Writing lesson from Liam’s yellow pages

These are just a few of the yellow-painted sheets my son has brought home from school during the last two weeks.

I’m not talking about the phone directory. I’m talking about what my son brings home, without fail, from his Montessori preschool each day: a small rectangular piece of white paper completely covered with yellow paint.

The first few days he brought home the yellow page, I thought it was cute. Then it started to seem a little weird. Liam’s school has this slightly big-brother feature of a one-way mirror that lets you observe your child in his or her classroom (not that that factored into my ideas for The Knife and a Butterfly, ahem…). So we watched and saw that painting the white page yellow was the first thing that our son did every day. Not the only thing, mind you. But the first thing. A first thing that inevitably opened onto many other tasks which changed from day to day. 

It seems that this yellow page is a kind of starting ritual for our son, something he does to settle himself into being at school. And it’s pretty damn smart, actually. I’m thinking maybe that I need to start painting a page yellow at the start of each day as a way of saying to myself, here we go, let’s get down to writing, you’ve got some shit to accomplish. Maybe not literally painting a page yellow, but establishing a ritual and preserving it’s definitive significance: Now I Am At Work.

He’s a smart guy, our Liam.

How to Write a Winning Story


Everybody wants to write a winning story, but how do you do it? Some answers here, although not really from me. I have written stories–quite a few, in fact–and they won me some small money while I was in college. But I don’t know anything about writing stories as a grown-up because I got the hell out of story-land just as soon as I figured out I could write novels. (It takes me almost as much start-up energy to write a story as it does to write a novel; my ideas come slowly, only with much cooking and many false starts. Sure, the execution is *sometimes* less involved for a story than a novel, but I’d rather suffer for something that gets to have its own cover.)

But I know people whose backs are bowed with the weight of all their story ideas. In fact, apparently there is such a thing as TMIS or Too Many Ideas Syndrome (posts at Writer’s Digest, and Write World for those of you who, like me, wondered why many ideas would be a problem); sufferers report lack of focus and fear of attack from characters waiting to be brought onto the page.

Anyway, for you weirdos with so many ideas that writing stories is a must just to relieve some of the pressure, David Farland’s daily newsletter has a post on what he looks for when judging a story (in this case, for the Writers of the Future contest). In this particular post, he talks about originality, and the story he uses as an instance of originality is by Quarter 2 Writers of the Future winner Alisa Alering, a writer I know well and whose work I love. The post offers great insights that can help you see your story in the context of what everybody else is (or might be) doing. Here’s what Farland says about originality (and Alisa’s story):

…in that quarter of Writers of the Future where I got several good ghost stories, one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s take, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a young girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world, that the girl can peer into.

So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before. Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it. So she scored higher on the originality scale, than did some of the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.

Check out the rest of the post for the various locations of originality in a story, and if you have ideas to spare, feel free to send them my way.

Submit, submit, submit: 19th time may be a charm

Jeremy Brooks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremybrooks/2159452619

You have to stick with your work till it sells. That’s my answer to the question, “How long will it take me to get published?” And it’s pretty much the same whether we’re talking about placing a story, landing an agent, or selling a novel.

Take a look at some data. Accomplished writer Vylar Kaftan has tracked the number of times she submitted her storiesbefore they finally were published in a pro or semi-pro market. Her max number of submissions for a single story was 19–it was finally placed with the 19th market. The thing is, as she’s noted, this was a story that received 6 Nebula recommendations: “there was nothing wrong with it. It just had to find the right home. Here endeth the lesson.” Another great takeaway from Vylar’s post follows:

If I scan the list looking for my “best” stories, using any of several measures, I can’t see a pattern. Possible measures include: the ones I liked best, the ones readers emailed me the most about, the ones my crit groups loved, the ones editors wrote personal rejections for. I really don’t think there’s any conclusions to be drawn there except that submission history and the story’s quality are only somewhat correlated at best.

I pretty much agree. Once you’ve done the very best writing that you can, getting the work published is a matter of persistence, patience, and a bit of saavy about where or to whom you send your work.

Maybe you think you’ve done everything you can, but then you get feedback or grow as a writer, and you can take your story or novel a bit farther. (For some writer resources, check out this page.) Vylar has another great post  that discusses the few reasons that she “trunks” a story as well as when she revises a story she’s circulating. Here’s my favorite part: 

If I find myself stressing about whether my stories are good enough, and shouldn’t I revise them more so they sell, and maybe if I revise them they will sell… you know what? 100% of the time, that indicates I should be writing new stories. Because you can’t really assess whether your older work is any good unless you’re writing new stuff. You’ll be too biased and want the older stuff to work so you don’t have to write anything new. If you only have one story circulating, there’s no way you’re going to make smart decisions about what to do with it. By generating new material, you give yourself the freedom to be honest about your older work.

All of this points to what Vylar calls The Rule: “Write new stories, polish them, and then circulate them until they sell. That’s how you get stories published.” Same goes, like I said, for getting longer work published. Maybe your agent manages the submissions, but you still need to keep writing new stuff to have any perspective.

Suffering & joy in the life cycle of a novel

Salt of the world: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38370703@N03/5459031347

This is the gold I’m talking about.

According to popular myths about writers, suffering is integral to the creative process; if you are not in pain, you aren’t serious about your work.

For the most part, I find this notion annoying at best, downright troubling at worst. There’s a whole pathological strain of thought that steers people toward seeking trauma and perverse intensity in the misguided belief that it will enrich their writing. (Instead, it usually ends up wrecking their personal lives.) I believe that happy people can be good writers, even if we don’t write out of our happiness.

Still, if writing feels too easy all the time, something may be wrong. Creativity is often awkward and uncomfortable because it requires that we think otherwise than we normally do. Like doing unfamiliar exercises, that means some pain. And when we get “good” at a certain aspect of writing, it’s time to push our personal horizons outward and find new challenges.

There’s nothing wrong, however, with having a phase of blissful productivity or finding a groove. I know writers who thrive in the early, generative days of writing a novel. They exult in the infinite possibilities; they play. For me, all the possibilities are terrifying, and I live in doubt as to whether there is any there there in what I’m writing. It’s a lot of floundering and flabby prose and trying to get shit down on the page.

But when it is time to revise, I shine. This is my golden time. Unwriting words, opening new spaces, and filling them with better, brighter, fuller writing than I could ever manage the first time: that is when I am at my best. Something takes shape in the mass, and I know why I am doing what I’m doing. The suffering quotient goes way, way down, and I remember: joy is just as integral to the creative process.

Is there an exit strategy? Asking questions about TFA


An education blog recently published an open letter to new TFA corps members that is causing quite a stir. Here’s how Katie Osgood begins her message:

Dear New TFA Recruits,

It is summertime, which for those of you newly accepted into Teach for America, means you are enduring the long hard days of Institute.  I congratulate you on being accepted into this prestigious program.  You clearly have demonstrated intelligence, passion, and leadership in order to make it this far.

And now I am asking you to quit.

Ms. Osgood’s letter goes on to outline her reasons why TFA corps members should quit, which include the claim that TFA makes educational inequalities worse, not better; TFA is backed by naughty/suspect donors; and TFA is in bed with conservative charter movements. Now, some of these claims are a bit extreme, and Ms. Osgood’s position on the value of traditional training could use a little leavening; that is to say, whatever the limitations of TFA training, we can hardly pretend that our schools of ed are turning out teachers who are all perfectly prepared to take on the challenges and needs of students–much less students in areas of even greater need.

Now, it’s been almost 10 years since I joined TFA (Houston ’04) and started what has been a serious engagement with the issues facing low-income youth in education. My experiences were transformative, as have been those of most of my fellow corps members, and it’s easy (and inspiring!) to focus on the success stories, which are many.

But maybe all the focus on individual successes is causing us to overlook systemic problems. Ms. Osgood’s letter provides an opportunity to correct that and ask: Regardless of how successful individual TFA teachers are/become, regardless that many TFA teachers stay in teaching, regardless of their continued contributions in other sectors, is TFA hurting the children it seeks to serve by creating greater instability in schools that most need a stable and capable teaching staff?

I’m not ready to accept this post’s claims, but I have found myself mildly alarmed by the proud announcements of ever-expanding numbers of TFA CMs and placement sites. What, I’ve begun to wonder, is TFA’s exit strategy? TFA has always stressed the quest for long-term solutions in education as much as it has touted the effectiveness of its teachers in spite of their relatively short-term mandatory commitment to teaching. But is the mission of the organization strong enough to envision its own obsolescence? What is the long-term plan for TFA, and are its ties with the charter-school movement becoming problematic?

TFA teachers and alums should consider their work carefully in the context of the national education “crisis” (one that has been going on for more than half a century), seek as mentors all kinds of teachers, and do what every teacher ought to do each day: seek to build bridges between where students are and where they need to be in their learning.

There’s work to do on all sides. This open letter is transparently polemical, but I still appreciate the opportunity to take a closer look at TFA’s current practices and partnership, something that I believe other TFA CMs and alums should care about as well. TFA’s weaknesses (and its strengths) need to be considered in the context of a highly problematic, fractured system. We want TFA to be part of a long-term solution, not a source of deeper problems.

Beyond Conference Survival: How to Make Positive Connections to People You Don’t Know (ALA 2013 Takeaways)

Some business cards from partners at ALA. Maybe I need to do a post on ORGANIZING contacts soon?

Two facts about ALA (true of most large librarian conferences):

(1) It is an introvert’s nightmare.

(2) It is an amazing opportunity for librarians and authors to connect.

This post is about finding ways to get around point #1 so that you can get to point #2.

My first impressions of ALA 2013 involved the enormous crush of bodies, sensory overload (books! books! free books! authors! books!), and a sudden sense of smallness. If anybody here would care about my work as a writer for teens, how was I going to find them in this enormous place? Why would they listen to me? My gut was telling me to meet with my editor as planned and then get the hell out of that nightmare.

But my gut doesn’t get to make the plans. Whatever the discomfort, it’d be a shame to miss out on the chance to forge connections with book people who share your interests and concerns. Here are a few tips for shifting yourself from conference survival mode into conscientious networking.

Set priorities 

Perhaps the first thing you need to do when walking into ALA is to decide how much of what you are going to do. How much time do you want to spend in formal presentations? in networking sessions? strolling the exhibition hall? While librarians should load up on great things to use with students and patrons, we author types should remember that we aren’t here for the free books and bling. (A possible exception is gathering giveaway material if you keep a blog, but I’d say this isn’t your most strategic use of time.) Authors, you are at a conference to increase your visibility and to connect with the readers who will put your books into the hands of more readers.

Find your people

Once you set your priorities, you are going to be looking for sessions that fit your interests. In my case, I wanted to meet teen librarians (school and public), advocates for underserved groups, and other writers interested in brining more Latin@ experiences into kidlit. So I went to events like:

Attracting Reluctant Male Readers

Latino Books for Youth: an Honest Conversation

Crossing Over: Teen Books for Everyone!

Diversity and Outreach Fair

YALSA Happy Hour

It helps to research events and make a tentative schedule in advance, but be flexible and follow opportunities. For example, in chatting with a librarian before the “Attracting Reluctant Male Readers” session, I found out that The Knife and the Butterfly is very popular with librarians serving teens in detention centers. I then went back and changed my schedule to attend a discussion session on services for youth in custody, which turned out to be a great opportunity to learn about how I could connect and serve these readers more.

Personally, I find informal settings to be the most productive for networking. These include poster presentation spaces, smaller sessions with audience participation, and networking/social events like happy hours. 

Talk to people you don’t know

Too many of us view networking as something along the lines of, “How fast can I get my card in their hands and launch into why I am/my library is/my books are awesome?” I’ve tried that approach–and sometimes fall into it when I am very nervous–but for the most part, here are some tips for·conscientious networking.

(1) Be personable. No one ever believes me when I tell them I’m shy, but it’s true. (I talk about how I learned to fake myself out of shyness here.) I have to make it my job to be friendly to people on the escalator, on the bus, in the food court, waiting for a session to start. For casual interactions, notice who is moving in the same direction. You are walking together, so why not say hi? There is plenty of common ground for any attendee at a large conference: handling the loads of free stuff, the trade offs of cute shoes versus comfy ones, the confusing conference hall layout. 

(2) Show interest. ALA badges have a lot of information on them, so you have something that can guide you to ask the other person about their work. Show interest in what they do, ask them what they think of the conference, share stories of positive experiences. 

(3) Seek common ground. Rather than thinking about an “in” for talking about your “thing,” try to really attend to what authentically links your interests. For example, if I meet a community college librarian, I’m not going to be trying to pitch my awesome school visits, but we might have a conversation about the importance of pleasure reading to increasing students’ literacy, and then I might suggest my YA titles as a possible addition to a collection.

(4) To business card or not? I always worry about being pushy with a business card, but if you have found some common ground, it’s fine to offer a card or ask your colleague for his or hers (which almost invariably leads to a reciprocal request). If you feel the conversation is really just a polite one that doesn’t have much genuine interest on either side, it’s okay to skip the business card.

At the end of the day, networking is most valuable when we are open to the skills and strengths of the people we are talking to. The more genuine your interest in their experience, the more potentially productive the relationship.

Want more? I’ll be at the Indiana Library Federation conference in Indianapolis co-presenting with librarian Julia Reynolds on author-librarian collaborations. Hope to see you there! If you have questions or suggestions, leave a comment or holler at me via my contact page.

All Hail the Persuasively Male Protagonist: SPLIT by Swati Avasthi


In the female-dominated world of YA, it’s crucial to recognize awesome books featuring male protagonists–especially when female authors have pulled off the work of imaginatively entering the inner world of the teen male.

I grabbed Split (by Swati Avasthi) on an impulse and didn’t have many specific expectations, but halfway through, I was reading the author’s bio. Avasthi, a woman, writes persuasively from a male perspective, something I admire extra much because I worked hard at it for The Knife and the Butterfly. Here’s the scoop, cribbed from the Goodreads listing:

Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret.

He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. First-time novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again? Readers won’t be able to put this intense page-turner down.

 The plotting of Split is excellent, with each thread of the story propelling the action forward. There’s a count-down dimension that ups the tension considerably. The book has a wildly upbeat ending for a book about domestic violence, but it’s an ending that is earned by the protag’s incremental growth through the course of the novel.

This is a great recommendation for fans of Chris Crutcher–the voice of the novel reminded me of Whale Talk. Readers who’ve loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower might also connect well to the narrator.

In praise of the writer’s notebook…

DvortyGirl: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dvortygirl/2445114424

I’m addicted to my writer’s notebooks. Have been since college. My writer’s notebook is where the ideas that matter (to my books and to my life) start percolating.

How I use the notebooks has changed over time. In fact, when I flip through them, I can tell a lot about where I am in the writing process based on my handwriting and how I use the page. Loose script dashed diagonally across the page? Definitely a sudden inspiration, probably jotted down while walking. Tight lists with page numbers? I’m trying to get unstuck by analyzing a novel I admire. Entry that begins, “why do I always forget how hard this is?” Self talk during a first draft. Crazy cartoons and doodles surrounded by quotations? Me, at a reading (probably after a glass of wine)…

Now that I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, keeping a writer’s notebook is kind of like clicking on the Time Machine function on my Mac. I can see all those different writing Ashleys–and how they led me to my current place. 

I have changed through these notebooks, but the most crucual benefit they offer me hasn’t changed. My writer’s notebook lets me take my writing anywhere. It turns every park bench, bus seat, or cafe table into a workable writing space. 

Even when I’m working with Scrivener on my Mac, my writer’s notebook is open. I move back and forth between the two, using the physical notebook as a safe space to think out an idea (and question it) before or even as I draft a scene.

My notebooks also save my butt via the reading lists I tuck inside them, lists of (with secret notations) every book that I read or listen to. They save my butt because I’m one of those people who blanks when asked their favorite book (I have too many!). Having the lists makes it easier to track down the right recommendations when asked, too.

P.S. Just click on the “writersnotebook” tab for my blog to see bits from many different notebooks. One of my favorite posts is here

Celebrate Pi Day with YA books

Jima: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jima/4434165630

While I’ve been indulging FAR TOO MUCH lately, it’s no holds barred today… on YA books that center on math, that is. YA Reading List is a fabulous librarian-run blog that features YA booklists around all sorts of themes… including YA novels with a math connection for PI DAY (today). What Can’t Wait is hanging out with lots of other books worth checking out right over here.

Three random Pi-related facts about me:

(1) I have eaten a PI pie.

(2) I have a friend with 4+ pi-related tatoos.

(3) My husband charmed me into going on a date with him by sending me a piece of “pi” (a string of 10 digits or so) on a day that I wasn’t feeling well.

Happy Pi Day!

Motivating the timeline

My boys, who share way more than the same smile. The most amazing guys on the planet.

These days I’m doing most of my work from that “other” side of myself–the comparative literature PhD candidate side. My goal is to finish a full draft of my dissertation by early next spring, a very ambitious timeline for a humanities dissertation, much less one in literature.

But I’m told it can be done, and I HAVE managed to produce A LOT OF WORDS in similar amounts of time. Of course, as I explained to a writing buddy… in fiction, I can improvise. I can’t really do that to the same degree with literary criticism.

The good news is that the work is exciting and challenging. It keeps me cranking away during the day and wakes me up at night with (mostly helpful) revelations. Thanks to the elves in the back corridors of my brain who are making that happen… I don’t think I could do this without you.

To motivate myself, I have combined a favorite photo of “my boys” (because they are a big reason for wanting to get this done sooner than later) with my ambitious but achievable writing schedule. Any other brilliant ideas for staying motivated and on task? Email or comment… I’m always looking to boost my productivity.

I’ve got fingers crossed that I’ll land a dissertation fellowship to cover childcare next year–and buy myself a few hours a week to dip back into fiction even as I’m writing the Frankendraft of my dissertation.

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All materials © 2024 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.