Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Staying Unemployed: It's Not as Easy as You Think

My friend and SCBWI Regional Advisor Mary Cronk Farrell contributed this week's guest post.

Thanks so much, Tracy, for the opportunity to guest post. My experience is not about quitting my day job, but about withstanding the pressure to get one. It’s about going for years between book contracts, making no money and still believing in myself.

When I took leave from my job as a TV news reporter to raise my three children, I intended to go back when my baby was a year old, two, then three, then when he started kindergarten. Somewhere along the way I polished off a dream. I wanted to be a real writer. (Whispered aside so TV people won’t hear. In a weak moment I may decide I do need a real job.)

I loved being my own boss, working my own schedule, choosing my own assignments. I loved that reading books was all in a day’s work. Sad to say, my baby was nine before my first book came out. Then I published two more books in the next two years. So what if my only income was a royalty statement for thirty-dollars and twenty-nine cents?  Surely, soon, my next book would be published, earn out, go into a second printing. Who needs a day job?

Then I hit a dry spell. Five years passed and I didn’t sell a book. My oldest son went to college. I visited schools, spoke at conferences, focused on improving my craft, wrote one manuscript after another. My daughter went to college.

I should mention here, I have a patron. My husband has a steady job with health benefits. At no time was I a starving artist. We downsized, moving across the state for a lower cost of living. We had the necessities, but we lived on what we called the “Farrell Austerity Measures.” We bought second-hand, learned to replace broken windows and fix appliances. One of our two cars was stolen and we didn’t replace it. I enjoy cooking, so we rarely eat out. I make our bread from scratch and grow vegetables. Family vacations are drives to visit relatives.

My husband worried about retirement and student loans. He believed I’d topped out as an author. He fretted about home maintenance. I said, “Give me a year, and if I don’t sell a book, I’ll get a job.”

I swear that was the fastest year of my life. But it was enough time to realize writing was more than a career for me. It was a way of being in the world. Whether I ever published another book, writing was how I made sense of life, how I discovered myself.

When five years turned into six and then seven, I never stopped believing in my next book. More importantly, that was no longer the point. I wanted to spend my hours being what I was—a writer. I see how the geese fly south too soon, how a budding branch can snap, a voice grow faint.

Every so often, I doubt myself. Internal whispers urge me—get a day job. I feel guilty not helping support my family. I get depressed. Other writers bid me keep on.

Mary Oliver asking, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” and reminding, “You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried/with its stiff fingers at the very foundations.../It was already late enough....”

Vanita Hampton Wright warning, “Expect to be misunderstood. Perfectly fine people will think you’re wasting your life if you don’t get a real job that gives you a nice retirement package. Perfectly loving friends and family will keep waiting for you to grow up and get over this phase. Well-intentioned religious people will worry about your dealing with dark and uncomfortable topics.”

It's not fun having less disposable income than most of my friends, living in my 1970's kitchen and bathroom, wondering how my daughter will pay her college loans. Getting that social security statement showing I haven’t made money in twenty-years? That’s really not fun.

But for today, I find courage to spend the working moments of my life writing, following my passion, being true to my creative calling, living in joy. That’s my day job.

Mary Cronk Farrell just received a contract for her first YA nonfiction book, forthcoming from Abrams in 2013. Her novel Fire in the Hole (Clarion) is a Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age, a Bank Street College’s Best Childrens Book, and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best juvenile fiction. Mary blogs about history, literature, and demons and other dark holes of the writing life.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This 'n' that

Miscellaneous musings this week.

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Definition of the "Saturn Return," according to the all-knowing Wikipedia:
“With the first Saturn return, a person leaves youth behind and enters adulthood. With the second return, maturity. And with the third and usually final return, a person enters wise old age. These periods are estimated to occur at roughly the ages of 28-29, 57-58 and 86-88.” I got married at 28 and will retire at 57. I guess wisdom awaits me at 86.

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Here's an interesting article reminding us that even if we look on ourselves as artists, publishing companies are a business, and it would behoove us to remember that.

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Thank you, Ryan Gosling:

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Some cautions about viewing retirement through rose-colored glasses.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s All About Balance: How to Keep Your Social Life

This weeks guest blogger is Margo L. Dill.

When Tracy addressed her four fears of quitting her day job and writing full time, one of her fears was: Would she still be social? It’s a fear so many of us SAHW (stay-at-home writers) have—we’re afraid we might turn into a recluse. Let’s face it, how easy is it to stay in your pajamas all day and not take a shower for a few more?

But  never fear, you can stay at home, write, and in my case, also take care of a one-year-old daughter, and still have a social life. You just have to be careful. It is so easy to say “yes” to everything you’re asked to do, as you might be starving for human contact. When your mom calls because she wants to run to the mall and you’re not “working” so can you go with her, it’s easy to say, “Sure.” But then, are you going to reach your 2000-word goal for the day as well as finish up the guest post for your upcoming blog tour? Probably not.

So, how do you balance? Balance is the key—you have to have family, social/friend, and work time. It’s crucial. Here’s what I do:

First I look at my week as a whole with a calendar and a pen in hand. I make a note of any appointments or un-fun things (like an oil change or grocery shopping) that I have to do. Next, I look at any social things that are already scheduled—and yes, I consider my writing critique group meeting to be a social event. Although it helps my writing immensely, it is still me, socializing with friends who happen to be writers; and it takes me away from my keyboard and daughter. This category also includes family dinners (not with your immediate family, but maybe Sunday night at your parents’), church, yoga—anything where you are out and about and interacting with other people. If you don’t count these, you will never have time to write.

Once I’ve looked at appointments and any social engagements, I schedule in my writing time. This is especially important for any of you who are also staying home with young ones because your time is limited. My writing time is limited to my daughter’s naps and bedtime, and times when my parents or husband watch her. I have to schedule my writing time, so I know I’ll have time to write at least once a day and a couple large blocks each week.

What time is left now? Well, probably very little, but there will be some left. You have to eat and exercise and possibly do holiday or birthday shopping, so here’s where you invite a friend to go along. Sometimes, I’ll ask my friends with little ones to go mall walking with me or come over for a play date. I schedule a dinner here or there. I send emails to schedule dates—stay off the phone. It’s a time-sucker! 

You can do it. It just takes a little extra effort and balance. The important thing is to remember your goal—to do what you love—write!

Margo L. Dill is a children’s author, online instructor, and freelance writer and editor. She has three books under contract with the first one, a middle-grade historical fiction novel, coming out in 2012. She currently teaches online classes on blogging, social networking, and children’s writing for WOW! Women On Writing. Find out more about Margo and read her blog about using children’s books with kids here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Excuses, excuses

No post this weeka combination of the last-week-of-classes crunch (and I'm well aware that this is the last time I'll be able to use this excuse) and a bad cold got in my way. See you next week!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Making the leap

When I met author Loretta Ellsworth at the Kentucky Book Fair, I knew I wanted her to write a guest post. Here it is.

As writers we dream about having the schedule of, say, Stephen King: “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time.” —On Writing

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? But most of us work a day job in addition to squeezing in time for laundry, cleaning, cooking, shopping, taking care of our families, and hopefully, a little time to write during that busy day, while hoping to make the transition to full-time author sooner or later. And it’s usually difficult to decide when and how to make that leap.

My own decision to make the leap didn’t involve much rational thought. I decided to quit my teaching job with the publication of my second book. Part of my decision was based on my desire to have a more flexible schedule. I have a disabled son and I wanted to be around more for him. My father was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live, and I wanted to spend time with him as well.

My husband provided the majority of our income and all of our insurance and health benefits, so I didn’t feel as though I was giving up much in that area. I hoped to replace my salary with advances and royalties, but I had no timeline, no plan, and no idea how soon I could expect that to happen. If I had based my decision only on my ability to reproduce my current salary, I would have realized that I needed to wait to quit until I had more books published. I would have drawn up a business plan and looked at all the factors that needed addressing. I would have been more realistic, in other words.

After quitting my job I discovered that I don’t work well under pressure. At first I had trouble with a job where there were no guarantees in income and no promises that I would continue to be published. When I gained other means of writing income, such as school visits and speaking at conferences, I felt less pressure, thus freeing up my creativity, which helped me write more.

I also discovered that just because you have more time doesn’t mean you’ll write more. One thing I did do more was read, and that helped me with my writing. I also went back to school and obtained my MFA in Writing for Children. It helped me gain perspective and feel more confident about my craft, and I was part of a great community of writers.

It’s taken me almost four years to replicate my teaching salary. I’m not going to sugar-coat itthose four years were hard. There were times when I thought of going back to teaching. I still do think of it occasionally during those times when the writing isn’t going as well as I’d hoped, but I continue to work hard. I’ve now sold four books and won a few awards, and my books have been translated into other languages. All of that motivates me to keep going.

I know that Stephen King didn’t start out with the above schedule. He was a high-school English teacher, and finding time to write was hard: “By most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then.” It wasn’t until paperback rights of Carrie were sold that he was able to quit his job. For most of us, it isn’t a huge book sale that allows us to quit our day jobs; it’s more of a gradual increase in our advances and royalties. It’s school and library visits that we’re paid for. It’s hard work, but it can happen, and by preparing ahead, by looking at what we have to face, at what we’re ready and capable of doing, we can set ourselves up for successful careers as full-time authors and make the transition easier.

Oh, and we can still dream about that huge sale, too.

Loretta Ellsworth is a former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children. She is the author of The Shrouding Woman, a BBCB Choice and Rebecca Caudill Nominee; In Search of Mockingbird, a Teen’s Top Ten nominee, an ALA and IRA Notable, winner of the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Honor Award for Children’s Literature, and named to the New York Library List of Teenage Books; In a Heartbeat, a Midwest Connection’s Pick and ALAN Pick; and Unforgettable, which received that elusive Kirkus star and was a Kirkus Critic’s Pick for September. She appears at numerous book festivals across the nation and teaches writing to young people as well as those not so young. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Teaching writing

Here’s one thing I’m going to miss about having both a teaching career and a writing career: those rare opportunities when I get to combine the two. I’ve done this a few times already, once when I gave a presentation at an academic conference on the Classics in children’s literature (got a deductible trip to London and Wales out of that one!), and another time when I was on a panel about young-adult literature set in the Middle Ages, at the fabulous International Congress on Medieval Studies.

I’m in the middle of doing it again right now. I’ll be teaching a First-Year (=Freshman) Writing Seminar on writing for young readers at my university next semester, and I’ve devoted the beginning of my Thanksgiving break to finalizing my first rough draft of the syllabus, which I've been picking at for weeks now.

Just as those of us who write hoping for publication are told to read, read, read, my students too will have to do a lot of reading before and while they’re doing their own writing for young readers. I’ve been browsing all sorts of lists, reading books on teaching writing to undergraduates, talking to people who teach both children’s literature and writing for children, trying to figure out how to cram a lot of information into the students’ heads in a short time while keeping the process enjoyable. 

I’m really curious about what kind of work the students will turn out. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of their work, but I hope even more that I can help them improve it, either from abysmal to bearable or from good to terrific. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from anyone who has taught a course like this—or any kind of creative writing, for that matter.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flex Time

When I stop teaching, I’ll be trading a full-time job (teaching) and a part-time job (writing) plus a busy volunteer commitment with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for a full-time job (writing) and the same volunteer commitment. I’ll have more time for promotion of my books, including making school visits and going to book fairs both here and abroad.

You might think that I don’t need any more time. I get a week off at Thanksgiving and in the spring, a few weeks in the winter, and of course, four months in the summer.

The problem is that this schedule is inflexible. If I take a day off at some time than the scheduled breaks, whether for illness or because of a writing commitment, I have to scramble to find someone to cover for me, or adjust my syllabi so that my students aren't shortchanged. College professors don’t have a pool of substitutes to call on—there aren’t many people out there who can come in at a moment’s notice and teach a class in, say, Italian Composition—and we pack a lot into a semester, so it doesn’t take long to fall behind if I need to go to a conference or make a school visit.

I teach in a very cool building.
I'm grateful that my department chairs have, for the past few years, allowed me to arrange my classes so that I have one day off a week. This is great for local school visits, but it still makes travel to other states difficult, and weekend conferences and book fairs impossible, if I need to take a weekday for travel to wherever the event is being held.

Fortunately, some of these events take place after my semester has ended. In the last ten days of April, starting pretty much the second that classes end, I’ll be in four different states doing book fairs, conferences, and school visits!

A lot of associations have conferences and workshops where I could learn more about writing and promotion, and where I could potentially make a contribution of my own. So, what events are on my wish-list when I have the freedom to travel during the school year?

News flash: After I had compiled this list, Kristin Tubb sent me a link to a state-by-state listing of book fairs. She's also writing an article about them for BorderLines, the SCBWI-Midsouth newsletter.

Writer friends, what am I missing?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is it worth it?

When the lovely and indomitable Tracy Barrett asked me to write a post for her blog about giving up your day job to write full time…well…I had a number of first thoughts.

The first being…give up? Give up my day job? I didn’t give up my day job. I left it at a run, cheering my head off. Quitting my corporate (soul sucking drudgery) day job (as a UI Web Development Manager for AT&T Labs) was the best thing I ever did. Okay, maybe not the very best thing as that sacred spot should be reserved for things like marriage and having a child, but definitely one of the best things. Ever.

Except, you know, for the paycheck thing.

I had been around the industry enough through my years doing occasional freelance work and founding YA Books Central that I knew writing was not the fast or easy way to the big bucks. That, in fact, the big bucks more than likely would never come even if I did get published. My modest hope was that I could make enough from my writing that I could justify continuing to write—perhaps not just to myself, but to my husband. After all, it was only through his largesse (and good job) that I was able to write full time anyway.

Well, fast forward roughly five years later and I’ve had two books published with a third on the way (Cat Girl’s Day Off, Spring 2012). We’ve also moved three times, including last year’s international move to London, England. And we had a baby, who is now most definitely a little boy—he’s started school (okay, it’s more like nursery and it’s just half days…he is only three and a half, but it’s still like writing time on a platter)!

My first two books have been translated into multiple languages (Spanish, Czech, Croatian, and French). They’ve been awarded some nice honors (like a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers). I get some (amazingly lovely) fan mail pretty much every day from all over the world. I’m on my third agent (having sold the first book without one at all) and I’m working on an entirely new YA (not funny, but kind of a creepy paranormal) novel now.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But the big bucks? Um.

It’s depressing, but I have to admit that I’m still making less as an author than I did on my first (rather crappy) job out of college. Actually, I might be making less than my first job during college. And a lot of writers are in that same boat.  It’s definitely not unusual, especially when you get paid so infrequently, not to mention we’re in the middle of a huge change in the market. E-books, E-readers, Indie Authors Everywhere….Oh my!

So, for those of you reading this and wondering if you should take the plunge…yes, it can absolutely be the best thing in the world. But plan for it to take a long time before you are earning a comfortable amount of money (or have a really great spouse who makes enough to support the family). Me, I probably really did it backwards by quitting before getting established. It’s a hard choice as you obviously have more time to write without the day job (though time has a mysterious way of disappearing once you have a child…in fact, I should probably say I’m a full-time mother and part-time author if I’m being honest because there’s really no alternative when you have a toddler in the house).

Ultimately, I don’t regret it and would still leave my (high paying *sniff*) day job in a minute. Should you do the same? Only you can answer that.

P.S. I really hope I don’t sound too doom and gloom. Being a writer is the best thing ever (okay, after marriage and having a baby).

Kimberly Pauley is the author of the award-winning Sucks to Be Me, which was honored on the YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list. The sequel, Still Sucks to Be Me, was listed on the VOYA Best Science Fiction Fantasy List of 2010. Born in California, she has lived everywhere from Florida to Chicago and has now gone international to live in London with her husband (a numbers man) and the cutest little boy on any continent (The Max). She wrote Cat Girl’s Day Off because she wanted to share what cats really think with the world. Visit her online.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I wrote a post a while ago asking for help coming up with a list financial perqs that people lose when they leave their jobs. I guess it was pretty complete, because I received only one addition (stock options).

How about the flip side—the savings you’ll reap when you’re no longer going to a day job? Again, I’m looking for a complete list, so I’ve included items here that aren’t relevant to me. For example, anyone who has been on a college campus lately knows that my savings in the wardrobe line will be minimal. While some professors do dress up, “business casual” is a bit more formal than what most of us aspire to. Transportation for me means a new pair of walking shoes every six months. It could help my colleagues, though, as the cost of parking at my university is over $300 a year!

So—most people who quit their day jobs might expend to spend less money on:
  • day care
  • pet care
  • wardrobe
  • transportation
  • meals
  • Depending on how stressful your job is, you might be able to cut down on your drinking once you're no longer going there every day (oh, I'm kidding)

Wow, that list is a lot shorter than the one detailing what perqs people stand to lose! I suppose I could add that every time that work commitments force me to turn down a speaking engagement or postpone writing I'm losing money, but that hardly seems fair; until I trade one kind of work for another, of course I'm not availing myself of the income from the second.

So what am I forgetting? Please help!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Step at a Time

This week's post is courtesy of Leslie Helakoski, a writer/illustrator and Regional Advisor with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Because I'm such a chicken, I said goodbye to my day job in stages. First, I quit my professional job to do something that didn't leave me creatively bankrupt—because what I really wanted to do was create books. Then I quit working full time at my low-pressure job and went to part-time because I was bored out of my mind—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. I quit the part-time job because my boss was getting increasingly irritated that I was always writing or researching when I should have been cleaning a shelf or some- thing—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. So fine, I finally quit. I was free to write, BUT . . . my family needed another source of income besides what my husband brought home. If I couldn't make money creating books, then I'd have to go back to a regular paycheck job.

Fear was a great motivator. For two years, I pushed myself hard from the moment my family left in the morning until suppertime and then often in the evenings and weekends as well. I couldn't relax and ate every lunch standing up in the kitchen so I could finish quickly and get back to work.

My back hurt from hours of sitting and one eye began to twitch. What? Leave my desk? But I had more to write, more to paint, more emails to answer, and author visits to schedule! I was becoming a one-dimensional workaholic. I stopped playing tennis, stopped gardening, stopped painting for myself, and stopped cleaning. (OK, I never kept a pristine house anyway.) I thought I would have more fun someday, when I caught up with things. I was working as a writer/illustrator because I thought it would be fun but I wasn't exactly happy. I needed to get some perspective. I needed to get a grip. I needed to make this work.

Staying inside day after day, especially in winter, drove me crazy but I had to stay home and write, didn't I? Didn't I? When I actually had a tremor in my hand and approached my naturopathic sister about treat- ment, she pointed out that I had to find some balance and asked what I usually did for fun. Umm . . . work?

I slowly started sneaking out to coffees with friends and going to the gym more, or visiting museums—during the day! If my husband asked how my day went, did I tell him that after three hours of work I couldn't write anymore so I spent the afternoon at the museum? No. Did I explain that after revising rhyme for a couple of hours, I had to use another part of my brain and played the cello all afternoon? No. After all, he can't leave his job when he gets overloaded at work and just take the afternoon off. Did I cover the phone to drown out the voices of friends and let him think I was at home working? Yes. I felt guilty when I stepped away from my desk. How could I rationalize taking music lessons or playing frisbee golf when I should be working?

I can conduct business all day but I cannot write all day. After a few hours, my brain is usually done. Every once in a while I have to go someplace where the people talk back and the animals don't. We all know that it's essential to step away from our writing for periods of time so that we can look at our work with fresh eyes, right? But I have an even better rationale for taking off to do something fun: play and fun help stimulate the creative thinking part of the brain that is responsible for ideas. Even Einstein said, "To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play." So there.

Being at home and working on books is wonderful. I love it most of the time. But it can be isolating and stifling, not to mention tough on the back. My desk will never be completely cleared of things to do. But do I want to stay there all day, every day? I'm trying to write fun books, here. What kind of writer will I become?

I still spend plenty of time in my chair, drooling over manuscripts while my yard goes to hell and my tennis balls go flat. And sometimes, fear creeps in when I step away from my desk and I have to push away a pang of guilt. Breaking up some of my workdays keeps my mind fresh and my body moving. And guilt totally messes with the energy flow. I make a point to include play in my schedule for BALANCE and because . . . what I really really want is to be happy . . . and of course, create books.

Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimesbut not alwaysillustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three children, and one small white fuzz-ball of a dog. Her books include Woolbur, Big Chickens, and Fair Cow. She is currently at work revising and illustrating her seventh book, Under the Table, which will be released in the spring of 2013. She is on the web at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Several years ago, my nephew, then a first-grader, came home from school and told my sister that his class was learning to count backwards. My sister didn’t think anything of this until she discovered that the teacher was doing a countdown to her last day before retirement.

It was pretty funny and pretty awful, but now that I’m in the same situation myself, I must confess to a certain sympathy with that teacher. It’s hard to feel invested in the future of my department when I’m not going to be there to see what happens, especially since a lot of the battles being fought are ones that I’ve fought in the past, cared deeply about, and lost over and over again. Sometimes I feel like I'm just marking time.

It’s a little hard to get excited about my classes this semester—beginning Italian, which I started teaching as a grad student in 1980. I’m even using the same textbook! (A much later and much revised edition, of course.) I’ve heard every excuse for not doing the homework, every reason why the sorority meeting was more important than my class, so could I please tell her what we did?

So I think I’m all blasé and uninterested, but then something happens. A student says something genuinely funny and original in Italian after only eight weeks of study. A light bulb goes off over the head of another student, who has been struggling. A colleague is being mistreated by someone in the administration and asks my advice. A former student emails me that she and some others who were in a small class with me are going out for pizza and they want me to come too because they miss our class. A colleague runs a great idea for a new course by me.

And all of a sudden I care again. So I guess I won't be doing a countdown—not yet, anyway. Check with me in a few months.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What’s your writing process?

Helen Hemphill, who contributed this week's post
Every writer has a unique process that feels right. For me, it’s a weird combina- tion of writing nonstop or writing not at all. I can write like my fingers are on fire or not touch the draft for weeks, but rarely am I a “two-page-a-day” person anymore. I used to be very intentional about writing those two pages, but sometimes I felt as if I was pushing too hard. Pushing the story to go places it didn’t want to go. Push- ing characters to make choices that weren’t really their own. Pushing to get done! I became more interested in finishing the pages than actually writing the pages. That was wrong.

In learning my own writing process, I’ve learned some things about myself. Hate drafting. Love revision. Revision is fun, and I can do it in tiny bites on the run or during lei- surely sessions with a glass of wine and good music. Writ- ing a first draft means quiet, discipline, frustration, and, well, it’s kind of like real work. I know that I have to sit there and do it, or I might find a million reasons not to do it. May- be you love making the marble of a story, but hate sculpting the raw manuscript. Maybe you like to write scenes and figure out the puzzle of how they fit together instead of writing a linear path from beginning to end. That’s the interesting part about writ- ing. You can take classes and learn craft, but no one can actually tell you how to do it. You have to find out on your own.

So, how do you find your process? Some of it depends on your own tempera- ment. I’m a morning person, but I don’t think my best writing happens in the morn- ing. It takes me a few hours to get my mind fully immersed in the story. Tony Earley, a terrific writer of adult fiction, once told me he revises daily, and by the time a novel is done he can recite the first chapters of the book easily. A few of my friends are night writers. They stay up late with their laptops and work while the house is quiet, children and spouses sleeping.

So, the first thing to figure out is your own clock. When do you work best?

Then, set up your physical work space accordingly. If you write at night, maybe the kitchen table is perfect. An out-of-the-way desk might be your best option if you write in the afternoon (like me).

Get to know yourself as writer. I hate writing exercises. I enjoy stopping in the middle of my writing to read books I love as inspiration. I have to have coffee or tea at my desk. I have to have my Flip Dictionary. And, as I said, revision makes me so much happier than actual drafting.

Honor your process. Don’t try to mimic some other writer’s pace or routine. Do what works for you. If that means writing naked in the bathroom, do it! Don’t beat yourself up if your writing process is unique to you, because that’s part of your creative contract with the world.

When other writers ask you about your process, make up something normal and rational. Go with the two pages or the 1,000 words a day. Then do what you do. Nobody will know.

Enjoy writing. It’s pretty weird how many people want to have written but don’t care so much about the craft. Find a process that makes writing fun for you. Then do that. Writ- ing a book takes a long time. You should enjoy the journey.

Hailed as “a strong new voice in children’s literature” by Kirkus Reviews, Helen Hemphill grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas and now lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. 

Her novel Long Gone Daddy won the Teddy Award for young-adult fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas and was named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age. In 2007, her second novel, Runaround, was named a Top Ten Youth Romance by Booklist and Best New Books for the Classroom by Book Links. Her new book for middle school readers, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, was named “most distinguished book of 2008 for young adults” by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library; to Best Children’s Books, Bank State College; to the Kansas State Reading Circle 2009 Recom- mended Reading List; and to the Winter 2008-09 Kid’s Indie Next list.  

Ms. Hemphill is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College and holds an MA in English literature from Belmont University. Ms. Hemp- hill is a member of the Southern Artistry register at the Southern Arts Federation and is an Artist in Residence for the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What You Stand to Lose

What will you lose financially—aside from your salary, of course—when you leave your day job? I’m trying to make a kind of global checklist to help those of you who are planning to leave your job, so that a month later, you won’t say, “D’oh! I forgot about that free gym membership!”

Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with. I know that some of these are totally irrelevant to many people—some of them are irrelevant to me—but that’s part of the point: every job has something that other jobs don’t offer, and I want to get everything.  So please add a comment telling me what I’ve forgotten.

Medical insurance
Paid vacation
Paid sick days
Paid personal days
Pension plan with employer contribution
Employer's match on Social Security
Child care
Gym membership
Use of IT department
Use of company car
Travel miles on personal account from business travel
Cell phone
Outside opportunities associated with your job*
Bonuses (associated with holidays, job performance, etc.)
Credit union
  • on employer’s product**
  • on public transportation
  • at local stores and services
  • on tickets at musical, sports, etc. events sponsored by employer
  • on life insurance (and other kinds of insurance)

I know I haven't thought of everything, so please help: What benefits will you lose when you quit your day job?

A future post will address what you'll save when you quit, so start thinking about that too!

*For example: I teach Italian, and I work on the SAT Subject Test in Italian every year. More fun than it sounds like, and it pays, but only active high-school and college instructors can serve on the committee, so it will disappear once I've left the job. You might serve on the board of another company, do consulting work, etc.

**In my case, the university pays 70% of the tuition of the children of all employees—not just faculty—wherever they go to college. I know; it's been sweet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time to Buck Up, Soldier

Jody Casella is this week's guest blogger. Her own blog, On the Verge, is one of my favorites.

So you’re thinking about quitting your day job and pursuing your lifelong dream to be a writer. Well, I have some advice for you. I could go into all of it here (how you should set up an office at home; treat your writing like a business; keep regular hours; resist the urge to take phone calls or sort laundry or scroll around on Facebook or rearrange your kitchen cabinets because you’re WORKING, darn it, and you need to act like a professional. Even if you’re not getting paid) but I won’t.

What I want to talk about is how you show up every day and do your work despite the fact that you’re not getting paid. And (gulp) may never be paid. I’m assuming here that you are independently wealthy and/or have saved up money from your high-paying day job and/or are blessed with a hardworking cheerleader of a spouse who’s taking care of the bills so you can pursue your dreams. Four years ago when I was about to take the plunge, I truly thought I was on the verge of breaking into publication. It pains me to say this, but back then I was prancing around bookstores making space for my as-yet unpublished books on the YA shelves. (Look for me someday beside Kristin Cashore’s brilliant Graceling. Not a bad piece of real estate, if I may say so.)

But I was a LONG way from a bookstore shelf. What I didn’t know when I quit my job to write full-time was that I had signed on for a War, one of those long protracted kinds with no discernible end in sight. Your enemies in this war are self-doubt and fear of failure. (Read Steven Pressfield’s writing manifesto The War of Art for a much better and more thorough discussion.) Waking up every day and facing the glaring computer screen is a battle, especially when you have a drill sergeant barking in your head about how pointless it is to keep writing and how silly your books are and if you’re so talented then why aren’t you published. You’re tempted to bark back, or worse, keel over in a cowering, sniveling mess at his feet. But don’t. Listen politely, then lace up your boots, grab your weapons (I guess I’m talking the keyboard here) and charge into battle.

Here’s some advice to carry with you on the long, muddy march:
1.      Read whenever you have spare time. After your writing for the day is done, of course. Read books in your genre and books outside of it. Not just for market research, but to remember why you’re working so hard in the first place. Because you love books! And you want yours someday to be read and loved, too!
2.      Find a community of other writers. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only soldier out there, sitting in that damp, dark trench, eating your, uh, tea biscuit. But you’re not. Join a critique group. Make connections at conferences. Track down people online.
3.      Find a mentor. Better yet, BE a mentor to someone just starting out.
4.      Stand up and stretch every once in a while. Be like Jane Austen and walk the heck out of your neighborhood. You need to clear your mind. You need to keep your butt from falling asleep. P.S. Yoga is helpful when it’s raining.
5.      Maintain a sense of balance. Set a word-count goal or a time goal, then stick to it. When you’re finished, STOP, and be 100% present for all the other parts of your life. The suffering cheerleader spouse. Your kids. Your pets. The toilets that you’ve neglected to clean.
6.      And last and most important, have a sense of humor. I heard author Linda Sue Park say once at a conference, “It’s not rocket science.” We’re writing books here, people—playing with words—we’re not doing brain surgery. Don’t take any of it too seriously.

A final warning to keep in mind as you head off to boot camp (cue violins or patriotic fife and drum, depending on your mood):

It’s possible that this experiment of yours may not work out as planned. It may take longer than you think to break even (or, ahem, earn anything). It may happen that one day you wake up and realize that your son, who you still think of as ten years old and sprawled out on the floor playing with Legos, is about to go to college and you promised your supportive cheerleader spouse that when that time came you would go back to your day job.

If this is you, by any chance, don’t fear; I am presently working on a battle plan.

Since Jody Casella quit her day job and threw herself into the battle four years ago, she’s had her fifth story published in Cicada magazine and has written a handful of novels, now floating around the Netherworld of the NYC Publishing Industry. All together she has logged over five hundred thousand words. You can read some of them on her blog, which chronicles her life as a YA writer perpetually on the verge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dark of the Moon Release! and a giveaway

My nineteenth book for young readers, Dark of the Moon, released this week!

In my post of September 7, I blogged about hiring a publicist (see post titled "Now it Really *is* a BusinessEek!"). She got to work right away, and together we hammered out a press release. She told me to focus on the tagline (omitted on the image above, as it's so small it looks like a blur): "The myth of the Minotaur as it has never been told before." She asked me, "What do you mean, 'as it's never been told before'? What's so different about the way you told it?"

We went back and forth a few times, and here's what we came up with:

When ancient Greek travelers returned home from visiting the powerful island of Crete, whose citizens worshipped a god in the form of a bull and whose priest wore a bull costume during rituals, they garbled the facts and came up with the marvelous story of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who devoured human children. Their inaccurate but exciting retelling of Minoan beliefs gave the world one of its most popular myths. Now, Tracy Barrett, a specialist in historical fiction set in the ancient Mediterranean, reimagines the shadowy world that gave birth to the legend.

Barrett imagines the world of the Minoan civilization, where the moon goddess rules and where a deformed and nearly mindless man, confined under the palace for his own and others’ safety, is feared as a monster. Feared by everyone, that is, except his beloved sister Ariadne, and eventually, Prince Theseus of Athens, who has been sent to kill him.

Told in alternating points of view by Ariadne, a lonely teenager who is also priestess of the moon, and Theseus, who has rediscovered his father only to be sent by him to almost certain death, Dark of the Moon (Harcourt Children’s Books, releasing September, 2011) explores the issues of love, faith, and betrayal, retelling the myth of the Minotaur as never before.

The two narrators face issues that today’s teenagers can recognize. Ariadne must decide what her obligations are toward her heritage and her religion. Theseus must discover how much he owes his absent father, his neglectful mother, and his kind stepfather.

Like Barrett’s King of Ithaka, a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s son Telemachos (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010; starred review, School Library Journal), Dark of the Moon explores the nature of love, family, belief, and responsibility in a way that resonates with young readers today. Both books are rich in accurate historical detail and intriguing characters, and both explore the issue of how tales are created. 

Dark of the Moon has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which calls it a “world and story both excitingly alien and pleasingly familiar.School Library Journal says,This retelling of the myth of the Minotaur is deft, dark, and enthralling,” and Publishers Weekly asserts, “Barrett offers clever commentary on the spread of gossip and an intriguing matriarchal version of the story. Fans of Greek mythology should appreciate this edgier twist on one of its most familiar tales.”

So, what do you think? Does it work?

Complete reviews, if you're interested, are on my website.

And here's the giveaway: I'd love to read your comments! I'll send a signed (or unsigned, if you prefer) copy of Dark of the Moon to someone chosen at random from among those who comment on this post over the next week.