Hey, hey! Ready for adventure? Good news, a nonfiction short story and photos I’d submitted for Recreation.gov’s Outdoor Adventure Writing Contest was selected as a Top Ten Finalist (February 2021). If you love meteors and hiking to starry mountaintops, read the full story here (plus, catch a snippet of it below from our trip to Sequoia National Park): https://www.recreation.gov/shareyourstory/story/starry-night-above-the-sequoias/ae6a3d80-2b20-405b-9155-1a9072f8ecd3
I’m going mad.
New job, new apartment, new manuscript. I’ve hardly had a minute to catch up and reflect. Over the years, my blog has been my mini-museum of life-changing writing retreats and milestones. I finally have enough of a breather to reflect on an incredible writing retreat I attended in March 2018. Holy cow, has it really been three months?
At the Madcap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat in Nashville, Tennessee, I had the unbelievable opportunity to delve deep into writing with authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Marie Lu, Dhonielle Clayton, Zoraida Córdova, Tessa Gratton, S. Jae-Jones, Sarah Nicole Lemon, and Natalie C. Parker. Stop. Go back, read that lineup again. I couldn’t ask for a more talented, fierce, and diverse set of YA authors to learn from. And the fact was, they were all very open about how they’re still learning how to write respectfully and authentically across cultures. It made for the kind of retreat that broke down walls and opened up windows into new perspectives.
Not only were the faculty stellar, but the cohort of writers came from all over the US from all different backgrounds. It was inspiring to see such a range of perspectives in the mini-mansion tucked away in the Tennessee woods. And we slept in bunk beds. And I ate more grilled cheese than I have in way too long. I don’t want to make this sound like a fairy tale (okay, it was seriously a fairy tale); however, at the same time, we all dug deep into our own uncomfortable truths surrounding race, privilege, sexism, respect, and authenticity. These are generally topics people try to avoid around the dinner table. It was heartening to come together to talk about these issues in our own writing (and in the overall publishing industry) without heated arguments or defensiveness. It was an open conversation. And I learn so so much. I’m still in processing-mode, so I know there will be follow-up posts. But for now:
#madcaprt #yalit #amwriting
When I showed up at the SCBWI LA Writer’s Day 2016 conference, my biggest worry was beating Los Angeles traffic in time to catch a seat and a sip of coffee before the editors, authors, and agents began their talk. I had no idea I’d win an award for my YA work-in-progress titled Blanca and the Ruins! Fortunately, I was decked out in my orange stripy dress (now forever my lucky dress) and cowboy boots when they called me on stage. Of course, they didn’t announce my name first. Instead they led with my story, and all I could think while I was sitting in the audience was–oh my god–I hope that’s mine! Very surreal moment. Thank you SCBWI for this amazing opportunity!
“Sparkling with humor and a strong sense of place, Blanca and the Ruins is the first-place winner about a fiery and passionate young woman living in San Francisco. Blanca is determined not to inherit the family curse of becoming a nurse. She wants to pursue her artistic passion, but when she sneaks out to draw one night in Dolores Park, she crosses paths with a bleeding boy who needs her help. Once he gets hold of her hand neither of them is able to let go, and Blanca’s life takes the turn she has been resisting. Writer Andrea Ellickson leaves us wondering what will end in ruins – Blanca’s future or her dreams?”
What if you could rewrite your world every half century? Redesign the creatures, reassign the rulers, rewrite the book. And what if this magical book was an opera singer with a carousel dress of mythical creatures?
On Sunday morning, I slipped on a black dress and rode a tram to the Národní divadlo (Prague’s National Theater) to catch the magical world of Enchantia (Čarokraj), a Czech opera by Marko Ivanović and Petr and Matěj Forman accompanied by the Czech National Opera Orchestra.
On the way there, I passed a line of children and parents dressed in their Sunday best while a green toad led them toward the carved doors lined in gold. Spiral after spiral of red velvet stairs led me to my red velvet seat in a balcony towering over the entire theater. Peering over the edge, I started to grumble about my lack of binoculars, until the orchestra thumped to life and a white feathered parrot-man boasted a long deep chord of sound. A chorus of hooded glowing women surrounded him along with goat-men on stilts, slithering creatures, and a woman with a massive carousel dress. Instead of whimsical unicorns and winged pegasus creatures, her dress was a carousel of pages twirling with the images of mythical creatures. She was the singing book of life in Enchantia—a book with the power to change the world every fifty years.
A small screen projected lyrics translated into Czech and English. For the most part, it was incredibly difficult to drag my eyes from the amazing stage sets, costumes, and dance performances. Sound became my guiding stick as the National Orchestra powered through every emotion and gesture. The giant marching drums, the slew of violins, cellos, flutes, and chimes, the surprise appearance of modern instruments. It was a classic quest story, and I didn’t need the words.
Like the children in the row in front of me, I propped my elbows along the railing and lurched toward the spectacle bellow. Evil bird-like creatures called Cockatrices stormed the stage with spears intent on rewriting themselves as the rules of Enchantia. Suddenly, a human woman in a white dress was plucked like a daisy from the orchestra as if the fourth wall never existed. Her name was Penelope. Immediately, the opera threw me into an Alice in Wonderland style adventure—a much needed fall into another world.
During four weeks of intense studying and teaching in Prague, I almost completely locked away reading and writing fiction simply because there wasn’t enough time or brainpower leftover. For a whole month, I’ve been re-learning English in a way natives never usually do, all while adjusting and adventuring in a foreign city. Too long has my mind been filled with the laws of grammar, the intricacies of phonology, the preciseness of vocabulary, and the mysteries of Czech language and culture. For me, literature and English language are incomplete without creativity. I needed to return to the Enchanted.
I followed Penelope, Parrot, and Toad on their quest to save the world and defeat the evil Cockatrices. They sang through perilous seas, swam with mermaids, fought werewolves, escaped dang dungeons, and jumped through mythological realms. The costumes and stage sets were clouds of imagination brought to life—flapping, glowing, slithering, spinning, splashing. Humans became creatures, and the audience became Penelope plucked from the orchestra stage. And then, when the red velvet curtains slid shut, I was still Penelope, eager to return to my Enchanted world of writing, eager to rewrite my own book.
For five days at the AROHO Retreat, a successful author, poet, or playwright mentored small groups of students. My mentor was Jillian Lauren, author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty. She’s also a talented spoken word storyteller for The Moth, and an overall rockin’ lady.
Our small group sessions focused on “Writing on the Edge.” How do you make all the atrocities you see in the news everyday still seem fresh and engaging? How do you write about sex, drugs, and rock & roll without sounding like a cliché?
Jillian shared some insightful tips. Forget about shocking topics. It’s all about the ride the narrator takes you on. And how the narrator takes you on that ride.
Your narrator should:
- Have an authentic and powerful voice. Easy, right?
- Inspire empathy in the reader.
- Share experiences that are relatable. Or somehow make them relatable.
- Convey an organizing insight. What revelation will the reader walk away with when the pages are done?
- Have a specific way of observing/interpreting life and show that in every scene and detail.
We read excerpts from Permanent Midnight, The Kiss, and You Got to Burn to Shine, and examined how the author accomplished this. She gave us a fantastic arsenal of writing book recommendations like Writing from the Body, The Tools, and Writing Down the Bones.
Jillian also led us through yoga, meditation, and writing freewrites so that we could dive into our own bodies and the hidden parts of our minds. A couple of her prompts kept me up writing late into the night with only moths for company.
In one particularly difficult session, we explored our “Shadow” selves—a Carl Jung archetype that is the worst part of ourselves. It’s everything that we don’t want the world to see. As you can imagine, it was agonizing to conjure up this image and translate it to the page. But, in order to write on the edge, we have to connect to this part of ourselves.
During our farewell sessions, we burned notes to our Shadows, massaged them into red clay shapes, and spent a day at Abiquiu Lake jumping in, Shadows and all. In the cool waves and on the scorching rock slabs, the wind pestered us for secrets waiting for release. We told them true.
Even though we shared rustic adobe cells with roommates at the 2013 A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Writing Retreat, the week-long oasis in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico gave us new insight into the idea of a room of one’s own.
Let’s face facts, there are things you would do in your own bedroom that you wouldn’t dare do anywhere else. Practice a tutorial on the latest twerking dance move. Examine the birthmark inconveniently placed under your right butt cheek. Perfect the special blend of awe, excitement, and humbleness when they announce your Noble Prize in Literature. “Talk” to the ever persistent characters in your novel.
You know, the usual.
But at the AROHO writing retreat, over one hundred women were able to dive into the deep dark of writing as well as the bright blinding inspiration. We were able to take our art seriously and hilariously while supporting an entire community of talented writers. With full days of “dessert delights,” “mind stretches,” author readings, midday siestas, and wine buzzed receptions, we connected with every sort of writer. Throw purple feathers out of your bra; talk to the muses in your haunted house mind; meditate to the place where That Which Cannot Be Written hides; or just gaze at the 360 degree landscape that takes your breath away at every angle. As a teenager, I pinned art and photographs all over my walls as portals into the surreal landscape of my mind. Ghost Ranch’s red rock canyons, dusty trails, and natural grandeur were a surreal Georgia O’Keeffe painting made real.
The world became my bedroom. And my bedroom became the world.
Now, stay on track; keep your head out of sexy time and pajamas. When I say “bedroom,” I’m talking space, openness, and inspiration. I’m talking freedom to be exposed only as you would in your own room. Instead of the isolation and imagination that writers tend to work in, we shared a space to explore new ideas and connections.
Over the next few blog posts, I will share my revelations from every day of the retreat as Janet Fitch, Jillian Lauren, Evie Shockley, Ellen McLaughlin, Diane Gilliam, Mary Johnson, Bhanu Kapil and many many other talented writers guided me. Join me for pillow talk sessions in a room that’s all our own.
It was a pleasure to interview YA author Susan Dennard about her experience with NaNoWriMo and plotting trilogies! Check out the interview below reblogged from the Office of Letters and Light Blog.
Camp NaNoWriMo is gearing up for July, and many of you are already hard at work storming up ideas. Are you ambitiously planning on writing a trilogy, perhaps? Well, Susan Dennard published her debut young adult novel Something Strange and Deadly, the first in an intriguing trilogy blending historical fiction, horror, romance, and mystery, and on July 23, the sequel, A Darkness Strange and Lovely, will hit shelves. Read on to learn how Susan used three years of NaNoWriMo to master her trilogy:
How did NaNoWriMo help you draft your novels?
It’s so easy to put writing off—even for books on deadline—but there’s something about knowing that I’ll start on x-date, work like a madwoman until x-date, and then finish with 50K that really helps me hunker down. I also think the sheer insanity and support that other writers bring to the whole NaNo-experience really helps keep me motivated, even after that first week when my productivity always wants to flag.
How has your NaNo experience been different each year you wrote a book in your trilogy?
I’ve definitely become a better writer as each year passes—meaning less of the words I hammer out get trashed. The first year I did NaNo in 2009 with Something Strange and Deadly, I wrote a truly dreadful novel. But it was also one of my very first complete novels. Throughout the year I spent revising the book, I learned a lot about writing.
The next year, I again wrote a dreadful first draft, but in year three, I wrote a halfway-decent first draft. In fact, much of what readers will find in A Darkness Strange and Lovely is simply a polished-up NaNo novel. Each book I write is stronger because I’ve grown so much as an author!
Did you make many writer or industry connections through NaNoWriMo?
Oh yes—especially in 2012! Author Beth Revis invited me and several other YA authors to participate in a NaNo forum thread that allowed Wrimos to ask published authors any and all questions. It was a great way to meet other writers!
Then, fellow author Sarah J. Maas and I started hosting something we called #NaNoWriMoBattle. These were 30-minute writing sprints that we held every day on Twitter. Many authors, published and aspiring alike, started following along with us. It was so much fun and so productive that we continued doing it after NaNo. We call it the #BAMFWordBattle now, and we try to host them pretty regularly.
Tell us more about your post-NaNo revisions.
I always revise enormously after every first draft. That’s just part of writing. Fortunately, I really love revising (I have an entire guide to it on my blog!), so it’s always exciting for me to finish a draft and then hunker down to turn a draft into a “real book.” Usually I’ll finish NaNo with my 50,000, but since that’s not a full novel, I’ll write around 40,000 more. Then, I inevitably start revising early in the next year.
But all that said, I think it’s easy for new writers to think revising is scary or not any fun. This is so not true! And, no matter what you might feel about revising, it’s absolutely not a step you can skip. No published author would ever hand in an unrevised manuscript to their editor, and no unpublished author can expect to get published without a truly polished book.
The key is to make revisions manageable and fun, and you do that by breaking it down into “bite-size” chunks and working toward a clear end goal. For example, if you know your characters aren’t as dark as you want them to be (darker characters = your goal), then as you work through each scene (bite-size chunks), you layer in more darkness.
What was it like plotting an entire series?
Hard! So many threads would appear with each new book, and then I was left writing the last book and wrapping up all those threads. I’m not much of an outliner—I prefer to write by the seat of my pants—and while that worked well for the first two books in my series, when I hit book three, I realized I would need to be more structured. Otherwise, I’d forget to tie up some important plot points.
Any tips on publishing your novel?
Publishing is a rapidly changing industry, and there are so many new and exciting ways for writers to get their work out there. That said, the rules for traditional publishing tend to stay the same. So many people just “set out to get published” with no idea what that really entails. Do your research! There are so many amazing online resources to help the aspiring author navigate the various steps, from dealing with revisions to writing a query letter to getting an agent.
There is no easy way to get a book deal, but if you dream big, work really hard, and never give up, then you can definitely reach your goals! Trust me: if naive ol’ me from NaNo 2009 could get published, then I have no doubt all of you can too!
Susan Dennard is a 28-year-old reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She used to be a marine biologist, but now writes novels about kick-butt heroines and swoon-worthy rogues. She lives in the Midwestern US with her French husband and Irish setter.
Keep up with Susan:
Check out my recent blog post at the OLL Blog by clicking this link: http://blog.lettersandlight.org/post/32460625515/dare-to-wear-pink
It’s an awesome pep talk for writers… and anyone who needs a few words of encouragement! It’s also re-posted below:
Did you know that Molly Ringwald, the iconic ’80s star of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, is also a literary fiction writer?
Recently, I attended a reading of her new short story collection When It Happens to You. I’ll admit it—I mainly showed up because she was an icon of my teenage years. Because of her, I almost resorted to sewing my own prom dress. My mom had the good sense to convince me otherwise; I had neither a sewing machine nor fashion sense and the dress was starting to look like a belly dancer’s costume.
Flash forward to this year, when I found out that Molly Ringwald had recently published a collection of fiction stories, and my adolescent idol gained about another million degrees of coolness.
She read from “My Olivia,” her haunting story about a mother struggling with a transgender child. The audience was almost brought to tears by her words; not a screenwriter’s words, or a director’s words—her own words.
San Francisco Litquake’s Jane Ganahl grilled her with questions on topics ranging from her Brat Pack days to her book reviews to her gorgeous Greek husband sitting in the audience. But one answer really stuck with me:
“I’ve been writing for decades. It was singing, writing, and acting in that order, and once acting took over, I kept writing and never thought that it would be possible to ever be taken seriously as a fiction writer. That’s what kept me from [fiction writing & publishing] for so long. But in the end I feel like the writing speaks for itself.”
Molly Ringwald worries that people will not take her seriously as a writer.
It’s a worry that crosses my mind every time I tell someone that I am a fiction writer. I always expect the next question to be: well, what have you published? Or what kind of person spends their days transcribing the thoughts of imaginary people? Or did you know that a writing career doesn’t come with stock options?
I, uh, you know, it’s just…
Everyone faces the doubt of announcing themselves as “real” writers. Sometimes we hide our “writer” status for fear of ridicule or dismissal. Do you love to write? Yes. Do you put pen to paper in a magic string of ink straight from your heart? Yes. Then, stash the self-doubt, apply a little pink lipstick (this step is optional), and dazzle the world with your talent.
Whether your day job is as a doctor, actress, lawyer, or waitress, tell the world, “Yes, I am a fiction writer.” And then take that one step further, “Yes, I am writing a novel in one month. Seriously.”
Have you ever been afraid that the world might not take you seriously as a writer? Have you ever let it stop you from writing? I’d love to hear your stories!
Photo by Flickr user Chris Mc Robert