Allowing the Silence in

Finish-lineThis has been a whirlwind month. I am shocked by how many things I successfully juggled. While excessive busy-ness often warps my attitude, the month of May felt like a marathon I had been conditioning myself for. (Good thing I went to that retreat the end of April!) I managed to keep my focus and juggle a rush job on top of regular clients, editing, teaching, and my own writing deadline. I’m pleased to say I plowed through problems and projects alike. Like running a marathon, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—and this was all happening those first three weeks of the month!

By May 25th I was ready for the lull before the next push toward the finish line. As often happens after a huge achievement, I spend time “recuperating” by resting, replenishing the freezer (need quick and healthy meals in order to keep up break-neck writing/editing sessions), and refilling the creative well with wonderful books and movies.

I also like to use music. It feels the silences and when I’m writing, I focus on the melodies at first, but soon typing thoughts to screen takes over and I no longer notice the music. It’s as if I have to ignore it so I can focus on writing. I often listen to either music of audio books as I work in the kitchen or do housework.

FloridaAtlanticBut this month, I found myself skipping the audio input. I relished the silence and as I worked straightening up or making meals. I allowed both thoughts and silence instead. It was refreshing, much like my recent retreat. I liked to hear the ticks and creaks of my house displace the silence. As my thoughts settled, and like drowning out the music with writing, I found myself generating new scenes or cobbling together new story ideas.

The silence became rich with meaning and words. Now I’ve been spending time each day in the stillness and silence. I cherish the peace and lack of busy-ness, then allow the words to take over.

In my writing, I have kept the reverence of the silence in mind for a few characters. Silence—the lack of sound—does count as targeting the sense of hearing within our manuscripts.

Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

Learning Never Ends

journalPD (professional development) is a new buzz word, especially for educators. Yet, the idea of continuing to learn and develop in business has been around for decades and even longer for medical/health professionals (often called continuing education or credentialing to maintain licenses). For writers, and many creative types, it is part of the business and has been forever (though it was given no trendy label). To share and learn with others in the field, to keep up on latest trends, to continue developing and honing skills, writers and illustrators attend conferences, read industry journals (magazines about writing and illustrating), reading books, and meeting to network and share.

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

When I taught at the local college, most of the professors were upset with a new mandate for annual teaching portfolios with a section on professional development. I was one of the few people complaining, so the faculty coordinator asked me why. I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” I said. Professional authors do this all the time, so it’s not a stretch to move from writing development to teaching of writing and meet the portfolio requirements.” Besides, I thought, I’m a lifelong learner which is why I wanted to teach at the college level. All the grumbling made me wonder about my colleagues though.

Why PD?
In a way, simply considering what it stands for answers this question: professional development = building on skills to improve performance; personal development = learning that aids growth. Both place you at a level higher than before the PD. For writers, learning really never stops. There is always more to learn and new trends or markets to keep up on.

Types of PD

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Opportunities to continuing learning and developing are everywhere. For many occupations, not only writers, these might include:

  • Reading and/or individual study to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Video or audio recordings or presentations about specific topics to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Seminars or Webinars (online seminars) in which a lecturer shares expertise about a specific area/topic or skill set.
  • Conferences and workshops. In person opportunities to network with others and interact with attendees and presenters while building on knowledge and skill.

Where to Find PD Opportunities

  • Tune in for info and advice.

    Tune in for info and advice.

    Professinal Associations often sponsor workshops and/or conferences. Sometimes you must be a member or attend as a guest. I’m a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which hosts conferences plus numerous online (webinars). Local colleges, schools, churches, and community centers often offer personal enrichment classes. (Some gated communities or senior living facilities offer programs too, often opening them to the public for a fee.) Check newspaper listings for authors or presenters visiting bookstores or libraries, too.

  • Online programs and courses + Podcasts and internet radio. Look up favorite authors to see if they have websites, are affiliated with any learning programs or association (then check those). See what is mentioned on social media.
  • Newsletters, magazines, websites (books, both phsical and ebooks). Industry news, textbook publishers, magazines.
  • DVDs and video/audio recordings.
  • Associations and libraries/websites. Many writing conferences offer recordings of specific sessions. You do not usually need to be a member to purchase them. Check for options on Netflix or Amazon Prime (or your favorite streaming/rental service).
  • Some of my favorites. I’ve participated in webinars and podcasts this year sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Education Week. Check their websites or social media sites for announcements (or get on their email list). I found 3 webinars through email announcements/newsletters about using social media, Sciviner, and doing book promo and blogging. I’ve taken ecourses through Daily OM, online courses through Gotham Writers Workshops and Udemy, plus courses on DVD from Elephant Rock, Master Classes SCBWI, Teaching Company. Opportunities are out there, and many of the above I’ve taken for free or under $15.

In addition, I teach writing workshops through local adult learning/enrichment programs. News for these are on my website (see the “At the Podium” page), through course catalogs, plus on the web and in local newspapers. Explore, search, connect. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find and what you’ll learn.

When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.

Of Earth and Trees

Pine and cypress on golf courseThis morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)

As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.

I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.

Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?

pine and cypress against blue skyMy eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school  (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.

The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).

We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!

But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.

My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.

“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.

The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”

My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.

Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.

Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.

The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”

I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”

My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”

I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.

At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.

k5454-17 Potato PlantThe sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.

TwoEgretsI like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.8771543_orig