Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eggs in Two Baskets

It's been a while since I had a guest post, so I'm extra thrilled to have this one from Claudia Mills. We met at a children's book festival in Missouri and have been cyber-friends ever since.

The thing I like best about having a day job in addition to my writing career is the comfort of not having all my eggs in one basket. Here I’m thinking not so much of monetary eggs, but of the kind of eggs that entitle one to brag or boast or at the least to give oneself occasional comforting pats on the back. Because I am both a children’s book author and a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I can pat myself on the back as either one, especially if I’m slogging through discouragement in the other.

If I get a snarky review of one of my books, I can tell myself, “Well, I’m a tenured professor of philosophy, so there!” And if I get a snarky teaching evaluation from one of my students, I can tell myself, “Well, I’m the author of almost fifty children’s books, so there!” I always have an excuse at the ready for why I’m not more famous or successful in either profession. For although I’ve had a good double career, all things considered, I’m languishing in my academic career at the Associate Professor level (where Full Professor is the best), and in my writing career I’m definitely what’s known as a “midlist” author. No gold seals of major awards emblazon the front covers of my books; no bestseller lists carry my name. But, hey, for someone who has to balance the demands of two careers (plus, for a couple of decades, the demands of a family) I’m doing pretty darned well.

The thing I like least about having a day job is wondering if I could be more successful as an author if I devoted my whole heart to my writing. Would I win the Newbery then? Would my books be read by millions of children? I’ve written a heap of books while writing just an hour a day, so quantity hasn’t been a problem for me with a part-time writing schedule. But would I write better books if I had lovely meadow-like expanses of time stretching before me each day? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think I’ve ever cut any corners on a book, ever dashed something off just to get it done under a tight time constraint. My books have always been as good as I could possibly make them. But would I be able to make them better if I had more time to dream and “moodle” (as Brenda Ueland calls it in If You Want to Write)? Perhaps.

Yet, looking at the lives of my friends who write full time, I have to say that most of them are not luxuriating in lovely meadow-like days. With pressures to earn the money that my day job provides me, they spend much of their time at school visits, self-promotion, and other tasks of the writing life that are decidedly not dreaming or moodling, not to mention writing. Still, those activities – time spent with children, teachers, and librarians, time spent networking with other writers – might help me to grow as a writer. Plus, they can be fun activities in their own right.

So . . . if I thought I could write not more books but better books by quitting my day job, I’d be terribly tempted. But what if I gave my writing my all, and I was still a cheerful, striving midlist author and not the Next Great Thing? Without even a self-congratulatory excuse to make myself feel better?

I’d give up having eggs in two baskets if I could have better, fresher, altogether more gorgeous eggs in my writing basket. But would I? I know the only way to find out is to try it and see. Maybe, one of these days, I will.

Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including picture books (Ziggy’s Blue-Ribbon Day), easy readers (the ten books of the Gus and Grandpa series), chapter books (Fractions = Trouble!, Being Teddy Roosevelt, How Oliver Olson Changed the World), and middle-grade novels (The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, One Square Inch).  Recently, How Oliver Olson Changed the World was named an ALA Notable Book of the Year, as well as a Blue Ribbon book by the Bulletin from the Center for Children’s Books and finalist for a Cybil Award. Claudia, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, also has a full-time position as a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has published many scholarly articles on ethical and philosophical themes in children’s literature. Visit her website and her blog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

NaNoWriMo (last one!)

I made the 50,000-word challenge, working on a YA novel centered around skydiving, with the working title of The Icarus Syndrome. I haven't quite finished the novel, although I know where it's going. I also haven't re-read it. I think it's a great big steaming pile ofwell, garbage, I guess I have to saybut I won't know for sure until I've let it sit for a while and force myself to read it.

I'm in serious awe of anyone who can hold a day job and do this too. It's been consuming all my time and a great deal of my attention for four weeks. I've learned a great deal about my own writing process as well, but I'll have to ponder that for a while too before I can define exactly what that is.

This novel may never get published, but I can always look on it like a music student playing scales: I learned a lot that I can later apply to actual performance.

What kept me going through this wrenching procedure was reminding myself that if I wasn't going to be serious about this writing thing, I had no business quitting my day job. Either I'm a writer or I'm not. Time to put my money where my mouth was. I don't know whether I'll ever do it again, but at least this time, it was worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

NaNoWriMo: What I've Learned So Far

1. Even though I end each day thinking that I'm all writ out and these 2,000 words are the last I'll ever write, somehow the next day I wind up writing 2,000 more.

2. The parts that I have the most fun writing are the parts that require the least editing the next day. Yes, I know you're not supposed to edit during NaNoWriMo and I haven't really edited, meaning I haven't done a read-through of what I've written since November 1 (see counter above!), but I do start off each morning by going over what I wrote the day before to give me a springboard for the new day. And I quickly saw that the skydiving parts are a lot more fun to write and a lot better than the non-skydiving parts (you can see a video of my recent jump, if you're interested).
3. My typing has improved radically! (I know; big deal, but I find it interesting.) Spellcheck has very little to do these days.

4. If I take a day off, it's hard to get back in the groove the next day. Hmmm. Maybe, despite all my protestations, there's some truth to this "write every day" thing.

5. Writing full-time is hard.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NaNoWriMo Week Two

Everyone says that Week Two is the hardest. The NaNoWriMo site even says that in Week Three you'll be singing and in Week Four you'll be saying hallelujah. Or something like that. I'm too tired after dragging out 2,000 words one by one all day to look it up. I quit at exactly 24,000.

It really is okay if it sucks, right?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

NaNoWriMo: Checking In

Like many of my friendsand more than 200,000 people around the worldIve taken a pledge to write a 50,000-word novel this month. Since thirty days hath November and I plan to take five days off, that means 2,000 words a day.

Day 1 (Nov. 1) started with 1,695 words already written, and it took me HOURS to write the 305 I needed to fill my quota. I panicked; how could I hope to write 2,000 words the next day—and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after thatif 305 were so hard? The worry seriously disrupted my sleep. Well, plus the knowledge that I was signed up to jump out of an airplane over the weekend (different post for a different day).

Day 2: I wrote a bit over 2,000 words in six hours. OK, so its do-able, but will I do nothing but write for the whole month? No research, no going back to fix something that was keeping me stuck? I know a six-hour day is a short work day, but I usually figure that research takes up about half of my time and the actual writing takes up the other half. This novel isn’t historical fiction, so a lot less research than usual is required, but still it could easily turn into a 10-hour day.

Day 3: Jumped out of a plane in the morning (and it was research!); wrote 2,000 words by dinner (made by supportive husband). Huh! Maybe I can do it!

Day 4: Done by noon. Made an amazing dinner to celebrate.

Day 5: Tuesday. Hmmm. Conflict. Months ago I took a vow not to write on Tuesdays (three of the above-mentioned days off, the other two being Wednesday and Thursday of Thanksgiving Week). And you know what? I woke up yesterday (Tuesday) morning with lots of ideas, itching to write them down.But on the theory that my creativity flows better when I take a break from it, I resisted the lure of the manuscript all day, jotting down just enough of the ideas that came to me so that when I hit it again this morning, I'll have a launching pad.

NaNoWriMo has worked its magic; it got me back in the writing groove, just like its supposed to do. Kind of like the skydive: the anticipation is a lot scarier than the actual thing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


As my writer friends know, "NaNoWriMo" isn't the faux-Indian name of a summer camp. Formally, it stands for "National Novel Writing Month," but for me, it means "Your Bluff Has Been Called."

NaNoWriMo is a challenge that encourages participants to write an entire 50,000-word novel, or 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later, in November (why, oh why did they choose a 30-day month, and the one with Thanksgiving in it)?

The point isn't to write deathless prose. The point is to get something on paper that you can then edit into deathless prose. Every day, you upload your work in progress to the site and your word count gets recorded. It's on the honor system; obviously, you could pre-write a novel and upload bits of it every day, or you could type Moby-Dick into the site (there's an option to encrypt your work) and no one would be the wiser. But since there's no prize aside from bragging rights and no way to police it, there's no real reason to cheat.

For years I've said, "Gee, sounds like fun, and I'd do it if the day job didn't take up so much of my time." Well, now I don't have the day job. As I said, my bluff has been called.

So I've signed up. And it starts tomorrow.

My goal: to write every day, excluding Tuesdays (my day off), and Wednesday and Thursday of Thanksgiving week. Hmm. That makes three days off in a rowguess I'll have to add the Tuesday before Thanksgiving back in. Okay, that's 25 days, so 2,000 words/day.

I have a rough idea of what I plan to write, including a one-page summary of the main plot points, characters' names, etc., and even 1,695 words written, which means that I have a bit of a leg up tomorrow.

I'm not very competitive with other people. Once during a marathon Hearts game my siblings refused to let me sit out any hands because they knew that if I was playing, neither of them would come in last; I just didn't care enough about winning to pay attention to what cards had been played. But I am competitive with myself. For instance, I always hesitate a long time before increasing the weights I use when I work out because I know I'll never allow myself to drop back down if they turn out to be too heavy. I'm also hesitant to start a double-crostic puzzle because I've finished every one I've ever started. I know that someday that streak will end, and that will kill me.

So with that attitude I'm pretty sure that I'll hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The question is: Will any of it be worth saving?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Benefit of *Having Had* a Day Job

For a long time I had to juggle a lot of things: a family, a day job, volunteering, and writing—first a doctoral dissertation, then books for young readers. In the process, I discovered something:

“Organized” is an adjective, and like many adjectives, it’s changeable. “To organize” is a verb, and like many verbs, it’s something you can choose to do.

It irritates me when people say, “Oh, I wish I were organized like you,” as though it were something you’re born with (maybe some people are—I certainly wasn’t!) like being tall or left-handed. Not true; I’m living proof. I realized that in order to be able to do all the things I wanted to do, I couldn’t afford not to organize my life. Choice: don’t organize and give up writing, or organize and have the time to write? Simple. I organized. This decision served me well in the dissertation years and then when I began my real writing career. It’s become a habit, and even though I have more time at my disposal now, it’s one I adhere to.

Even though I’ve ditched the day job, I still have a time-consuming volunteer position as SCBWI’s U.S. Regional Advisor Coordinator. It’s been more time-consuming than usual lately, as I’ve been taking in and processing RA grant requests. But I’m still finding time to write, because I formed the habit of organizing years ago, under day-job pressure.

My top tips for how to organize a writer’s life:

Everything I need is in reach

1. Have a dedicated writing space, whether it’s a tiny computer shelf or a luxurious studio (still pining for that one). Do all your writing, research, cogitating, communicating, etc. in that spot. In an earlier post I said that I never wrote my children’s books at my day job, and never brought day-job work home. (Well, rarely.) Set up your spot so that you don’t have to move from it to get your work done. That way you won’t wonder what you did with something—it’s right there!

2. Don’t write notes on easily lost post-its or little scraps of paper. I have a white board next to my desk so I can turn and scribble something down without interrupting the writing flow. During writing breaks I copy those notes into the appropriate file on my computer.

3. Have a backup system. Back up all your files, all the time.

4. Respond to emails immediately, or at least make a start on a reply. If I don’t, I forget them. But if it’s a sensitive topic or one that you need to think about, save your reply as a draft. I don’t put the recipient’s address in the draft so as not to send it prematurely. Seeing that I have a draft waiting to be sent is enough to remind me to finish it and send it.

I just swivel my chair to see this
5. Label things. You’ll forget what they are if you don’t, I promise. This set of office mailboxes that I rescued from the trash at the day job is one of my favorite things, and the slots where names used to be are perfect for labeling each cubby’s contents.

6. Get rid of dead wood. This is what my math teacher used to say when simplifying fractions, and it makes a great deal of sense. Why poke through a lot of stuff you’ll never need in order to find something? Both on-line and in real life, excess stuff just gets in your way. You can always keep it—just get it out of sight.

7. Lastly, remove “being organized” from your vocabulary, and add “to organize”!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I’m trying very hard to establish a writing routine without getting rigid about it.

I heard some advice years ago at a writer’s conference (I think it was from Wendelin Van Draanen, but the memory is hazy): “Some people say they don’t want to get into a rut. I say you do—you want to get yourself into a rut so deep you can’t get out of it.”

Well, I can see that. I can see writing being a learned response like anything else: you sit down at a certain place at a certain time, and your brain says Writing time!

So far I’m not focused like that, but I’m working on it. I work out three days a week, so on those days I sit down to write as soon as I get home. (I go to the gym first thing in the morning, or I’d think of a thousand reasons why I can’t go.) On the days I don’t work out, I write in the morning and do writing-related things—answering emails, setting up speaking engagements, etc.—in the afternoon.

And I’ve become strict about taking one day a week off writing. For various reasons, I settled on Tuesdays. This was difficult yesterday, as on Sunday and Monday I received terrific revision notes on two different manuscripts, and I was itching to get to work on both. But I restrained myself. Instead of leaping in, I read the Science Times—my favorite New York Times supplement—and finished a novel (Code Name Verity—highly recommended). I tried to tweet but left defeated, as usual. I watched some stupid TV. I clicked on links to interesting articles in friends’ Facebook postings that had looked intriguing but that I hadn’t had time to check out before. I went through my notes from the SCBWI-Midsouth conference and requested books at the library that the speakers had mentioned.

All this time, what I had read in the revision notes percolated in my brain. I jotted down some thoughts (my rule is that I can do that as long as I write no more than what can fit on a standard Post-it note). I evaluated ideas, rejecting some, filing others away to think about some more. The result is that I can address the revisions much more efficiently than I would have if I had leaped right in.

So the Tuesday-off idea seems to be working. As I said, I’m not rigid about it—I’m taking a few days off at the end of next week for travel, so next week I’ll be working on Tuesday and taking Thursday and Friday off instead.

Next up: figuring out a daily schedule. Any advice? What works for you? What doesn’t work?