Book Review: JUST A DROP OF WATER

I only recently got the change to read JUST A DROP OF WATER by Kerry O’Malley Cerra and let me tell you–I’d been missing out!

Here’s the blurb:

JustADropOfWaterEver since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart–and outrun–the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

A gripping and intensely touching debut middle grade novel by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Just a Drop of Water brings the events of September 11, which shook the world, into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. 

This novel is a Florida Book Award winner, winner of the Crystal Kite Award, and named to VOYAs Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers’ 2014 list.

I read JUST A DROP OF WATER in one day because I could not put it down. The chapter headings count down to that fateful September 11, 2001, which really increases the tension. It’s a day I remember vividly, and it’s tackled in just the right way for the target audience who did not live through it. There were so many poignant lines in it. One of my favorites is this: “Anger can lead us to a place of hatred and intolerance. And if we get to that point, then everything that really matters is already lost.” Anger–and what to do with that anger–is a constant theme in this novel, and it’s handled beautifully without being preachy. This is one of those stories I will read again and again.

JUST A DROP OF WATER is powerful and timely and it should be on all middle school lists. Jake and Sam are two best friends whose lives and friendship are turned upside down as a direct result of the horrific events of 9/11. It’s the story about friendship, doing what’s right, and not giving in to anger and fear. The storyline is gripping, the characters heartfelt and flawed, the voice on point, and the writing beautiful.

At our latest SCBWI Florida conference this past January, Kerry accepted the Crystal Kite Award with a touching and moving speech–there was not a dry eye in the house! It’s a testament to the heart that she brings to everything she does, including her novels.

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2014 SCBWI Florida Conference

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love writing conferences. I’ve been attending them for about five years and SCBWI ones for the last three, when I decided to focus on writing for kids. Writing conferences offer a unique opportunity that’s equal parts inspiration, craft, and networking. And there’s something special about those that specialize in kid-lit. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a collective embracing of everyone who’s new, an inclusion into this fabulous clique. Kid-lit writers are some of warmest, nicest people I’ve ever met.

(NOTE: I’ve met wonderful writers in all the conferences I’ve attended. And I know some pretty amazing writers who don’t write for kids, writers who’ve been instrumental in guiding my writing career. It’s just that when strictly speaking about conferences, I seem to find more camaraderie at SCBWI conferences. Maybe it’s because I’m more “seasoned” now and more comfortable in my own writing skin. Maybe it’s because I know more people. There are many variables, of course.)

This past January 17-19, I went to the 2014 SCBWI Florida Conference in Miami. Third year in a row. Fifth SCBWI Florida conference. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, if you read my I Have An Agent post, it rocked! But that’s not why I loved it (well, okay, it was part of it, but the truth is, I’ve loved every single SCBWI FL conference I’ve been to, even those where my work didn’t elicit such positive feedback–and yes, I’ve had many of those moments.) I loved this conference because of the people I met and because the workshops offered some great talks on craft and the business.

I attended the Friday Novel Intensive with agent Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary, editor Stacy Abrams of Entangled Publishing, and author Chris Crutcher. It was intense (pun intended), and the topics ranged from the market, to germinating ideas, to execution and beginnings. Then the trio tackled first page critiques, and for the first time since I’ve been attending, everyone who submitted an anonymous first page received feedback. Mine offered an “aha!” lightbulb moment, which I executed right away–and it was that missing link I couldn’t figure out. During the course of the day, we learned that right now, editors are looking for:

  • Commercial and fun picture books
  • Character-based chapter books
  • Fun middle grade, especially for boys
  • Well-written, high concept YA
  • NO paranormal or dystopian
  • Nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction (autobiographies/biographies)

There were some awesome gems during this intensive, too.

  • “Write that thing that scares you.”–Jen Rofe
  • “When you’re sitting down, writing your story, tell it in the most raw, intimate way you can tell it.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Now is an awesome time to be a writer because there are so many ways to market.”–Stacy Abrams

I didn’t get to attend the Picture Book Intensive, but all the talk I heard said the same: Deborah Warren, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Toni Buzzeo were fantabulous. If I could’ve cloned myself, I would’ve!

Friday evening was kicked off with the first-book’s panel, which is always wonderful. And this year it was even better because my writing friend Vivi Barnes was up there with her debut novel, OLIVIA TWISTED. So it was great to know one of the cool kids on the panel! All four of the authors were fabulous: Nancy Cavanaugh, Steven dos Santos, Cristin Bishara, and Vivi. Check out their books!

Then, attendees gathered at Books & Books for snacks, mingling, and a mystery panel of experts: a group of kids ranging from 6 to 16 who answered questions from the moderator, Gaby Triana, about all things books. This panel elicited many awww’s, and it was wonderful to see how eloquent the experts were at verbalizing what they read, their preferences, and what they wished there was more of out there in the book world.

Saturday was full of inspiration. We had fabulous speakers: Chris Crutcher, Augusta Scattergood and Andrea Pinkney, Sarah Pennypacker,Peter Brown, and Lois Duncan. We cried. We laughed. Our heart strings were tugged and twisted. And like with Friday’s intensive, there were beautiful, inspiring gems:

  • “Go find those fundamental things (like grief) that are so human, they’re universal. We have to be willing to go there, be embarrassed, tell it all.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Grief– you do it ’till you’re done.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “When you’re telling a story, just sit down and tell the hell out of it.”– Chris Crutcher
  • “There are readers you will never meet but whose lives you will impact. That is what matters.”–Andrea Pinkney
  • “A book connects the reader to the rest of his tribe through time and space.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Everyone needs their stories reflected back at them. Not just those in extraordinary circumstances.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Stories allow for empathy.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Never give up. Learn from your mistakes and keep going…Never burn your bridges…Don’t be afraid to take chances.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Every life is a story.”–Lois Duncan
  • “The only thing stronger than law enforcement is the power of the pen.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Don’t let yourself be crushed with rejections of a book today. If you really think it’s a good book, keep it.”–Lois Duncan

The agent panel featured agent extraordinaires Deborah Warren, Jen Rofe, and Ammi-Joan Paquette, while the editor panel included stellar editors Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Aubrey Poole. Both panels were enlightening and so fun to listen to. It’s always eye-opening to hear what agents and editors are looking for in manuscripts, what entices them to keep reading. What did I learn? The time for problem novels is over. Instead, agents and editors are looking for work that contain “issues” without being about the issues,  for diverse characters whose stories aren’t (only) about being diverse. Paranormal and dystopian are out… for now. The market and editors’ lists are completely full for now. Tuck those PNR and dystopian manuscripts for a later time. Agents and editors also looking for writers to have an online presence, but as Ammi-Joan Paquette pointed out, “an awkward [online] presence is probably worse than no presence” at all. And it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of your writing! Others wish list items mentioned: country song in a book, boy books, dirty dancing YA, book about singing, multicultural books, picture books, exotic/overseas settings, books about food/eating/bakeries, experimentation in format, LGBTQ, diversity, piercings/tattoos.

Saturday night ended with a Steampunk smash. The Clockwork Ball was a huge success and showed just how well South Floridians like to party. The costume contest was fabulous, the food was good, and the company was even better–which means there were many sleepy, groggy conference-goers the next morning!

Sunday’s workshops were varied and timely. They included topics from voice in YA, to picture books, to romance, character development, and nonfiction–and everything in between. I wanted to split myself up so I could attend them all! I sat in Kat Brzozowski’s workshop on voice in YA and Laura Whitaker’s editor/writer relationships, and both were enlightening. Kat brought in some very cool acting exercises to illustrate how important it is to know our characters’ voices, and she had us dissecting published pages to do the same. Laura’s talk on what editors want in their writers, along with the current state of publishing, was enlightening and hilarious.

We said our final good-byes after the workshops. It was bittersweet. This was perhaps one of the best–if not the best–writing conferences I’ve attended. I’m looking forward to see what our Mid-Year Workshops (June 6-7 in Orlando) will bring. SCBWI Florida Regional Advisors Linda Rodriguez-Bernfeld and Gaby Triana, along with the rest of the SCBWI Florida crew put together some pretty awesome conferences! And check out this lovely slide show, put together by our Assistant Regional Advisor Curtis Sponsler.

Happy writing, everyone!

UCLA Writers’ Extension Certificate: DONE!

I just received notification that I’ve completed my requirements for UCLA Writers’ Extension Creative Writing Certificate in fiction! I’m beyond thrilled!!! When I first found out, I did a little of this:

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And this

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I know it’ll feel even more real when I receive the certificate in the mail. And when I take advantage of the manuscript critique, which is part of the program. It’s been such an amazing experience. I’ve met some fabulous writers and made some great friends with whom I still keep in touch. I’ve had inspiring instructors who’ve helped me dissect my writing. I’ll forever be indebted to the faculty I’ve had for cheering me on, for pushing me, challenging me, and believing in me. I’ll continue taking classes periodically, even though I’m done, because I want to keep growing as a writer.

Hopefully some day, I’ll be one of their success stories. 🙂

 

Write to the Finish Line

I’m on a writing marathon. My son’s in camp, so between 9:30 AM and 3:00 PM, I am writing (or grading… I do still have to do that until the first week of August). The great thing is that with those 5.5 hours, I am getting a TON of writing and revising done! I’m writing 3 days a week (grading the other two) for the full 5ish hours. I’m averaging 3K-5K words on those days, and that includes new material and revising old material.

Basically, I start in the previous chapter, revise, and move onto the next chapter. If it’s a blank chapter (which means I have a rough/sketch outline for it, but I haven’t actually written out the scenes yet), I sit and write it out from start to finish, then go back and re-read it, revising as I go. If it’s a chapter where I already have something written, full or not, I revise as I read through it. Five hours let me work on roughly 2-2.5 chapters per day.

I do this every time I sit down to write. (Check out my post on what I’ve learned about my writing process.)

Today, after I finished writing, I did a quick run down of what I have left: 4 chapters to write, 3 to revise. And then I’m officially done with the first draft. I’m at 58,436 words.

I want to jump up and down! I know I still have the BIG revisions left afterwards, but I’m ready and anxious to tackle them. I have my game plan in place, and I’m confident that, with my son in camp, I’ll be able to finish the revisions by the end of summer. THAT, my friends, is my goal. And as of now, I’m right on track. 🙂

I’ve added my pitch here on this blog, which you can find on the side bar, and soon, I’ll be adding the first few pages. I hope you enjoy it!

Five things I’ve learned about my writing process

1. I have writing tics. Many of them. But it’s okay to let them go in the first draft. They’ll be slaughtered in the final one (hopefully).

I never thought about them as writing tics, but that’s exactly what they are.

  • Exclamation marks. I love these, apparently, as I tend to over use them. My emails and tweets and, well, most correspondence tend to contain an overabundance of exclamation marks! Thankfully, they haven’t made their way into my MS, but in almost all else, I sound overly chipper!
  • Coordinating conjunctions. You know, FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For me, though, it’s “and,” “so,” and “but.” And sometimes “yet.” I’m always using them. And I start sentences with them. A lot. These do make their way into my MS and I’ve learned to look for them when revising.
  • Semi-colons. I didn’t realize I had a “thing” for semi-colons until recently, when one of my classmates from the Writing and Selling the YA Novel pointed it out to me. She said it was residual from the academic in me, and it’s probably so. They just don’t belong in dialogue–I have no etched this on my brain so that as I work on my novel, I won’t do this.
  • And fragments (purely for emphasis, of course). I spend most of my days teaching how fragments are a BIG no-no. And they are. Most people who write fragments without knowing it are writing them incorrectly. Snippets of a wannabe sentence that don’t make sense. But there is such a thing as a fragment for emphasis. Usually in creative writing or journalistic writing. Not in academic writing.

I’ve also learned that sometimes, I use “filler” words like “just,” and “well,” and such. I’ve learned not to use them as much, but when I’m writing my first draft, I don’t worry about it (or any of my other tics). It’s my first draft. It’s meant to be crappy.

2. Outlines are my friend, but I’m not married to them.

Seriously. I love my outlines. They help me stay focused and give me a sense of where I’m going. But in fiction, my outlines are rough and they’re guides. I have written and rewritten these outlines as my story progresses because part of the beauty and magic of writing is the discovery that ensues. An outline shouldn’t take that away. It should just help

Perhaps it’s that I came to writing from the academic side. I couldn’t imagine having written my MA thesis without one. I would’ve gone nuts! When I started writing my memoir, I sketched out an outline of what I wanted to cover, seeing connections in that piece. And when I started writing this novel, I didn’t, initially. I went with what I had: a vision and I wrote that scene. And the next. But then I got to a point where I said, what next? How can I see where this is going? In one of Jessica Barksdale Inclan’s classed, she had us do a list of things that we thought had to happen in our story, in the order in which they happened. This was a sketch outline. That list grew and I had a vision of the entire piece. So my outline isn’t the traditional academic outline, but it’s still a sort of blue-print of my novel. And it changes as my story progresses because that’s what it’s supposed to do. If it didn’t change, then I’d be forcing my novel into something it’s not. And I don’t want to do that. I really view my characters and story as organic–a life of their own. I’m just witnessing it and writing it down.

3. Revision is much, much cooler than I previously gave it credit.

I recently tweeted this about revising:

What I love about revision is witnessing how each round molds the story, adding yet another layer that works toward making it whole.

And it’s so true. It’s like a painting. First, the artist sketches an outline in pencil. Then she begins to layer the background paints. Then the foreground. Then the small shadows and details. The end-product is a beautifully rich painting that took layer upon layer of paint and care and dedication. That’s what revision does: it adds layers. The first draft is the innermost layer, the rough sketch of what the work will look like. It’s rough and jagged and messy. Then you revise for plot and character and theme and unity and language. You take it section by section, layer by layer, until it’s whole.

4. I thrive in writing stretches of 4-5 hours.

I know we’re supposed to fit in writing when we can, even if it’s in short increments. Ten minutes here. Half-an-hour there. But see, it takes me a bit to warm up. I mean, it helps when I’m thinking constantly about my characters and where I left off. Of course it does. But even if I’m mentally there, getting the words to come out in a good manner takes me a bit. Then there’s the frustration of being in the middle of something great and having to stop. Once I get going, I get going, and I like being able to use my energy wisely. My best comes out in 4-5 hours, maybe even 2-3 hours. Anything less, and it’s worse than 1st draft crap. And anything more, I get bone-tired weary, my eyes blur, and my joints start screaming, especially my knees and my hands/wrists.

Of course, if I only have a few minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour, I take it and work with it the best way I can. Usually it’s making a rough sketch of a scene or chapter so that when I do get the nice stretch of time, I’ll have a game plan, helping me get into scene and character and story that much easier.

5. I can write anywhere, but my best writing is done either at Starbucks or in my home office. With music.

I’ve learned that I can, in fact, write almost anywhere. I lose myself in the story once I start writing, and the house can burn down and I wouldn’t even know it. I’ve burned many a toast by writing. But even then, I get interrupted and it’s another block to the flow. Like my preferred 4-5 hours, my preferred writing spaces are at Starbucks or in my home office. At Starbucks, I have my coffee (decaf caramel macchiato with extra foam– I have to do decaf for health reasons, though sometimes I cheat and get that extra umph), my laptop, and the baristas who I’ve known forever (or it seems that way since I’m always there!) At home, I have my orange (yes, orange….bright and alive) office, with cork-board tiles and a dry-erase board above my desk. I have my outlines, my character profiles, my notes, and inspirations there. I also have incense, which I use whenever I can.

In both cases, I write with music. Music and writing for me are linked. I have a playlist for this project and whenever I’m ready to write, I turn it on and it’s like I’m instantly in my story. It’s so much a part of this story. I chose songs that have the feel of what I’m trying to convey, so that means the songs in my playlist are there because of melody or lyrics. Or both. Some artists in my playlist are Adele, Gotye, Natalie Duque, Brandon Heath and Toby Mac.

My newest obsession: The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices

Surgery and recovery were really good for one thing: reading. I started with Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy and then, feeling the need for another world and story, I turned to Cassandra Clare’s books in The Mortal Instruments  (TMI) and Infernal Devices (ID) series.

Ohhhemmmgeeee…. I have found a new obsession! I fell in love with her language, her descriptions of New York and Victorian England (TMI and ID respectively), her characters, and the world of the Shadowhunters. It is magical and hauntingly beautiful.

I started with CITY OF BONES, the first in TMI. I read it in a day. Granted, I was recovering, mostly in bed without having (or being able) to do much else, and I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning because I just could not put it down. As soon as I finished, I downloaded the next book, CITY OF ASHES, immediately, and started reading it the next day. So began my obsession. I finished the next three books (CITY OF GLASS, CITY OF FALLEN ANGELS, and CITY OF LOST SOULS) in the week that followed, skimping on sleep because I just had to find out what happened. When I finished the last book, I was temporarily distraught because the sixth and final book, CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE, is not set to be released until March 2014. That is so long from now.

So I went online and devoured website after website, looking for extras and more information about Cassandra Clare’s world. I was pleasantly surprised that her website included a section with wonderful extras, and I hungrily read these.

It was there I started reading about the Infernal Devices trilogy, which is a prequel to TMI, and which remains in the Shadowhunter world, only in Victorian England. I bought the first book, CLOCKWORK ANGEL, and just like that, I was again pulled into this amazing world, and hooked. I just finished reading the second book, CLOCKWORK PRINCE, and have found that I am, again, despairing because the final book, CLOCKWORK PRINCESS, will not be available until March of next year.

I haven’t been so fully immersed into a world since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the books I’ve read. Some of them are okay (Trylle trilogy) while others are very good (The Hunger Games, Divergent series), but none has completely enthralled me like HP and now TMI and ID.

Why do I love her books so much? I think it starts with the writing. It is really good. Yes, there are a couple typos I caught in theKindle versions. I didn’t catch these in the printed book of CLOCKWORK ANGEL, so I don’t know if that is a print vs eBook problem. But those typos were minor. Cassandra Clare has a gift of description. She brings the setting and the characters to life. New York City and Victorian England are as much a character as Clary, Jace, Tessa, Will, Jem, et al. My world dissolved and I was an invisible bystander as the action unfolded. She really shows us her world. The dialogue is, also, realistic and believable and in tune with the characters. Her characters are three-dimensional; there’s no ambiguity to them. There is some angst (and sometimes I did get a tad annoyed with some of the characters), but those moments were few in the scheme of things. And they’re teenagers. I’ve read my journals from my teenage years–I annoy myself!

Then there’s the world she’s created. Like Rowling’s HP world, TMI and ID world is complex and full of mythology. I think Clare does an amazing job in drawing us into the world of the Shadowhunters, Nephilim (products of man and angel) who are sworn to protect the world from demons, and Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, faeries, warlocks, and shape-changers), magical creatures who are part-human, part-something else. There’s a hierarchy and discrimination, much like our “real” world. The question of what makes us “human.”

Then there’s the mythology at the base of this world. Old world mythology which is especially explored in TMI. It’s fascinating. though perhaps I’m more enthralled with it because my current project involves a certain mythology as well. After I finished TMI,

in the brief reprise between TMI and ID, I looked up some of these myths, of Lilith and such. Fascinating, I tell you. Like memory begets memory, this series has brought about some exploration into religious myths and the current battle between Catholic and Christian faiths.

And of course, there’s the romance. I’m a sucker for romance, and Clare does a good job in writing the relationships with the characters, pulling us into them and making us feel what they’re feeling.

Each of the series has its strengths. Between the two, I think I like ID better, perhaps only because of the lure of Victorian England and because two of its characters love literature and books and the series is replete with literary references of the era. I was reminded of other literature of the era and of my British lit courses I took as a grad and of the romanticism associated with the era.

Both of these series deserve 5 stars. I (im)patiently await the final books in both, and a new series Cassandra Clare has in the works, also of the same world.

My Writing Process

If there’s one fact about writing that I make sure to stress to my students, it’s that writing is a process. There’s no way around it, and the sooner they embrace this reality, the easier their time in writing classes will be (and, hopefully, the better their work will be!) This basic tenet of writing holds true in academic and creative writing alike (heck, it holds true in any area of writing!), though for each I approach it slightly different.

But knowing this and putting it into practice are two completely different things.

When I was working on my MA thesis, I had detailed outlines, lots (and lots and lots) of 3×5 index cards, books strewn on my dining room table (where I did most of my writing), notes and scribbles from my notebooks, copies of relevant essays I’d written throughout my graduate career, and my laptop. It was a straightforward research process, but one that involved prewriting, writing and rewriting nonetheless.

Writing this novel, though, has taught me a completely different process. This one is more organic and chaotic; instead of a linear process, it’s one that’s cyclical. I’ll write a few scenes, revise them, rewrite them, organize them, separate them, write a few more scenes. Back and forth, back and forth, until I see the story moving forward. In between, I do research as needed, I write and re-write character sketches, and I look for images for inspiration. I have a writing “playlist” on my computer/phone (consisting mostly of Adele and one or two other songs) and they have come to embody my world, my story. I’ve created a creative space in one of the rooms upstairs. In that small, orange room (the walls are painted orange), I have a dry-erase board and some cork-boards containing lists of plot points, ideas, scribbles of important tidbits of my characters/world, and any other pertinent notes and inspiration. These are all over a small writing desk, which is mostly bare except for my laptop, a couple of books, and more notes. Oh yeah, and my Cricut machine from when I tried scrapbooking and such (still love that stuff, just don’t have time! Writing trumps scrapbooking any day.)

But my process doesn’t end with the written. Every day, on my commute to and from work, in between classes, in the bathroom–in other words, everywhere–I’m thinking of my characters. I’m thinking of the story and where it’s going. I’m thinking of the world I’m developing. I’m asking myself, what if? What if this happens? What if that goes down? And I’m coming up with more ideas. Or, I’ll write down notes in my phone (love that app!) and when I get home, to my writing space, I’ll sketch out those ideas some more.

And then, after I’ve written and rewritten my scenes, I share them. In my UCLA extension classes. With my critique groups. With select friends and family. And I take their suggestions and questions, and I revise some more. I used to hate revision; now, I actually like it. It’s what allows the skeleton to fill out and transform into something beautiful.

It’s a never-ending process. It’s not linear. It’s chaotic. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Dual [writing] Citizenship” and other news

I’m in Chicago this week at the AWP 2012 Conference, and I have to say, I’m loving it (granted, it’s only my first day).

This is the first time I attend  such a conference (most of my conference experiences deal strictly with fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or children’s writing, in mostly workshop form. This, however, is a different experience. For starters, it’s no small event. There are over 10,000 (if I misremember the number, please excuse me) attendees, dozens of lectures/panels happening simultaneously across two hotels, and an impressive celebrity author lineup.

Additionally, though, this conference is great because it encompasses two of my loves: writing and teaching. The lectures/panels that are available broach a wide variety of subjects that pertain to writing and writing programs. The beauty of this combination is that, in one place, I can get tools or listen to conversations about the kids of writing that I do and the classes that I teach. It’s awesome.

The title of this post is in reference to one of the panels I attended today that was titled: “Dual Citizenship: Writing for Both Children and Adults.” It was fabulous and I think it really nailed a problem I’ve been encountering, a sort of snobbery if you will. We’ve been so conditioned to accept a reality of labels that we constantly feel the need to fit into one of those labels, as if writing could be contained in such a way. We don’t have to have just one writing identity (the poet, the fiction writer, the memoirist, the kid lit writer); it’s perfectly okay in embracing this multiple personality effect!

I know that when I get asked the pivotal question,”What do you write?” I stumble sometimes because, well, I like writing it all (though not necessarily all with the same strength)! I don’t want to be known just as a fiction writer or a memoirist or a YA or PB author. I want to write it all. I want to strive to be, like one of the panelists said, Julia Alvarez. Why settle for just one writing identity when you can have several (and be good at several)? It makes perfect sense. Still, whenever I do say I write more than one genre or for more than one age group, I tend to get an “Oh” with a glazed look, as if saying I just haven’t made up my mind what I want to write, that I have to find one niche and stay there.

Well, I refuse.

I enjoy writing. Period. So I will write whatever it is that turns me upside down, inside out. Whatever fills me with excitement. Whatever decides to be what I must write right now. Then, when I’m done with that, I’ll move onto the next project that again commands my attention. Because I think that’s what writers should do. Write what they just absolutely have to write and not what they think they should write. That, I think, should be one of the main writing commandments.

The Writing Process

It’s always fascinating for me to listen to authors talk about their writing process, the way they reach that creative catharsis that results in a book. Or a story. Or an essay. Or a poem.

Some authors start with a character. This character can appear in a dream, or she can seep into the author’s subconscious, stalking the author until the author has no choice but to write her into existence. There is no plot yet, no specific outline of a story – just a character. Once this character is written, she takes the author by the hand (hypothetically of course) and leads her into the story. The result is the plot, the what happens, and it’s as much of an adventure for the author as it is, later, for the reader. It’s a process of discovery.

Other authors have the seed of a plot in their minds. They heard from a friend, or from a stranger, the intricacies of an event that were captivating, and that started the writing process. They explore the importance and ramifications of said event, look at the “what happens” and “how it happens” and then build characters to fit this plot. It’s still a process of discovery because even though the skeleton of the plot/story is known, the words that make the story real for the reader are discovered as the authors write their stories.

And then there are those authors who simply sit at a blank screen, or a blank page, and just start writing, letting their muses take them into the worlds they’re creating, without so much as a single preconceived notion of the final product.

It’s hard to say which is the best method, and I’m sure there are some people who swear by one method or another. I don’t think there’s a perfect method, but rather one that works best for you and for the given project.

In a piece of non-fiction, the plot is already known, so starting with a structure, an outline, might work best. If a character comes and doesn’t leave you alone (I’ve had these), run with the character until you get a clearer picture of the plot, and then go from there. If you don’t have either character or plot, but you want to write something, then write, and see where that writing takes you.

In the end, what’s important to keep the writing alive, the creativity moving, and the muses around, is to just keep writing. For a few minutes, a few hours – whatever. Just write. (INSERT the Nike “Just do it” commercial…) Write it down. Then revise it. Chop it up. Change it around. Add to it, delete from it. Mold it like you’re molding a piece of clay until the end result is just right.

Dianita Restrepo

Do you remember what I looked like when I married you, Mario? I was Diana Carolina Restrepo, slender, beautiful, wild. You liked me because I wasn’t as India as the other girls you slept around with. You could see the Spanish in me, you said. The light skin, which I hated, you loved. You would tell me I was tu reina.

But what did that get me? I fell for you, Mario. I left Jaime, who really loved me, for your promises of a good and rich life. Yes, you gave me two kids who I would sacrifice everything for. But you also took them away from me. The allure of the drug cartel was too much for you and dragged you away from the cafetales. It was more money than you could’ve ever imagined and it came easily. All you had to do was smuggle, lie, and kill.

You couldn’t kill me, though, not literally. You lied and snuck me out to protect me and our kids. At least I know you did love us in your own way, though I know you did it because it would’ve been much harder to explain the blood on your hands to them if you’d killed me. You don’t have to explain it to me. I know.

I want to hate you. I want to kill you sometimes, too. But I don’t have the connections you do, unfortunately.

Instead, I’m in exile here. I’ve aged; I see the wrinkles and the circles under my eyes. I saw them a few days after I got here, ten years ago. I’m lucky if I can keep a job because times are tough. But what do you know about honest work and tough times, Mario? I wonder if you’d recognize me; if I snuck back home, would you know it was me? Would they? If we were still together, if none of this had ever happened, you’d probably have already left me, or at least found a younger girl to satisfy you because that’s just the way you were. I should’ve known that, listened to Jaime when he tried to warn me that you were trouble, but I didn’t listen. I never did until you told me to leave, or the kids would get it. We’d all get it. Then I finally listened.

I’m tired now. Tired of the crap, tired of the exile, tired of missing my kids. I don’t miss you, Mario. Not at all. It was a sad realization that the only good that came out of us, was them. Sofia and David. You could go to hell, for all I care! I just want my kids back; I want them to know what really happened, that I didn’t leave, I was forced to leave. I sacrificed my happiness for their lives. That says a hell of a lot more than what you did for us.