Friday, January 30, 2015

Money Talks (The Truth About What This Writer Gets Paid)

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I was talking to a class of fourth-graders last year about my job as a freelance writer. After I showed them my website and passed around copies of the magazines I contribute to regularly, we had a Q&A session. One of the students raised his hand and asked, "How much money do you get paid to write?" I saw the teacher put her head in her hands, but I had fully expected the question, especially from a group of 10-year-olds. My own kids ask me the question all the time, as they check the mail almost every day and get excited when they recognize a check has arrived.

I told him that the pay depends on the length of the article and the publication, and also how many articles you sell/write in a given month. He seemed satisfied with that answer and we moved on to the next question.

This week I came across a very interesting blog post one of my friends shared on social media, "Sponsored by my husband: Why it's a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from." What struck me the most was the subhead, which read: "The truth is, my husband's hefty salary makes my life as a writer easy. Pretending otherwise doesn't help anyone."

I had to laugh and nod my head in agreement. I could also admit that my writing career is "sponsored" by my husband. I will say that I have been regularly freelance writing and cashing checks since 2005, but with the exception of 2008 when I worked on staff part-time at a local magazine, my income has not been steady. Depending on what projects/articles I'm working on, my writing can bring in anywhere from $300 to $1,500/month. My husband's salary provides money to pay the larger bills and keep us in health and dental insurance.

Let me explain. Right now I have a few regular clients which provide the bulk of my income. I work strictly part-time hours--anywhere from 15 to 40 a week depending on where deadlines fall. I have time to take my kids to school, pick them up, volunteer at their school, shuttle them to after-school activities, and help them with their homework. They are almost 9 and 11 now, and as they have gotten older, I've tried to pick up more and more work. With one heading off to middle school next year, I plan to increase my work hours and hope to contribute more to our monthly income.

But without my husband's support, I would never have been able to get three novels written and ready to submit or work such a flexible schedule. And that's the honest truth. I tell everyone we make a great team, and one day, the tables will turn, and my writing will be able to support our family and give him the chance to follow his own entrepreneurial dreams.

For my local friends, I will be participating in a panel discussion on the topic of "I’m Published, So Now What? Making a Living Writing" at the Women's National Book Association/Charlotte Writers' Club event on Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. in Charlotte. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

The New York Times bestselling author of Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy makes her brilliant adult debut with this mesmerizing story in the tradition of The Lovely Bones, Her Fearful Symmetry, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane—a tale of family, ghosts, secrets, and mystery, in which the lives of the living and the dead intersect in shocking, surprising, and moving ways.

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance.

But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.

The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.

Having read Oliver's Before I Fall and Panic and really enjoying both, I was excited to read Rooms, mostly because of the presence of ghosts, something I write about in my own fiction. Unfortunately, it fell short of my expectations.

What worked: The concept of the book is brilliant and kept me turning the pages. Who doesn't wonder about the history of a house? The Walker house is old and full of hidden secrets, and in the different sections of the book, Oliver leads the reader through the various rooms of the house: the kitchen, the study, the basement, the bathrooms, the attic, etc. It's a very unique way to craft a story.

What didn't work: The book is narrated in first person by the two ghosts residing in the house, Sandra and Alice. I've read other reviews that the two women's voices weren't distinct enough, and I have to agree. Both women had destructive relationships with men and I became confused about which man was connected to which ghost. I often found myself having to flip back to the beginning of their chapters so I could keep the narrator straight. Also, once I finished the book I still had a lot of questions about the two women--I'm not sure if I missed the story of how Alice died. If it was in the book, it wasn't given as much attention as Sandra's death. The rest of the book is told in third-person through the POV'S of Richard Walker's daughter Minna, her daughter, Amy, Walker's son, Trenton, and their mother, Caroline. The switching back and forth of all these POVS disrupted the flow of the book and prevented me from staying grounded in any sort of timeline. Richard Walker's voice is also notably absent--and I couldn't quite understand why his family hated him so much. The nymphomaniac Minna was probably my least-favorite character. The ending also wasn't much of a surprise to me.

I enjoy Oliver's writing and will continue to read her books, but I felt like Rooms required an additional two or three readings to fully differentiate each character's individual stories.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Life Lessons from the Film "Dead Poets Society"

When Robin Williams passed away this past summer, I immediately thought his performance in one of my very favorite movies of all time, "Dead Poets Society." I recently had the chance to watch it again after I recorded it off one of my movie channels. I'll be honest--I was crying even as the opening credits flashed across the screen. All of the beloved quotes from the movie reinforced my life-long desire to become a published novelist.

While I love all the characters in the group (with the exception of Cameron, the fink!), I made connections that I had never made before--such as the dichotomy of the characters Knox and Neil. Knox may come across in the movie as a silly, lovestruck teenager, but he follows his teacher's passion in pursuing the things you love--and in the end, he succeeds by winning the girl. Neil also strives to find his own voice on the stage, but his success is his downfall. It's incredibly sad.

This time I also viewed the themes of the movie through the eyes of a parent. I made a vow to never squash my kids' dreams and punish them for working hard at something they love. While I do have clear expectations that they go to college, I'm not going to dictate what careers they pursue. I realize they movie was set in a very different time, but it was a good reminder nonetheless. I look forward to sharing the movie with them in just a few short years and hope they love it as much as I do.

After, watching "Dead Poets Society," I was inspired to pull a few of my poetry anthologies off my bookshelf. I especially love the Romantic and English Victorian periods, but now I also want to dive back into some Thoreau and Whitman, too.

By Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How I Keep My Kids Reading

In today's day and age, there are so many more distractions for our kids, including video and computer games. When my children were really small, it was very easy to engage them in reading. We read them board books throughout the day and as part of the bedtime routine and visited the library regularly. Being a writer and avid reader, I know the benefits of reading and have always been determined to make sure books remain an important part of my children's lives.

I think for some parents, it's harder to foster the love of books in our kids as they get older when we are constantly trying to limit their time on Minecraft, Disney Infinity, or WiiU. But with a little persistence and encouragement, it is possible. Here are a few ways I keep my kids reading on a daily basis:

Library visits. From early on, I've tried to teach my kids (now ages 8 and 11) how valuable a resource our public library system is. Fortunately, we have access to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library, which has three branches all within driving distance. We visit the library at least twice a month and stock up on books, DVDs, and CDs. During the summer we participate in their summer reading program (me included!) and focus on reading 20-25 hours during that time period, earning prizes and fee waivers along the way, which come in very handy.

Paying attention to their interests. We all stuck in reading ruts. Sometimes I get hooked on one author and focus on binge-reading all her books, which isn't always the best the best thing for me. When I notice my kids are bringing home the same books over and over from school or from the library, I take the time to walk down all the aisles in the library and bookstores with them. For example, my 8-year-old son gravitates toward humor books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and My Weird School series. But he also has a fondness for the German Shepherd dog breed, so I encourage him to check out the non-fiction section, specifically animals. My daughter is interested in all things medical, so on our last visit to the library, I showed her where the juvenile health section was and she quickly found an armload of books.

Browsing thrift stores. It never ceases to amaze me when I browse the book section in places like Goodwill and the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. I've found so many copies of vintage books I loved as a child and teenager and have been able to pass on to my kids. It's like a treasure hunt--the kids immediately head for the books and whoop in excitement when they find several copies of their favorite books for as little as 50 cents or $1 per copy.

I believe keeping my kids engaged in books has helped them become terrific spellers and confident writers and storytellers. I hope they never lose their love of reading, and I will always do my best to keep conversing with them about the books they love, and the ones they don't.

How do you keep your own kids reading?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review: Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

If one of your goals is to finally start working on that children's novel or get serious with revisions on one you've already written, have I got a book for you. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers helped me realize I still had much to learn about this particular craft, all while keeping me motivated and excited about my own writing.

Author Mary Kole is a literary agent who runs the popular blog, which I was already somewhat familiar with before I picked up the book. I'll be honest, I envisioned the book containing a lot of the same information I've already read in other places--you know, an overview of the different genres in the children's market, popular themes, how to write a book synopsis, query letters, etc. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at all the useful information Kole packs into this book. Writing Irresistible Kidlit is so chock full of examples, explanations, and exercises that I had to digest it in bits and pieces over the course of a month. I learned all about storytelling foundations, character development, plot, imagery and setting, sidekicks and villains, authority and authenticity, just to name a few. When I was finished, I felt like I had participated in a course students earning an MFA might take.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from the chapter on plot:

The rhythms of the writing itself should reflect the emotion of what is being described. You can twist this expectation and play with it. For example, what if a character was meeting a serial killer for the first time, but thought he was friend? Use shorter, choppier sentences to give the scene a sense of foreboding. Your reader may not pick up on your danger signals right away, but you will be raising a subsconscious red flag.

When you want to take the tension to the next level, don't just consider what you're saying--think about how you're saying it.

Wow! This passage gave me so much to think about, as a common critique in my own YA is that I have a tendency to rush scenes. The book I'm currently working on involves a girl with a classmate stalker, so this entire chapter was particularly useful.

I really liked that Kole includes lots of specific examples from YA and MG books currently in the marketplace to illustrate her points. She also guides the reader through exercises designed to improve your work-in-progress, such as this one:

Reading for Tension: Print out your manuscript and settle in for a read. Every time you feel your attention wander at all, even for an instant (be honest!), make an asterisk in the margin. Seriously sit down and do this, don't just think about doing this. Go back through and try the tools from the chapter to add tension to those sagging moments.

My only complaint is that I purchased the Kindle version of the book (I was on vacation and needed instant gratification!) and the formatting isn't as easy to follow, plus I couldn't keep up with the exercises. I will be purchasing a print copy of the book to remedy that though, as this deserves a spot on my writing resource shelf. I've already recommended it to several friends.