Monday, April 2, 2018

Middle-Grade Me

I write from the middle-grade me.  I can't help it.  There's a twelve-year-old lodged in the writing portion of my soul.  That's exactly where I go to mine for hidden gems when I need the start of a new story, or just inspiration for a work already in progress.

Listening to songs from that time in my life are perfect for getting the emotional memories flowing.  Often from the very first note, my mind will go back to an exact place, a situation, maybe even a heartbreak or injustice--or happiness experienced by my twelve-year-old self.  Feeling and emotion are everything in story, and airing them out again can spark something worth writing.

If you live near your old stomping grounds, try taking a walking tour with your notebook.  Or if you are far away, try a virtual walk using Google maps.  You may be surprised at what you see around your old neighborhood.  I once looked up my old house on Zillow.  Just the sight of my front yard where I used to sit in the shade of a giant fir tree for hours with my stack of library books brought up so many hidden gems of emotions.

When was the last time you dusted off your old middle school yearbooks?
There can be a wealth of emotions and angst, hopes and fears, scrawled in the purple and pink comments of the endpapers.  (Caution:  Don't get caught up in the time suck of tallying up the number of times it says, "Have fun this summer."  ... or .... "I hope I get you in some classes next year."  There's also the classic, "Don't ever change.")

Give it a try.  Go back to the pages and sounds and streets of your middle-grade self.  You may end up with the perfect detail you'd been searching for.  Maybe you'll end up with an entire story . . .

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Trail of Stories By Ann Haywood Leal

The woman was at the very end of the trail, trimming the tangled ivy from the fence behind her house.  She was blocking the path, but as soon as she struck up a conversation, I was happy I had stopped.  Only weeks into her retirement, she was struggling to figure out what to do with her time.   She loved books and stories, and told me about two of her favorite authors who had lived just up the trail, just steps from her house.  Some of the stories she had weren't on her bookshelves.  They were waiting around inside her head, but had never made themselves out onto paper.  I wish I'd had the wisdom of Ursula Le Guin at my fingertips as a stood next to a tangle of clipped ivy.  

At the risk of sounding like a Nike ad, I told her to "just do it".  Just a paragraph.  Don't worry about what your words look like, or even if you can't read your own handwriting.  Get the words onto the paper.  Natalie Goldberg says, "Write down who you were, who you are, and what you want to remember."  I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Goldberg, because if you write down who you were and who you are, you have just created a character's journey of growing and changing in a story.  

I am going to keep jogging on that path until I see the ivy trimmer again.  Because I want her to tell me she's done it.  She's written some words.  She's a writer.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Make it Real by Ann Haywood Leal

It's so easy.  You are on the treadmill at the gym . . . on social media . . .  in the shower . . . and just like that (!) you have a goal.  But as a wise blogger once said:

So definitely do that.  Write.  It.  Down
 I will ________.
For some reason, seeing it on paper in front of you or on your computer screen makes it real.  It becomes a thing.  

And thank you, Kaye Dacus, for this next one:  Give it a set timeline
 I will ______ by _______.   

Then you've got to . . . 

phone a friend.  Speak your goal OUT LOUD to a real live person.  Do this even before you write down one word, because now it's not just "a thing", it's a real thing.  You have put it out in the universe and you are now holding yourself accountable, and so is your friend.

And maybe the most important thing of all, is something that was embedded in my brain in my teacher life:  Make it attainable.  Sure, I'd like to write 10,000 words today, but it is probably not going to happen. 

What I like to do is to make it two-pronged.  I set what I call my "lofty goal", which is something that is still attainable, but something that is more long-term.  For example, I will finish my first draft by (date) .  Then I'll choose a short-term goal, such as:  I will write two scenes and/or one chapter by . . .



Monday, October 2, 2017

Waiting for Wednesday by Ann Haywood Leal

She took us every Wednesday without fail.  After dinner, Mom would get behind the wheel of our white Chevy station wagon, and my brother and I would scoot into the back seat with our teetering stacks of library books and head to the Auburn Public Library.

It was a tricky balance, checking out just the right amount of books to last until the next week.  You all know that feeling:  that horrible, disjointed, queasiness of being without a book.  Possibly the only worse feeling would be if you had only a few pages of the last chapter left and you had to bring it back! Sure, you could renew it, but what-if-someone-had-put-it-on-reserve-and-Mrs.-Barnhart-the-Children's-Librarian-kindly-asked-you-to-hand-it-over! Okay, there was something worse.  What if it was a Nancy Drew book and Nancy had yet to tie things up with The Clue of the Tapping Heels??  

I can still smell the scent of the library foyer.  Even now, my heart still speeds up when I think about taking a right through those double doors and run-walking over to the Nancy Drew section.  I had already pored over the list of titles on the yellow back cover, memorizing the ones I had yet to get my hands on.  And would they be on the shelf today?  Would someone have finally returned the copy of Nancy's Mysterious Letter?!

But the true holy grail was two book shelves over to the left.  You probably already know what I'm going to say . . . . . . THE JUDY BLUME SECTION.  (You might be asking me:  Ann, did that really require all caps?  And of course I'd have to respond, yes.  Yes, it did, because I'm not sure if I can even continue our FB friendship, if you think otherwise.  :) )  And what if . . . . . . the library's only copy of ARE YOU THERE GOD?  IT'S ME, MARGARET. was right there on the shelf?!  Sometimes it could be a decoy book that fooled you.  The cover might have been a slightly brighter yellow than the real thing, and for a brief moment you would have felt cheated.  But when you had the real thing in your sweaty hands, it made Wednesday truly worth waiting for.

Have a great week, because guess what?  Only two more days until Wednesday!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I See You By Ann Haywood Leal

Mrs. Rinear.  I've written about her before, but she was so important to me that I'm going to make everyone hear about her again.  She was the one.  The teacher who made me sit up straight and stand tall -- but not in the literal sense.  From the first day of sixth grade, she didn't say it out loud, but she beamed it right into my mind:  I see you.

I had stop-sign-shaped glasses and braces with headgear.  Does anyone still have to wear headgear?  The good kind had two thick wires that attached to a strap around the back of the neck and were inserted into your braces in front.  But I had the other kind.  Mine sat very visibly on the top of my head like the inside straps of a bike helmet.  I didn't have to wear it all twenty-four hours of the day, but I may as well have, because it left lovely imprints in my not-so-thick hair in back.

But I loved Mrs. Rinear and I loved school. I loved learning about the solar system and fractions.  I loved art and music and  of course, reading -- couldn't Judy Blume put out her books any faster?  I had perfect attendance and I couldn't wait to see what Mrs. Rinear was going to bring out next.  Most of all, I loved creative writing.  When I would sneak out the latest story I was working on, she'd quietly come by my desk.  "It looks like you're done with your math," she'd say.  "Why don't you take that story over there to the table in the back where it's nice and quiet?"

She was always giving me extra time to write.  As the year went on, she'd ask about the stories I'd written at home.  She'd ask to see them and she'd take them home and read them to her family.  I can still see her handwriting on my blue notebook paper: Very nice.

Sadly, she moved away after my sixth grade year and I never got to see her again.

After my first book, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER came out, I went back to my home town to do a writing workshop for teens at my old library--the magical place where I got my first library card.  As can happen to both new and seasoned authors, it was ten minutes before the workshop was to begin and only one teen showed up. But then they all started filing in . . . my first grade teacher, my brother's kindergarten teacher, my junior high English teacher, the principal of my old elementary school, my second grade teacher . . .
"We tried to get hold of Mrs. Rinear," the principal said.  "But we couldn't."

But they were all there, and I was overwhelmed.  I went to the front of the room and got ready to read from my book, but it was difficult to turn the pages, because my hands were shaking.  I realized that I was about to read the story I'd written to the people who taught me how to read and write.  I went on and did it anyway, because their proud smiles and their steady eyes were saying, I see you.

  Two days later I went to the University Bookstore in Seattle to do a reading.  One of my friends couldn't come so she sent her mother, Bev, in her place.  I walked up to Bev to thank her for coming, and she said, "I'm not Bev."  Mrs. Rinear had driven over two hours to be there.  I told her that I couldn't believe she had traveled so far.
"Oh, I would have driven four," she said.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

It Might be Right in Front of You

Every time Spring peeks into New England and starts to uncover itself, I get this overwhelming feeling of possibility--of what could happen . . . what might happen. 

As I was slogging through a weekend run, (I shouldn't really call it an actual run, since my friend's ninety-something mother could beat me in a race, but I'm taking artistic license here, people!), I began noticing  a whole slew of story possibilities.

Don't worry, I won't regale you with a couple dozen blooming crocus pictures, because where's the story in that?

But I will throw in a few settings with definite story possibilities.

What could happen here, for example?

                                                                                Or here?

What about under here?

And the snow just uncovered this story possibility:

So . . . get out there and dig up a brand new beginning!

Thursday, March 2, 2017


It's that time of the year when I just want to march forward into Spring.  I want Spring.  I need Spring.  But even in my beloved home area of Seattle, where it almost never snows, it's refusing to be Spring.
So goes it with writing.  You just want your draft to be done.  You want it to be finished and perfect and wonderful.  But you have to make yourself march forward.  Stomp right through that mess of first, second, and (yes, really!) third drafts and make it even better.  
But how in the world do you do that?  I've got other books to write, you might say.  I can't spend my precious writing time revising! 

And my answer to that would be, Yes.  Yes, you can. You can and should do both.  As difficult as it may be, put that second draft away for a couple of weeks.  And let it sit and simmer while you work on a new book.  Believe me, I know it's hard to do that.  Once you are done with that second draft, you are ready to turn it in.  After all, you've sunk some blood and guts into that draft.  It should be finished.  

But those of you who know me, know that I love a good challenge.  So I challenge you to wait a couple weeks . . .  then do that third draft.  I guarantee you that you will see your book with a fresh perspective, and your third draft will be sure to have a hint of Spring in it.