Horse of Inspiration

Today is Derby Day and, not surprisingly, I am going to talk about horses.  Do you remember my previous post about that horse of lightning speed that dragged me around the ring during my first time riding her? The one that left me with bloody hands, tears in my eyes, and muscles so sore I could not make myself a sandwich because it hurt too much to lift the bread? Well, Her name is Edoras and I am leasing her now. As my riding instructor always says, You never learn anything from the good lessons! And boy have I learned a few things. Over the past several weeks, I continued to ride her and learn.  Dont get me wrong, there is still A LOT of room for improvement. But for the next couple months she will basically be my horse 3 days a week. If things go well, we will even get to compete in a show at the end of June.
I am ecstatic about this turn of events for so many reasons. As most of you know by now, so many of my story ideas come from my experiences with horses. I can only imagine all of the inspiration Ill draw from my time spent with Edoras. (Good thing I have my white board to write down all these ideas!) For example, I just found out that Edoras is the Great Great Granddaughter of the famous racehorse and Triple Crown winner Secretariat! Doesnt she look like him? And this helps to explain her need for speed. She also seems to know that she is descended from royalty. Its almost as if she is speaking when she looks at me as if to say, I am a princess and you are here to serve me. Oh, how I love horses and their unique personalities!

Well, I am off to the barn to gather some more inspiration:) Happy Derby Day and may the horse who is treated the best by his or her trainer/owner/jockey win!

Five Things I Learned at VCFA Day

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a day-long writing seminar in Ann Arbor, MI, hosted by the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). The speakers, Coe Booth and Marion Dane Bauer, are current and former professors of writing at VCFA and are both published authors. I’m so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and attended this event. Their valuable insights on psychic distance and the interior lives of characters have already helped improve my writing. For those who weren’t able to attend, here are my top five takeaways from the day:

1. Character is the Beginning, Middle, and End
Coe Booth began her talk by asking us to remember our favorite book from our childhood. (For me, that would be Little House on the Prairie.) She suggested that readers love a particular book, not because of the plot, but because they love the main character. In fact, readers often don’t remember anything about the plot. A character who resonates, on the other hand, will stay with someone for a lifetime.
A giant light bulb turned on in my head when Coe Booth highlighted the importance of character. When I think back to Little House on the Prairie, I don’t remember a single event that happened in the book. What I remember is the character, Laura. I remember her curiosity, her determination, and her love for her family during her childhood on the frontier.
So how does one write a believable, memorable, publishable book? Develop the interior lives of your characters first. Flow comes with character. Character is the beginning, middle, and end.

2. Mine your Own Experiences to Bring your Characters to Life
Coe Booth suggested that we look within ourselves to bring our characters to life. During an afternoon writing workshop, we mined our own childhood experiences to dig up milestone memories, such as the first day of school, a death in the family, or a birthday. Additionally, we came up with ways to recall everyday memories, such as looking through old journals, photos, letters, and yearbooks. Coe asked us to remember times when we were sad, afraid, lonely, jealous, elated, etc. What did it feel like? How did our bodies feel? Go there. It might be painful or uncomfortable to relive some of these moments, but writers can’t live on the surface. The characters in our books had all these early childhood experiences too. As writers, we must describe our own feelings and sensations through our characters. This depth of experience will bring them to life.

3. Don’t Forget to Develop Minor Characters
During her lecture, Coe Booth mentioned one of her pet peeves when reading her students’ stories: perfect parents. Parents aren’t perfect! I immediately gasped and slunk down in my chair as I thought of my own manuscript sitting at home. Yep, the one with the perfect parents. How did she know?
As soon as I got home, I made lists of ways to make them less-than-perfect. I used the questions Coe Booth asked us as a starting point. What are the parents dealing with in their lives? What drives them? What do they want more than anything? What is stopping them? The writer does not need to include the answers to all these questions in the story, but understanding the answers will provide more depth to the parents and other minor characters in the story.

4. There Correct Point of View is Whatever Works in the Story
Marion Dane Bauer gave an informative lecture on psychic distance and the advantages and disadvantages to each type of point of view. For example, using the omniscient point of view establishes an old-fashioned, comforting feel to the story, but may sacrifice intimacy with the main character. Using the first person point of view enables the writer to get as close as possible to the character, but can sometimes sound clunky or false. The third person point of view allows for richer language than first person, but can be hindered by a writer’s lack of experience as far as the ability to inhabit the character completely. While writers often struggle with selecting third person over first person, or vice versa, Marion Dane Bauer’s insight provided me with some peace on this issue. Ultimately, the point of view used to tell the story doesn’t matter, as long as it works. The writer’s ability to connect the main character to the reader is the most important thing.

5. Write YOUR Book
Both Marion Dane Bauer and Coe Booth encouraged us to write the book we were meant to write. They insisted that we not worry about trends and forget about what’s popular right now. By the time our books are completed, the current trend will have passed anyway. Don’t stress about finding an agent or getting published. A well-written book will find a publisher or an agent. The world needs your book, they said. Write it.
Until next time, happy writing!
And for my “horsey” followers, be sure to swing by my blog in a few weeks. I’ll be detailing my experiences with Louie at our upcoming horse show. I’m nervous already . . .

The Fresh Breath of Spring

At last, Spring has arrived! After enduring a long and treacherous Michigan winter, I thought it might never happen. Spring has a way of making one feel as if anything is possible. Flowers bloom out of snow banks, chirping birds drown out the roar of snow plows, and puddles transform into childrens water parks. It seems only natural that I should be able to figure out a way to channel Springs magical renewal into my writing.

Thankfully, I am registered to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts Day (VCFA Day) in Ann Arbor on April 12th. I signed up for this event months ago, but it couldnt be happening at a better time in terms of giving me a tool to breathe new life into my writing. The main topics of conversation will be point of view and psychic distance. Im excited to learn more about these techniques and apply them to my own writing, not to mention having the opportunity to meet fellow writers in my area. The presenters, Marion Dane Bauer and Coe Booth, are both published writers and professors of writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts writing for Children and Young Adults Program. Im sure their insights will be priceless.

In addition to attending the VCFA Day in Ann Arbor, I am reading. A lot. Im reading other current YA novels of the same genre as mine and reading books on writing and revising. One book Im finding particularly helpful is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway.

You may remember I started writing a YA mystery/thriller back in November as part of NaNoWriMo. Well, it took me five months but I recently completed my still unnamed novel. Im not going to lie, I was thrilled with myself. I mean, I wrote a freaking novel!! And it makes sense! (I think.) But the process of going back over my work to revise and edit looms like a dark cloud overhead. Im planning to apply the techniques I learn at VCFA Day and insights I glean from books like Writing Fiction, to provide a roadmap for my revisions. I know Ill need to find a critique group too, but Im just not ready to put myself out there yet. One step at a time . . .

Stop by my blog in a couple weeks for the Top 5 Things I Learned at VCFA Day in Ann Arbor! Im just as excited as you to find out what they are.

My Goals for 2014 Year of the Horse

Happy New Year!  I know this is going to be a good year because 2014 is the Year of the Horse, after all.  I love the feeling of a fresh start that comes with a new year.  I know a lot of people do not like New Years resolutions, but I am not one of those people!  I love reviewing my goals from the previous year and seeing which ones I accomplished, which ones I still need to achieve, and which ones Ive decided (for one reason or another) are no longer important to me.  Setting goals keeps me focused and provides stepping-stones to fulfilling my dreams.  In the words of Yogi Berra, If you dont know where you are going, youll end up someplace else.  Wise words, indeed.

Ill spare you my personal goals, but Ill share a few of my writing and riding goals from 2013.  Lets see how I fared:

1.  Write 12 fully polished picture book manuscripts

I did this one!  Thanks in large part to my participation in Julie Hedlunds 12 x 12 challenge and with a lot of input from my critique groups.

2.  Get a picture book published

I did this one too!  HORSE FLOWERS was published as an eBook for the MeeGenius App in July 2013.  I also have my picture book, HENRIETTAS HOOF POLISH, under contract with Guardian Angel Publishing.  It should be available in both print and eBook form sometime in 2014.  I cant wait to see what the illustrations will look like!

3.  Find an agent to represent me

I did not achieve this goal in 2013.  I submitted many, many manuscripts to agents who seemed to be good fits for my work.  I must admit, I gave up on this goal a little too easily.  When I did not hear back from anyone (other than form letters) after my first round of submissions, I started focusing more of my energy into writing my YA novel.  Ill continue to pursue this goal in 2014.

4.  Lease a horse

I am so thankful that I was able to achieve this goal in 2013.  I half-leased a beautiful and athletic mare named Edoras for two months in May and June.  After she was sold, I began half-leasing my current buddy, Louie, in October.  Being able to ride three times a week while also being a stay-at-home mom to my two young kids is a juggling act, but a privilege that I dont take for granted.

5.  Compete in at least two horse shows

Well, I achieved half of this one.  I competed in one horse show in 2013 with Edoras and it was such a tremendous learning experience.  We placed in almost all of our classes, so I was very happy about that.

Hey, 3 1/2 out of 5 aint bad!  I also accomplished a few other goals that werent on my list, like getting published in two magazines (PKAs Advocate and Practical Horseman), coming in third place in Susanna Leonard Hills 3rd Annual Holiday Writing Contest, and being selected as an alternate for the United States Equestrian Team. Just kidding on that last one. I wanted to see if anyone was still paying attention. All in all, 2013 was a really good year for me.

Now moving on to my goals for the new year.  When thinking about my goals, I followed another wise piece of advice:  Your goals should be just out of reach, but not out of sight. Denis Waitley.  So with that in mind, here are my writing and riding goals for 2014:

1.  Finish writing and revising my YA novel

2.  Get my YA novel published or represented by an agent

3.  Join a YA critique group

4.  Attend at least two writing workshops and/or seminars

5.  Get another picture book published or represented

6.  Continue to develop my author platform by increasing my blog, twitter, and author Facebook page following

7.  Enter at least one writing contest

8.  Continue half-leasing a horse (preferably Louie!)

9.  Compete in at least two horse shows

10.  Win a blue ribbon

I am purposefully keeping my goals somewhat broad.  Of course, I also have very specific things Id like to work on in both my writing and riding.  For example, Id like to learn how to better write believable characters from different points of view.  In riding, I am working on riding from leg to hand and keeping my shoulders back.  But for me, the purpose of my New Years goals are broader objectives that all of the smaller steps help me to achieve.

What about you?  Did you achieve last years goals?  Did you set any writing or riding goals for the new year?  Id love to hear about them!

Until next time, happy writing and riding in 2014 (The Year of the Horse!)

November: A Month of Writing Challenges

First of all, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Aside from pumpkins, costumes, and too much candy, how was your October? Mine started off with a bang. I graduated from Dr. Mira Reisbergs Picture Book Academy, I finalized two of my favorite picture book manuscripts and sent them off to agents, and I wrote a magazine article that is currently looking for a home.

But something happened during the second half of October. First, I received four rejections in one day (Ouch!). Then I checked out a stack full of Halloween picture books from the library to read to my kids. A couple of the books were delightful, but I was disappointed with the majority of them. Really disappointed. I couldnt help but wonder, how did these books get published while my clearly brilliant manuscripts are collecting dust in the recycling bin? I felt the fire within me start to fizzle out. Maybe I am not cut out for this. Maybe I really dont know what Im doing. Maybe I should just give up.

Thankfully, I found a match (actually two) to relight my writing flame.  I will be participating in two challenges in the month of November: NaNoWriMo and PiBoIdMo.

Lets start with NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. That breaks down to about 1,667 words a day. Im extremely nervous because Ive never written a novel. But Im also extremely excited because Ive always wanted to write a novel. Ive been gearing up for this one for a while now. I have a Young Adult mystery/thriller novel in my head which I have roughly outlined on my computer. It involves a teenage girl at a prestigious summer riding academy. It involves a ghost story, a missing woman, a creepy barn hand, a cute boy, and plenty of horses. I was going to call my novel Ghost Rider, but after doing a quick search on Amazon I discovered there are approximately 27 other published books with the same title. Back to the drawing board on that one . . .

The second challenge, exclusively for picture book writers, is Tara Lazars PiBoIdMo or Picture Book Idea Month.  The challenge here is to come up with one idea for a picture book every day so by the end of the month you have thirty ideas for books you can write in the coming year.  I have to admit, Im probably going to cheat a little on this one because I am constantly thinking of ideas for picture books.  If you dont believe me, look at my white board.  It looks like a crazy person lives here.  Ive been saving up my ideas for the last couple weeks, so I think I have my first 10 days covered already.  Sshhhh!  Dont tell anyone.

Now, both of these challenges are on the honor system.  I have no responsibility to report my actual productivity to anyone, but I am going to keep my faithful blog followers updated on my progress.  Ill post one update mid-month and Ill check in again on November 30th to let you know if I completed the challenges.  Hopefully, Ill have finished a first draft of a novel at the end of this.  Note, I didnt say it would be a GOOD novel.  So, are any of you joining me?  Please let me know!  We can cheer each other on!

Recharge to Write!

As far as writing goes, the month of July has been a disappointment for me. Between having my two kids home from school, developing my social media platform, marketing my eBook, HORSE FLOWERS, and traveling, my time spent on actual writing has fallen by the wayside. The distractions were piling up and, to be honest, I was feeling a little burned out by mid-July. I needed to recharge. Thankfully, we planned our annual family vacation to Northern Michigan WAY in advance and, boy, did it arrive just in the nick of time!

We dropped our dog with my parents and headed off to beautiful Walloon Lake in Petoskey, MI. (As an interesting aside, the childhood Summer home of Ernest Hemmingway was located on Walloon Lake. Today, it is home to one of Hemmingways nephews.) My family has been vacationing at this family camp, which is only available to alumni of the University of Michigan and their families, since I was 6 months old. Luckily, my husband and I are both Michigan grads so we are able to take advantage of this beautiful spot. It always feels like coming home when I arrive here.

Living in a cabin in the wilderness for a week was just what the doctor ordered. I had no cell phone reception. At first, this caused me major stress. After a couple of days, it was a gift. The outdoor activities were endless: Tennis, hiking, paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, archery, riflery, swimming and (yes) horseback riding.  After all, this is where I first learned to ride a horse over 30 years ago.  With scenery like this, how could anyone not feel relaxed, rejuvenated, revived and inspired!

The setting is not as rustic as it might sound. We were equipped with a full bathroom with running water and all meals were prepared for us in a state-of-the-art environmentally conscious dining hall. Thats right, no cooking, cleaning dishes or grocery shopping for an entire week! We dropped the kids at their Kids Camp activities every morning and afternoon and did whatever the heck we wanted. HEAVEN!

While camp has always been a magical place for me, this year I viewed it through a different lens that of a childrens author.  I took special note of all the ways the Kids Camp staff fed my childrens imagination through songs, stories and activities.  For example, the children are told on the first day that Puff the Magic Dragon lives in Walloon Lake.  They take the kids out in boats to look for Puff and feed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  My son told me excitedly how he saw Puffs shadow in the water, as my daughter explained to me that Puff controls the wind on the lake.  You wont see him, Mom, she told me, because hes a little shy.  When you see bubbles in the water, youll know its him.  Priceless!

Friday is always unicorn day.  This is when the kids and adults alike gather to watch for the unicorn sighting.  Just to be clear, the unicorn is actually a horse dressed up like a unicorn, but my 4 year-old daughter bought it hook, line and sinker.  It didnt hurt that the wizard who rode the unicorn tossed a bag of candy at the kids!  It was a great reminder of the power of a childs imagination and the precious childhood memories that are formed from these experiences.My son, going for a swim at dusk
Leading my daughter around on horseback So, now I am back to reality. Im trying to catch up on 10 days worth of email, Twitter and Facebook. But I now have renewed energy and a backlog of story ideas. I cant wait to start writing again. My kids start back school exactly one month from today not that Im counting or anything. I have a feeling that on September 3rd, my productivity will increase by 98%.  Of course, Ill always treasure the time I spent with my kids this Summer.  I have my week in Northern Michigan to thank for this positive boost in outlook and motivation.  The following quote pretty much sums it up for me:

Vacations are seen as an antidote to work. They are medicine, a remedy for counteracting the effects of labor. Vacations allow us to be away from the job, to change the patterns of our day, to alter our routine, to reconfigure our actions and habits, to rediscover ourselves. AL GINI, The Importance of Being Lazy

Whats your favorite vacation spot?