Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lessons from the Yard

Let me tell you the story of a fountain. First, you should know that I love water. I mean LOVE water. But I live in a desert valley. I had this idea many years ago that I should add a water feature to my yard. And a friend had one for sale. Perfect.

So. I bought the fountain. It's made from a special resin stuff that looks like real granite and weighs like it, too. This fountain stands about 4 feet tall and has three tiers. It's fabulous.

My friend didn't have a working pump. No problem. I bought one. My hubby even installed an outdoor outlet so I could plug it in. I put it next to our garage in the back yard, where I could enjoy it from my patio or my dining room table. Three problems became immediately apparent. 1) It was hard to find the perfect power for the pump. One pumped the water so hard it just splashed all over the yard. Another was so little that it created barely a trickle. 2) My dog loves water, too. In fact, she drank out of the fountain and played in the water reservoir, thereby using up all the water, leaving the fountain dry. 3) I had little kids at the time and little time to go out to the yard to fill the reservoir, keep the dogs out of trouble, or remember to turn off the fountain when the weather got cold. Ruined the pump. Therefore, we unplugged the fountain until further notice.

The troublesome dogs.

But did I give up on it? Not at all. I always knew I would find the perfect fit for the fountain. Years later, when I tore up my front lawn and replaced it with a water-thrifty landscape, I decided to move the fountain out front. That solved one problem: the dogs don't go in the front yard. But, I also don't have an outdoor outlet in the front. I had a plan, though. I'd get a solar powered water pump and eliminate the need for electricity altogether.

It took a while--read: several years--to find a solar powered fountain pump. I could find solar powered pond pumps and other almost-fountain pumps. Finally, I found one. But I had another problem. The solar panel had a wire that only stretched about five feet, and I had placed the fountain under a giant elm tree, so I couldn't get the solar panel to a spot with enough sun throughout the day to power the pump for more than a couple of hours.

So we moved the fountain to a spot by the front door, which gets much more sunlight than under the tree. Problem solved. Bonus: get to enjoy the fountain every time I go in and out of the house.

But. . .turns out the solar panel wasn't really that powerful and even with more sunshine, it still didn't pack enough punch for me. Hubby noted that the thing weighed far too much for us to move anymore, and I would have to find a way to make it work in that location. Solution: buy a more powerful solar panel/powered pump. Again, it took a while to find one, and when I finally did, the tree had overgrown most of the front yard, blocking the available sun and limiting the solar power.

Okay. I'm not a quitter. We'd go back to electricity, so hubby found a way to run a power cord through a window with a weather protective box to cover the plug. I bought a new electric pump. Beautiful. Almost there.

Almost? The electrical works. The pump is the right power. The dogs can't bother it. What now? Little tweaks. The water tube sometimes falls down inside the fountain. The reservoir dries up in the 100-degree heat. Sometimes leaves and gunk block up the water intake filter in the pump. These are small problems. I keep tweaking them, because when the fountain is running, I can sit on my living room couch and hear the sound of water through the front window. When I go outside to dig in the dirt, the water trickles through and I can pretend I live along a creek. And now my kids are grown, so I have the ease of going outside to tend the fountain whenever I want, without the distraction of diaper changes, bloodied knees, and arguments over who gets the last popsicle.

Where I pretend I am when my fountain is running.

What does this have to do with writing? Creative thinking. Persistence. Revision. Problem solving. Working until you get it right. Making dreams and goals happen, no matter what.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer Doldrums

It's hard to keep up our writing routines this time of year. Kids are home. The outdoors beckons. We take vacations. The heat makes us lazy. There's a lot of yard work, and we have to deal with all that stuff from our gardens and fruit trees. We have add things like summer camps and similar scouting and church activities. It's a wonder we can get any writing done at all, if we do.

So what can we do about it? How do we keep from destroying our writing habits? Here are a few ideas.

Reset Expectations

Maybe you can't write for an hour every day. How about twenty minutes three times a week? Whatever your schedule allows, try to do it. You might keep up your usual routine, but any kind of routine at all is better than a summer of no writing at all.

Mini Retreats

Do you have friends who write? Are you part of a writing group? Sometimes you can jump start your writing by getting together with other writers. Meet wherever you can, even if only for a couple hours, and write away. You can spend some of the time socializing or discussing writing problems, but make sure you leave plenty of time to write. One tip: don't get together in somebody's home. That's not going to work for the host. Unless, of course, there's nobody else at home and so it's quiet and comfortable with minimal distractions.

Prioritize Your Writing Days

Set regular writing days and decide that you won't do anything else until you've written to your goal, whatever that is. Make sure your family knows that you are unavailable for that time, but that you'll do whatever they want and whatever else needs to be done when you've finished. This works best, of course, if you don't have small children and you have a somewhat private writing area. You might have to start early or stay up late, whatever works best for you, to avoid all those other things you need to do. You might not be able to do this every day, but if you have scheduled writing days and your family understands that you need that writing time and that it's your time, it can work.


You might be too tired to write by the time things quiet down at night, but that gives you time to deepen the research for your story. You can either read a book or, if you don't have time to devote to that, surf the web. While surfing the web, you can make a list of potential agents.

Just Accept It

Finally, you might just have to accept that summer is not a good time for you to write. If you have young kids who are out of school or other summertime distractions, you might have to take the summer off, or accept that your production will take a nose dive. If you're in this situation, just accept it. Don't feel guilty. You have priorities, and some of those might be higher than writing. There's no shame in that. You haven't failed. You're doing what's most important to you during those months. It's OK. It can actually be a good thing. Sometimes it helps your story if you can set it aside for a while and let it simmer. Your brain is still working, and you'll come back to the work with fresh eyes when school starts. Those fresh eyes will help you identify weak places you didn't see when you were in the heat of creativity.


These are just a few suggestions. Maybe something else works for you. The point is, if you need a different routine in the summer, or if you're not able to write as much, it might just be the way things are for the life you want to live. Summer won't last forever.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pinterest and Your Novel

By Julie Daines

The other day I had the most wonderful surprise. A reader read my book, Unraveled, and loved it so much she created a Pinterest board for it with a few pictures that sparked her imagination about certain elements of the story.

I can't believe I didn't think of that. What a great way to share fun visuals with readers. I started thinking how Pinterest could be used as a promotional tool, as a forum to draw readers together to share something they love, or as an idea generator while drafting.

Here is a link to her awesome Pinterest board. It's only got seven pictures, but it captures the novel perfectly.

I'm not always the best at using all the tools at hand when it comes to writing and promoting.

I'd love to hear ideas from all of you on ways you've seen Pinterest--or any of the social media platforms--used in any part of the writing process.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Another WIFYR come and gone

James Dashner, Carol Lynch Williams, Lisa Mangnum, Ann Cannon, agents, and an editor. Another fantastic WIFYR is in the books.

I don’t know how Carol Williams manages to pull this magical week off every year, but she does. And keeps up on her personal writing. And plays Mom to her five daughters. The lady is amazing. She can dance, too.

Ann Cannon was awesome again. We had a baker’s dozen in our workshop this year. When the enrollment looked small, Ann had assigned 20 pages to share. Then one of the instructors dropped out and our class absorbed some of those writers and critiquing that many pages from so many people became a task. Certainly not in negative way. There is something rewarding about working with other writers, all helping each other lift their craft.

One of my favorite presenters was Lisa Mangum. She had a session on pitching your work and another on reader grabbing first lines and openings. For pitching, it depends on the situation. She touched on the tradition 30 second “elevator” pitch, but sometimes you may not have that much time. At a book signing at Costco, for example, you may have only two seconds to interest someone. She gave suggestions for boiling down your book to it’s essence for situations like that.

John Cusick, agent for Greenhouse Literary Agency and a fiction writer on his own, gave an inspiring presentation. One of his tricks for staying on task during his writing moments is a timer program that does not allow email or internet interruptions. As far as pushing yourself to write, he said, nobody cares if you don’t finish your novel. I care.

Those were just a few of the many intriguing and energizing moments. Start stashing away your nickels and quarters now because Carol will be bringing this conference back again next June.

(This article also posted at

Friday, July 25, 2014


I'm not writing today to share advice. I'm asking you to share it with me (well, us). I have to admit that as a teacher of journalism, published journalist, playwright, and personal historian, I am pretty comfortable with my writing skills. Hey, there is always more to learn, but I feel like I have solid footing there.

What I am truly, desperately, profoundly lacking in is even the desire to query when it comes to some of my children's stories. I am so fond of them that I'm almost terrified to let them out into the world—the cliche overly protective mother. And thus, without having had to practice, I am still not happy with or comfortable with writing query letters.

Yes, I have the books. I know the structure. I know the rules and recommendations. But I would love to hear what you, Utah children's writers, my fellows in the trenches, have learned from your own experiences with query letters.

What was the best advice you received on writing queries? How do you decide whom to query first? Do you dare "menage a queri" (you know, in multiples)? What little tricks have helped you write or even want to write these nasty little oversimplified descriptions of your precious darlings? (Ahem.) That is to say, when staring down the Writer's Market, where do you focus your efforts?

When it comes to queries, what has worked, or conversely, what would would you never ever do again? Give us your best, worst, funniest query stories.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pantsing aka Free Writing

It wasn’t until I went to the last LTUE in Provo that I first heard the term “pantsing,” short for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I attended the panel on the topic and found it to be one of the most liberating writing panels I’ve ever sat in on.
I’ve known for a while that writers pretty much divide themselves into two camps: outliners and free writers. Both camps have their pros and cons. Outliners have the big advantage of being organized in how they approach their writing, so they know exactly what’s going to happen before they write it and they don’t have to do as much rewriting and editing later. Free writers, on the other hand, seem to have no idea what they want to write until they start writing. They just get words on the page, and only later do they go back and make sense of it. This often allows their writing to be more organic and natural, whereas outliners can be more confined by their structure (emphasis on can). However, free writers have to put in at least ten times the work that an outliner does, because they have to go back and redo everything many, many times after their initial creative word-vomit session.
I’m definitely a free writer. Many, many times I have wished I could be an outliner. It just sounds so much easier. It’s such a struggle for me to define in advance what my characters are going to do. One of the writers on the panel at LTUE put it this way: pantsers often have the characters of a story come to us first, and we just don’t know what we want to do with them yet. We like letting the characters “decide” for themselves, which basically just means we prefer to figure that out as we go, using the character we know in our head as the guideline.
There were many times that I felt like maybe I was less of a real writer because outlining was so hard for me. That’s why that LTUE panel had me feeling so validated. I realized how many other writers there are out there who are like me, and yet are still successful. I realized it was ok to be a pantser, as long as I recognized both the benefits and pitfalls to this method of writing, and adjusted accordingly.
Here are a few important tips for successful pantsing (hopefully I’ll get good at following all of these one day):
·         You CANNOT edit as you go. If you let yourself go back and fix things before you finish your first draft—you will never finish that first draft. Also, you never know when something you went back and changed might have turned out to be just what you needed after you finish. Leave it alone, finish your first draft, no matter how crappy, and leave the editing for later.
·         Don’t be afraid to redo everything. This is hard for me sometimes. Not only do I get attached my writing, but I also get lazy. Sometimes I look at it and think, “This scene is already written. It’s decent. It could be a lot better. My whole story would drastically improve if I let myself completely redo the whole first half, but it just sounds like so much work.” In the end, you just have to face the monster. The biggest pitfall of pantsing is you have to go back and drastically rewrite everything after your first draft in order to end up with a decent manuscript. As a pantser, you can’t be afraid of how much extra work you give yourself because of your chosen method of writing, or it won’t work for you.
·         Make an outline as you write. This would have saved me so much effort if I had figured this out from the beginning. Though we pantsers never outline before we write, we need to outline after we write. After every writing session, update a separate document with chapters or page numbers listed and what is going there. Make it detailed and keep it updated, or you will be very sad later on. It helps so much to know what you’ve written and where for when you have to go back, rewrite, and rearrange. The truth is, just because you’re a free-spirited pantser doesn’t mean you get to be totally disorganized. Often times, you’re actually just making your outline by writing the whole first draft first. By the time you’re done, your outline should be ready for you to work with for when you start over again—and make it all make sense this time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The writing habit

Taking time away from writing is hard sometimes. Getting back into it is even harder.

The year has been a productive one for me. I found that if I log my writing time, I am more encouraged to keep at it each day. Using an Excel sheet, I’ve recorded the number of minutes on a particular writing task, and the same for the next one. At the end of the day, I’ve totaled the time and converted to hours. Each daily count was added and then averaged. For the first half of the year I’ve been spending just a tad over four hours a day on some writing activity. Not all of it was actual writing. Some was fulfilling WIFYR assistant duties or meeting with my critique group or attending a writing presentation. But still, four hours is four hours.

The day after WIFYR, my family whisked me away to Europe. What was I to do about my writing? I was in a groove and was quite enjoying a regular dose of scribbling down words. Plus, I didn’t want to mess up my daily writing average. Yet, with the activities planned, I could tell early on my laptop was not going to get much use. Add to the fact it would be a nuisance to haul around, I chose give myself a break from it altogether.

And that was okay. I missed it, and thought about my works-in-progress, and spent a few minutes in my characters’ heads, but I managed to live without writing.

Now that I’m home, I’ve been surprised at how slow it has been to get back into the swing of things. Blame it on jet lag or whatever, I haven’t been productive. I can’t get motivated to open the laptop and when I do, the story I was so enthused about a few weeks back seems impossible to resume.

Fortunately, the habit is beginning to return. Two SCBWI events this week has helped. The editor at WIFYR gave us ’til the end of July to submit to her. My writer’s group is providing a boot to the backside to help that deadline become a reality. I’m a writer and words insist on being written. 

(This article also posted at

Friday, July 18, 2014

SCBWI Is Here for You

If you're involved in children's writing and/or illustrating in any way (which I assume you are since you're reading this blog), and if you don't already know about SCBWI, let me enlighten you. Because this organization will help you in perfecting your craft, learning about the industry, connecting with colleagues, and avoiding many mistakes that will save you time. 

The world's most unpronounceable acronym stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Our international headquarters is based in Los Angeles, and we have regional chapters throughout the world. The region we're in is Utah/southern Idaho. You can learn lots more at the web site and at our region's page on that site. 

Tonight--yes, July 18, 2014--you have a chance to connect in person with others in the organization, including me. We're gathering for the annual summer potluck, which is just a time to socialize, talk shop, and generally have a blast.  Here are all the details:

Hello writers and illustrators in Utah and Southern Idaho!

Writing or illustrating can be a lonely endeavor, so join us this summer for some much-needed social time.  We'll be coming together at the Rice Terrace Pavilion at Liberty Park (600 E. 900 S. in Salt Lake City, Utah) on Friday, July 18th from 6pm-9pm to eat and mingle.

You don't have to be a member of SCBWI to join us for this free event, so bring all your writing or illustrating friends with you. The more the merrier! 

Potluck assignments are as follows:
YA writers: pasta salads, potato salads, deviled eggs
MG writers: fruit, fruit salads, desserts
Picture Book writers: fried chicken, finger sandwiches, other finger foods
Illustrators: green salads, chips and dips
You may want to bring your own lawn chair as well.

Are you still struggling to figure out where to start with your online presence? Bring your smartphones and other wifi-enabled devices and we'll help you get connected. We'll have teachers on hand to walk you through the steps to signing up and using your social networks of choice, as well as offer suggestions on ways to contibute to the online conversation.
Can't make it to the social? This year you can join us virtually! We will be using the hashtags #GoSocial and #SCBWIUtahSouthIdaho for this event, so you can follow the event on twitter, instagram, and other social networks.

We hope to see you at the social (in person or online)!

For a map and directions to the pavilion, please visit our website at

Friday, July 11, 2014

Read Like a Writer: The 100 Rule

More than one local prolific author has said she read hundreds of books in her genre before writing her own well. Hundreds. Good books, bad books, but all in the genre in which she intended to write.

I think this is possibly the best course one could take for writing. And you'd be surprised how many people I know want to write in a genre that they don't actually read: people with a picture book idea who think if they throw some rhyming words together it is publishable without ever cracking a published picture book, people who read nonfiction but want to write dystopian YA, people who only read romance but want to write memoir.

It's normal to be in love with our own ideas. They are our babies, after all. But if we are going to send them out into the world, we have to know what their place in the world could be. And to do that, we have to know something about their peers. (It also helps with writing the dreaded queries ... a topic I'll discuss on my next post.)

So I want to pass on this advice: read in your genre. Read a lot in your genre. Yes, hundreds of books. Okay, start with 20 and build. But make a serious goal.

But when you read, read like a writer.

Reading like a reader is passive, it is as simple as deciding if you "like" or "don't like" a book.

To read like a writer is to question and answer exactly what it is that is and isn't working. In fact, finding a book that you don't like can be of more value than digging into a book that you love. When we love a book, we are taken by it in a visceral, emotional way. It becomes "ours" in a way that our own writing is "ours." It is hard to be critical of your darlings.

On the other hand, good old favorites—the ones you've read over and over, the ones that you feel you already know—can be useful to look at closely because you aren't getting caught up in the plot. You know it well enough to lift the curtain and see what is underneath each page.

When you are reading hundreds, though, you are bound to find those that you don't like. Those can be easier to take apart. Because the undeniable fact is that this book made it. So you have to figure out what it is about the book—the language, the construction, the story, the setting, the dialogue, the characters—that managed to get it passed the gauntlet of queries, slush piles, agents, publishers, and book stores to find its place on this shelf (be it physical or digital).

So, break it down.

Really understand the construction of the book. Think of it as a scaffolding upon which the words hang. Even in a picture book—the most compact of stories—plot is carefully built like the frame of a building. It must be solid and balanced. Writers are engineers. Read like an engineer.

Carefully note dialogue that moves you and dialogue that seems unnecessary. Then figure out why that is. The "why" isn't always that easy to decipher. It may be the language, or it may be the setting in which the dialogue takes place. Also look at the balance of dialogue to exposition. When does the description of a movement from a character "say" more than dialogue? How is it done?

Are there single, carefully chosen words that tell more about the setting than a lengthy description?

Whatever it is you want to learn, you can learn a lot about it by the careful reading of many examples. The more, the better. Say, one hundred.

How long will you take to read one hundred ... like a writer?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Another Way to Use Your Writing Group

Most of us know how useful a writers group can be for receiving feedback on your works in progress. My group has been invaluable, improving not only the quality of my work but my skills as a writer as well.

We don't limit ourselves to critique sessions. We email each other, share work online, and have our very own top-secret Facebook page. Occasionally, two or three members of the group will meet at a local cafe to write for a while. The women in the group have even had overnight writing retreats. We are there for each other, to trade advice and support each other how ever we can, even when we're not sitting around a table.

Yesterday, we tried something a little different.

Some of us have been struggling to write recently, with all the usual summer distractions or heavy workloads. So we decided to meet for an afternoon of writing. We didn't set any ground rules except one: meet in a neutral place so nobody had the distractions of home.

We considered several locations, from work conference rooms to libraries, and finally settled on the church near one member's home. It was a good location, quiet and comfortable.

A couple of people couldn't make it, due to work schedules or World Cup parties. I often miss daytime get-togethers because of work, but we intentionally scheduled it during my vacation.

I can't speak for the others who were there, but it was a productive afternoon for me. I'm revising a difficult part of my WIP, and it has been easy to find excuses to avoid the work. But sitting in a nearly empty church building from about 1:30 to about 5:00 meant that I could either work or sit there and do nothing. Sure, some of that time was spent socializing, but for most of it, we worked. Once in a while we'd ask each other for advice on a difficult passage or commiserate when struggling with a name or a scene. Mostly, we supported each other and kept each other on task.

And, of course, we enjoyed treats. That goes without saying.

So, if you're part of a group, or even if you just know some writers, I can recommend taking an afternoon to write together. Ultimately, writing is still mostly an individual process, but sometimes working by yourselves together can provide a great boost and ensure that you don't spend another day mastering your avoidance skills.