Posts Tagged #amwriting

When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.

 

Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.

The Most Important Thing that Beverly Cleary Taught Me About Writing

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forgot what it was like to be a tween. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. How could this happen? After all, I teach an online course, Middle Grade Mastery with the Children’s Book Academy, and exhort my students to crawl into the head of a kid and stay there. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. I hate how my children and their friends are on the phone in the car and don’t talk to each other. I don’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly make them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is really patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

Let’s look in more detail how to do this. Beverly Cleary recently just celebrated her 103rd birthday, and I can think of no better middle grade mentor to learn from than her. Cleary clearly (I just have been waiting to put those two words together for a very long time), understands and remembers what it is like to be a child.

Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser this is how it is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for a racing pencil lines.”

Of course, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult losing an eraser may seem minor, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just an common school supply but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

And because the family is struggling financially, as Mr. Quimby has left his job to go back to school, it is even further appreciated.

I love how efficiently Cleary sets up the importance of the eraser. After its introduction, within a few page turns, the eraser is missing. This all happens on the first day of school. Not an ordinary day but one that is ritualized.

Try this exercise to get back to the child mindset:
1. Go back to being 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12. Think about an inanimate object.

2. Consider how much you love the object.

3. Name the object.

4. Touch it. Smell it, feel it. Using your senses describe it.

5. Write down why it is so important to you.

6. Why do you have such strong feelings?

7. Not consider how you would feel if that object were taken from you!

If you’re getting all the feels—then pat yourself on the back. You’re remembering the magic of childhood. Let’s all celebrate the master of understanding children, Beverly Cleary.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

The Real Scoop on Middle-Grade Interviews

For my first post I’d like to write about something I get very excited about while doing research for one of my science books—interviews! Interviews get you out of your head during the research process and out into the action of doing science. They help bring the soul into your science writing.

Interviews are important for any topic though—they reveal the story behind the data. Uncovering that story is your job as the writer, so how do you do it? And what does it bring to your book? I have a few ideas (KLK) and I asked fellow MUF bloggers Jennifer A. Swanson (JAS) and Heather Murphy Capps (HMC) for their thoughts too. Here’s what we all had to say about doing interviews for nonfiction books.

What do you think interviews add to a nonfiction book?

  • KLK: I think interviews add a voice and perspective that you cannot get from traditional research. By doing interviews, you can uncover dramatic and unusual details that suck middle grade readers right in and allow experts to speak directly to them.
  • JAS:  Interviews add authenticity. Unfortunately, I don’t get to experience the thrill of discovering new science, the excitement of going into space or diving deep in the ocean, or even the construction of new technology in person. I get to read about them. Interviews add a spice of life and reality to liven up the subject. They also ensure that I am accurate in my explanations.
  • HMC: What I like about the interview is that it adds texture and also interesting perspective from a subject matter expert. You can throw all the facts you want into a book, but without the anecdotes and personal relationships a SME has with a subject, it can – and often does – fall flat.

How do you find people to interview? How do you contact them?

  • HMC: I usually reach out to the thought leaders on the subject I’m working with. As a reporter, those thought leaders were often local, and usually were excited to be given an opportunity to talk about something they love. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy – if the subject was controversial. Also, sometimes if I was reaching out to a person with large national visibility, the time it took to get an interview was challenging.
  • KLK: I often look on science publications. I can usually find the authors’ contact information on the paper or online. I also try contacting the PR department at a university to ask them if any professors might be willing to be interviewed. Be persistent and patient (but never pushy) when trying to schedule an interview. One time it took me six months to get an interview scheduled, but it was so worth the wait!
  • JAS: I spend a lot of time searching for contacts online. I tend to look at universities and colleges first. Since that is where a lot of the cutting-edge research starts. When I find someone that I want to interview, I simply send them an email asking if they’d be willing to speak with me. Many of them are happy to do so. Others take a little more persistence to get them to respond, and some just never respond. That’s fine. They are busy people and I respect that.

Do you like to do recorded phone interviews, take notes while speaking, or email your questions? If you record interviews, how do you do so? And what do you do if you have technical difficulties?

  • JAS: For me, it’s up to what is best for the scientist or engineer. Phone interviews take more time than answering emails. Some experts have the time for a phone interview. If you do that, be sure to record it. But ask their permission first—on the record. You wouldn’t want to be accused of recording them without their permission. Others I will just send questions within the email. I’ve been surprised before, though. A few times when I just needed the answer to one or two quick questions, the expert wanted to have a phone call and it ended up lasting an hour. I learn so much from those interactions. There are many different apps that you can download. Be sure to test the app before the actual interview. For example, once I found out that a recording app I had used successfully before DID NOT record if I had my headphones plugged in. OOPS! Yeah, I didn’t find out until after the interview. UGH. So I do take notes as I go along, too. Yes, I’ve had technical difficulties, I mean it’s technology. You just do the best you can. But if you test and prepare in advance, you should do fine.
  • KLK: I prefer recorded phone interviews, because they result in more natural speaking language and I get more quotable material. Sometimes written answers can be very formal and highly technical, especially when coming from someone used to academic writing. I use an app to record, and have had some issues. I think it’s best to have a backup recording device available, like a handheld tape recorder. Sometimes recorded interviews aren’t convenient for the person you are interviewing, though, especially if you are in different time zones or don’t speak the same native languages. So email interviews work best in those cases.
  • HMC: As a TV reporter, all of my interviews were recorded. However, as an author I find most people prefer the flexibility of emailed interview questions, which they then have time to edit and research before hitting “send.” When I do the rare phone interview, I do it old-school—scribbling notes on a legal pad.

What are some of the most interesting details you’ve discovered through interviews?

  • HMC: I have discovered fascinating details about the search for genetic cures (CRISPR-Cas9) to diseases that plague us, like malaria and cystic fibrosis.
  • KLK: When doing research for my book Extreme Longevity: Discovering Earth’s Oldest Organisms, I was fascinated by the different coincidences and accidents that led to different discoveries. Like Italian biologist Ferdinando Boero and his team, who forgot to feed some jellyfish they were raising to document their life cycle, After two days, they realized their mistake and saw the jellyfish had regenerated into new ones. That’s how they discovered the immortal jellyfish! Another was when Danish biologist Julius Nielsen was in a college seminar and heard that the largest Greenland shark was caught more than 100 years ago. But he knew this was incorrect, because he had recently been on a research vessel that had caught an even larger shark. Hearing this, Nielsen decided to investigate Greenland shark size and age, and discovered that they may live longer than 500 years! I love hearing the connections like these between the events that made a scientist curious about something to the results of their investigations.
  • JAS: That’s a tough one. There are SO many! Some of the most notable such as Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first US female astronaut to walk in space and also at the time of theinterview who was the head of NOAA, were so profound, that I could have listened to her for hours. I mean what she has personally done to further women in the field of science and technology is awesome. That was for my Astronaut-Aquanaut Dr. Sullivan is both. I also got to speak and actually meet Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, my childhood hero. That was awesome! Fabien was very easy to talk to and we had a lot of fun. I spoke with a few of the top climate change scientists in the world about carbon capture and reforestation. For my Super Gear book, my expert is a material scientist who now has his own medical device company that is changing the face of medicine!

 

And here are a few extra tips from the three of us:

  • Be polite. Be professional. Be aware of their time. Remember that you are asking these people to give up a portion of their very valuable time to speak with you. So you should be prompt, prepared, and keep to your topic.
  • Plan your interview as carefully as you can by planning your book so that you iron out any questions about direction, detail, level of difficulty, etc.
  • Remind interview subjects that you are writing for a middle-grade audience, which means the language used to describe the topic has to be accessible to the 8-14 age range.
  • Be sure to listen and let them speak. But also listen to ensure that you get what you need for your book.  If you need them to talk about a specific topic, then make sure it’s covered.
  • See if your interviewees have any photos they might be willing to share with you for the book. Photos from the field are hard to come by on stock photo sites. Also ask if they can recommend any papers or books for your further research.
  • People sometimes get a little nervous when what they say appears in a book. Offer to send interviewees what you write about them for their review.
  • Add a “special thanks” section to the book and be sure to recognize the contributions of the people you interviewed.
  • Send your interview subjects a thank you and copy of the book. That is not required, but definitely a nice gesture. It sometimes works in your favor. I sent a copy of my climate change book to an expert and he did a huge shout out on Twitter about it. Went to a lot of his colleagues who all said they’d buy the book. You never know… 🙂

 

Thanks so much to Jennifer A. Swanson and Heather Murphy Capps for contributing to this post! Here’s a bit more about each of them.

Science Rocks! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 30 nonfiction books for children. She has presented at numerous SCBWI conferences, BEA, ALA, NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, and also the World Science Festival. You can find Jennifer through her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com.

 

Heather Murphy Capps writes middle grade novels that weave together all her favorite things: science, magic, baseball, and poetry. She is an #ownvoices author committed to increasing diversity in publishing.

 

 

 

Now it’s your turn! What do you like about doing interviews? And what are your tips? Tell us in comments what you like to do!