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This morning when I went out to the mailbox to retrieve my mail, I spied something at my front door. It was sitting quite nicely in front of my little children’s bench which holds a flower box filled with overflowing pink and white Impatiens. What could that be? I thought. I didn’t order anything. And because I was feeling a tad under the weather, I immediately wondered if it was a misdelivery, something from a company I didn’t order, etc. Whatever it was, it did get my curiosity going.

I brought it inside and looked at the label. Sure enough, it was addressed to me, and from a company I’d never heard of. More and more curious. I opened it up to find no note or identifying information, but when I brought out the one item inside, it brought tears to my eyes.

Someone had sent me one of the most meaningful and thoughtful gifts I could receive at this moment in time. Something that affirms my strength as a woman and as a writer, from someone who obviously knows the challenges I’ve faced over the last 5 or so years.

We all have our challenges; there is no doubt about that. I was joyfully on my journey of writing and illustrating children’s books, and had been for a while. It was a long-awaited return after I had studied under the renowned children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz at the New School in NY so many years ago. And then things happened. It doesn’t really matter what they were, but they had the effect of disrupting many aspects of my life, among them my children’s book journey. This was my dream. And although it had to sit on the sidelines for a while, it never sat alone. I did everything I could, however tiny, to keep it alive even though it could hardly take my full attention.

As time passed and I worked to regain my balance in all aspects of my life, I have – little by little – returned to my writing for children, to my dream of being published. I don’t have the luxury of writing full time, as most writers do not, but more and more, it is in my thoughts and in my daily plans. I know I’m back on track – maybe not sprinting yet, but I am out there and picking up speed.

And whoever sent me this mug knows that, and I thank you deeply for acknowledging it. I will find you and I will thank you.

For the rest of you women writers out there, especially those who face challenges and proceed in spite of them, tomorrow morning I am going to toast you all with my first cup of coffee in this mug. Cheers to you and your writing dreams.

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The first thing to happen is your brain starts to slowly disintegrate on the way home. Once in the door, you need to tend to anything that needs tending to because your body is following close behind and is not going to be in an upright position too much longer. From stress? Nope – from the incredible rush of attending a two-day conference for writers and illustrators of children’s books. It’s exhausting alright, but in a good way.

Each June my New Jersey chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) holds its big event. There are workshops, round tables, one-on-one critiques, a juried art show, portfolio display, keynote speeches, and more. This year, in choosing my workshops I focused entirely on writing in picture books. Other years, I have mixed things up and taken workshops in middle grade and young adult writing, picture book illustration, marketing/social media, and more. There were some truly fabulous speakers this year who inspired me and will keep me thinking long after the conference.

A highlight of the NJ event for many attendees is the availability of having one-on-one critiques, something not offered at all SCBWI (or other writing) conferences, and I picked very well this year. The picture book I submitted seemed a very good fit for Charlesbridge Publishing, and my mentor was outstanding – knowledgeable, insightful, and beyond helpful. Did I mention thorough? Yes, very thorough. A good editor or agent really knows how to show you where you need improvement without destroying your soul, acknowledge all the things that are right with your manuscript, and point out directions that will help you make your story perfect. And that I got.

The big challenge after a conference like this, for me, anyway, is to keep the momentum and all that excitement going because Monday morning rolls around pretty quickly and I am back at my desk writing and designing for everyone else, i.e., my clients. However, one of the first things I did Monday was to hit the library. I was picking up an adult novel I’d requested on inter-library loan, Before We Were Yours, and also a number of picture books that had been recommended by my mentor and other workshop leaders along the way. I also requested a few more from our main library. (As I did not take any photos of the event, I have included a handful of those books here.) I plan to read them over the next couple days for both enjoyment and to understand what makes them really good picture books. There is always much to learn.

Over the next few days I will revisit the MS I submitted and all my mentor’s notes and look to see how I can make my story shine yet brighter. For all the praise she gave me for this picture book, and there was plenty, it wasn’t enough – at least not yet – to be the one Charlesbridge wants to publish. Not yet.

 

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One of the very compelling features in a good novel can be place, where an author writes with such depth and attention to the environment inhabited by his characters that the location becomes a character all its own. I just finished The Ice Bridge by D.R.Macdonald, and was amazed at how quickly he had me immersed in the landscape of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. This is an outstanding book in so many ways, not least of which was my having moved to the harsh, wintry landscape of Cape Seal Road right along with one of the main characters, Anna.

The intensely rich descriptions of the land and the nearby sea in every mood and facet imaginable captured my imagination. Anna is an artist, moved here from California, leaving her soon-to-be ex to rediscover her artistic self. Her drawings of the landscape, animals, and the many found objects she retrieves from both water and shore, further expand the reader’s feel for Cape Breton.

The story of her settling into the “weather-wracked” house once belonging to next door neighbor Red Murdock’s grandmother is a story in and of itself. While the jacket flap is right in saying it’s a story about love after love, it is also a story about a fading Scottish culture which once thrived in the area, and the changes that modern life has exacted on its residents. Each character in this small, somewhat forgotten community adds to the sense of place in Macdonald’s novel. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who has seemingly effortlessly made me care about his characters in this slowly unfolding tale.

When Anna does something extremely foolish, it is hard to criticize her because the author has already portrayed her so completely and compassionately that we can only wonder what would make her do such a thing. The characters are real, and the conflict builds slowly through the friendships, past loves, danger, pain, and wonder of them all. And always the sea and sky, forest and field, so beautifully, beautifully rendered, from the challenges of winter through the final warming of spring in July.

What a masterful writer! What I also loved about this novel was Macdonald builds the suspense to the very end, and even with the ending given us, one can still wonder what might happen next. This is one where I was sorry to close the book and leave what I’d come to love in Cape Breton.

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PiBoIdMoJournal2We’re halfway through November. For some writers, you are feverishly striving to complete your 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers’ Month). I have to say, while I need a swift kick in the butt to get writing as much as anyone from time to time, 50,000 words in one month is more of a kick than I’d ever want.

I much prefer PiBoIdMo, the picture book writer’s alternative for November – Picture Book Idea Month – created by Tara Lazar and in which we are challenged to come up with an idea a day for a picture book. (Though really, this could just as easily apply to ideas for novels, short stories, songs, etc.)  I find that the one idea per day happens most of the time, but sometimes the creative juices seem to produce two ideas today, brain too work-slogged for an idea tomorrow, two PB ideas the day following and so on. I just do my best to have a minimum of 30 ideas by the end of the month.

If you are doing PiBoIdMo, I suspect, like me, come Nov. 30 you find some of your ideas are laughably useless, some have a certain amount of potential, and some are actually quite promising. Where do you get your ideas from? Personal experiences past and present can inspire ideas, as well as family, friends, and pets, but also what’s going on in the world – news of all kinds, music, stuff you read. Sometimes, even an old story we’ve already written gives birth to a brand new – and better – idea.

Here’s the best idea – have fun doing it. And if this is the first you’ve heard of PiBoIdMo, join in and challenge yourself!

 

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Journal-BlkLime2More and more lately I’m looking around and wanting to let things go. Personal things. (Well, aren’t they all personal things?) OK, some very personal things. Journals, things related to past loves, books, and of course, clothing. There’s always clothing we could lose. I really am not someone with a lot of clothing, yet I want it gone.

The journals. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I journal almost daily. I write in the vein recommended by Julia Cameron of An Artist’s Way, and use it as kind of a morning dump. Get all the crap out of my head that’s swimming around unpleasantly so I can move on with my day. I find it quite healing, comforting, and if nothing else, it keeps me writing something. When I’m done one journal, I move on to the next that I have recently purchased. (TJ Maxx, BTW, always has a great selection of journals, if interested.)

The completed journal sits on a shelf with numerous others. But why save them? So today I was in the mood to skim through one of them to see if, indeed, I had left any pearls of wisdom behind before sending it to the great beyond, aka a dump of its own. Skimming reveals certain patterns – things that I have been struggling with over the time period it covers, my search for answers, where I find clues, what I’ve accomplished, what’s made me happy, where I’m going, and what’s keeping me from getting there. It yielded one important piece of information about a medical issue, so I ripped that page out.

And now I can give this journal the old heave-ho. There’s several more that I think will get the boot in the next day or so. It will open up a small bit of physical space, but more importantly, it will open up space in me. Letting go is always helpful. Not to say we shouldn’t preserve some memories, but at a certain point, they’re not even us anymore. Do they matter? Do they all matter? or can we just let some go?

Because when we let go, we make room for what we want to come in. We are always in transition, at some times more intensely than at others. But when we’re looking to grow and change, making room in our hearts, our minds, and even the actual space in our homes can be welcoming. It can be a little scary. It can be very good. We have to be willing to … just … let … go.

 

 

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated, optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?

ExhaustedWoman-AntonioGuillem2

Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a direction became clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique from agents and/or editors on their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight  and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose.  It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here …

 

 

 

 

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“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Statue-ChildReading

With the annual New Jersey Society of Children’s Books Writers and illustrators (NJ SCBWI) June Conference on the horizon one has to think – there is something so amazing about so many individuals all streaming into one location from all over the country for a single purpose – to share, to learn and to grow in the one thing that unites us all – children’s books. We meet old friends and make some new, share and see amazing illustration, and have the opportunity to sit in workshops and at lunch tables, not just with our peers, but with editors and agents from some of the finest publishing companies and agencies in the U.S. Cheers to us all!

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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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One of the (many) wonders of books is that they sometimes arrive at just the right time. Perhaps it’s not exactly a magical book but it’s the one that’s juuuust right for where we are and what we need to read right now.

MagicalBookFinal2

For example, a dear friend of mine came upon a book not long ago and was just over the moon about it. She got me so excited that I went immediately to my local library and borrowed it. I began to read. I was not excited or over the moon as I’d hoped; in fact, I was occasionally disenchanted by the author’s style, which was quite different from what I’d read of hers previously but seemed to me to be trying a little too hard to be hip and cool. I continued reading, sometimes really enjoying it, and while I felt it got better towards the end, it never made me jump up and down.

So I returned the book to the library, and talked about the book with my wonderful librarian, who is also familiar with the author, and she said she’d give it a try. Her response was that she liked it. Not crazy about it, but what had bothered me did not bother her, and she would read some more. And there you have it. Kind of like Goldilocks and the three bears, I thought.

For one of us it just wasn’t the right fit; for another it was enjoyable, but not fabulous; but for the original reader it was exactly the right size and the perfect book for her right now. And that’s what makes books so wonderful. Certain books come into our hands, into our lives, and they are exactly what we want – and/or need – to read at that moment in time. I’ve certainly encountered books like that – haven’t you? The story, or the information, is so meaningful right then that it just couldn’t be any better.

Sometimes it takes a while for that book to appear in our hands, but we always know it when it arrives. For those of us who write, or at least for me, it is my dream to write that book for children that will be exactly what they want – or need – at that moment in time. Even if it’s only one child, I’ll be happy.

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I journal almost daily, in the morning, with my coffee, and find it a very effective way to start the day, clearing out cobwebs, jotting down ideas, organizing what-have-you, etc. I am RandomActs-Notes2generally somewhat particular about what size my journal is – as there are limits as to what is most comfortable in one’s lap – but not how plain or fancy the journal may be. After all, this isn’t some formal document, and in the long run, is not going to be kept. I often can pick up a perfectly serviceable journal in the supermarket.

As I was down to the last 2 pages in my current journal, I planned to pick up a new one when I went grocery shopping, but … there was not one to be found of a workable size. All seemed to be notebooks that kids would bring to school, at least 8″ x 10″. OK, then, as mentioned, hardly the Declaration of Independence going in here.

“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” ~Maya Angelou

When I opened it, however, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a perforated, light cardboard page behind the cover promoting Random Acts of Kindness! Eight cards you could tear apart, write a note for someone and leave for them or give to them. Now that’s RandomActs-OneCard2pretty cool! And while it has its own hashtags from the manufacturer for learning more, it doesn’t take away from how wonderful an idea this is to put right into the hands of children, (or anyone, really.).

I have always been enamored by Random Acts of Kindness. Most of us actually perform them daily and don’t even think twice about it – holding open a door, picking something up for another, giving a compliment – kindness isn’t hard. We’ve all, I’m also sure, gone a little above and beyond from time to time. One of my personal favorites was a number of years ago when in New Hope, PA, a very popular, artsy town known for its unique shops and restaurants AND for its 25 cents for 15 minutes parking meters. One time, returning to my car, I spotted the meter maid about 6 cars down and coming my way. The meter had expired next to the car directly behind me, so I fed 4 quarters into their meter and bought them an hour. I’m sure you’ve done the same. I was amazed that something so small put such a big smile on my face, even to this day.

“Always be a little kinder than necessary.” ~James M. Barrie

RandomActs-Ideas2

Now if the purchasers of this notebook are at a loss as to what to do with the cards, the reverse side gives lots of examples. As for me, I think I’ll be tearing off at the perf and carrying one with me. You never know when the chance to do a Random Act may arise!

If you are interested in knowing more – for your kids, students, or just for yourself – of course there’s a website for Random Acts of Kindness with all kinds of resources and ideas. I suspect you’re already a kind person, and I’m sure you agree, that in addition to making a however-small difference in the life of someone else,  there’s a lot of giggly-inside, feel good to be had in a Random Act of Kindness.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~Leo Buscaglia

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JeannesNewFlipFlops2

Why, you may ask, are you looking at a pair of feet in (… well, a pretty cute set of) flip-flops?

Here’s why. For the same reason you’re about to look at a yummy summer salad sitting on an antique kitchen chair complete with original milk paint, (which by the way, doesn’t hold up all that well to everyday wear and tear.)

Salad2

It’s an offering. A little tide-you-over. I’ve been somewhat absent from my blog, but I do think of you, and I do miss the delight of writing more frequent posts, as well as stopping by your blogs. (Just because I don’t follow you or comment doesn’t mean I don’t stop in for a quick peek.)

The last few weeks have included some exciting things – a visit to the Grounds for Sculpture to see the Seward Johnson retrospective before the borrowed pieces return to their permanent spots all over the world on July 1. So much to see, and such genius! I’ll be posting more on that soon. Meanwhile, here’s a little teaser of what’s to come.

SewardJohnson-HotDogMan2

Johnson is known for his sculptures of people in everyday life and his 3-dimensional interpretations of famous paintings. Throughout the grounds one finds groupings of people as well as individuals, such as this hot dog vendor along one of the walkways.

And then there was the NJ SCBWI June Conference where we all ate, drank and slept children’s books for nearly two days straight. It’s intense, exciting, rewarding, and based on everyone’s collapse on Monday, a major rush! The workshops, meeting and dining with agents and editors, connecting and re-connecting with fellow writers and illustrators is quite the whirlwind of an experience, and has us all coming home with a renewed sense of purpose, our dreams fired up, and ready to further our goals and experiences in children’s books.

Intermezzo: a French Bulldog illustration of mine, for summer. (p.s. This is available as part of a boxed set of Frenchie notecards.)

Frenchie-IceCreamSodaSig

And then of course, there’s work. LOTS of work. Not to complain; paying one’s bills is a good thing, but between it all, well, my blog bore the brunt of it. As have my poor LightBetweenOeans-MLStedman2porches which remain bereft of a single flower this year. (I’ll spare you the empty porch photos.) And then there are the everyday demands of just plain life. Busy!

And of course I’ve been reading. I am always reading, no matter what. Great book – just finished – I highly recommend it.

Soon I will share with you some truly amazing treats from the Seward Johnson exhibit.

So stay tuned … I do believe I’m back!

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PiBoIdMoJournal2Are you a picture book writer? Aspiring or published, you will enjoy this challenge!

The idea was developed a few years ago by children’s book author, Tara Lazar, in response to the popularity of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writers’ Month. Participating in NaNoWriMo meant that you committed to writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That was great for those who write novels, but what about those of us who were writing for the youngest readers … picture books?

Tara developed the idea of PiBoIdMo, Picture Book Idea Month, (which has developed quite a bit since it’s introduction, and now includes visiting bloggers on children’s writing and more), where your challenge is to write down one idea for a picture book each day in the month of November. Needless to say, you can jot down more if your creativity is jumping, but one is the challenge. At the end of November, you’ll have 30 ideas to pick and choose from and can develop your best into stories.

Whether you do this alone or participate in the event online, or with your writing buddies or friends, it’s a fun challenge and gets your juices flowing. I have my own little PiBoIdMo notebook, and will be starting my challenge this Saturday. Join me?

 

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