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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Practice Makes Almost Perfect

After my last, slightly indulgent post about the agent hunt, I wanted this post to reflect where I am now. I am in reflective, creative mode again. It's strange how you grab onto things floating around that resonate with where your head is at a particular time. I came across this quote on Facebook a few days ago, one of those things that gets shared and spread around. It's a quote by Ira Glass, a writer and radio host from the radio program, This American Life.
This American Life is one of the things I forget to listen to living over here and I miss hearing it. If you've never heard of it, you can listen on-line at the NPR website.

Anyway, I love what Ira Glass says here. I hope you mother writers, no matter what stage of the process you are in, beginner, intermediate, advanced, also find it insightful. I think the growing process is what makes writing so wonderful. You are never done learning.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I like that he focuses on working hard and working regularly.  For me, I get into trouble when the focus is off the writing and on the external, like getting approval or recognition, both of which are important. but can distract me tremendously.  There is no mystique to it, you just have to keep writing and keep improving, no matter how great a writer you have become. It goes with new narratives of success being about lots of hard work and practice, and less about virtuosity. A recent documentary with Ian Rankin talking about his writing process also showed the same thing. He just works hard and gets his head in the zone on a regular basis. And he doesn't make any bones about how this in itself is kind of drudgery some days. But, he's Ian Rankin, so I think he knows it's worth it!

Until next time...get back to work!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

Not too long ago, I was a single girl looking for The One and as I wait to hear back from an agent who has a partial of The Moon Garden, I vividly relate it to the feeling I used to have waiting for a boy I liked to call me.  Today, I've sadly reached the conclusion that agents, as with crushes, don't call if they're not interested.  And as obvious as that seems, let me clarify, if they don't call quickly, they're not interested.

In my limited experience in the agent hunt (I was represented with my first novel), it very much mimics dating.  If they like you, they like you right away and they let you know it.  If they're not interested in you, the clock on the wall ticks loudly and you grasp at excuses why they haven't touched base.  Maybe they really haven't gotten around to reading it, maybe they love it, but are so tied up with their other demanding clients, they haven't found a minute to email.  But, as days turn into weeks, the disappointment sinks in that it's time to keep looking and accept the facts, even as I clutch the computer screen saying, 'just call me, just email me!  I'm not over you!'  To further torture myself, I read success stories on Absolute Write Water cooler about writers who queried the very agent I love who has my partial and how he now represents them after a two week turnaround.  Why do I do it to myself?  I think it helps to move on, like seeing your crush flirting with some other woman.  I'm happy for authors and their success stories, but on the frustrated days, it's like hearing your friends brag about their perfect new boyfriend when you're still single, dating the same man-child in different bodies.

(There is, of course, the option of emailing said agent, but I find it better to at least have some hope than hear a definitive 'no', although I am quickly turning the corner on that one.) 

I didn't intend to write on the agent hunt today, but it's what has kept me from blogging regularly, being so preoccupied by it that I find it hard to get motivated to write anything lately.  So, I thought bringing it up for discussion might help because writing is the only way forward, isn't it?

What are your experiences with the agent hunt?  Those of you with agents, how quickly was the turnaround time for you?  What is the magic number when you decide to put your manuscript away and focus more on something new?  Fifty queries, one hundred, two hundred?  (I won't tell you my number yet.  I'll save that for when I get an agent.)

Keep writing, mother freakin' writers.

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Mighty Girl

We've had a long and unexpected blogging hiatus, but now we're back to our Mother Freakin' Writer ways, and hopefully on a more regular basis.

Something about the fall, when you can just get by without a coat, when the light is tinted in a faded orange, gets the creative juices flowing.  Maybe it's the bittersweet knowing that it won't last and will soon be replaced by a heavy, unforgiving winter.  I was having one of those fall moments watching my little girls walk hand-in-hand up the road the other day.  They were blissfully in synch.  I told myself to remember the picture of their little bodies shuffling along when a huge group of high school girls on their lunch break enveloped us.  A loud chorus of 'she said this' and 'can you believe she did that?' carried us along.  As they thinned out ahead, leaving my girls in their wake, I told myself that I had time, that this was just teenage girl stuff.  Then, we were enveloped again, this time by a crowd of younger girls, some of them looking not much older than 10.  And like their older counterparts, they, too, were to be heard gossiping and mean-girling.  It was disheartening and it inspired me to write this post.  Was it the same for me back when?  Sure.  I can remember the ways in which girlhood had to be abandoned to mimic something strange and foreign, something older.

Maybe I'm willfully naive, but I hope we can give girls some sense of sisterhood, that they can let their lights shine without fearing jealousy and gossip.  But how is this even possible with the myriad of social media out there that foster exclusivity and bullying?

A friend made me aware of 'A Mighty Girl' - a website that sells 'the world's largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls.'  Take a look and see if you find anything inspiring.  I think it will be a go-to source for me in the future.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Interview with J. Anderson Coats, author of The Wicked and the Just

It's taken us a while, with the demands of life with children, to settle on a blog schedule.  From this week forward, we'll be posting once a week.  We hope that way we'll have high quality posts, rather than quantity, with more interviews from mother writers coming in the future.  
Today, we are so lucky to have J. Anderson Coats with us.  Her book, The Wicked and the Just, was out in April 2012, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  She's going to share with us her individual path as a mother writer.  We hope you all get inspired.
How did/do you manage as your children became older? When your children were in pre-school did you have a child care arrangement or family close by? Alternatively did you only write in the evenings? 

When I was barely twenty, I moved across the country.  I got on a plane with a baby on my hip, twenty dollars in my pocket, and a handful of diapers in a carryon over my shoulder.  I landed three thousand miles from family or friends or anything familiar.  In more ways than one, I was a stranger in a strange land when it came to mothering.

I could hardly write at all, but what I did manage came out pure and uncut and straight from the vein in the very early hours of the morning.  I wrote with the kitchen counter holding me up, leaning hard on cold formica and scratching out words one after the other, stark and black, in journals I no longer have.

It did not help that I had one of those children that has lately been tagged with the euphemism spirited but in the late 1990s were at best called high-strung and at worst spoiled.  It was a good day when I got a shower, much less two minutes back to back to collect my thoughts enough to write.  He was in preschool and I was in grad school before I came out the other side and started writing for keeps again.

Ok, how about guilt? Most mothers suffer from this.  Did or do you have any guilt about the time you spent writing? It seems to be a common feeling amongst female writers that they love their time spent writing so much that it makes them feel bad for their family.  

I wish I could say that I’ve never struggled with guilt.  That’s the person I always pictured myself.  But you don’t undo millennia of conditioning with just an exercise in will.

I resisted the voice within that condemned me for not spending every waking instant enriching my kid’s life.  I wondered where the hell it even came from.  I resented the fact that male writers had the cheerful, clueless privilege of closing the office door on a handful of clamoring kids and a sticky kitchen floor without a single emotional penalty.

And I gradually became aware that they didn’t experience emotional penalties because they lacked the social ones.  No one judged them for creating the time and space - physical and psychological in equal measures - to write.  Writers who were also mothers are suffered to be both mothers and writers if we considered those personas in that order: mothers first, then writers.

That’s what started me toward a place where I could reject guilt as the insidious, artificial construct that it was.  Not that it was easy to tell a wailing preschooler that I wouldn’t be playing Legos until the big hand was on the seven, then ignore the resulting tantrum.  But it gave me a blueprint.  It let me redefine myself as a writer on my own terms, not those of a world whose expectations of me defined and confined me by my biology.

Briefly describe your journey as a writer before and after children.  How did motherhood change your writing?  Tell us about the essays you published that sustained you before publishing your book.

I had my son when I was pretty young, but I started writing novels young too.  I wrote my first book when I was thirteen, and before I graduated from high school I’d finished six more, each slightly less bad than the last.

But even though I considered myself worldly and edgy at seventeen, those hardscrabble years of early motherhood put me in a different place, a more thoughtful and humble and restless place - and if I’m honest, a more angry and radicalized place.  That’s when I started producing novels that had any chance of all at being published.

Those years produced the essays too, but sustain really isn’t the right word for what the essays did for me.  Those reflect my attempt to process how I got where I was.  They came from a different place than my fiction, and I needed to write them to get me back to a place where fiction could happen.

Tell us about how you found an agent and how long the process was for you.  Also, how did you manage the editing process around family demands?

I queried four different books over ten years.  This means I sent letters to literary agents asking if they’d like to represent me and my work to editors.  I kept hearing iterations of “thanks, but it’s not for me.”  I kept writing new books and querying and hearing “thanks, but it’s not for me.”  For ten years.  Then in November 2010, I went from being unagented to having a contract for W/J in less than a month.  It was a whirlwind!

What is in the pipeline for you?  When was The Wicked and The Just launched?  Tell us a bit about it and how it felt to publish it.

I’m working on several projects right now.  One is a companion novel to The Wicked and the Just which follows Maredydd ap Madog, whose father is the ringleader of the rebellion of 1294, as he negotiates the future his father wants for him and the future he wants for himself.  Then there’s a standalone book that’s set in twelfth-century Wales about girl con-artist, a warband, an abduction, a badly-timed war, and a charismatic but mercurial king’s son.

W/J came out on 17 April 2012.  Having a book published is a bit like sending a kid to kindergarten.  You spend those early years nurturing and guiding and carefully cultivating the book so it says please and thank-you and looks both ways before crossing.  More often than not, you get to pick and choose its friends and influences.  But then?  You walk your book to the school doors and it walks inside itself.  You have to trust that all those things you did to make it ready really did make it ready, and you have to accept that it’s going to live in the same harsh world you do.  Some people will love it.  Some will hate it.  Some won’t care about it at all.  But you have to let it go and let it be what you’ve made it.  And that?  Is difficult and terrifying and exciting all at once.

Finally, can you give one piece of advice on any aspect of writing that you think would be helpful to others. 

When I was just starting out, I learned this from Elizabeth Bear, a fantasy writer I admire very much: “Learn to write this book.”  There’s no one way to write a book, and every book is going to need something different.  Be openminded and let the needs of each book guide how you write it.  Very often your backbrain will surprise you with the answer you need without you having to think it up.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us today, Jilian!  If you'd like to know more about upcoming books, please visit her website at:

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Green Giant and Wonder Woman

When I was a kid, my Mom never hesitated to open a couple cans of Green Giant to go with our dinner, usually green beans, and if we had been very good, creamed corn.  ‘It’s why God invented cans,’ she would say.  Today, we’re made to feel guilty if the food we serve our children isn’t organic, seasonal, local, Free Trade and free range.

I was thinking this week about how in some ways my mother’s generation was more liberated than my own.  They bought into the liberation of technology, the ease and freedom of food in a box.  Of course, I didn’t know the conversations between women back then, but I do know what they are now, and when I share them with my Mom, she just doesn’t get it.  ‘Just open a couple cans for dinner tonight and forget about it,’ she’d say to my stress about getting a proper meal on the table, one that includes fresh veggies and food group diversity. 

This post isn’t about my Mom’s affinity for those cans of green beans and corn, though.  It’s actually about Wonder Woman, the television show I’d be watching when I could smell that creamed corn simmering on the stove for dinner. Wonder Woman was not afraid to kick some serious butt while wearing lipstick, hot pants and bulletproof bracelets.  She wasn’t apologetic about the duality of her nature.  She was a mother figure, a protector, extremely proficient at hand-to-hand combat, and also an advocate for love and peace.  I want my daughters to love Wonder Woman as much as I did.  They’ve got Dora the Explorer, she’s cute and feisty, but let’s face it, she’s also kind of annoying, and I’ve never seen her in hand-to-hand combat.

This week I’m looking for books (Middle Grade, Young Adult and Adult) with strong and feisty female main characters who embrace their dual natures.  I’d like to highlight books that are promoting girls and women who are strong, fierce, and independent.  Send in your favorites and we’ll post them next week, along with questions to ask the author of the number one suggested book.  

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Interview with Kathryn Burak, author of Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things

We are so lucky to have Kathryn 'Kate' Burak, author of Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things, with us to answer a few questions about mothering and writing.  Her Young Adult novel is set to come out this fall.  She has also been gracious enough to share her essay about her journey as a writer.

Tell us about your book.

Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is  a contemporary, realistic book with a mystery and a good dose of romance.  In my story, the main character, Claire, goes looking for help in understanding her mother's suicide in the poems of Emily Dickinson--and at Dickinson's house, in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Why not?  Dickinson certainly wrote about death often enough.  But then Claire accidentally steals Emily Dickinson's dress, and can't stop thinking about how her best friend just sort of disappeared off the face of the planet.  Somehow these two elements merge into the story that comes attached to Claire's teaching assistant, Tate, who has been reading all her writing and knows more about her than she wants him to.  (At first.)

What's next for you?

With the last three years behind me, I find it no easier to balance being a mom and being a writer.  There are only 24 hours in a day and there's always guilt--I could wake up three hours earlier, cook more, clean (sometimes!).  But what is easier for me is embracing my identity as a writer.  I say, "My part-time job is writing, and so I must write." I also teach full time, and if I have to grade papers or prepare for class, I do that.  Nowadays, I don't feel as guilty about my "other" job as a writer.  I know publishing makes me feel a little more "legit," but aspiring mom/writers shouldn't let not publishing yet get in their way.  Writing is your "other" job. 

Thanks, Kathryn!  I hope you enjoy Kathryn's below essay as much as I did.  We all need to hear these stories as mother-writers!

Mom Writes First Novel by Kathryn Burak

Early that summer, it hit me: I woke up one morning in a bed filled with regrets, with the awful feeling that I might not ever do the things I wanted to do in my life. It was a combination of fear and something else. . .I wasn't sure what. It made me want to sleep.

So I did. I slept for fourteen hours one day. And twelve the next. This went on for about a week. And then I started to feel something else, something more definable and more definite than fatigue.
It was adrenaline.  The next week, I bought a laptop and started to write a novel.

For weeks I got up at 4 am and wrote for 8-10 hours a day, taking half-hour breaks to do the work I was supposed to do that summer, Cleaning The Basement.  Somewhere in the middle of July, I found this box in the basement that made me actually feel ill. It was my old writing--dot-matrix printed pages (that's how old it was) of stories. One box had a copy of a novel I started when I was pregnant with Yoshi--seventeen years before. The manuscript was covered with yellow post-it notes, comments on the draft made by a literary agent who had read my short stories and liked them and had tried to coax a novel out of me. I remembered the story and the notes, but I didn't remember the letter I got from her two years after I sent her the draft.

May 19, 1994
Dear Kate Burak,
I was going through my follow up folder and I realized I had never heard back from you and it occurred to me that you might not have received my message. So this is just to say that I very much enjoyed your stories and your novel and would welcome the opportunity to either read more or hear from you.

I sat down, clutching that letter. The basement was wet and warm and mildewy. I felt sick to my stomach about this letter I never answered. All I could think of was how easy it was, when I was younger, to let things drift away.

At that moment, regret seemed insufficient. The word I needed was deeper, with more of a bellow to it, something that was connected to the notion of gone and lost forever. Something closer to grief.

I took the box upstairs.

My kids were out of camp that week, lying around in those summer, late-afternoon stupors. I showed them my treasure box, and read a little from the novel-in-progress that I worked on while I was waiting to become a mother.

I suppose it's always this way when your mother tells you about how she spent her time before you came to live at the center of her life: it's the story of a stranger--improbable as a world without stars.

You gave all this up for us?  They were sad for me, and at that moment I was sad for me too, but it was also important to tell them this--because of all the things I could say to children about the time they spend on earth, this is the most important--If you are lucky, you get to make choices.

I was lucky.  I chose to make Halloween costumes, and birthday cakes that looked like Pirate ships. I chose to direct school plays and teach poetry workshops. I started a film club and we made great films. I was part of a wonderful group of people who sold pizza for a year and earned enough money to build a labyrinth at my kids' school. I had the pleasure of knowing all their classmates, and sharing with those kids my love of words, and most of all, watching all of them grow up together. It was a great pleasure. It was an enormous pleasure.

I think I chose well. And most significantly, I had the opportunity to choose. And nothing about that is sad.  But it was also important to tell them every choice is a trade. Something for something else.

And that morning earlier that summer when I woke up in bed with all my regrets I was thinking about that, too--of the conscious decisions you make and how they tally up, how they are the sum of your days.

The next day I got up at 4 and wrote for 8 hours. I was, in fact, having the time of my life.  At the end of this summer, I had a book, one I liked. Maybe I could publish this book--who knows? I pulled out the letter from 1994 and googled the agent's name. I assumed she'd gotten really successful since she had her own agency, now. I wrote her an email that started, "Many years ago. . . " And I sent her my novel.

The grief I felt that day in July really did start to shrink. In fact, it was nearly gone. It didn't matter that she would probably never respond to my email, that she might even think I was some kind of loser.

But, there's a little magic to the story. I contacted other agents who offered to represent me, and when I was about to take an offer, I heard from the agent from the past. She was, maybe, interested. How was that possible?

On October 8, 2009, I was digging in my sock drawer for something to wear, and I came up with a little muslin doll I made for Yoshi when she was born. It is a little replica of Emily Dickinson. I embroidered very large eyes and a small Gioconda smile.

Finding this doll was very meaningful since Emily Dickinson is in my new novel and I had been spending many days with her in my head and sometimes out of my head, in the room with me, and the two of us in the woods with a black bear. Elbow deep in socks, holding this little hand-made Emily Dickinson, I had an epiphany.

You can't give up something you truly are. It doesn't just go away.

In some part of my consciousness, I had not ever really set everything adrift. For years the rice was cooking--in a very dormant way--but still, slowly cooking.  And later that very day, fifteen years after she sent me a letter I did not answer, the agent from my past agreed to be my literary agent. After all.

So here's my six word memoir, dated October 8, 2009.

Letter--after fifteen years--finally answered.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

We've been on hiatus since my 17-month old broke my logic board by pushing my laptop off the table. We're back with a post from Val and more interviews with mother freakin' writers coming up this month!

Routine and Productivity by Val Innes

With the school holidays well and truly underway and my mind still relatively intact my mum offered to run the legs off my kids to give me a break. I stuffed some pencils and a notepad in my bag before I ran for hills in case she changed her mind. I ducked into the nearest coffee shop and started to write… of sorts. I made a list. Do you class list-making as “writing”? The list I made was of how much writing progress I had made since last summer. I compared it to the year before (summer 2010-11 for those writers who don’t “do” figures) and what quickly transpired was the ebb and flow of my “creative” periods. In particular, how each year mirrored the last. A natural writing timetable, if you will. However, what my 12 month (and 24) review showed me was that I had, indeed, made headway. Not enough, of course. I wonder - can we ever be satisfied about how much we write? You plug away to get published – in my case features and articles – and when it happens you are exhilarated. But then you just have start scaling the heights again for your next piece. But forging relationships with editors and building a contacts list really has taken shape over the past twelve months. Why, my clippings file is too thick to balance my red wine glass on now! Nb. I generally write once the kids are in bed. What I find most beneficial is understanding how my “writing” clock works and the realisation that the summer holidays are never my most creative. However, it seems that a summer of not actually writing much allows ideas to form because I consistently see a rise in features sold each Jan until May. That tells me that I cocoon and nurture my ideas and then research and sell through the dark, months of winter; moulding and preening them until they are ready to hatch with the coming of the New Year. My writing mirrors a Phoenix by slowly burning and disintegrating during the hot (excuse my wishful thinking) summer months only to rise again from the ashes of the previous year in full colour and bursting with life. Fantastic. I can now relax in the garden with no guilt about lack of writing. But with our weather? Perhaps not!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Interview with Caroline Starr Rose, author of May B.

We are thrilled to have Caroline Rose with us discussing her journey toward publication.  Author of the acclaimed YA book, May B., Caroline offers some helpful insights on mothering and writing.

How did/do you manage the demands of (young) children and writing and did this evolve as your boys became older? You assume that when your children enter school you will have a lot more time, but that often doesn't happen.  When your children were in pre-school did you have a child care arrangement or family close by? Alternatively did you only write in the evenings? 

When my guys were little, I committed to three writing sessions a week. Some would literally last ten minutes, others an hour or two. For several years I had a weekly babysitter who watched them while I dashed to the coffee shop to get some writing in. As you can imagine, my writing happened in fits and starts for quite some time, and I had to decide I was okay with that.

YA author Kiersten White recently posted about mothering and writing. She’s able to do much more than I ever could. That’s okay, too.

Now that my boys are in school, I do have more time. I think going back to teaching for those first two years they both were in school showed me how to squeeze more out of my day, but also showed me I want to live a less hectic, more balanced life. For me, it’s all about sustaining a career long term while working realistically within the season of life I’m facing.

What is your schedule like now that you are published?  Is it easier?  Perhaps being published only gives you a different set of obstacles? There is a pressure to keep performing well and meeting deadlines as it is such a privilege to be published, especially in these times of economic difficulties and book-buying habits are changing.

Honestly, it is easier now that I’m published. It’s beneficial to have deadlines my family is aware of and work I can truly call a job. In those pre-publication/apprenticeship years, my family supported my pursuit of publication but didn’t always understand the process. Twelve years of rejection starts to look like insanity even to the most devoted of spouses. I remember my husband asking a few years back, “Does this make you happy?” Right or wrong, there’s a level of legitimacy that comes from a book deal.

Once published, there is a one-book-a-year expectation/aspiration that can both invigorate and terrify (at least in my experience). The wonderful thing about the children’s market during this economic downturn is sales in this market continue to be strong. The theory is that while before the downturn parents would buy a book for their children and themselves, now those parents are forgoing their own books but still buying for their children. Add to this the really strong sales of several YA titles these last few years, and things look rather positive. Unfortunately, a number of established editors lost their jobs as publishing houses streamlined (many have re-invented themselves as agents), and houses are taking on fewer books as a precautionary measure, but ultimately, the state of the children’s market is good.

Ok, how about guilt? Most mothers suffer from this.  Did you have any guilt about the time you spent writing? It seems to be a common feeling amongst female writers that they love their time spent writing so much that it makes them feel bad for their family.  

There’s always guilt about mothering, isn’t there? Absolutely I’ve experienced writing-related guilt. I also think, though, that it has been incredibly beneficial for my boys to see me set high goals and not bow in the face of rejection. It’s also good for them to know I have “assignments” just as they do.

I won’t lie: the fact that they’re in school and are more free to entertain themselves during summer vacation takes a lot of pressure off. Still, I need to remember to be present when I’m with them. It’s easy to keep living in my head and not fully engage my family when I’m away from writing. It’s something, I think, I’ll always struggle with.

Briefly describe your journey as a writer before and after children. 

I started writing seriously in 1998 while teaching full time. My first boy was born in 2001, the second in 2003. Until they both were in school, I aimed for the three-times-a-week goal. It was reasonable, and any work beyond that felt like a bonus. Once they both were in school, I jumped into writing full time. Just a few months into the year, a teacher at their school abruptly left, and the principal asked me to take her job. It was in my exact areas of certification. As difficult as it was to write, teach, and mother, I loved those years. Writing-wise, I returned to the schedule I kept while teaching pre-children: drafting in the summer and revising during the school year (I had little creativity to work with by the end of the day). The contact with real, live children was great as far as inspiration went.

I left teaching (for the second time) after two years without any publishing leads but with the conviction it was time to try writing full time. Four months later, I signed with an agent. MAY B. was on submission for four months and sold at auction.

What is in the pipeline for you?

I have a picture book called OVER IN THE WETLANDS coming out in 2014 (also with Schwartz and Wade / Random House Children’s Books). It’s loosely based on the traditional rhyme, “Over in the Meadow,” and follows the animals of the Louisiana coast as they prepare for and withstand a hurricane.

I’m also working on a new historical verse novel and am toying with reviving some years-old manuscripts (though I’m not sure they’re publication worthy).

Finally, can you give one piece of advice on any aspect of writing that you think would be helpful to others. 

Plow to the end of the row. I heard this NPR interview in 2004. It has sustained me for years.

Thanks for the opportunity, ladies!

Thanks to you for sharing your experiences!  Carrie has a fantastic website and you can visit her at:

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Pacing a Novel and Pacing Yourself

Have you ever read a book that seemed to go nowhere and then suddenly it picked up speed and blasted off three-quarters of the way through?  Having just finished such a novel, I have been thinking about pacing.  Pacing a novel is really tricky.  I’m not an expert on it by any means.  I think most writers find it incredibly challenging.  If not done correctly and well, pacing can make a novel slow to a grinding halt or speed up to the point of distraction.

I’ve been reading a lot about pacing recently and I think the very best advice I have found was the simplest.  That advice is:  pacing means constant change.  To me, that means that each chapter in a book should be its own distinct scene with enough of its own conflict to drive the main conflict forward.  That sounds so simple and nice, but it is one of the hardest things to do well when writing.

Pacing in writing brings me to the parallel of pacing as a parent.  Pacing has been on my mind since my youngest has recently decided at 16 months that she no longer will take naps during the day.  I will surely miss those four hours during the day to write!  So, I have to learn to pace myself differently now and be willing to alter my writing schedule to accept the constant change that youngsters require.  One thing parenthood has taught me is that, like it or not, change is the only constant.  So, I’m getting there with the pacing as a parent thing. 

Pacing a day with a small child is a lot like pacing a novel.  You don’t want to use all your great stuff early in the day, then you’ll be left with nothing at the end, you’ll be exhausted and children are the toughest critics when you’ve run out of tricks.

What are your thoughts on pacing?  When do you know you’ve done it well and when do you know it's not working?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Interview with Janey Louise Jones, author of the Princess Poppy series

We are thrilled to be back from vacation and have Janey Louise Jones, author of the Princess Poppy series answering some questions about writing and mothering.
How did/do you manage the demands of (young) children and writing and did this evolve as your boys became older? You assume that when your children enter school you will have a lot more time, but that often doesn't happen.  When your children were in pre-school did you have a child care arrangement or family close by? Alternatively did you only write in the evenings? 

I chose to write picture books as I did not have time for long complex plots. I wrote in snatched moments mostly, although my mother did take the boys at points, or at least one or two of them which made a huge difference. Evenings and nap times were the best times in the pre-school days, then there was a phase, like most people, where I had school and pre-school children which is a very bitty stage as your have the school run but not the freedom associated with it. If I tried to write in naps, the problem was that I often had to abandon the writing at a critical stage when the children woke up, but I do think mothers get used to doing things piecemeal. And those stages pass too quickly and here I am with teenage children. 

What is your schedule like now that you are published?  Is it easier?  Perhaps being published only gives you a different set of obstacles? There is a pressure to keep performing well and meeting deadlines as it is such a privilege to be published, especially in these times of economic difficulties and book-buying habits are changing.
My schedule is still based round family life, and with older children weekends and holidays can be quite useful for writing as they tend to plan lots of their own activities now, or go away for a whole weekend with Duke of Edinburgh events and so on. I love the fact that if I work across a weekend, I can take it easier at other times. With writing, sometimes you have to write when the ideas come. If I get ideas and can;t get to my computer, then I jot down notes.
Ok, how about guilt? Most mothers suffer from this.  Did you have any guilt about the time you spent writing? It seems to be a common feeling amongst female writers that they love their time spent writing so much that it makes them feel bad for their family.  Do you think male writers feel guilt?
I possibly felt guilty if I snuck off to finish a line while they were playing, or if I let them watch a DVD so I could check my e-mails, but on the whole, I feel they have benefited from my career in terms of provision for them, exciting visits to festivals and access to lots of books. The flexibility of my career has meant that I have never missed anything important for them through business. But I should stress that authors of complex full length novels really do need a better routine than I have described here, or the plot would suffer. I'm not sure about male authors...I would guess that some prefer to focus on and finish one job at a time, so the routine I've had of bits and pieces of writing, cooking and childcare might not suit some.

Briefly describe your journey as a writer before and after children.  This would be interesting to any readers as I understand you initially published Princess Poppy yourself? 

I always wanted to be a writer and always wrote stories, but it was a big burst of ambition which came from wanting to stay at home with the children, yet be creative and provide for them, which led to Princess Poppy. I made ten books and tried them in local shops, then WHSmith ordered 20,000 and that was the day I knew it was all going to be okay. Having children has made me make better use of my time and plan well. I also feel that the content of my books is relevant because of my mothering.

What is in the pipeline for you?

I am working on a series for Usborne called Angel Academy, about a training school for young angels! 

And my new digital series SUPERFAIRIES can be found at 

My main website is

Finally, can you give one piece of advice on any aspect of writing that you think would be helpful to others. 

Finish one story. Most people talk of giving up half way through. Just get it down then tinker, but don't have that feeling that you'll finish it another day! It is hard to get noticed nowadays, but publishers always need new stories so don't give up.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Les Meres Sont En Vacances

Mother Freakin' Writers is on a two week vacation where we will recharge our mother freakin' selves to continue our writing and mothering.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Points of View by Harry Bingham

We are so happy to have Harry Bingham from the Writers' Workshop with us today, discussing POV.  

Anna asked me to expound a little on points of view in fiction – just the little matters of “how to get it right, how to successfully deal with writing from multiple POVs and how to adequately get inside other characters’ heads by using only one POV… It's an issue that comes up a lot when I review on You Write On stories and even more seasoned writers could use some tips on the subtler angles of [the issue].”

Well, yes, I agree – though funnily enough the very first thing to say about the topic is that your first instinct about how to deal with the matter is quite likely correct. If you’ve always conceived of your novel as having a single first-person narrator, you should probably do just that. If you’ve always seen your narrative as having multiple (probably third-person) viewpoints, then, once again, that’s probably right. Indeed, part of the trouble with the topic is that the more you analyse it, the more complicated it seems to become. Complicated and technical in a way that seems quite opposed to the flow of good, natural creative writing.

So the first message is simply: relax. If you have a vision, go with that vision and you can if necessary tweak things at the editing stage. (Though that’s not giving you permission to make a complete mess of things – see my warning later in this piece.)

Secondly, you need to figure out who your protagonist is. Jonathan Franzen once said, ‘Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.’ That’s a good rule of thumb. Bridget Jones was a fab (first-person) book because of the force and naturalness of Bridget’s voice. The upside of this choice is that you get intense intimacy with your protagonist. You literally see with their eyes, think their thoughts, and so on. The downside is that inevitably you see less into other people. But so what? We humans can’t simply peer inside any skulls we happen to be interested in. We deduce things about other people from what they say, do and manifest. So if you’re writing in the first person, just figure these things out the way you do in your ordinary life. Just be a human. That’s simple, no?

(As an aside, I’d also add that intimacy with character applies as much to the writer as the reader. I’ve written plenty of third person – and mostly multi-protagonist – fiction in the past. Then I embarked on my first ever first-person novel, Talking to the Dead. The central character of that book, a certain Fiona Griffiths, came storming into my head and has never left me since. She’s like an incredibly intense, strange, but welcome intruder. And she could kick Lisbeth Salander’s butt.)

The next main option is to have a single protagonist about whom you write in the third person. You tend to lose a little intimacy here, because although you can listen in to your character’s thoughts and feelings, your expression of those things will normally belong to you rather than your protagonist. (Though the latter’s expressive habits will quite likely creep in a bit anyway.)

The gain, however, is flexibility. So take, for example, Hitchcock’s differentiation between surprise and suspense. If my first person protagonist happens to be sitting for fifteen minutes at a table, beneath which a bomb has been primed and planted … well, she doesn’t know that she’s in peril, so there’s no suspense, only surprise. If you write the same scene from the third person perspective, you can introduce the information about the bomb beforehand, then have the exact same scene play out in a frenzy of tension and suspense. The protagonist may be unaware of her danger, but the reader sure as hell isn’t.

Finally, you can opt to really broaden your novel out: combining multiple major characters and third-person narration. Veronica Henry is one example of an author who succeeds with this kind of technique. Tom Clancy (not normally thought of as similar to Veronica H) is another.

The trick here is to make sure that every character who enjoys significant page space through the course of the novel has their own fully-fledged story. You know what I mean: a challenge, an obstacle, a series of adventures, mounting jeopardy – all that jazz. Clearly that rule doesn’t apply to genuinely minor characters: like a Tom Clancy coastguard captain whose only role in the book is to be the first to die in whatever conflict is brewing up. But certainly any character with more than 20% of the book is a major character and has to have a story. No exceptions. No get-out clauses.

If you take this route, you will enjoy loads of flexibility and breadth in your narrative. The downside: well, you’ll never get the degree of intimacy with character that you have when you have the reader in the first-person shoes of a single protagonist. As a VERY general rule, the more external focus of your story, the more likely you are to pick a multi-protagonist, third-person approach. The more personal and internal the focus, the more likely you are to go for the single protagonist and (possibly) first-person approach.

If this short guide doesn’t answer every question – well, it can’t. Most POV issues are simple and your gut instinct is normally right. But there are exceptions and there are complexities. As it happens, I’ve written about the technicalities at length in my How To Write book, technicalities which take up almost 25,000 words of text. (Though admittedly, the discussion isn’t solely about points of view, but also such things as authorial irony, past tense vs present tense, unreliable narrators and so forth.) If you’re mired in those complexities, then one last bit of advice: it is worth sorting them out before you do anything else at all. Because if you do make a mess of points of view, the consequences in terms of the surgery needed on your manuscript may be horrendous. I’ve certainly seen manuscripts which basically needed to be ditched and rewritten from scratch because their authors got in a tangle on these things.

Does that sound scary? Well it ought to, a bit. But there are plenty of places to get help. My book is one place to go. Writing courses, writing circles and other places where you can exchange thoughts with professionals can also be incredibly valuable. And also, of course, reading fiction is the best possible resource you can have. You want two first person narrators? Well, why not? That’s what Audrey Niffenegger did in Time Traveler’s Wife. You want a multi-narrator dual time-stranded novel? Be my guest: Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers did just that. Hey, you want to fool around and try a first-person plural narration? Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and watch a master at work.

I hope all that helps – and good luck!

Harry Bingham is the author of various books and also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers feedback on writing and a variety of writing courses.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Point of View

Being a mother freakin’ writer means my days are filled with a lot of mothering with some writing squeezed in.  I try to read as much as I can whenever I can and there are piles of books on my bedside table, which I slowly make my way through.

Recently I finished a book with various quotes of praise from other writers all over the front cover.  And yet, I waded laboriously through the entire thing, annoyed by the characters, by the writer’s slight pretentiousness, giving up hope the plot was ever going to go anywhere about three-quarters of the way through.  I have a hard time abandoning a book, so I stuck with it and finished it, albeit a skimming-kind of finishing. 

After finishing the book, I tried pinpointing where the big problem was for me because I love literary fiction, even the kind that rarely gets published, the plot-less kind that pulls you into another world with interesting, compelling characters.  This book should have been that kind of literary fiction, but for me, it fell flat, and one of the main problems in the book was one with point of view or POV.  The narrator in the book was a character with an omniscient point of view which did not work very well because I kept wondering how the narrator knew things that only other characters would know if the narrator was also a character.

Point of view is tricky business when writing and when done well, a reader is confident in the world a writer creates.  When not done well, a story feels as messy as a kid’s room after a play date.  Point of view confusion leaves a reader wondering who’s in charge.

Point of view can be tackled from multiple angles.   It isn’t always one narrator that can tell a story.  Several characters can have their own points of view, but they must be tackled in distinct chapters or in passages that are separate from other points of view.  Even seasoned writers can slip with point of view, because a writer knows what another character would think or feel, but they can’t leave their main character to hop inside another’s head, even for a minute. 

Since point of view is such a huge topic, we are so lucky and excited to have a guest blogger on Friday.  Harry Bingham from The Writer’s Workshop is with us, writing all about Point of View and answering some of our best questions.  So tune in Friday for some more about POV.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Chicken Soup For Writers by Val Innes

This blog is all about support. It is also about encouragement and sharing the roadblocks that pop up along the pathway to publishing.  But how about inspiration? Now there is a word that I like.  For writers (and slightly jaded and battered parents) inspiration is what we are all about.  Children can notice detail that slip past our consciousness but can be amazing.  Simple things such as the reflection of a rainbow in a giant puddle in the park.  Sharing these moments with your kids, and, in turn, opening your eyes to see (excuse the cliché) “the bigger picture” take root in a writer’s mind and materialise sometime later in your work.  I hope the moment is also stored in my mental photograph album and I can reminisce when I am an old lady.  In short, everything we see can inspire us.
But writers need to use inspiration in the face of adversity; when you hit that seemingly insurmountable wall during the writing process and this is when we should be able to turn to other writer’s (or parent’s) experiences.  Each of our knocks and many of our successes can keep the blocked and/or depressed writer going in their moment of need.

I was thinking it would be nice to have a little inspirational writing bible that I could flick through (or if you are a kindle user, scroll) to boost a flagging creative streak and one day, perhaps, I could add my own words of wisdom.  Yes, we all have a couple of self-help books on our shelves and I’ll bet you have at least one “writing to get published” texts but I am looking for anecdotes, tips and a statement that will inject some inspiration directly into my system.  

It turns out there is such a book.  Or, there will be. And, for writers who have a wonderful, uplifting tale to tell, you can be paid for it.  “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers: 101 Motivational Stories for Writers…”  needs YOUR stories.  They want to hear about your successes, setbacks and everything in between.  A bit like this blog but with the potential for money to be made… and that doesn’t happen too much does it? 

So after you comment on “Motherfreakinwriters” check out for details.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Really Over-Writing Very Much

Yesterday my youngest put a plastic spoon in my mouth.  She belly laughed when she pulled it out again.  This exchange went on for about twenty minutes.  Completely entertained by the moment at hand and by a plastic spoon, she was having a moment of pure joy.  It’s the age-old story; you buy them tons of toys, hoping to capture their imagination, and they prefer a plastic spoon, or a box, just any interaction with you being fully present.  It’s the simple things that make them the happiest.

The whole plastic spoon incident made me think about writing and creating a story.  You start with a simple idea and you build on it, quilting together characters, a plot line, tension, tempering it with, you hope, the right amount of pacing.  And it can be hard to know when to stop and when you’ve written enough.  A story is never over.  It’s just like a painting.  Both are finished when they’re ready to be shared, but finding that point can sometimes be tricky. 

Which brings me to the topic of over-writing.  Over-writing is getting really excited about what you have to say and saying it…too much.  It’s the fancy battery-operated toy that blinks and sings in five languages when a simple cardboard box will do.  It’s squinting really hard to channel the Muse when simply looking out the window and finding one simple word after looking at a cloud will do. 

I over-write when I’m not feeling confident in something in my story, either in a character, an interaction, a setting, or even where the plot is going.  It signals to me that I need to step back, take a deep breath and look out the window.  It tells me to be brutal, and ‘kill my darlings,’ as they say, and really examine what is causing me to over-write.

Over-writing is like over-parenting.  It stems from lack of confidence and it weakens what you are intending to say or do.  It can force you to go back to the cardboard box, to dive in and just say it, because it’s your voice and you should use it without apologies.

Do you find that over-writing is a symptom of a problem within your story?  How do you pin-point it and how hard do you find it to ‘kill your darlings’?  

Friday, 11 May 2012

It's All In The Name by Val Innes

Because of continued IT problems I turned my attention to my manuscript.  I wrote it eighteen months ago and has been buried under a pile of magazine cuttings on advice about how to develop characters, show not tell and finding an agent.  These snippets of information were supposed to help me over the fear of editing the manuscript but instead, I forgot the 86,073 words that lay festering beneath.
When I finished the novel I felt fulfilled; like I had reached the end of a journey. I now believe the writing of the story is the easy part.  Trying the take apart each character, subplot and excessive description felt like I was ripping out my soul.  So instead I put it aside to give the plot time to sink in for I felt I knew the story word for word and as Anna touched on in her last blog, it is difficult to self-edit.
But here I am, more than a year later picking it up and facing the fear.  I re-read my first three chapters. Whoops, it has 22 characters, five of their names begin with “A” and three of them are main characters!  I even had a female called “Rowan Beech”. Naming her after species of trees? What had I been thinking?  She wasn’t even the willowy, natural girl her name implied, but a sullen teenager padded with puppy fat and dominated by a nest of unruly black hair.
Turning back to my “advice” cuttings, it seems that a mistake we often make is giving unisex names to characters.  I have one called “Alwyn” - I don’t even know where that came from but I can’t bear to change it because she has BECOME Alwyn in my mind. Female friends who have read the manuscript like her name; male readers can’t decide what sex she is…! 
Art imitates life for me though, because people are confused by my children’s names.  My daughter has a name that can be attributed to a boy and my sons could be a nickname for a girl!  So my parenting and writing choices parallel each other. Since I can’t change my kid’s names, I will set about thinking of new ones for my book.  Do I sound like an amateur novelist? How do you choose your character names? Do you think they are important? I am interested to hear but don’t rush… it might take me another eighteen months to get around to looking at the manuscript again!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Self-editing and Repetition, Self-editing and Repetition

When you’re answering to children all day, you can become a bit repetitive, and you have to get creative about your answers, hoping one magical construction of words will sink in.  Oftentimes, the words don’t sink in, no matter how hard you try, especially if the answer that the kid wants is ‘I will do that for you right now, my sweet.’  So you just have to abandon the topic and hope to build a new one.  Which brings me to the topic of the day:  self-editing.

Self-editing is tricky.  It’s easy to overlook mistakes in your own writing, mistakes that would pop out on the page screaming at you in another’s work.  Self-editing is hard because we can be so close to our own work, that we need to step back from it and come in with fresh eyes.  This is not always easy if you are driven to finish your work on a deadline.  But that extra space and time means you will look at your work more critically and with less protectiveness than if you plow through in one go.  I admit, I am not good at stepping away.  I feel like I’ve abandoned a baby with a dirty diaper and want to rush in and make it all better right away.

After editing for typos, and punctuation, I start reading my work aloud, and that’s when I come across the biggest changes that need to be made, see the weaknesses in dialogue, the inconsistencies, and the areas that aren’t working.  When reading my work aloud, I start seeing repetition.  For example, in my first novel, I was in love with using the word ‘just’.  It was just everywhere and just served no purpose.  Little words like this can clutter a good story and weaken it even without us being able to pinpoint why.  So, I slashed a ton of ‘justs’ and the manuscript did not suffer.  In my latest manuscript, I peppered ‘breezes’ of various kinds too frequently throughout.  A friend editing my manuscript pointed out how often I used the word ‘breeze’.   It was kind of mind boggling that I never noticed that before, even after reading it aloud to myself.  There were breezes coming through windows, across porches and downtown streets.  Maybe living in cold Edinburgh, I subconsciously long for those Texas breezes that break the stifling heat.   If you have a friend or several friends who can point these repetitions out for you, then beg and plead for them to read your work.  And return the favor as much as possible.

Which brings me to my last point, gentle reader (I had to use that, having found out this weekend that some writers love using this in their work and that it ticks off agents).  Self-editing, I think, can go only so far.  It’s like parenting in a vacuum. Those eyes from other writers are as invaluable as exchanging tips with other mothers.  It takes a village to raise a child and a room full of grumpy writers to raise a novel.  It’s a huge ask to have people read a long manuscript, but if you can exchange editing with other writers, do it!  Take it seriously and it will come back to you when you need it.  Which reminds me, off to edit a friend’s manuscript who has been patiently waiting for it for two weeks now! 

How do you self-edit?  What do you find when you read your own work aloud? 

Friday, 4 May 2012

Creating Minds

Apparently, according to recent scientific studies, your brain is always at work being creative and creativity is not a process reserved just for ‘creative’ people.  We all possess different creative skills.  And according to the same studies, states of relaxation are essential for moments of insight that fuel our most creative ideas.  So, if you’re a mother freakin’ writer, those moments of calm and peace are good times to let your brain relax and do the work for you, to let those little baby chickens incubate until they are ready to hatch. 

Also, again according to the same studies, creativity is actually much more social than we’ve wanted to believe, shelving the myth of the lone genius.  Learning this made me realize that feeding my social life is as important and vital to my well-being as it is to my writing.  So, I don’t need to feel so guilty about having fun once in a while.  It’s making me more creative!

Edinburgh is full of creative moms and apparently cities like this become centers of creativity because they force us to interact and these experiences feed our creativity.  Along with the above points on creativity, studies show that both single-mindedness and persistence are essential keys to creative success, not just raw talent.  So those old adages about persistence really are true.

It occurred to me after listening to a Radio 4 program on creativity that discussed these studies, (thanks to it being pointed out to me by another creative mom), that all these aspects of creativity are closely aligned with being a mother.  Often it is in those moments of calm and relaxation that we find clarity in a parenting issue, and often in our persistence and consistency as mothers, we see our children responding positively to the safety of the boundaries we are providing.

How do you feed your creative mind?  Do you pin board, note-take, go for walks or creative meet-up groups?  How do you find this helps increase your creativity?