I should be clear, not by anyone else but me! Because Jimmy is right. He believed. I did not. Did I hear you ask why? No. So. I’m going to tell you anyway. I wrote. I submitted. And I got zip. I did not believe.

I rewrote. I paid for critiques. I went to writing programs. I paid attention. And I got zip. I did not believe.

Then I had this idea. Truly it came from my own lack of will power, my own ineptness and a drive to find a voice for a story I really wanted to tell. I wrote. I paid for critiques. I went to writing program. I paid attention and I got something. Acceptance? maybe. Publication? No.

But I think I got my faith back. I believe. I’m writing good stories. I’m getting feedback that say ‘believe. Once you know you can do something…the gates will open.”




I preach about critiques. I do. You can find my thoughts and comments on the SCBWI Carolinas conference information pages. In the What Happens in Critique… section I write about preparing, relaxing, listening. In truth, I think critiques can be scary, heartening, frightening, illuminating and mostly cause some amount of distress. After all you are putting out for some brand new eyes, for some relevant industry professional, work you have invested your time and what talent you have. And there is no doubt about it, you are asking for judgment!  Yes, it is just one person. Yes, this is the whole reason why you are there. This is a review of what’s good and what’s not so good. You want to know about  your voice, your character, your plot, the language, and the marketability and how the reviewer sees them based on the experiences they have had. WowZer!

And even more, we pay to receive this judgment! Double WowZer!

Let’s admit there are good critiques and bad critiques. A bad critique is where there is no information. I’ve had one of those with an agent who stated at the beginning of the session that this genre was not something the agency represented. This was my first critique at SCBWI LA.  I blanched. But I had paid for a critique. And thirty plus years of HR management, of interviewing prospective employees for jobs clicked in and I began to ask questions: was the dialogue realistic? what about the main character’s voice? was my language appropriate for the age group? And eventually I pulled out information that helped me go back and review what I had written and what I needed to do to make this story better.

Interestingly enough, it was the same story, about seven years later, that I submitted this year to SCBWI LA. I have tinkered with the story over time–back and forth about whether it is sustainable as a middle grade novel, written two middle grade mysteries that are about [about being the most abused and least valuable word in the English language] as good as I can make them and I’ve sent them out, but I keep coming back to this story, because I love the basis of the story. I love that I can’t seem to find that same basis out there in the market place. And I love that this story gives me an opportunity to have an unreliable narrator tell a story that will have a satisfying yet unhappy ending.

And this critique was a good critique. ‘Gripping opening.’ ‘Engaging action.’ ‘Compelling mystery.’ ‘I liked the way you established the dynamic between family members.’  There was also, ‘develop Erin’s personality’, ‘punch up tactile details’, ‘beware of too much internal/self reflection’, ‘ let readers decode the mystery themselves.’ So lots of positive to sustain me, but lots of suggestions as to why this is not yet done.

And, that’s how I took it.

When I shared with peers the ‘good’ critique’, the first question was ‘did the agent ask for it?’ And my response was ‘thank god, no.’  It’s not ready. I know that. This story, from the time of the not-so-good critique to this one, had not only had multiple drafts and POV changes including a move from a male main character to a female one, but it has several incarnations in setting, plot, motivation and execution. I am pretty sure-especially with the feed back from this critique- that I may FINALLY be on the right track with voice, POV, plot and setting.

For me this was a great critique. I have all of the agent’s notes, written liberally on the SCBWI Critique Notes & Talking Points as well as scattered throughout my submission and synopsis. I have the time and the freedom to think more about this story. The time and the freedom to explore our discussion and see if that is where Erin’s story takes me and if I can execute the unreliable narrator with a satisfying but unhappy ending. And, if, at that point in time, I am still agent-less, well then I have the opportunity to submit via the agency’s guidelines, reference this critique and all the positives and how I have worked with the negatives.

So, ‘did the agent ask for it?’  Thank god, no!


Kickstart the Process

I’ve slept in until nine am each morning for no other reason but I can. I am not a late sleeper, I am usually up and about, but I think my mind is processing. There is so much thrown at us at a conference, okay, not thrown, served up in delicious bites and set before us until we are so sated with inspiration, promise, hope, joy, guilt, process and objectives that we can barely move.

From first keynote with Drew Daywalt to last with the extraordinary Richard Peck, the keynotes and breakouts were amazingly full, there was the opportunity to take of at least one nugget from each. From nonfiction/fiction mashups to educational landscape to voice as structure to sourdough starter as a metaphor for creativity to market trends and opportunities. My conference notes are a mish-mash of words, phrases, dictums, adages, recommendations, suggestions, and other writer’s and illustrator’s struggles with exactly what I am going through.

Is this a good idea?  What is the basic premise? Can I find it? Can I sustain this thread/premise/throughline for fifty thousand words?  Is this salable? Really? What makes my story standout? Is my character’s voice believable? Realistic? True?

There you go! True!  Out of all of the presentations and conversations both engaged and overheard, what I heard was we must be true. Unsaid but there is that we exist around so much spin, in the news, in the papers, on blogs, on social media.

SPIN is the explanation what happened by distorting reality.  SPIN is the trying to make what occurred palatable. SPIN is the reality of a ‘little white lie’ or a grievous mortal sin that becomes that dark spot in the middle of your soul. We have come to accept spin as a part of our daily lives. Our children are growing up with spin as a overlay– of life, politics, culture, economics, religion, ethics–EVERYTHING. SPIN cripples fact. SPIN interferes with paradigms. SPIN validates confirmation bias. SPIN distorts our conversations and SPIN devastatingly mars the truth.

The question is can we strip away that SPIN? Are we as creative content providers [yuck, what a term] required to find that center, that place where there is no spin, where there is no lie, where there is only what is?

When I was in college we used to sit around and philosophize about truth. We were young. We thought that our truths were accessible and realistic. We believed in universal truths. It is a different world. And so I wonder about that now. I wonder if truth is a commodity, a perception or another spin.

I think what we need, what we crave, like a perfectly seasoned steak, or wonderfully roasted asparagus, or the delicate sensation of dark chocolate, is the search for TRUTH.  We need to accept that our character’s emotions, wants, needs, desires are nothing but propaganda IF the character is not always searching for the way to come out of the story whole, intact emotionally, not necessarily with their wants/desires satisfied, but accessible to the reader–a good ending, a finish to the story.

It was a great conference. It made me think. It made me worry more about my characters. It made me want to be the best storyteller of truth I could possibly be!