Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster



Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.


AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes hard to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

Mini-Interview with Matt de la Peña

MattThis last week, Fairbanks hosted the statewide Alaska Library Association’s annual conference.  It was all manner of crazy for me, which was a bit of a surprise given that I’m not a librarian.  But such is the life of a writer.

One of the highlights of this conference (which I didn’t actually attend) was the presence of this year’s Newberry Medal winning author, Matt de la Peña (Just for extra cool points, Matt was the first Latino recipient of this award.  For even more cool points, this same book, Last Stop on Market Street was also awarded a 2016 Caldecott Honor AND a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.  How cool is that??)  While he was up here, Matt took the time to visit schools and libraries around Fairbanks, and I took the time to stalk him a little.

The first time I went to see him was at my son’s elementary school, where he talked about reading and writing before the entire school- plus me and my two preschool babies.  But I spent a lot more time chasing my 18 month old up and down the halls than I did in the gym actually listening to Matt.  So that was a bit of a bust.

But that selfsame evening, he was also presenting at the city library and I basically ran out on my family to attend.  (Sorry, honey! *peels away, cackling*)

I arrived right on time, which in Alaska means I was super early.  Matt was sitting back by a book display and I wandered back and forth in front P1070565 (2)of him until he commented on my super cool boots- and who can blame him?  We chattered about our kids and writing and the difference between Fairbanks and Brooklyn weather (and whether he was fine with my writing about him on my blog), and then he popped up to start the program.  It was so perfectly natural that I took heart.  Successful authors are people! Like me! Whoa! (My middle child had told me the week before that authors were actually a literal machine that made books and I think I may have believed him more than I should have.)

I sat in the front row with my notes, clipboard, notebook, and favorite pen (the lady next to me asked if I was a reporter- hahaha no) and happily scribbled away throughout the program, a regular Lois Lane.

(It was a fun listen and Matt even read, for the first time ever aloud in public, the first chapter of a book he just submitted to his editor.  The full program was recorded and will be posted through the Alaska OWL program.  I’ll post the link once it goes up, so remember to check back!)

Afterward, I still had a few questions that didn’t seem appropriate to the whole group.  So I did what any girl looking for an excuse to talk to the author did.  I shelled out for a book (score!) and stood resolutely at the very end of the autograph line. ‘Cause I’m classy like that!  And since he’s so generous with his time, he was (or at least had the good grace to pretend to be) happy to answer my questions in what may possibly be the miniest author interview ever.

(Disclaimer: these are his words as well as I could write them down.  He talks faster than I can write, and I was trying to actually make eye contact and be human here and there, but this is the gist of it.)

Jill: What’s your typical writing day like?

Matt: I get up with my daughter at 5:45, then take her in to my wife.  My wife works all day so this is their time together.  I write from 6:30 to three at my office, and then from three to six, I’m in dad mode.  Of course, this all gets totally disrupted when I’m on the road.  And I’m superstitious about writing, so I have all these writing rituals.  Like, I gotta wear headphones, even when I’m not listening to music, because I wrote this really good scene once wearing headphones.  *laughs*  While I’ve been here in Fairbanks, I’ve been going to the Alaska Roasting Company… mostly because they have good internet, and my hotel room DOESN’T.  So now it’s become another ritual.  I’m down there every day.

Jill: (After joking about stalking him some more at the coffee shop: ) How long did you write with an eye to publication before successful traditional publication?

Matt: Hm.  Well, I started in grad school, for probably at least a year, and then it was another year after that… Yeah, about two years.  I actually got an agent pretty quick, but it took him a while… Took him about a year to sell my first novel.

Jill: How did you find your agent?

Matt: *grins, grabs the signed book* Okay, I got a trick for you.  Find books that are like yours, and then you go to the acknowledgements page.  *scans page*  And… every… one… THERE.  See, that’s my agent.  Steve Malk.  Every author thanks their agent, so it’s like a cheat sheet right in the back of the book.

Jill: What is something that I can do to improve my odds of traditional publication?

Matt: You’ve gotta go to the national SCBWI conference down in LA this summer.  *laughs at my horror face*  Seriously, it’s great.  And everyone there’s just like you and there are agents and editors all over the place.

(Note: I think he mentioned the SCBWI conference specifically because we had been talking about the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators earlier so he knew they were on my radar.  I would guess that any larger writer’s conference would do in a pinch.)

Jill: But… but southern California.  In the summer.

Matt: It’s not that bad!

Jill: You grew up there!

Matt: Seriously, it’s not.  And you’ll meet tons of people.

Jill: *groans* I know…

Matt: *laughs* I get it.  But we’re all introverts.  I know it’s expensive and crowded and stuff, but it’s worth it.  Seriously.  Go.

I whined more about the weather and about claustrophobia, but he held fast.  So I guess I’ll start collecting nickels now and maybe some day, I’ll go.


Readers! I’m curious now- have you ever met a famous author? Did you ask questions? How was it?  Tell me about it in the comments!  I wanna know!

Parting Jill with Money, and Other Miracles

fresh_bread_loavesAnyone who knows me well knows that the only things I willingly spend money on are secondhand books and delicious, delicious foodstuffs. I am more or less the absolute tightest of tightwads in Fairbanks, if not the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.

In January, I was floundering in the depths of writing depression and wanting to throw in the towel, and wanting to cling to the towel forever, and wanting to at least maybe put the towel in a closet somewhere for a few months, and being generally indecisive and pathetic. I was drowning. I wasn’t making any writing headway and I felt like the only way to make that stop was to just sink and be done with it all.

Amongst the zillions of newsletters, blog posts, and announcements clogging up my inbox (it seems I check my emails less when I’m depressed too) was a notice from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that they were doing a ten page manuscript critique with various literary agents and the deadline was coming up soon. I get notices for these things all the time, but always ignore them. But I figured there wasn’t any harm in just checking how much it cost, right? Maybe this was the lifeline I had been hoping for.

Fifty whole dollars. If this says anything about my brain, I think of dollars in terms of the food they can buy me. (Not even kidding. This is absolutely true.) Fifty dollars can get me nine and a half gallons of almondmilk. Fifty dollars is twenty-eight heads of romaine lettuce or, if I’m feeling really fancy, fourteen pounds of arugula. Fifty dollars is fifty-eight pounds of whole wheat flour, which is enough for seventy-six loaves of fresh, hot bread odiferizing my house. Fifty is a lot of dollars.

After the smelling salts burned awareness back into my nostrils, I came to and swore it off. No. No way. Fifty bucks? Think of the groceries! But my husband was a little tired of the nightly tirade about my worthlessness and stupidity and general suckage, and gently encouraged me to just try it. So I figured, ‘Okay. I’ll call it a birthday gift. Maybe I do need this.’ I flung my credit card at SCBWI and ran away sobbing.

A few days later, I chose my critiquer, signed up for the casual group critique as well, sent in my packet, and then did my best not to think about it for the next few weeks. I was so successful at this endeavor that a fresh email from SCBWI caught me by surprise (a mere two days after the pep rally with Paul Greci and the AWG). Cringing, I opened the email to see what my seventy-six-loaves-of-bread dollars had gotten me.

It wasn’t glowing- she didn’t rave about it and beg me to sign with her on the spot. But it wasn’t a let-down either- which is really saying something because when I get in the dumps, I’m hunting for let-downs. My critiquer kindly balanced what was good (and there was more than I was expecting) with what was bad (and there was actually less than I was expecting). She gave me gobs of inline edits, and even more in general thoughts, hopes, problems, and what she loved and wanted more of.gollum27

Like I’d guzzled too much soda, a little bubble of hope welled up in my belly. Maybe the story wasn’t garbage. Maybe I wasn’t garbage. Grumps the Goblin (the voice in the back of my head- he looks like Gollum but with more and pointier teeth) assured me this couldn’t possibly be true, but there was one more chance to test it out. The group critique.

Since a mere handful of us live in the scattered wilds of Not-Anchorage, Alaska, we gathered in a Skype meeting to pick at each other’s scabs. But I didn’t find myself bleeding. Once again, I received generally positive reviews with only a few problems that I already knew about. Even the gal who didn’t like fantasy had good things to say about it. (Take that, Grumps!) Upon request, I shared the critiquer’s review and got another round of feedback, and came out of the whole ordeal feeling shockingly happy.

The icing on the cake? One of the ladies in the critique group- the one who doesn’t like fantasy- emailed me later and told me, “You know, that last line in your critique sounded an awful lot like an invitation to query.” I had thought so too at first, until Grumps had convinced me otherwise. But hearing it from another person opened up the possibility again. Maybe it was. Maybe I should try regardless.

I’m not saying you should all rush out and throw dollars at the first Writer’s Digest class you can find. Flinging money at problems isn’t always the best solution. But in this instance, paying an agent to look at my stuff and tell me it wasn’t trash was helpful. Between this and Paul Greci’s presentation just a few days before, I finally felt ready to start working on publication again. And that extra bit of confidence and encouragement was definitely worth fifty bucks.