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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: September 2008

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


RMC-SCBWI Conference Report (or, at least, the start)

Finally, I'm here to report on the RMC-SCBWI fall conference! Geez, it's taken me more than a week...a sign of 1) the enthusiasm with which I returned, and 2) the enthusiasm of my family for having me home again! Forgive me a crazy week's delay.

First thing to report: our Keynote speaker, author Bruce Hale, rocks. He gave an inspirational and encouraging opening talk: "Four letter words that get you through the rough spots". His words--RISK, GOAL, PUSH, and LUCK--might not be the ones you expect, but he tied them together into a neat writer-rescue package. I'm afraid they'll lose some of their impact without Bruce's optimistic presence to relate the specifics, but here's a quick overview:

  • RISK: Life rewards risk. When he tries something new, it shows up in his work. Start small, consider the worst-case scenario, check with your gut--and be willing to embrace the risks because they'll transform you.

  • GOAL: Make goals. Make them specific. Reward yourself for achieving them.

  • PUSH: This is the one that spoke to me, perhaps because I've been getting bogged down in procrastination a bit lately. It's a long race, he said. Until you push yourself, you never know how far or how fast your can go--in life or in writing.

  • LUCK: Maximize your opportunities. Listen to your hunches. Expect good luck. When you hit a patch of bad luck, turn it into good.

  • DARE: Take chances!

My primary take-homes from Bruce's talk? Besides the general encouragement (and practical pointers from his other sessions,) I've set myself a new goal as I tackle a rewrite project that seems (occasionally) insurmountable: 5 pages of rewritten (new) text a day or one chapter of editing. So far, it's working--I've tripled my forward progress. Which is good, because I have several folks now waiting to see this book as soon as I'm satisfied with it!

:) Cheryl

Would you like to receive a bit of Bruce Hale's inspiration, information, and wit first-hand? You can sign up for his e-newsletter at

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Tricks for Side-Stepping the Inner Critic

The Inner Critic is the bane of every writer's existence. In my case, she pops up occasionally to interrupt perfectly good writing flow with a host of doubts and complaints...constructing a real barrier to productivity. Like most writers, I have only a limited amount of time to spend at the page. The last thing I want to do is spend my writing time mired in self-doubt.

I've developed a few tricks that help me...not silence my inner critic, but fool her. When she steps in and stalls a scene, here are some strategies I've used to get moving again:

  1. Gather momentum: Sometimes, all I need to do is rewrite the previous paragraph or previous paragraph to move through a trouble spot. It's like gaining momentum to get over a bump on my bicycle.
  2. Make lists: This is especially helpful when I'm trying to write a great, succint scene description. If the words won't come, I'll back up and start listing scene details: smells, sounds, feelings, tastes, sights, emotions evoked, first impressions, possible analogies. When I turn back to real writing, I have a pool of images from which to choose.
  3. Change tense: If I can't write the "real" text, I can fool my inner critic by writing the scene as if I'm just prewriting. I write it in the present tense, telling what I plan to write rather than worrying about final form. It's pretty easy to change that into prose.


A Note re. Front Street Press

For all you out there who love the Boyds Mills/Front Street duo, it sounds like Front Street is in the midst of a personnel upheaval. Publisher Stephen Roxburgh has left Boyds Mills Press and Boyds Mills' North Carolina office is closing. Bummer. Hope Front Street sticks around--they're a great line.

For the full article, visit:

:) Cheryl

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Pre-Conference Jitters

You know that conference I mentioned? I'm suffering from intermittent bouts of pre-conference nervousness. You know--alternating between "Wow, this is going to be such a great experience and I can't wait to meet all these great people and I'm a great writer ready to go sell myself" and "Wow, how will an introvert like me survive two intense days of human interaction and is my writing really any good at all and will my critique be terrible?"

Luckily, I'm not all that jittery about my talk. It's so well-prepared, my husband said HE could give it at this point. And even though I start every practice session nervous, I get so excited about the topic that I forget I'm nervous in my eagerness to share. I'm talking about online critique groups, a subject about which I'm passionate.

Maybe that's the trick to survival: my passion for writing--for my stories--will carry me through any potential rough spots.

Meanwhile, I'll share a great post about the care and feeding of introverts from Shrinking Violet promotions: It made me laugh--and gave me a few ideas about how to recharge my introverted batteries this weekend.

I'll be back next week with the full report!

:) Cheryl

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Fall Conference, here I come!

The countdown is almost over in my house...and no, not all of us are counting down to the release of Brisingr, which is the other countdown in my household. Nope, I've been counting the days until the 2008 RMC-SCBWI Fall Conference. Why?

  1. We have an especially great lineup of speakers coming: editors Julie Strauss-Gabel (Dutton), John Randolph (Putnam), Melissa Manlove (Chronicle); agent Barry Goldblatt; and a cadre of fantastic local and imported authors.

  2. I'm receiving a critique on the opening of Juggling from one of the afore-mentioned fantastic speakers.

  3. I'm giving my first presentation to an SCBWI gathering: "Online Critique Groups: A Busy Writer's Best Friend".

  4. The weekend will feed my writer's intellect with thoughts about theme, plot, characters, book structure, and all the other fun things we writers try to figure out...

  5. ...and it will feed my writer's soul with inspiration, encouragement, time with friends, and laughter with other writers. Because let's face it: you haven't laughed until you've spent an evening with a room full of people who are kooky in all the same ways you are.

So wish me luck on the talk. I'll be back with conference reports next week!

:) Cheryl

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Extracurriculars for the busy writer

I love Heather Sellers' writing books, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter. They're wonderful motivators for the writer who is having trouble making time to write.

That said, I have to disagree with her on one point: writers DO need non-writing activities in their lives.

She makes the excellent point that all the "extras" in our lives--choir, soccer club, PTA mom, volunteer work, whatever--can easily squeeze writing out of our lives. If we don't keep writing a Priority (capital intended) then Everything Else will take precedence. There are so many demands on the modern writer's time that we have to guard it like the precious commodity it is. Don't let your hours be frittered away by good things because, if you do, writing tends not to happen.

But--I've been through the ups and downs of finding time to write and, even though I'm just as busy, I'm past that point in my writing life when I have to consciously carve out time for writing. The truth is, if I don't write these days, I'm cranky, depressed, and unhappy. I go through writing withdrawal. So--I write. I've crossed that particular writer's hurdle, and maybe Sellers is addressing people who haven't.

See, the opposite extreme--spending time ONLY on writing--isn't a good idea, either. The real world is where we meet people, observe places and behaviors and mannerisms, and generally re-stock our minds with the images we need to write.

If you're at the place where you feel guilty taking your 20 minutes (or half hour or three hours) for writing, then keep hacking things out of your schedule. Keep practicing this excellent craft of writing until it earns a constant place in your life. But if you're like me, with a busy schedule and never quite enough time to write, but only because there aren't enough hours in the day to write, then don't quit every great activity. A few are good for the writer's soul!

:) Cheryl

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Getting into character--not for the faint of heart!

If you've read my blog much, you know that I do this acting thing for my church. I play a middle school, straight-A, type-A, super-social cheerleader named Cammie. (Hee-hee...and if you know me, you know how funny that is.)

Thing is, actors and writers both have to put on the psyche of characters who are somehow different. In this case, introverted and reserved Cheryl has to figure out how to be Miss Chipper-Popular. Think Legally Blond with poms. In the words of our director extraordinaire, I need more physicality in my role.

So last night I was up late doing a bit of character research...on YouTube. Did you know that you can learn to do cheerleading moves on YouTube? Check it out: (Sorry--embedding is disabled for this one.)

I've found YouTube useful for other areas of writing. Need to observe a bear raiding a trashcan?

Or need to see a rattlesnake in action?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, YouTube is an amazing resource for seeing things you can't manage to see in your real life.

:) Cheryl

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The worth of kids' opinions....

There's a great entry today on one of the blogs I follow--I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids):

Susan E. Goodman writes about her timely new book, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House, and the corresponding KIDS SPEAK OUT! survey on her web site ( Her post is worth reading purely for the quotes she's collected about kids and their political concerns. She raises a larger question as well when she tells of the reporter who dismissed the survey as a fine way to find out the parents' opinions. Ouch.

It's too true that our society tends to dismiss kids' opinions and ideas--and yet kids often see most clearly right and wrong and injustice and priorities, without worrying about politics or practicality. We grownups could do worse than to listen to kids' opinions.

As a writer for children, I'd like to help kids be heard. Maybe that's why I write children's literature first and foremost. I respect my audience. I think we have to, if we want kids to bother listening to what we have to say.

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Great Resource for Writing Craft

In the midst of my rewriting rampage, Arthur A. Levine editor Cheryl Klein was kind enough to post a copy of her keynote address from the Terminus 2008 Harry Potter conference. Read the full text here:

In it, Klein discusses topics as diverse as characters, setting, theme, and plot. It's a checklist for the revising writer, taking a quick look at everything essential to a great book.

I took her speech and applied her questions to my own work. What am I trying to say in my work? What are my protagonist's virtues--and how do they relate to her flaws? How do my characters virtues and flaws drive her through the story? The insights gained are driving me through the story, too--in a very helpful way. Thanks, Cheryl Klein, for sharing your thoughts on the craft of writing for children!

:) Cheryl

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Writing is HARD...

Did I ever mention my friend Julie's idea? Writers need a special version of the infamous "Math is hard" Barbie: ours would say "Writing is hard...."

Somehow that still manages to surprise me. When I sit down to write a new scene, I'm always caught unaware by the resistance that springs--can it be?--from inside me. I'm so used to battling external obstacles: finding time to write, removing distractions, balancing writing time with other details like laundry, exercise, eating, parenting, and occasional interactions with other humans.

So here I am, with two hours to spend working on my current project, and what happens? I'm bombarded with all the other things "I should do first." I should set up that IM client so I can communicate with folks on another project...I should write out deadlines for rewriting each chapter...I should crochet a few minutes to calm my whirling brain...I should make those changes on a Powerpoint presentation...I should go answer e-mails...I should I should I should. Blech.

I've had this running dialog with myself about all the things I should do instead of writing. The underlying issue, of course, is that the rewrite has stalled. I need to describe a room in a way that sets mood, gives a few concrete setting details, and moves the story forward--all in three sentences or so. And it's, yes, hard.

What do I do with this? Keep on keeping on, I suppose. I blog about it, so I get the craziness of it out where I can laugh at myself :). I determine that the world will not end if I complete my two hours of writing time without jumping up to do laundry or answer e-mails or accomplish whatever other urgent task has popped into my head. And I write the flipping paragraph. The first thing I write will suck. The second will be much better. The third might involve scrapping the first two tries altogether for a fresh start...and it's all progress.

I just have to do it. Even if writing is, occasionally, hard.

:) Cheryl

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Interrupted dreams

I'm having fun rewriting. This is the time when I pretty much know my characters, their motivations, and where they're going, so a lot of rewriting takes the form of cultivating the daydream state where I can watch and record the unfolding story.

The hitch? I have a sick kid home from school today.

It's kind of funny, actually. Every time I slip deep into the vision of a scene, he says something. This is after agreeing to give me 45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time, but I'm a sucker so we're in the same room, cozy on the big bed with two warm dogs and a pile fo fuzzy blankets. If I seriously want to write, I should lock myself in the bathroom where I can't interact with him.

I do want to write--but I also want to be a force of comfort for my sick boy. And that means I'll hang out in the room with him and write bits and pieces and try not to get frustrated. After all, he may be a distraction, but he's also my inspiration and encouragement. Next week, I'll get to dream without so many interruptions!

:) Cheryl

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