Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I Am Thankful for Mistakes

by Sherry Wilson
I am Thankful for Mistakes

This week as we give thanks for all of the wonderful things in our lives and celebrate with family and friends, I started to think about my writing life. More particularly about how my writing life might be improved—how all of our careers might be improvedby an attitude of gratitude.

Throughout school we learn to write, so by the time we graduate, we figure we have a pretty good idea of how to write. But do we really? The shift between school and a professional level of writing is like the difference between school band and a professional music career. In both cases, there is room to grow, to learn, to get better.

I think it's when we forget about this quest that things become more difficult for us as writers. We need to give ourselves permission to relax a little and enjoy the process. I mean, if you decided you wanted to play an instrument and you signed yourself up for piano lessons, you wouldn't expect to play like Glenn Gould next weekor even next year, for that matter. You would practice. You'd put in your hours. You wouldn't do it because you thought you'd be able to play like Glenn Gould. You'd do it for the fun of it. Because, while learning a new instrument is work, it's also fun. That's why we call it playing an instrument. But we expect much more of ourselves as beginning writers. We expect to write like Hemingway, or Bradbury, or Stephen King. But what we should do is just relax, play around with the words and the ideas, and make mistakeslots and lots of mistakes. Try writing it one way and if you don't like the results, then try something else. Make the mistakes. Learn your strengths and your weaknesses. Find your own, unique voice.

We need to give ourselves the gift of allowing ourselves to make mistakeswithout judgment. I mean, you don't judge every wrong note you play when you learn the saxophone. If you put yourself down every time you make a squeak, you'll never learn to play. Just notice the mistakes and keep going. Next time through, try writing it a different way. What works? What doesn't? Why? Do you see just how large this gift is? When you are able to separate yourself, the person, from the written work, you'll learn so much from those precious mistakes. And you can be thankful for the mistakes because they bring you so much closer to the writer you want to be.

In order to be a great writer, of course, or any writer at all, for that matter, we have to put in our timepay our dues and practice. We have to sit our butts in our chairs and write. Like the cellist who will never get better without taking the time to play, the writer will never improve if he doesn't do the work. No amount of talking about being a writer or critiquing or reading will get you there. It's all about the hours in the chair. 

One good side effect of this, thoughregular hours in the chair lets the muse know where and when to show up.

Besides spending the time writing, I've learned that when gratitude becomes a daily focus, amazing things start to happen. I've seen this in my own life over the past couple of years. So now I want to extend this to my writing career. But what do I mean? How do you do it?

  • Make a list of the things you love about writing. Why do you do it? Why did you start writing? What makes you keep going? What parts do you absolutely love about the process?
  • Pick three things that you are most thankful for in your writing life. What are the three best things about the act of writing?
  • Write these three things on a piece of paper and tack it to your monitor where you will see it every day.
  • Get a stone, ring, necklace or some other symbol that you can carry with you throughout the day. Every time you touch this object, think about how grateful you are for your writing career. Close your eyes for a moment and think about what makes you happy. Maybe it's that feeling when the words just pour out onto the page and you feel like they're coming from a different placelike you've tapped into something bigger than yourself. Imagine yourself writing, the words just flowing through you. Let yourself feel the euphoria. Experience it as if it were real and happening to you whenever you touch the object. Get into the habit of doing this several times a day. At best your writing will flow better. At worst, you will spend several minutes a day feeling truly happy and content with your life.

So what's it going to be? You can go through your writing journey feeling like you'll never get anywhereyou'll never be one of the greatsyou'll never find that one right story when all the planets align and something like Harry Potter will fall into your lap or pop into your head while you're riding a train. You can count all the reasons you aren't as good as some famous writer. Or you can spend your time feeling good about all you've learned and the progress you've made. You can be happy that you had a good session yesterday and confident that you will again tomorrow. You can enjoy the process.

The top three things that I'm grateful for:

  • All of my wonderful writing friendsthose who critique my work, those who argue with me for hours over comma usage, and those who just let me vent when I'm having a bad day. Yes, these friends are any writer's greatest asset and I'm forever grateful for my writing buddies.
  • Unfinished projectseven if my time is limited and I struggle to find time to work on my own projects, I'm so grateful they sit there waiting for me. My characters are so patient. They only occasionally wake me up during the night and prod me to get back to work.
  • Those brief moments of flow when the words just pour out onto the page. It's as if the story is writing itself right in front of me. I cherish each moment and live for the next one.

Let's all give gratitude a try and see what happens. I don't know what will come of it, but what harm could it do? Let's spend the next year working on improving our attitude of gratitude and see where we are next year.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

Children's Books: The Art of Writing with Illustrations

by Charlotte Firbank-King

Storytelling is a passion, even obsession. It is deeply satisfying to captivate an audience with drama, pathos, violence, tranquility or fantasy—to be the master of imaginary characters. Above all, writers aim to please their readers (after listening to editors’ suggestions and working with them to succeed).
Unfortunately, this is not always true concerning book illustrations. Many authors seem to think that once the story is written, that’s it. They adopt a careless attitude, choosing an art style that only suits them. Art is subjective, so beware of falling into this mold.
Kids love color, yet we see illustrations in children’s books executed in quick pencil sketches. Why is that? The usual reason is simple. It’s cheaper to commission an artist to do pencil sketches rather than a complex work in acrylic, oils, pastel or gouache. Watercolors are also beautiful, especially when combined with ink. But with children, I want to stress that illustrations must have impact and instant appeal. Kids form a huge section of the reading audience. Even toddlers will roam bookshelves and choose what they want. It’s critically important to make sure the illustrations in your book stand out among millions of others.
Simplicity has its place, but as with brevity of words, the drawing must be brilliant in its economy. One does not get brilliant when the artist is paid little and required to dash off a dozen pictures. I urge writers of this genre to spend the extra money—or have fewer illustrations. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. A children’s book may be well written, but if the illustrations are mediocre or slapdash, the book will NOT sell well. In fact, illustrations are the “hook,” and then the story captivates, but the two must marry
Adults or young adults generally don’t want illustrations of what heroes or villains look like. They want to form their own picture. Small children, however, want to know what characters look like. Their imagination skills are still developing. But be very aware when deciding how the characters will be portrayed. Violence or overt evil should not be illustrated. Kids may have nightmares if that is the last thing they see before going to sleep. In short, be sensitive to young minds.

Here’s something else to think about. When a parent reads to a child, the child typically sits next to him or her, on the left or right. If the illustrations are sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right, the child is jumping up and down, running or crawling from one side to the other. But if the illustrations are always on the left or always on the right, the child gets to enjoy the illustrations without running back and forth.
When it’s impossible to pay the price for quality color illustrations, consider having the artist illustrate the story in pen (not a pencil sketch). The child can then color the pictures so he can choose how he wants his imaginary world to look. Coloring in is an abiding pleasure for kids and gives free-rein to their imaginations.
And finally, always test illustrations by showing them to kids before publishing—they will be your best and most honest critics.

(c) 2013 Charlotte Firbank-King. All Rights Reserved. 

Charlotte Firbank-King is a writer, editor, and artist. Her paintings have been sold and exhibited throughout the world and have been commissioned by the Johannesburg Zoo, the Witwatersrand National Botancial Gardens and the Zulu Schools Trust, among others. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


  By Rhonda Browning White
“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” –Lewis Carroll, from Alice in Wonderland

            Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? If only that were the case! In truth, the beginning of any essay, story or memoir is often the most crucial part. It’s the part that causes a reader to decide whether to keep going, or to toss the book into a “not for me” pile and move on to the next one on the shelf. Fortunately, with a little work, you can write a strong beginning for your story that will hook a reader and keep her turning pages. Here’s how:
  • Don't censor your first draft. The first draft of your story isn’t the time for revision. Let the ideas flow, let your characters chatter and discover themselves, explore the scenery around them, let the story surprise you. If it surprises you, chances are good it will surprise the reader, as well. There will be plenty of time for revision later.
  • Once you have finished your first draft, study the ending. The ending of your story should be evident in the beginning. Now I don’t mean that you should ruin the plot by telling how the story ends on the first page, but there should be enough foreshadowing, enough intimation, and enough clues to intrigue and to create a feeling of satisfaction when the reader reaches the last page.
  • Introduce tension on the first page. There must be yearning. What does your character want that she cannot have? Make sure your story raises important questions; the how, who, where, why and what of your plot. Create tension by introducing internal conflict (what’s happening inside the character’s mind) and external conflict (the big problem that is happening around them). By introducing tension early on, we motivate characters to act, and we motivate readers to keep reading.
  • Set the scene. Tell us where we are in place and time. Let us see the location through the eyes of your main character. I don’t mean describe the color of the wallpaper, the style of the draperies, the method of upholstery and texture of carpeting—unless these play an important part in the plot of your story. When you describe a setting, describe it as your character might. For example, an architect might describe a horizon as a level foundation, while a tailor might describe it as a smooth seam.
  • Introduce the character. Give us a sense of the character’s voice. Does he speak in lofty terms, or does he use colloquialisms? What does he look like? More importantly, how does he see the people and the world around him? Dig deep into your protagonist’s thoughts to reveal character and emotion.

If you’ve included each of these elements in your first scene—preferably on your first page—then you have a solid story beginning. You’ve asked questions that the reader will want answered. You’ve piqued interest. You’ve created a character that is anything but cliché. Congratulations! You’ve crafted an excellent beginning!  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It's NaNoWriMo Time Again!

(Image Courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

by Sandy Tritt

This is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Every November, thousands of people from every walk of life join to make writing a novel a priority. They set the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days—one month. It’s a lofty goal, but thousands succeed every year. And, not only do they succeed in writing 50,000 words, many of them succeed well beyond that. According to, over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. Over two hundred and fifty! Some of these have become quite well known, such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder).
I’m going to be honest with you. Although most of our editors at IFW have participated in NaNoWriMo at least once, I never have. But there must be something in the air in November, because this past Friday night—November 1—after my family was snoring away, I snuck out of bed and returned to my computer. I turned it on and started writing a fresh approach to a novel I’ve been trying to write for years. It was there—the muse was whispering in my ear and I suddenly knew the character’s voice, knew how I needed to start this story that’s been on the back burner for many years.
What about you? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you ever participated in the past? If you did, did you finish? Did you end up with a novel? Tell us about it.
And remember—when you’re ready to have your NaNoWriMo novel edited, we’re here, standing by.