The Apiary School of Writing

In the ongoing mission to turn my property into a small farm, I have somehow taken up beekeeping. (“I don’t know how this keeps happening,” she says, standing with a pitchfork and hugging a chicken.) To be fair, I didn’t jump into this completely blind. I did tons of research and I’ve spent the last couple summers harassing my neighbor-up-the-road who keeps bees. I bought books. I took a class. And yet it still feels a little surreal. How did this happen?

It felt extra surreal when I found myself standing on the garden terrace behind my house, ankle deep in the snow that won’t let go, hugging a humming plastic cage of about fifteen thousand honeybees against my side. (If you want to watch a ten minute video of that—including the moment I realize there’s a bee in my pants because I’m an idiot—follow this link!)

It’s gotten a little more real as I’ve done a couple hive checks since then. I’ve already made an embarrassment of mistakes, but overall, it’s beginning to feel less strange to open up a knee-high box behind my house teeming with tens of thousands of buzzing arthropods and not immediately call someone to get rid of it. I’m even beginning to grow fond of the creepy crawly little things. (We’ll see if that feeling holds after my first sting. I know it’s coming. I know it’s coming.)

Actually, beekeeping reminds me of writing a lot of the time. It’s a thing I’m enjoying that is also a lot of stressful work. I have to work to carve out the time for it in the midst of a hundred other demands. I obsess about it more the longer I go without it. But there are also lessons that I’ve been able to pull about the writing life in just these few weeks of beekeeping.

Don’t Drown the Bees In the early spring, before any of the plants up here in central Alaska have started making nectar or pollen for the bees to eat, I have to feed my bees. I do this with a big slab of calories and protein called a pollen patty and with a pitcherful of sugar water every couple days. On my first visit to the hive after installing them, I went out to fill my in-hive feeder, only to find it full of bees. ‘That’s okay,’ I thought. ‘They’ll float. That’s what the stick in there is for.’ I then proceeded to pour an entire pitcher of sugar water all over the poor bees inside just trying to get a drink, as well as accidentally dumping a bunch of syrup all over half of the frames as well. The bees were not happy. Sometimes in writing, we get a great idea. And it’s really a great idea! But in our eagerness to realize the great idea, maybe we pour it on a little too fast, or too thick, or in the wrong place, or whatever the problem is. Maybe instead of working the great idea in, it comes as a big fat Info Dump right at the start of a chapter. Or maybe we try to work it in, but we put too much of it in too fast, telling instead of showing. Whatever our issue is, we drown our reader in information all at once. Don’t drown the bees. Give them a trickle at a time so they have a chance to climb up with the rising waters.

Let Nature Take Its Course When the hive was first starting out, it was everything I could do to not slip on the bee gloves and hustle up there for a peek. I wanted to know how they were doing! What if they needed meeeeee? Yeah, they didn’t. Beekeepers are there to avert disasters in the hive. But beekeepers can be their own kind of disaster if they show up too frequently. Hive checks stress the bees out and disrupt their work, and some of the bees may try to sting you to defend their home, which, in the case of a honey bee, spells death for those individuals. Hive checks are also a prime time to accidentally crush bees with all the moving around, lose precious warmth especially in those first few chilly weeks of the hive’s existence, and maybe even lose your queen if she falls out of the hive during a frame examination. Sometimes—ofttimes—the best thing for a hive is to simply leave it alone. A hive check once every ten days is, under all but the most extreme circumstances, perfectly sufficient to keep the hive healthy and thriving. Overdoing it does more harm than good. Likewise, there is something very comforting to writing with a rigid outline of every single scene. You’ve got a plan! What could go wrong! But stories, at least mine, have this shifty way of diverting course the harder I try to force it in a certain direction. Characters start acting like plot puppets. Even the scenery bends to my will as freak storms and random monster encounters pop in at just the right moment to stiffly push the story along the worn wheel ruts. But all I end up with is a rigid A-to-B recitation of events, when I should have been letting the story unfold more naturally. Outlines are great, but if the outline overtakes the story itself, whatever form that story must take, then you’ve lost the wonder that is a story unfurling.

Don’t Lose the Queen The queen is the future of the hive. She makes the babies. She helps the hive members to feel content and purposeful. She’s also hundreds of dollars to replace. I was super excited when the workers had finally managed to chew her free from the cage she came in and release her into the hive, only to realize I now had to search once a week across several frames for one particular insect amid thousands. And that was going to take a lot of care and diligence. Similarly, the plot is the future of the story. Without a plot, the reader is wandering, lost, through pages and pages of perhaps interesting, but ultimately futile yammering. You might not fully know what your plot is in the first draft (see the warning above about rigidly following outlines), but you should have it figured out by the last. Every scene, every sentence in your story should advance the plot. Don’t lose track of it or you may find yourself needing to replace it or, worse, ending up with a dead story entirely.

I still have a lot to learn about beekeeping, and about writing as well. In writing, I seem to persist in the same mistakes over and over again, but I’m getting better over time, even when that progress is so slow that it’s hard for me to notice. That’s why it’s important to keep working at it! Things are still super crazy in my household (and the rest of the world), but taking the time to write every day helps me to keep working on my craft and progressing my projects. And it makes me less of a crazy person too, haha. All good things.

Until next week, happy writing!

Craftsmanship: Building Your Skills as an Artist

Remember when you were a kid and you drew that first picture that you were really proud of? Like when you were five or eight and actually worked really hard to make something beautiful for your mom or teacher or whoever?

As for me, I drew all the time as a kid, but the first time I remember being really proud of myself was when I was twelve years old and I drew a picture of a horse running through a fenced pasture, a lush forest just outside the fence. I drew every blade of grass, every scattered wildflower. My mother, who loves horses, raved about this beautiful drawing.

Objectively speaking, that picture was garbage. I’m sorry, but it was.

I look at it now and I see all the weird little mistakes. (How many joints does a horse’s back leg have?) It was great for a twelve-year-old, and I worked my little fingers off for a week, but if I still drew like that, I certainly wouldn’t be parading it around to all my aunties and displaying it prominently in my home. It was good for then, but I had to keep building on those skills to keep them good in the now.

Maybe you don’t draw. Maybe your hobby is soccer. Or ice carving. Or cricket breeding. Your interest was piqued and then you started dabbling in it a bit, and a bit more the next week, slowly building up your skills until you were willing to be seen in public with it. Or maybe you’re not quite that far. Maybe you’re still building.

So how does one build a skill, and writing in particular? (I assume that’s why you’re here anyway.) Here are four tips for honing your craft.

Practice You can’t become a skilled violinist without ever picking up a bow, and the same is true for writing. First drafts are pretty much all rubbish anyway, but you’ll find that your drafts will get higher and higher quality the more you produce. Write in long form and short, write under deadlines and without- just write.

Critique Go through your past work and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be cruel to yourself (and don’t put up with beta readers who are) but recognize the places where you have room to improve. Likewise, critiquing for other writers will also hone your skills and give you insights into the writing process itself.

Edit Don’t be a one draft wonder. There is no first draft so genius that it can’t be improved with careful editing. And with every edit, you teach yourself how to be a better writer, which will come out in later writing as well. Even stories that get scrapped altogether are never wasted.

Study Check out the masters at work. Read widely in a varied diet of genres, even if you don’t ever plan on writing in them. Make note (mental or otherwise) of the things that you admire and think about how you can emulate those traits. (That’s emulate, not copy. Plagiarism isn’t cool.) Also study the basics- get a good grammar book and check yourself. Find a craft book to inspire and guide you. (I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I have a list of craft book recommendations here!) Don’t let yourself get complacent and think you have nothing more to learn!

These four practices will help you build your skills. They’ll help you recognize when you’re using the passive voice, when your word choice is weak or your phrases clichéd, when you’re showing instead of telling, when you’re maybe leaning a little too heavily on adverbs (ha). Looking back on my early writing drafts, I can easily spot where I was getting bogged down in purple prose. But at the time, those were some of my favorite passages. It took years of reading and writing and building my craft to realize they were a problem. And only years of reading and writing and building my craft will give me the skills to realize the other problems I have that I don’t even know about yet.

Have more tips for improving at writing? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Historical Kid Lit with Laurie Halse Anderson

If you work in a kids’ library, you probably know who Laurie Halse Anderson is. She writes all over the spectrum of children’s literature, including historicals like Independent Dames, Fever 1793, and the Seeds of America trilogy. She’s been around the block.

So I was excited by the opportunity to sit in on her breakout session at Alaska Writers Guild/SCBWI’s 2019 fall conference. Of course, the moment I sat down, I realized—ugh—I should have brought all our books from the library for her to sign. Oh well, hindsight’s always clearer than foresight. A little disappointed in myself, but excited nonetheless, I plunked myself down at the feet of the master and just about note-wrote my little hand off.

I’ll give you the condensed version of her tips of the trade, but if it’s at all possible, I highly recommend you get yourself to her next conference and listen in on the full meal deal. She says it so much better than I’m about to!

Without further ado, here are Ms. Anderson’s eight tips on writing historical kid lit:

Tip #1: Know why you’re choosing the story. What is your connection to this story? Why does this story and this era matter to you enough to put in the work?

Tip #2: Research as deep as the ocean, but with attention to the grains of sand on the shore. Voraciously study primary sources and squint suspiciously at secondary sources. Know about the foods, politics, beliefs, medicine, power structures, and more. You will research waaaay more than actually goes in your book. That is right and proper.

Tip #3: Find your research squad. Amid all your research, haul out new trade books on your story’s setting and carefully comb the footnotes and bibliographies. Once you’ve done your research homework and have written through several drafts, reach out to these people with specific questions. Find some way to compensate them for their time and expertise.

Tip #4: Primary sources are your secret weapon. Remember Tip #2? Stories change over time and people remember things differently fifty years down the road. As much as is possible, try to get your information from the people living through it (newspapers, journals, letters, etc). That said, also keep in mind that the sources you are reading are probably from the perspective of the elite (who are deep in their biases).

Tip #5: Organization is your best friend. Keep all your notes organized and accessible. Come up with systems for keeping your information straight. Write down every source used. This is not the place to be lazy. *glares at mirror*

Tip #6: Changes are not failures. They are part of the process. Your story will go through several drafts, changing more each time. It takes as long as it takes.

Tip #7: Details are only in your book if they move the story along. I once researched tons of information on feeding an army on the go in medieval Europe and then found a way to shoehorn in almost an entire chapter of a character excitedly lecturing (literally *lecturing*) about purchasing versus foraging versus pillaging, and how many pounds of food each soldier and every horse needs per day and like everything. It was only there because I thought it was cool. But it wasn’t. ☹

Tip #8: Just dive in. Don’t wait for the stars to align! Get crackin’ now!

Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to writing your historical. And while the talk was themed toward kid historicals, there’s no tip here that wouldn’t apply to any age category of historical—and many of them could apply to writing in general.

So until next week, no matter your genre, age category, or subject matter, go forth and happy writing!

Writing Through the Holidays

Ugh, sorry I didn’t post Monday. I was clinging to doorposts while my husband tried to drag me to the hospital. (I mean, seriously, who wants to die in a hospital when you can be noisily dying at home under a heap of plague-riddled blankets with fifteen half-drunk canteens of 100% guaranteed health tonic you got from that hippie under the bridge last June? Duh.) But after five days of my life passing before my eyes (rather boring, really), I’m on the mend and able to sit up at my computer without weakly flopping over sideways toward the toilet. Yaaaaay.

So! Maybe next time I’ll post about writing through illness (hahahahahahaha), but today I wanted to talk about writing through the holidays. Here in Americaland, October through January is like one nonstop party, hopscotching from one celebration to the next for pretty much three months. At least here in Alaska, I think we’re just happy at this point that nobody’s frozen to death, and then that oh-thank-heaven, the earth is starting to tilt back toward the sun again. (Seriously. Solstice is the best winter celebration of all.)

But all that partying can make it hard to squeeze writing in. I’m too busy babysitting vinho d’alho and wrapping presents in eco-friendly reusable swaddling clothes to write.

Wrong! I am never too busy to write!

Priotitize

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your writing will get time according to its ranking in the priority list. So your first step in the plan of attack is to figure out your priorities! The priority list will of course swap around, especially around the holidays, depending on who’s in town, what’s going on, etc. But if you don’t prioritize your writing, it isn’t magically going to happen. This can seem a little cold at times. I mean, yeahhhh, I’ve been known to maybe sneak my laptop into the bathroom with me while family’s over to squeeze in an extra fifteen minutes of writing. (*mom peers anxiously at door, whispering, “Is she sick?”*) But knowing where writing stands in the pecking order is going to keep you from having unrealistic expectations of yourself. As much as we all want to, we can’t do it all. If you know and accept that it’s more important to you go to the Christmas concert with your cousins, then give yourself a pass and go to the concert. But maybe while the rest of the crew is watching that abomination live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that’s the time to sneak off with your laptop to the bathroom. It’s your call to make.

Plan

Once you’ve worked out your priority list for the season, then it’s time to plan out how you’re going to make it happen. (I’m assuming at this point that writing made the list…) You can go about the planning phase as casually or commando-y as you like. For those really into writing plans down, feel free to map out your schedule and hunt out all those sneaky little pockets of free time so you can stuff them with writing; ferociously cull down the time you spend on holiday shopping, chitchatting over hors d’oeuvres, or artfully wrapping gifts. Or, if you’re not feeling quite so hardcore, maybe just schedule yourself a half hour of quiet time each night before bed to knock out some words. (That’s what I do anyway.)

While planning, keep those expectations realistic. Nothing harpoons holiday zen like loading too much on your plate, so while you’re maybe normally able to blitz through 3k a day, give yourself a break if work is crazy and you’re on overtime every night until Christmas, of if you just want to spend a little more of that time with Nana. Goals don’t have to be huge or even difficult to be high-five worthy.

Execute

Do it! Stick to your plan, whether that means just quietly holding yourself to it, or roping accountability buddies into the loop. Both of my main writing buddies have end of the year writing goals and you know what? I just decided that I want to hop on that joyride too! So hey guys, I’m gonna finish the Cinderella thing by the end of the year! Watch me work! And I’ll be sure to litter the path to glory with little prizes for all my hard work. Because I am actually a mule and I only work for sugar cubes.

Holidays don’t mean you have to take all your writing and stuff it in the sock drawer until you guiltily pull it out along with some shiny new resolutions come January. With just a little extra prioritizing and planning, you can keep working right through the busiest time of the year. People like to go on and on about how the holidays are a good excuse- to forget your diet, to forget your budget, to drop all kinds of great habits that we spend the rest of the year developing. Hogwash, I say! No excuses! Keep eating healthfully, keep being financially responsible, and keep writing. If it’s important to you the rest of the year, it should be important to you the entire year. So don’t give up your writing just because Cousin Martha is throwing another Ugly Sweater Party. (Why do you still talk to her anyway?) Keep up those good habits!

All season long: happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

NaNooooooo! It is upon us once again, and that means reblog time! One of the presentations at the writers conference this fall was a look at using the Enneagram personality system to understand your characters and their actions better. This blog post was mentioned as a good introductory resource to get started.

K.M. Weiland–as you probably already know–has a fantastic blog for writers, so I wasn’t surprised to see her name attached to the article. Without further ado, here is her much-greater-than-mine wisdom!

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

The Enneagram. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve even used the Enneagram to write better characters.

Like Myers-Briggs, Socionics, and the Four Temperaments, the Enneagram is one of many systems within the study of personality theory. These systems are designed to identify the patterns found in the different ways we approach various aspects of life, so we might better study and understand ourselves and others.

In short, the Enneagram is not only a useful life tool, it’s also the perfect character-creation tool.

I’ve always been interested in personality theory. Let’s face it, I just like theories (come to me, story theory, my love). But I don’t see it as any kind of coincidence that my interest in characters and stories dovetailed so conveniently with the ever-deepening rabbit hole of personality theory.

I’m not alone. In fact, my introduction to the Enneagram, many years ago, was on romance author Laurie Campbell’s site, where she offered a brief description of the system’s nine types as, you guessed it, a character tool. Since then, I’ve pursued Myers-Briggs—another personality-typing system—in some depth, but only this year have I finally dived headlong into the Enneagram.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it has changed my life—and my writing.

Ready to read the full article? Get it here! And happy writing!

Obey or Be Destroyed: A Guide to Bending Yourself to Your Will

Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.

And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.

It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.

There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.

Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.

So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.

What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)

What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.

What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.

What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.

Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.

Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.

After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.

Reblog: 21 Tips for Successful Collaboration

Howdy! I am really really terrifyingly far behind on Camp NaNo this year. Like “not sure I’m gonna be able to pull this off” behind. I have eight days left to write and just under fifty-percent of the ground left to cover. I am scared.

I’ve never tried to do nonfiction like this before and it is hard. Not that fiction is all that easy either, but I seriously miss being able to just make things up as I go. I’m aaaaalmost desperate enough to start counting words from work emails and texts to my mom, because, yes, I typed them, didn’t I? IT COUNTS. (Gosh I hope it doesn’t come to that.)

Next week is the last week that you’ll have to deal with my terror-weeping and then it will all be over, one way or the other. Maybe I’ll hit my stride by then and start making good progress? We’ll see!

Until then, enjoy this break from my whining reblog from The Book Designer’s Helen Sedwick titled “21 Tips for Creating a Successful Writing Collaboration”.

21 Tips for Creating a Successful Writing Collaboration


By Helen Sedwick

When a writing collaboration works, partners inspire and complement one other. The creative process is less lonely. But when collaborations fail, the drama may be as ugly as a Hollywood divorce.

For every successful writing partnership, there are dozens of failed ones despite the best of intentions. Not everyone is a team player, and not every team is a winner.

To improve the odds of a successful writing partnership take the time to put the collaboration agreement in writing. Most people resist this idea. Like a prenuptial agreement, it kills the romance. They don’t realize the process of preparing an agreement may be more valuable than the result. If writers do a good job discussing issues at the start, they are less likely to have misunderstandings later.

Making Decisions

So before you jump into a co-writing project, discuss and write out the following…

Ready to read the rest? Head on over to The Book Designer for the full article!