Thursday, April 11, 2024

When Writer's Block Hits

Whether you are a new writer or a seasoned expert, it’s likely that you have experienced or will soon endure the dreaded writer’s block. Writer’s block is, according to Author Anne Lamott, not a block at all. If you are having trouble writing, she believes it’s because you are empty, not blocked. 

Maybe it can be both? 

The thing is, writing is hard. It’s not math, where 1+1=2 and there aren’t any other answers. Writing can be debated, unlike a simple math problem. And when you write something, someone somewhere is going to love it. And someone, somewhere is going to…not love it. 

That’s a lot of pressure. And that pressure can really add up and make it hard to create. I wish we would all give ourselves a break from that. If you put your writing into the world with gratitude and trust that it will reach whoever needs it, you will feel a lot of weight slowly melt off your shoulders. 

Easier written than done. I am still a basket case when it comes to my writing. But I’m working on it. Will you join me?

In the meantime, if you are having a hard time putting words on the page, here are some things that have worked for me in the past. Whether you are blocked or empty or feeling any kind of way that is making it hard for you to write, here are five suggestions.

1. Expose yourself to another form of art. Paint, sculpt clay (or dough or Play-doh, you know, whatever is around), draw, play or listen to music…do something creative that makes you feel joyful. And it’s important that you are doing this activity just for fun! The point is to clear your mind and open your heart.  

My stick figures are barely recognizable, but doodling and drawing makes me feel free. It allows me to step away from writing, but still exercise my creative muscles.  

2. Nature. Spending some time with nature is so powerful. Take a walk. Sit by a body of water. Hike a mountain trail and create endorphins. Stand barefoot in your backyard. Take mindful breaths while you are doing these things and feel your heartbeat. 

3. Ice bath. Eek! I know, I can’t believe I am suggesting this. I only recently tried jumping into a freezing cold tub, but I was impressed by how well it worked. It was a real reset for me and I felt rejuvenated after. Sure, it was horrible during. But the end result was worth the plunge.

4. Read. For me, reading always leads to more writing. I read picture books, craft books, parenting books, blog posts, newsletters, magazines, and so much more. It’s inspiration at its finest. 

5. BIC. When I was studying writing in graduate school and feeling blocked, my professors would always say, “Get your butt in the chair.” They may have used another word for butt. But it worked! It’s a great way to get yourself writing again. Just write. It doesn’t have to be good, but the act of writing may break whatever cycle you’re in.  

If none of these tips work for you, and you are still feeling blocked or empty, please consider these moving words from Author Lee Wind:

"We drive ourselves to produce (write every day!), ignoring the wisdom of the seasons: you cannot only harvest. You need to let crops lay dormant (winter), germinate (spring), grow (summer), and only then can you harvest (fall.) Plants and trees don't skip the resting time of winter, and we skip rest at our peril. That's also called 'burnout.'"

As Lee goes on to say, allow yourself the grace of seasons to your creativity. And while you are doing that, I challenge you to be kind to yourself. Fill yourself up, unblock all the things, enjoy the sunshine, and you’ll get back to your writing when it’s time. 

Hugs and happy writing to you!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult


logo for "Middle Grade vs. YA: What's the Difference" session at the San Diego Writers Festival 2024, with Chris Baron (showing a photo of Chris and the cover of his middle grade book "The Gray" and Lee Wind (showing a photo of Lee and his young adult novel "A Different Kind of Brave")

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be in dialog with middle grade author Chris Baron at the San Diego Writers Festival, in a session sponsored by Anatasia Zadeik called "Middle Grade vs. YA, What's the Difference?"

Using Chris's most recent middle grade novel The Gray, and my own recently published young adult novel A Different Kind of Brave we covered so many things that come into play, and that are different, between the two age categories, including:

  • Character age
  • Inner journey
  • Outer journey
  • Voice (for your characters, as well as the voice of the novel's narration/POV)
  • Role of family
  • Intensity of opposition your main character faces
  • To kiss (or not) – how far do your characters go?
  • To curse (or not)
  • Reader age/maturity
  • Who you're promoting the book to once it's published (parents, teachers, librarians, and in the case of YA teens themselves.)

Some resonating takeaways for me included:

Middle grade are books you might imagine a young person reading with their family.
Young Adult might be more a book a teen would read on their own, so it's more personally theirs. Not that they need to hide it from their family, but books better enjoyed independently.

We also had a fun exercise, challenging attendees to do one-sentence pitch for their middle grade or young adult current manuscript and then do it again but this time for the other age category.

The one-liner pitch for Chris's middle grade The Gray (from the copyright page) is:

Sasha has been bullied at his middle school and his anxiety, which he called the Gray, is growing, so his parents and therapist suggest a summer in the country with his aunt might help him.

Chris's new pitch to make The Gray young adult raised the stakes and the drama, and there was talk about aging the characters up as well.

The one-liner pitch for my young adult A Different Kind of Brave is:

My Gay teen love letter to James Bond movies has two main characters: Nico, living a life of adventure that's pretty terrible, and Sam, who lives a life of privilege and wants to be just like James Bond–when they meet and fall in love, everything changes.

What I learned when I tried to make the pitch for A Different Kind of Brave middle grade was that the whole premise of the book didn't work younger. The opposition was too intense, the whole opening sequence of Nico escaping from a gay reprogramming center and then fleeing on his own down to Peru and then Mexico--none of that felt middle grade. It's a book that had to be young adult.

Finally, we offered some tips to get published, both speaking about working on your craft, finding your community, and Chris spoke eloquently about writing your best book (not someone else's) with these words:

"Be your own breakthrough." —Chris Baron

It was a great discussion, and hopefully these notes can help you with your own middle grade or young adult work in progress.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, April 4, 2024

5 Things to Do If You're New to KidLit

As a new KidLit writer, do you ever feel like you're alone on an island with your laptop? It doesn't have to be that way! There are so many writers to connect with, critique groups to join, and reputable resources to dig into. 

One problem is, the amount of information can feel overwhelming. There are so many things to do and learn, it's hard to know where to begin. Here are five things to try when you're just starting out. 

1. Connect on social media. Consider signing up for some social media platforms. There are so many to choose from! BlueSky launched just last year. Author and Illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Starter Thread really helped me get comfortable with the platform. You may also want to consider Instagram, X (Twitter), and TikTok (have you heard about BookTok?).  

Some popular hashtags to follow are #kidlit, #writingcommunity, and #childrensbooks. Follow agents you're interested in and other writers you want to get to know. This will immerse you in the community quickly. I'll see you there!

2. Find Critique Groups. Joining a critique group is invaluable. Whether it's in person in your community or virtual, these groups will be so beneficial to your writing journey. You can find critique partners right here within SCBWI. The 12x12 writing community connects critique partners along with KidLit411’s Manuscript Swap Facebook group, and so many more.  

3. Join SCBWI. The amount of resources, networking opportunities, and other gems that can be uncovered here when you’re a member are worth the small fee to join. Find events to attend, network, take advantage of free webinars, and read about scholarships and grants available for creatives. 

4. Industry blogs and podcasts. Get your information right from the source. Find agents and agencies that have blogs or podcasts, and follow along with the ones that resonate with you. Most will tell you exactly what they are looking for, and some even share query letters that have hooked them or turned them off.  

You'll also want to read or listen to some content from other writers. You'll find so many interesting and fun options.

5. Tools for submitting. Even if you’re not ready to query, familiarize yourself with QueryManager and QueryTracker. It can only be helpful to understand these tools and know how to use them so you’re prepared when you are ready to submit your work.

Some agents allow queries via email, but some only accept through QueryManager. 

QueryTracker can be utilized to track submissions and search for agents that are open to queries in your genre. It's still a great idea to keep a spreadsheet with all of your submissions so you can make notes and organize it in a way that works for you.

Hugs and happy writing!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Check out Authors Against Book Bans (Important for Illustrators and Translators as well!)

screenshot of the home page for Authors Against Book Bans

Authors Against Book Bans was featured last month in an article by Emma Kantor in Publishers Weekly. Their mission:

We are Authors Against Book Bans. 

We stand united against the deeply unconstitutional movement to limit the freedom to read. We unequivocally support the availability of diverse voices on our library shelves, in our schools, and in our culture. We pledge to band together against the oppression of literature, to speak when our voices are silenced, to go where our bodies are needed, and to fight as one to ensure this freedom. Together, we shall be fearless.

Our concern is not only for the books themselves, but for the children, families, educators, librarians, and communities that suffer when the freedom to read is challenged and taken away. We abhor the bias of the current organized attempt to censor books in schools and libraries across our nation, particularly because of these efforts’ insidious targeting of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories, erasure of history, and silencing of voices that speak truthfully about essential human experiences. The great power of literature is its ability to create empathy, foster self-empowerment, imbue knowledge, and enhance diversity of thought. We will defend this power from those who seek to subvert it.

As authors and as members of our local and national communities, we pledge to protect the rights of all young people to access the books they need and deserve.

If this is something you care about, consider signing up at the Authors Against Book Bans website. As they explain:

We need ALL authors on board, whether your books have been banned or not, because the fight for the freedom to read is every author’s fight.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,