Busy Learning

     I’ve been busy! In the last couple of weeks, I attended a writer panel discussion, met with my critique group, and participated in both a dialogue writing workshop and a “writing tight” (i.e. avoiding wordiness) workshop. I also turned in the first half of my last writing assignment for the Institute of Children’s Literature.

     The writer panel included a romance novelist, an inspirational non-fiction writer, an established newspaper journalist and playwright, a poet and memoirist, and our host – a novelist. All are local – living in southwest Washington. They’ve all been traditionally published. Most are non-agented. None of them write for children.

     I was reminded that there are many paths to publication, that the publishing landscape is constantly changing, and not every reader will get the writer’s vision. The last nugget especially resonated with me. It’s easy to get burned out by people wanting you to change your manuscript or vision to their idea of what the story should be. Not related to quality of writing or mistakes, but personal opinions and values A couple of the panelists shared that for at least one of their projects they shopped around until they found someone – editor or publisher – that saw what they were trying to do and valued it. Writers – don’t give up and don’t give away the heart in your stories!

     In our critique group, a writer shared a story that’s been on his heart for years. He’d written 1000 words and somehow lost them. Then he let it sit – for five years. We think the story has potential. Even if no one buys it, clearly it won’t let him go. He’s already written a charming picture book-length poem inspired by his grandchildren. If he never takes these books to print they could still be a wondrous legacy that future generations will refer to as “Grandpa’s stories.” When we have a story that will not let us go, we should write it. Perhaps it will take flight. Perhaps it will stay in a notebook in our office for years. But we know it’s secure. It’s there if ever someone might want it. Also, writing it frees your mind to create new magic.

     In the dialogue writing workshop, we learned about making each character’s voice unique. Often, new writers’ characters all sound like the writer instead of individuals. One trick is to take off all of the dialogue tags in a passage – ‘he said’, ‘she answered’, etc. Don’t identify who’s speaking. Then read it out loud to someone. If they can keep track and tell who’s speaking, then your characters’ voices are unique enough.

     Previously, I mentioned The Skin I’m In, a middle grade novel by Sharon G. Flake. This wonderful book was published in 1998 by Hyperion Paperbacks. It was Flake’s debut novel and won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. This raw, realistic story is told in first person by the protagonist, Maleeka Madison, an eighth-grader in the inner city. The story moves rapidly as we live through a schoolyear with Maleeka, her friends, and so-called friends. Maleeka deals with the grief of having lost her father in a car wreck three years prior. As her mother recovers emotionally, Maleeka cares for her. She deals with all this while navigating the jungle that is middle school – the bullies, the haters, and those who are just trying to survive. With the help of the new teacher, Miss Saunders, Maleeka learns her value, talents, and strength.

     This is a lovely, empowering book. I highly recommend it. Although it is filled with the harsh realities of low-income inner-city life, it reminds us that a few dedicated people can make a difference in at-risk lives. Even if every struggling kid can’t or won’t be saved, seeing and lifting up just one is worth every effort. Seeing is what it’s all about. Miss Saunders sees Malinka. She sees the skin she’s in. She sees Maleeka’s apparent determination to fail. But she also she sees the heart and spark of genius inside. We should all have such clear vision. I haven’t read any of Flake’s other works, but from the reviews I suspect they’re as riveting as The Skin I’m In.

     My favorite quote this week is from Virginia Woolf’s diary: “I said to myself…never pretend to yourself that the things you haven’t got are not worth having.” (credit Gretchen Rubin “Moment of Happiness”)

     Thanks for reading. Have a great week. Be creative in all you do!

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