Thursday, January 31, 2013

Virginia Woolf, Insecurity, and Me

The other day on Twitter the following exchange took place:

Jaye Robin Brown (@JayeRobinBrown) "Oh wow. Random moment of insecurity. Anybody else (writers) get those?"

Me (@LauraSAndersen) "The question is do I have any random moments of SECURITY :) #neuroticwriter #notacliche

I have not been able to get that exchange out of my mind. My reply was written with the tone I bring to most of my social media posts: ironic, cynical, lightly humorous.

But that tone is not the whole of me. It is not even the majority of me. In truth, I am a mess of insecurities and fears and guilt. I go to bed Every. Single. Night. and list the day's failures. And I'm not just talking about my writing. In fact, I'm not even primarily talking about my writing. Not that I don't have writerly insecurity. At least twice a day I am convinced that my first book will fare so badly upon release this summer that Random House will pay me to go away rather than publish the next two books they've contracted for. I pre-write the bad reviews in my head that I'm sure are coming--'shallow characters, no sense of place, historical fiction with no history to it, and also the author is ugly and dresses badly.'

But you want to know my true fear, the one deep terror that underlies all of these fears?

I fear that no one will like me.

I don't say that very often because, let's face it, strong women are the order of our day. And it's not very Strong Woman of me to care so much about what people think.

But I do. I care desperately, at a soul-deep level that is not amenable to rationality and logic. Intellectually, I am fine with making my choices and living with them. I will be the first to say that I can only do the best I can do and that no one knows my life better than I do.

But my heart is a stubborn creature, and so is my fear. Underneath all my logic and firm talking-to, there is a newborn baby who was placed for adoption at birth which--absolutely and without a doubt--was the very best thing that could have happened to her. But that newborn baby was familiar with precisely one human being before her birth and that human being was not there to hold her in those first days. That newborn baby is not amenable to rationality--all she knows is that People. Leave. And that baby's instincts say that maybe, if she is very, very good and never causes a moment's trouble to anyone, she can Make. People. Stay.

In the last week, I found myself blindsided by someone's opinion as to the suitability of a book I had recommended for book club. She took exception to certain parts of the book--which is certainly her right to do--but worded her opinion in such a way that I felt as though I was defending my moral character because I like the book. I was hurt way out of proportion to the importance of the episode and not because this person is My Reading Judge or The Fount of All Creative Knowledge. I was hurt because she hit on my most vulnerable spot: the voice that whispers in the dark: What if you're wrong? What if these aren't the books you should be reading--or writing? What if your advice to the woman in a bad relationship is epically bad and she ends up hurt? What if your parenting decisions with your teenagers lead them to more unhappiness? What if, fundamentally, those closest to you are only tolerating you until you cause so much trouble that you're not worth it any longer?

(Told you neurotic writer is not a cliche.)

Honestly, I shouldn't be rambling on at all. I should just be pointing you to a brilliant blog post that Becca tweeted earlier this week. Robin LaFevers wrote about the price of stripping ourselves for our writing and the cost of being genuinely vulnerable. She wrote:  And therein lies the true power of negative reviews and harsh criticism: it stings not because the people who dole them out mean so very much to us, but because they give external voice to our deepest held fears and suspicions—that even all in, we’re not enough.

(Read the entire post here--she says everything much better than me.)

One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Virginia Woolf:  "It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others."

And you know what? Taken all in all, I wouldn't change it. Sure, I wish I didn't get hurt by random weird opinions. I wish that all my reviews to come will be brilliant and supportive. I wish I didn't live so much in my head and have such a hard time getting out of my own way.

But if I were different . . . would I be a writer? And if not, then wouldn't the cost be too high?

To wrap up this post of quotes with one more that has long guided me: "Nothing is harder than being a true novelist unless that is all one wants to be, in which case everything else is harder."

So I'll live with my fears and insecurities and worries and cliched neuroticism--because not being a writer would be ever so much harder.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Interview with Anna Staniszewski

Pat: Today on the Cabinet we are lucky to have Anna Staniszewski, author of MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE and its sequel MY EPIC FAIRY TALE FAIL, which is coming out March 1st. But that’s just the beginning. She also has . . . Well, how about if I let Anna tell you about her upcoming books.

Anna: Thank you so much for having me! Well, 2013 is going to be a busy year. The second and third books in the UnFairy Tale series will be coming out—one in March and one in November. Then I have two books in a new series, The Dirt Diary, coming from my publisher in 2014, and a picture book scheduled for that same year. Oh right…and at some point I’ll have to find time to sleep. 

Pat: Before I open this up to questions from the other Cabinet members, I have one thing I’d love to hear more about. I noticed on your website that you have a downloadable teachers' guide.  Did you know that you were going to provide this wonderful resource before you started MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE? If not, at what point did you decide to create it?

Anna: The teachers' guide came about after the book had been acquired by Sourcebooks. One of my agency-mates, Natalie Lorenzi, does fabulous teachers' guides, and I knew she’d do a great job with it. I wanted a resource that would help highlight the fairy tale and other influences in the book.

Ginger: Elaborate a bit for us on the art form of picture books versus novel-length stories. Anything surprisingly similar? Anything refreshingly different?

Anna: I love picture books, but for a long time I didn’t think I was cut out for writing them. I used to be a very wordy writer, and it was only after years of practicing cutting and focusing that I learned how to tell a concise story. In terms of my novel and picture book projects, I feel that what ties them together is my wacky sense of humor. That’s something that I think is pretty universal in a lot of the projects I work on.

Laura: Why do you write for young adults/children? What is it about those forms that speak to you as a writer? 

Anna: For a while I thought I wanted to write for adults, but for some reason, all my characters sounded like they were thirteen. Finally, I took the hint and started writing for young readers instead. Once I made that switch, it felt so natural. I love the focus and energy in children’s books; I think that’s what keeps me coming back to them, both as a reader and a writer.

Ginger:  Are you an outliner or a pantster and why?

Anna: I used to be a diehard pantster. I loved letting the story carry me wherever it wanted to. But after I sold my first book and had to start writing on deadline, I realized that being a pantster wouldn’t really cut it. Now I have more of a hybrid approach. I write a synopsis of the story and then keep that in mind as I draft. I still have a lot of freedom in the drafting process, but having that synopsis worked out beforehand helps me be more focused and efficient.

Susan: Your last name caught my ear, and I wondered if there's any story there you'd like to share?  Do you ever have people misspell it?  How do you deal with that?

Anna: My family came to the US from Poland when I was five, so for most of my life I’ve dealt with people stuttering their way through my last name. I swore when I got married, I would change it, but when I actually did get married, I realized that my last name was part of me and I didn’t want to let it go. I’m glad that I decided to be published under my maiden name; it might get misspelled all the time, but at this point I’m used to it.

Laura: In the opening chapter of My Epic Fairy Tale Fail Jenny says of her companion: "Thanks to Klarr, the evil clown sorcerer, she’d spent days as a bear statue." My question is two parts--A) how do manage to evoke so much information/attitude/humor/voice/backstory into such a small sentence? and B) Were you terrorized by clowns as a child? 

Anna: Wow, if you take that sentence out of context, it sounds a little insane, doesn’t it? Weaving back story into the opening of Book 2 was a challenge. I focused on that quite a bit while I revised the first chapter. I tried to put a hint here and there without overwhelming the reader. Keeping it all in Jenny’s voice helped, since it felt like she was the one filling in readers on what they needed to know. And no, I was not terrorized by clowns—or maybe I was and I just blocked it out.

Susan: I love the kitten on a recent blog post, and wondered if there are any magical cats in your books?  I've always suspected cats of having slunk into our world through some crease in the magic barrier!

Anna: No cats in my books yet, although there are certainly lots of dogs (or dinosaurs who think they’re dogs). I have a black Lab mix, and she manages to work her way into a lot of my stories.

Ginger: Where do you come up with all those cute little animal pictures?

Anna: I’m a huge fan of which is full of hilarious and cute photos that you can share on your blog without worrying about copyright issues. You can never have enough puppy and kitten photos.

Susan: This might seem like a crazy question . . . but, did you ever wish you had curly hair?  Mine is straight (as I see yours is, and it looks like Jenny's is, too) so I was just curious if that was something which could be magically fixed or if it's a lost cause!

Anna: YES! All the time. Funnily enough, in the third UnFairy book, Jenny gets a magical makeover and she’s amazed that her hair can actually curl. I guess all of us straight-haired gals secretly covet those curly locks.

Laura: If you could describe yourself using only one book (not one of yours) as a reference, what would it be? 

Anna: Oooh, great question! I would have to say Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson which is one of my favorite books. Not only does it have a bizarre sense of humor that I click with, but the main character is very shy and quiet—much like me.

Pat: Thank you so much for being a good sport and letting us barrage you with a mishmash of questions.  Would you mind stopping back throughout the day and answering any questions which readers might have?

Anna: Absolutely! Thank you so much for letting me stop by.

If you liked to find out more about Anna, her books or even read the first chapters of some of them, check out her website:

Be sure to follow her on twitter:  @annastanisz

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Holes, Blocks and Pyramids

A Real Writer's Block
I just had a writing friend say to me, "I want to know how you found your way out of the hole. I need to dig my way out too." 

No, not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell (thanks J.R.R.), something much worse. The Writing Hole. The place where I lived for about a year and a half. The place where you want to write, but something isn't plugged in right, you forgot your pen and the complete lack of writing is nearly suffocating. You wonder how you got there. Why you're not leaving and if you'll ever, ever find your way out. 

At least that's how it was for me.

I truly wish I had the answer for my friend and for every writer who finds themselves in the black, but it seems there's no one perfect way to climb out. The good side of that statement is that there are many, many ways to climb out and hopefully one of them will work for you.

I did some googling and found about as many types of holes, or theories on writer's block, as there are writers. One, or some of these ideas may work for my friend or for you when you find yourself in over your head.

Scheduling Solutions and a Few Touchy Feelies

"This Story Isn't Working" Solutions (And when they say THE ten types of writer's just remember there are a lot more types than that.) 

A Smattering of Great Ideas (This link is geared perhaps more to essays but I thought it was brilliant for all writing. Remember to follow the links on this page--tons of great stuff.)

And on a more personal note, my own ladder out had something to do with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- a pyramid of motivation which I was just discussing with Laura last night. In Maslow's Hierarchy, breathing would be a more immediate, basic need, it's at the bottom of the pyramid. Writing is an activity more at the top. Without the foundation blocks in place, it's tough to support that capstone. Maslow's Hierarchy is a mix of physical and psychological needs.

Although my health had been in question for quite some time, it completely crashed about a year and a half ago. I had no idea how this affected my writing. I beat myself up for not writing. What was wrong with me? Was I no longer a writer? I forced myself to write as best I could anyway. My husband insisted I write once a week alone at the library where I would often just stare at the computer and force myself to type a page or two purely because of his faith in me.

And then I started healing, physically. Sometime last spring, my brain woke up. I had no idea it had been asleep. Yes, I knew I had all of these physical problems but really didn't clue into the mental ones. (Yes, mental problems, I hear you chuckling now.) But suddenly along with my increasing physical health, I could remember phone numbers, addresses, discuss quantum theory with my kids and had ideas--so many ideas--for writing projects. 

This winter the insatiable need to write flooded back. Every free moment is filled with writing for me. It bugs me NOT to write. Something in me is making up for lost time. And not one of those great exercises in those links helped me. It was just time and healing that I needed. Physical healing. 

So if you're beating yourself up, and you're sick, entertain the possibility that you will write when your pyramid is more grounded. And if you can write while you're sick, then count your blessings and do it because the world must really need what you have to say. 

And when you're in the hole, remember, you are not alone. Every writer has been there for one reason or another. Even Mark Twain. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even me. :) Hang on to your writing friends and be nice to yourself and just keep trying. One winter night, the flame may pop to life unexpectedly, but only if you keep trying. 

God bless.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It's Going to be a Busy Year

Based on the Cabinet's 2013 goals. Writing goals, that is. Because frankly, trying to figure out goals for just one aspect of our lives is difficult enough. If we had to come up with an entire life-list of goals for this year we would either burst into flames from our heads exploding or curl up into fetal positions weeping. Neither of which would be productive in the long run.

Here are our goals (aims, aspirations, wishes, hopes, desires, dreams) for our writing lives in 2013:

PAT: 2012 brought one huge goal achieved--find an agent! Now that I've signed with Pooja Menon, 2013 will be a year of revisions and editorial submissions. 

I think my main goal for the year is learning flexibility and to work on several projects at once. The first draft of my current project is the slowest thing on the planet. But I still like it. 

It also looks like learning to run a Mac be part of my goals. I never knew how many of my writing friends had them :)

SUZANNE: Write every day.  If I'm in between books, researching or editing, I still need to spend a little time writing even if it's just jotting ideas, journaling, or working on a short and/or flash piece.  But–write daily.

Complete a publication-oriented task each week.  This can be writing and sending a new agent query letter, entering a contest, submiting a short story, or querying an editor for an article.  But–a concrete task completed weekly.

Read a book outside my usual habits monthly.  This one's pretty self-explanatory. :)

That's it!  Of course I'd also like to get an agent, enjoy certain publication milestones, etc, but I think this year I'll keep my goals focused on those things I can accomplish without relying on outside circumstances aligning themselves as I like.

BECCA: 2013 will be the first year since 2009 that I won't have a book released. So serendipity and the littlest bit of relaxation is in my plans. 

Of course, I must finish BLACK ICE (slated for release in March 2014). And there are always new ideas to explore . . . 

GINGER: Writing goals: I like the writing every day goal, Suzanne!! I was going to write 10 hours a week, and that's kind of my goal, but I don't want to feel guilty about it to the point I give up. So I'm stealing that goal from you.

I am going to submit at least one nonfiction book. For some reason nonfiction is FLOWING out of me. Finally, I have a captive audience for all my random Know-it-allness...the computer screen. And I don't have to worry about boring it or telling it things that it looks like it wants to know, but might just be faking a smile about hearing.

I am going to rewrite several picture books because I know what's wrong with them.

I am going to write The Truth About...something, probably Ghosts.

I am going to submit Sophie's Pig because every illustrator who randomly hears about it wants to try and illustrate it. Granted, none of them have actually ever been published, but you know. It's a good book. And if it gets an offer and then I have rewritten those others books then I might get a good agent and there you go.

I will write up every one of my 30 PiBoIdMo ideas. (Picture Book Idea Month)

(And the rest of us are weeping in exhaustion while simultaneously applauding Ginger. This is your year!)

LAURA: I don't have goals so much as I have contractual obligations. Which is good for me--much outward motivation (also known as the threat of public humiliation) to achieve things. Like complete revisions on book two and finish the first draft of book three. Which will then be followed by revisions on book three, plus copy edits and page proofs on both books and, oh yes, The Boleyn King is being released June 4.

But beyond contracts, I do have one business goal and one writing goal.

Business–get a professional website up and running.

Writing (short term)–send my agent two or three chapters of two or three possible books for advice in choosing my next project.

Writing (long term)–writing said next project.

What about you, gentle readers? For the writers among you, what are your goals for the year? For everyone, what are your book or reading goals?