Thursday, June 30, 2011

Everything I really need to know I learned from my Daisy Scout

This past weekend, my daughter became a Brownie. She was baked in a cardboard oven as a Daisy, and popped out in her brown vest, ready to take on all the new adventures of Browniehood. I’m so proud of her for being a scout, and for all the good work these girls have done over their past two years as Daisy Scouts.
The Daisy Scouts are the kindergarten and first-grade arm of the Girl Scouts, and help initiate young girls into the world of scouting. We played games, sang songs, ate lots of snacks (some healthy, some not so much…) and learned about everything from guardian angels to the American Revolution. Our little girls made snack bags for the homeless, took Christmas gifts to dementia patients at a local senior care facility, and donated cookies to our troops overseas.

I’m amazed how many times my daughter will reference lessons from her Daisy meetings while doing everyday stuff. When she sees friends being unkind, she’ll say, "She's not being a sister to every scout!” Or she’ll pat herself on the back for turning off lights or putting her plastic bottle in the recycle bin, saying “I’m using resources wisely.” She proudly displays her Daisy vest, adorned with colorful petals, each representing a lesson learned from the Girl Scout Law.

It got me thinking: the lessons these young scouts learn are applicable to all of us, every day of our lives. They could even apply to, say, writers. Take a look at the Girl Scout Law they’ve been studying over the past two years, and you’ll see what I mean.

I will do my best to be
honest and fair – in what I write and in my critiques of others’ writing.
friendly and helpful – by offering advice and mentoring to students and colleagues who ask for it
considerate and caring – by lending support to fellow struggling writers
courageous and strong – so I can continue to hold my head high when the rejections start pouring in
responsible for what I say and do – on, say, a blog, or a work on nonfiction that could mar someone’s reputation (mine included)
and to
respect myself and others – and never get down on myself or my colleagues just because we haven’t published anything recently
respect authority – by considering the advice of agents or editors who offer it, even when I’m sure my work couldn’t possibly be improved
use resources wisely – by doing my research and only querying agents or editors who may actually have an interest in what I’ve written, rather than querying blinding and wasting everyone’s time
make the world a better place – by writing works that uplift, educate, entertain, offer insight, or otherwise make a positive impact on my readers
and be a sister to every Girl Scout [writer] – by feeling genuinely happy for my colleagues when they experience success, rather than white-hot jealousy that it wasn’t me - not that I’d ever feel that way J.

Words to live by, I think. So glad my daughter does.

Friday, June 17, 2011

To Freelance, or Not To Freelance?

Back in the day, when I first left my high-powered job in higher education marketing and public relations (chuckle, chuckle), I began freelancing, with a focus on the business sector. Brochure copy, website copy, that sort of thing. I’ve been thinking lately that I should get back to it.

And then I think maybe not.

There are definite “pros” to freelance business writing, in my experience. It’s quick, clean, and easy. You get an assignment, you’re given most (if not all) of the information you need to put the assignment together, you have a deadline, and, after a relatively brief period of time (a couple days, a week, a month) you turn in the assignment. After another brief wait (in most cases a month, but possibly longer) you get paid. Usually a tidy sum of money. Certainly more than most fiction writers are used to seeing in a single check.

But there are some “cons” as well. Resentment being one of them. Now why, you might ask, would anyone resent something as innocuous as freelancing? Especially if it pays well?

Because it ate up my writing time with projects I didn’t care about.

I posted a while back about the limited time I have each day to write. Two or three hours in the afternoon, on a good day. Often less. This is the challenge of writing with small children in the house (and being “blessed” with the super-human ability to fall asleep anywhere, any time, typically around in the evening). So each day during my freelancing career, when I’d sit down to write up a brochure on asbestos removal or prepare web content on Pennsylvania’s fresh water fisheries, I would grumble inside, “I should be working on my own stuff!”

So I stopped. I dedicated myself to my creative work. I started graduate school to fully immerse myself in the experience. And I’ve felt fulfilled ever since.

But, as anyone who writes creatively will tell you, while the personal/emotional/spiritual rewards can be great, the monetary ones are…well, not so much (typically). Take my novel, for example. I’m going on six years of uncompensated writing time. Granted, I haven’t been plugging away at it forty hours a week over those six years, but I’ve logged at least a couple hundred hours on this piece. This piece that hasn’t yet earned me a dime. And might never.

That’s the rub of creative work. It may or may not ever pay off, financially speaking. And that can be frustrating when you’re trying to keep two sprouting kids in long-enough pants, a never-ending list of school supplies, and dance/karate/soccer/scouting fees on a single income.

Hence my reason for pondering freelancing again. I’d love to hear thoughts from others walking the walk.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing is a Team Sport

Anyone who says that writing is a solitary activity is missing a huge piece of the equation. The writing group.

A few nights ago, I got together with three of my MFA girlfriends to talk craft and give feedback. I submitted pieces of two projects: the first three chapters of an early middle-grade chapter book, and the first three chapters of my ill-fated, oft submitted but never requested, 5-years-in-the-making young adult supernatural mystery novel.

Which I learned, by the way, is not a young adult novel at all. But, of course, I didn’t know this on my own. I had to be told this by my mentor and advisor who reviewed the manuscript for me only a week or so ago. How did I not know this? I mean, I was always told that the age of the main character determines the age of the readership because kids like to read about characters who are their age or older. My main character is fourteen. Ergo, young adult. Right?

Not so, people. The content and tone of the manuscript do far more to determine the readership. So even though my character is fourteen, which would place him squarely in the young adult category, the content and elements of the book are clearly middle grade, for a plethora of reasons I won’t go into here. But I couldn’t see this on my own.

I also couldn’t see, in this manuscript about which I have been querying and submitting furiously over the past six weeks, that I need a chapter prior to the first chapter to make the readers care about the main character before he’s plunged into the darkness of the spirit world. After all, if your character falls into peril before the reader gets to like him, who’s going to care? Of course, what I remembered from all my years of writing instruction is to begin in the heart of the action. Start with a bang at the moment of change. I thought I was doing the right thing. Why couldn’t I see it?

Because I needed objective eyes, which I could not possibly have after honing this manuscript for five (almost six) years. Sometimes it takes that outsider’s perspective to shed light on the dark spots that only appear gray after you’ve looked at them for so long.

Thankfully, I now have many objective eyes. I just hope I remember to never, ever send out a single piece of writing again without running it past my amazing writing group first.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

To Do Before 40: An Updated List

I celebrated a birthday last week (don't worry, I wasn't expecting a gift), and it occurred to me that I'm getting frighteningly close to that mid-life milestone: 40.

I have to admit, there are moments when I feel every bit of my age, and then some. My former bookstore job where my youthful coworkers regularly swapped stories about barroom revelries provided many of those moments. And grad school. Almost no one else in my classes has children or can relate to temper tantrums, potty training, and the fact that I had to miss John Green's apparently amazing presentation at the Carnegie because it was the same night as my 7-year-old's sleepover.

And yet there are times when I still feel like a kid myself. I mean, I have homework and writing projects. I get graded and commute to campus. The hubby and I still gear up for Pitt football games. In fact, there are fleeting moments when I look around and wonder, “Who put me in charge of these children? Don't they know I don't have a clue? And this house? Last I knew, I was living in a 7th floor apartment on the 71A line with my college sweetheart and a cat.”

Alas, here I am. And as I approach the Big 4-0, I'm reminded of a list I made back in high school of all the things I wanted to accomplish before I hit 30. I haven't been able to dig up the list amidst all my scribbled notebooks (yes, I still have many, many scribblings from high school...), but I seem to recall a few of the items:

Ride in a hot air balloon
Try hang-gliding
Travel to England
Publish my first book
Become the youngest person to win the Academy Award for best screenplay
Attempt an Everest climb

I achieved precious few of the items on my list. Perhaps it's because these lists tend toward the dramatic. I mean, hang-gliding? Who does that? And Everest? (Well, from what I understand, you can pretty much pay your way up there nowadays, but still.)

At least I made it to England.

Notably absent from the list were things like getting married, having children, buying a house and establishing myself in any kind of stable career that would actually earn an income. I suppose I figured all those things would work themselves out.

And they have. Thankfully, since those have been some of the most pivotal and meaningful developments in my life.

Still, I've decided to revamp the list for 40. Here goes:

  1. Have at least one of my manuscripts accepted for publication by a reputable publishing house.

Yeah, that's pretty much the only thing I feel is missing from my life right now. The rest is icing on an already amazingly delicious cake.

I have two years to do it. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Memory of an Eternal Optimist

I feel like I’ve lost a friend.

I had never actually met her, never shook her hand or shared a conversation with her. We were never in the same room, or really even in the same part of the country, to my knowledge. And yet I feel as if I’d known her all my life.

Her name was Bridget Zinn. She was a fellow children’s writer who I heard about through a literary agency I’ve been following on Facebook. When they released an excited message about signing this bright new talent, I checked out her website and started following her blog.

I instantly loved her.

Every post bubbled with enthusiasm, joy, energy, playfulness. She posted wacky videos about her obsessive love of shoes and cake. She seemed exactly the kind of person I’d want in my own writing group, in my own circle of friends.

And yet the entire time, through all the upbeat, perky posts, Bridget was fighting the battle of her life against cancer.

She learned of her stage IV colon cancer only two years ago at the age of 31. She had no risk factors – none. She was a young, fit, healthy vegetarian. She married her longtime boyfriend in her hospital bed.

I followed Bridget’s blog for inspiration. Knowing that she could face something so frightening with such optimism helped me push the little day-to-day stuff aside. If she could battle cancer with a smile, then heck, I could deal with a little herniated disk and a 3-year-old temper tantrum. I clicked on her site daily for that jolt of happiness, and to keep up with news on her fight. She didn’t post daily, but it didn’t matter. I’d scroll through the archives of cat pictures, posts about her adorable home in Oregon, and descriptions of amazing celebrations with friends. All good stuff. All uplifting.

Then I visited the site yesterday after being offline all Memorial Day weekend. I saw the title “Celebrating Bridget.” I knew instantly it was over. And I felt a remarkable sense of loss.

I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to “get to know her.” Her ever-present brightness and bliss have taught me that life is beautiful regardless of our circumstances, and that we shouldn’t wait for perfect conditions to live life to the fullest. Here’s a quote from her November 13th blog post:

“I know I’m lucky that my ‘neutral’ is happy. It makes everything in life a whole lot easier and I realize that a lot of people have to work to get there. I don’t know if I was born that way or if it was a product of reading too many Zen Buddhism books at a young age—I remember being so blown away by the Eternal Now, but then thinking, hey, if it’s always now, I don’t have to wait until later to be happy. Because there is no later. It’s always Now, so, unless circumstances overwhelm me otherwise, I’m just going to always choose to be happy Now.”

I know Bridget will be missed by many, many friends and family. She will certainly be missed by me.

Some lovely tributes to Bridget have been posted online by author Lisa Schroeder, literary agent Michael Sterns, and the Deo Writer blog.