Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write, part two

When I wrote this Author Toolbox Blog Hop post back in January, I had just finished submitting the last of my graduate school applications. Once I got my sixth and final confirmation email that my application materials were received, I immediately thought that I would get flat rejections from all six programs. All of the doubts and worries about not getting in anywhere filled the vacuum that writing samples and personal statements had left behind. So I put together a learning plan to improve my skills and be in a better position to get accepted the second time around.

But then in March I got a call from my top choice school, Iowa State University, telling me I was accepted and also offered the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship in Creative Writing. By that point, I had fallen behind on most parts of my plan, but I was still writing regularly. Fast forward to the past few weeks wrapping up loose ends with my job while also saying my goodbyes to New York City and the people in it. I’ve been barely writing at all because of how much I had to get done before moving.

Now, I’m in Ames, nervous and excited and ready as I’ll ever be for this new phase of my writing life.

There are countless articles, blogs, and pro/con lists about the MFA degree and whether or not it’s “worth it.” When I read through some of these things as I was making the decision to apply, the only thing I became certain of was that there’s no one true answer to the MFA question, no hard Yes or No. I had to decide the “worthiness” on my own, and eventually I decided that yes, I wanted to pursue this. For me, my reasons for applying boiled down to:

  • Wanting to throw myself into writing to see how far I could go with it; an MFA environment can give me the time, space, and support to experiment and learn.
  • Wanting to meet more writers like me, who were seeking that same time, space, and support to learn and grow.
  • Wanting to go back to school for a graduate degree; a fully-funded MFA program fit the bill.
  • Wanting a change of scenery; as much as I loved New York, it was getting a little overwhelming.
  • Wanting a way to transition from my current career path to something in publishing, whether as an author or editor; there are obviously many ways to do this, and an MFA program can be one of them.

Classes start next week, and so far (before I’ve even officially started the program) I feel confident that I’ll be fulfilling all of the wants I’ve listed above. Already I’ve met some of the members of my cohort, all of them friendly and fascinating, and Ames is definitely a change of scenery from New York. We’ll see in three years if my feeling is right.

Do you have a degree in creative writing? What do you think of creative writing programs in general?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

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Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Duotrope and the resume of failures

I regularly review my resume about once a month, not because I’m always actively looking for a job, but because it’s generally a good idea to keep it updated. My job responsibilities might have changed, or I might have some professional achievement that I want to put on there. And every time I do this review and update, I also think about the things that I want to put on there.

I want to have more publications to list, I want to add more soft and hard skills related to writing, I want more relevant experience to show how my professional life has developed and changed. And when I think about the things I want on my resume, I think about the work that I need to put in behind the scenes to get there.

Alongside the resume I regularly update, I have another document that gets a similar treatment that’s almost like my resume’s shadow. It’s my resume of failures, and it’s a concept I came across a few years ago from scientist Melanie Stefan, Ph.D1. The title is pretty self-explanatory: This is a document of my rejections, not just from literary magazines, but from other things like colleges, fellowships, and other things I’ve applied for and didn’t get. There’s the saying—”You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”—and this document shows me all of the shots I did take.

In general, it’s a good idea to keep track of submissions and the final decisions, if only for purely practical reasons. You want to make sure you’re not submitting multiple times to journals that don’t take multiple submissions, or making sure you’re not breaking guidelines around simultaneous submissions. For data and tracking like that, I rely on Duotrope2. Duotrope is a database of projects, publications, and even literary agents for writers and artists to submit work to. The site has a number of tools to track your writing and can also calculate stats like acceptance rate and turnaround time. A $5 monthly fee lets you create an account and access all of the resources available. To me, it’s worth it just to be able to keep track of submissions, though the calculations are also extremely useful.

However, although Duotrope is a powerful tool to help me keep track of my submissions, I still have this resume of failures. Because like my normal resume, I feel galvanized to try and add to it. It motivates me to take more shots, because even if I fail, those attempts still have a place to go. I turn a failure into a success, and that helps me continue writing and submitting.

What about you? Would you consider building a resume of failures? What helps you stay motivated in pursuing writing?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Notes

[1] A CV of failures, Melanie Stefan, Ph.D., Naturejobs.com

[2] Duotrope.com — from the site: “Duotrope is an established, award-winning resource for writers and artists. We help you save time finding publishers or agents for your work, so you can focus on creating. “

Long goodbyes

I have lived in New York City for the past eight years, and come this August I will be moving away to earn an MFA at Iowa State University in Creative Writing and Environment. Though it’s still up in the air whether or not I will return to NYC after I finish the program, I have been saying my goodbyes as if this were for good.

During the past few months since accepting the place at Iowa State, I have been spending some time out of the city for various reasons: a writers’ retreat in California, my brother’s wedding in Indiana, and other, small trips here and there. And during every trip I’ve felt like a rubber band stretched just shy of snapping apart. Coming back to New York felt like relaxing back into my original shape, one that feels as easy as the grid of Manhattan.

On one recent trip, my boyfriend and I visited some of my family in Virginia. My paternal grandmother left for the Philippines a few days ago, so much of my extended family gathered the weekend before she left to say goodbye.

I have a large family, but our interactions and reunions are somewhat infrequent (at least, my interactions and reunions with them are somewhat infrequent), and so I’ve forgotten what family get-togethers are like. The chaos of being in one place, the constant conversations that branch and split and spiderweb across a room. And, of course, the long goodbyes.

As a kid these used to annoy me. After hours spent at a relative’s house, playing with other kids our age, my siblings and I would inevitably ask, “When are we going to go home?” And our parents would answer with a vague, “Soon,” and continue their conversations with the other adults. Even as we made progress toward leaving—moving from the dining room to the living room to the hall closet where we put our shoes and jackets—the time from the initial inquiry to the actual act of leaving felt like hours.

When my boyfriend and I went to Virginia, our goodbyes at the end of the visit weren’t long like this. They were just long enough to convey the message: “Goodbye for now. See you later.”

Arch-nemesis. . . . . . #latergram #newyorkcity #nyc #nyu #washingtonsquarepark

A post shared by Caroliena Cabada (@cecaroliena) on

Maybe I feel some residual aversion to goodbyes because of the way they tended to linger in my family. Since coming to New York, I’ve become the type of person to slip, hopefully unnoticed, out of a party or gathering of any kind, moving on to the next thing, going to the next place. But as I prepare for leaving this city, I find myself taking more scenic routes, prolonging my time with my feet on the pavement. I take it in, counting the steps from home to wherever I am going.

And the packing process for the upcoming move has felt incredibly daunting. I hadn’t really started until this week, and I have this constant panic in the back of my mind that I didn’t actually give myself enough time. Though we don’t have many possessions, there has still been a steady accumulation of things, first from four years of college, then from four years of living in this apartment building. It’s amazing how things get lost in the back of a deep drawer, or fall into the spaces behind bookcases. As I find more and more things I have to say goodbye to, I find that I want more time to say it.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Practicing voice

I’ve just finished reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend that you do. But among the many virtues of these books, one that really struck me was the voice.

Over the course of the four novels, I became so familiar with the voice of the point of view character, a woman named Elena Greco, that I felt myself unconsciously starting to write in it. (I often have this tendency to imitate; I fear the day I might meet my current celebrity crush, Tom Hiddleston, and accidentally do a bad impression of his accent.)

I decided to fully commit and try on the voice for myself. At first, I tried to spice up my own, personal journaling about my real life by writing about my day in the voice of Ferrante’s narrator. The narrator—not the character. To me, this distinction is crucial. I felt that writing from the perspective of Elena Greco would be somewhat restrictive; an Italian woman in her 60s probably wouldn’t have much to say about my life. I wasn’t looking to write from a total outsider’s perspective, but rather wanted to imitate the intimacy, the attention to detail that Elena projected on her friend Lila’s life, and on her own experience. So I focused on what the narrator sounded like, the word choice, the sentence structure. I focused on what details the narrator drew out and described facial expressions, attitude, the atmosphere between characters.

Voice experimentation and practice through imitation isn’t unheard of, but I hadn’t really done it in the past. Now, having written through this exercise a few times, I can see how useful it is to help me pick out what makes a writing voice unique. Hopefully, that means I’m improving this aspect of my own writing that can be difficult to pin down but is so necessary to great storytelling.

What are your favorite ways to work on voice? Let me know!


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

P.S. The header image is a photo I took of the third Neapolitan Novel. I was on a work retreat and had trouble falling asleep, so would read basically until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I woke up one day to the sight of the book in bed with me.

P.P.S. Another thing I’ve been enjoying is Elena Ferrante’s column in the Guardian. Check it out: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/elena-ferrantes-weekend-column

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: The limits of being an introvert

This past week, from March 14th to through the 18th, I attended session 1 of the 2018 Northern California Writers’ Retreat. I learned so much during those five days, and the experience was incredibly rewarding.

But I am (still) very jetlagged as of writing this blog post, so the full rundown of the retreat will have to be saved for later.

What I do want to talk about is the limits of being an introvert when it comes to building a writing career.

According to a personality test I took a few years ago (that still rings true today), I am an extreme introvert. So one of the many reasons why fiction writing has always appealed to me as a full-time job was this idea that I could find a way to work while being allowed a certain amount of solitude. I have this perception of writers, and creative types in general, as working in relative secret until the work is ready to be revealed. I believed that writers could dedicate themselves to their craft, and recognition (and money) would naturally follow as long as the quality of the work was there.

There is a small amount of truth to this; certainly, if your work isn’t good (or at the very least, effective), then it won’t launch you anywhere. But what often goes unreported is the kind of work that goes into getting that publishing deal and selling your books—the work of putting yourself out there.

I’m not just talking about marketing your book. That’s a separate discussion for a different blog post. Nor do I mean having an online presence so that readers can find you. That’s part of it, but isn’t enough. There are many, intermediate steps from writing a book to publishing it that require writers to regularly interact with other people, whether they’re fellow writers, potential readers, editors, or agents. For example, going to conferences to attend panels, pitch fests, and meet-and-greets can go a long way in making connections with decision-makers in the publishing industry. As an extreme introvert, just the thought of these events terrify me, even though I understand how crucial these interactions are.

This isn’t to say that introverts must become extroverts in order to succeed as career writers, nor am I saying that all introverts will fail to get a publishing deal. After all, the introverted writer stereotype persists. But I must recognize that my extreme introversion will come up against its limits as I advance my writing career.

The internet and social media have, of course, changed how much this is true. There are Twitter pitch events that have resulted in book deals, and self-publishing in general has become more lucrative, especially with the rise of e-books, crowdfunding, and other monetization strategies. But I do think that there is no real substitute for making connections. The definition of being there “in person” may change as technology does, but there will still be some requirement to be there as much as possible.

(Sidebar: This discussion about “being there” connects to the limits of accessibility for comes to writers with a physical disability. I recognize that I am privileged in the sense that I can physically access the places where these writing events and networking take place, but there are plenty of extremely talented writers who do not. If being present and participating is essential in order to grow a writing career, how can we make sure that these spaces are accessible to everyone?)

I am still trying to figure out what I can do to be more comfortable in these interactions, but I wanted to share some final thoughts, based on my experience at the Northern California Writers’ Retreat:

  • It’s easier to interact if it’s about writing. I may not be able to speak like a normal human being in casual conversation (I die from secondhand embarrassment at my past self making small talk), but when it comes to talking about writing, the conversation is easier. It’s still awkward if I find that I haven’t read the same books or have common texts with the people I’m talking to, but it’s easier to talk about writing and storytelling than anything else.
  • I may not always have something to add to a conversation, but I can always react to what others are saying and ask questions. The participation portions of my grades throughout college were always dismal, so it gives me a lot of anxiety to think that I have to participate in everything all the time. But 1) I am not being graded, and 2) I can always listen closely and actively to what others are saying, and sometimes that is enough.
  • I don’t have to think about many of these things right now. Whether it’s agonizing over a pitch or attending conferences to make connections, I don’t have to think about them right now. Why? Because I have to write my damn manuscript.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? And how do you think these things will help or hinder you in your publishing career?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Creating writing prompts

As part of my 2018 writing and learning plan, I’ve started incorporating daily, 10-minute exercises in order to improve my writing. I have been good about completing the prompts so far, though I can’t say for sure if I’m making any progress. Still, the prompts have been good at getting me to write every day; I haven’t missed a day since the start of the year.

In the past, whenever I looked for prompts, the ones I found were often unsatisfying and uninspiring. They were either trying too hard to be “wild” and “out there” to spur on a new story, or else they were so simplistic that they didn’t really give me much to go on. While there might be something to be said about pushing through and trying to answer an uninspiring prompt anyway (because who knows—maybe it’ll spur a great idea), what I ended up doing was spending too much time searching for the perfect prompt and not enough time actually writing.

So instead of relying on lists and books full of prompts, I’ve been making my own, and I’ve found that the prompts I make are more effective at getting me to write. But this isn’t happening because I’m somehow a prompt goddess who knows the perfect combination of words that will spark a writing sprint. Rather, I’m happier with my prompted writing because it allows me to tailor my prompts to what I’m working on, which allows me to be more productive with my time.

Most often, I use prompts to help me dive deeper into a particular aspect of a work in progress.

One of my current WIPs is a literary fiction novel, which is an expansion of a novella I wrote during Camp NaNoWriMo in 2016. Since I’m lengthening the story, I have more time and space to dive deeper into the characters, so many of the prompts have been based on questions to help me get to know them better. What kinds of students were they in school? What are their attitudes on diet and exercise? When it comes to politics, are they optimistic or pessimistic?

From there, I think about the unique ways I could illustrate this aspect of the character, rather than just relying on a straight reportage of facts. For example, a prompt I was particularly proud of making was, “Describe the classroom of your character’s favorite high school class.” This prompt made me figure out how to express my character’s attitude toward the class by using descriptions of their surroundings, and I did my best to get into their mind and choose the words they would use to describe the room.

Although almost none of what I write in response to these prompts will end up in the final novel, I’m able to get to know my characters in the context of the story I am building around them. And by writing the prompts myself, I can save time (since I don’t have to hunt; they’re all in one place for me) and I can save effort (since I don’t have to engage in a futile exercise of trying to imagine my character in a situation that has no connection to the story I’m trying to tell).

When I try and prompt myself to write something completely new, the prompt takes on a different form.

I have a running list in my journal of potential story titles, and a one-sentence description of the story that I can see matching that title. I’m always adding to this list, and if I ever feel the need to start a new work, I pull from this well of ideas.

The beauty of this title-and-sentence prompt is that it gives me two things: A unifying theme or idea that should be the thread that connects the story (the title), and a kind of “thesis statement” for the story (the one-sentence description). Even though the title and the plot of the story almost always change as I revise and rewrite, the beauty of the prompt is that it’s just there to get the story started. A prompt doesn’t have to be the end state, the thing that you’re writing towards, but it can help a story crystallize into something beautiful and new, like water freezing around a speck of dust to form a snowflake.

Prompts can be a great way to jumpstart creativity, by either helping you understand your own story at a deeper level or getting you to make something new. Although there are many great prompts out there, making your own can be an effective way to get to know your own writing and improve.

What are the different ways you use writing prompts? And if you don’t already do this, do you think you’ll try your hand at writing your own?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write

When I took a step back at the end of the 2017 to think about what I wanted to accomplish writing-wise in 2018, I reflected on the times I felt most excited about writing. As I was making my list, a specific trend emerged: I was most excited about writing when I felt I was learning the most about it. Whether it was through reading blogs in the Author Toolbox Blog Hop or taking classes with the Gotham Writers Workshop1, learning about writing inspired me to write more.

So I’ve decided to be more intentional in my writing goals for 2018. Yes, I have my word count targets, submissions milestones, et cetera, but I’ve decided to incorporate more writing practice into my, well, writing practice. As much as I like to think that I can learn writing simply by doing it—by writing short stories and novels and revising and rewriting and repeating the cycle over and over—the classes I took last year helped me realize the value of writing just to practice a particular element of storytelling.

For this blog post, I’ve decided to share the current iteration of my learning plan for 2018. This will likely change as I figure out what’s realistic in terms of daily tasks, but I’m excited for what I’ve laid out so far.

Part I: Back to the basics

I recently took a trip through memory lane and looked at essays I wrote through my undergraduate years. Aside from the numerous lab reports (all of which I’m really proud of; I put a lot of work into those and it really showed), there are only two, maybe three, essays that I felt were decent pieces of writing.

So I’m re-immersing myself in the world of expository writing. While this isn’t strictly improving my fiction writing, by re-learning expository writing I hope that I’ll be a more effective communicator overall. Plus, expository writing doesn’t have to be a bone dry subject. I’m taking advantage of MIT OpenCourseWare2 and will be going through the syllabus for the class Writing and the Environment3. It won’t be a perfect imitation; I have limited access to some of the main textbooks and I won’t have the same kind of collaborative environment found in a college classroom, but it’s a start.

And I’ll be spacing out the readings and assignments like I’m taking a real college class4. My first assignment is “due” next week. Hopefully by the end of April I’ll have a few halfway decent essays and have a deeper understanding of composition, all while learning more about environmental science.

Part II: Daily practice

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most useful parts of taking the Gotham Writers classes was having regular exercises that focused on a specific part of storytelling. The exercises would never go on for more than ten minutes, and though I very rarely incorporated what I generated in those exercises into a story, the practice pieces informed the stories I did eventually complete.

So I’ll be including short, ten-minute writing exercises as part of my daily writing routine. I’ll be planning out my exercises at the beginning of the week, writing down the daily prompts in one place so that I don’t have to spend too much time every day hunting for a decent prompt. This also allows me a chance to think about what story element I want to practice. This month is all about characters, so I’ve been compiling decent character-building prompts. Though I often make my own prompts (I’ve often found writing prompts to be largely disappointing; more on that subject in a later blog), I’ve found some decent character prompts through resources like Writer’s Digest5, Poets & Writers6, and Writing Exercises7.

Part III: Reading more intentionally

Every year I set my Goodreads challenge8 at 50 books, and every year I’ve failed to reach that goal. (To be fair to myself, if I actually took advantage of the “reread” feature on the site, I think I would actually reach the 50-book goal. However, I don’t think my annual reread of the Harry Potter series really counts; I want to read 50 new books every year.)

This year, my goal is still 50 books, but I’m also going to be more intentional with my book choices. As nice as it is to read widely, in genres I would normally have no business reading (the Outlander series is a guilty pleasure of mine), I also recognize that I must have a deeper familiarity with my chosen genre of literary fiction.

So this year I hope to focus on reading American literary classics, contemporary literature, as well as more nonfiction. In addition to being more focused in my choice of reading material, I want to regularly reflect on the books I read. I’ve done this informally for years, in my journals and in the odd book review blog, but I want to be more systematic about reflecting on my reading. Nothing too heavy, just answering questions like “What made the book an enjoyable read?” or “What did I not like about this book?” or “What do I think of the treatment of the subject matter?”

Why am I studying writing?

2017 was a mixed bag of writing for me. Some highlights of the year included taking classes with Gotham, volunteering to read submissions for a few literary publications, and starting to submit my own work to literary magazines I’ve been reading regularly. But I also failed in a few ways that were disheartening. I started several blog posts only to let them languish in my drafts. I wrote 40,000 words of a new novel during the first half of the year, but I haven’t added any more words to it since June. I missed deadlines for literary magazines. I failed the aforementioned Goodreads challenge. I failed all my NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo attempts in 2017, whereas I blasted through them in 2016.

To me, my failures were all clues that something needed to change about the way I was going about writing, and figuring out the patterns of what excited me most has helped me decide what to change. Plus, there will never be a point in my life where my writing reaches “perfection”—whatever that is. Writing will be a lifelong pursuit, and I will be constantly learning new things in order to keep growing as a writer. This learning plan that I’ll be testing out this year will hopefully extend beyond this year, into the rest of my writing career.

What about you? What are you learning this year?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

[1] Gotham Writers Workshop

[2] MIT OpenCourseWare

[3] Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005

[4] Google Calendar of W&E “due dates”; follow along if you’re interested!

[5] Writer’s Digest Weekly Writing Prompts

[6] Poets & Writers

[7] Writing Exercises

[8] My 2018 Goodreads Challenge

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Diversity and publishing — Interview with Jandra Sutton

Jandra Sutton - Interview

Jandra Sutton is an author, freelance writer, and public speaker based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her passion is connecting with people, and she loves helping young adults reach their full potential by engaging their desire to learn and succeed despite the odds. To me, this excitement for connecting and helping others comes through in Jandra’s writing. Earlier this year, she released her novel Fragile, about a young woman named Ava Collins, who has been deaf for as long as she can remember, and her struggle against the expectation to be “normal.”

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Jandra on the topic of diversity, and her experience writing and publishing diverse stories.

CC: What makes a story diverse? Why is it important that diverse stories get published?

JS: I think there are several facets of diversity. One, we need diverse characters and diverse stories being told. Two, we need diverse authors telling those stories.

We need stories that many readers can identify with. It’s not just about inserting a token person of color, for example, but making it relatable and accessible for more than just one group of people. J.K. Rowling did a phenomenal job with this with Hermione Granger—in the movies she was cast as a white actress, but in Cursed Child she’s portrayed by a black actress. Rowling’s response? “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified.”

How many characters are described as tall, thin, and blonde with blue eyes? Is that description necessary to the story? Personally, I’ve deliberately left several of my characters open ended when it comes to appearance, and I’ve been consistently surprised (in a good way) when my readers start telling me, “I imagine her as black” or “I think she’s Latina like me.” That’s a phenomenal feeling because it should be open-ended like that.

However, we do need books that are blatantly diverse as well. We need books with PoC characters, LGBTQ+ characters, religious characters, characters with disabilities…the list goes on and on. We need these because representation matters. When I first started writing on Wattpad, my very first book was set in Istanbul. I had countless readers comment, “I never see books that take place in my country.” That’s crazy! I grew up very privileged to see myself in the books I read, the movies I watched, etc…and everyone needs that. It’s so beneficial, especially for young people.

Stepping beyond that, it’s not good enough for our only diverse books to be coming from one group of authors. Not that I believe you can’t write diverse books if you’re a white male, on the contrary. It’s a difficult position to be in, however, because you should never be writing diverse books because it’s “trendy” or to sell books. You need to treat diverse characters and diverse stories with respect (and copious amounts of research, beta readers, and sensitivity readers) and know that—should you fail to offer correct representation—there is a good chance your book will fail as well.

My goal is to write inclusive books. It’s as simple as that. I come from a very diverse family, and that’s a huge motivation for me. My younger siblings are both adopted—my sister is black and my brother is Filipino and deaf—and I want them to see themselves in books. I want them to have the opportunity that I had to identify with characters I saw in movies, tv shows, and books.

It’s important for me to make sure, however, that I’m doing a good job of it.

Beyond that? We need the industry at large to support authenticity and diversity at every possible turn. We need to make sure that we’re creating space for marginalized voices to be heard as well. An increase in diverse stories isn’t enough if we aren’t supporting diverse authors as well.

CC: I was really struck by your tweet about wanting to see a deaf main character in YA, so you wrote the story. What was your experience like creating a story that you wanted to read? And what goes through your head when you go back and re-read it?

JS: It was crazy and so incredibly difficult. I changed my mind so many times about the course of the book, and I actually remember the moment I decided on the ending of the book. (No spoilers.) I was walking around my neighborhood around dusk when it hit me like a ton of bricks, and—I’ll be honest—it actually made it hard for me to write the book.

Re-reading your own books is always difficult. I find things I want to change. There’s an entirely different ending in my head. And a different plotline. And…I could go on and on. I’ll always be questioning if it would’ve been better to do X, Y, or Z, but I think that’s the perfectionist in me. Eventually you hit a point where the story just needs to be finished.

CC: In Hollywood, we see that more diverse stories tend to do better. And yet, so often these stories don’t get produced, or in the case of writing, they don’t get published. Why do you think this is? What was the greatest challenge in publishing Fragile?

JS: It’s tough, isn’t it? I remember pre-Wonder Woman’s release, there were rumors floating around that they weren’t promoting the film as much as others because they expected a female-led comic book film to fail. I think so much of the entertainment industry is fueled by misconceptions and even unconscious bias, which makes it harder to change.

There was a Marvel executive who came under fire for claiming that diversity was killing sales, but—when you look at the numbers—that’s completely wrong. The female version of Thor sold very well, as did the reboot of Iron Man with Riri Williams, and Black Panther was the top-selling comic of 2016 (not just of Marvel comics, but all comics).

One of the problems is looking at correlation and assuming it’s causation. If Marvel is seeing a slump in sales, is it because of diversity or is it because of a lack of fresh content? The entertainment industry as a whole is seeing this—reboots are all the rage, from TV to movies and even books. Do we need a modern retelling of Little Women? Or a third film version of Fantastic Four? Because they’re working on both.

For me, the greatest challenge in publishing Fragile was accurate representation. I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to be honest and relatable, respectful, and I wanted to get the message out there that there is no ‘normal’. My proudest moment was when my little brother read it. He’s got cochlear implants, and my mom sent me a picture of him sitting outside engrossed in the book. He’s not a huge reader, so knowing he liked it…that’s a win to me.

CC: What advice would you give to writers who want to publish diverse fiction?

JS: First of all, I want to acknowledge that I’m not an authority on diversity in fiction. It’s a very complex issue, one I’m very passionate about, but—as in all things—I try to remind myself to keep an open mind. Be open to change. Be open to being wrong. Ask for people’s opinion. Check your personal bias. Know that this is a multifaceted issue.

You have to be honest with yourself, brutally so, and ask yourself a lot of questions. Why do you want to write diverse fiction? Is your portrayal of this form of diversity accurate representation? Is this a story you should be telling or should it be told by someone else? Is the facet of diversity critical to the story or is it just a gimmick to get more publicity? The last thing we need is more stereotypes in fiction.

Once again, I’ll go back to the example of J.K. Rowling and Hermione Granger’s character. You can write fiction that is accessible, allowing readers to see themselves in your characters, without slapping an identifier on a character when you haven’t actually thought about it.

The most important thing, as always is respect. Be respectful of the characters you’re writing, be respectful of the stories you’re telling, of your readers, of your fellow writers. We live in a very polarized society, so it’s even more terrifying to put yourself out there (thanks Twitter). I don’t want anyone to think, “Oh, well, I’m white, so I shouldn’t write a book because we need more diverse writers,” but—at the same time—could I have written a book like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon? Should I? I don’t think so.


Many thanks to Jandra for answering these questions so thoughtfully. Diversity is incredibly important, but also an incredibly complex issue. For more information about Jandra, check out her website at www.jandralee.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on Snapchat as jandralee.

To the reader: What are your thoughts about diversity in publishing? Let me know in the comments!

This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

Guest Article for the Corbin Hill Food Project

Hi everyone,

I recently had the honor of writing a guest article for the Corbin Hill Food Project‘s weekly newsletter. Founded in 2010, the Corbin Hill Food Project now works with 30 family-owned New York farms to bring fresh food to over 47,000 people annually, in neighborhoods that typically don’t have access to fresh produce.

My guest article is about wasted food in the U.S. and how individuals and families can help reduce it by using up all parts of their food.

Read the article here!

Author Toolbox Blog Hop: The balancing act

I am the type of writer who would much rather be writing something new rather than editing a project I’ve already started. Even when I know that something isn’t ready for publication, is nowhere near “finished,” I have a hard time sitting myself down to edit. It’s not even that I dread the task of editing—it’s the feeling that I only have so much time, and so I need to be filling that time with writing.

My strategy so far has led to a backlog of projects, with completed drafts but very few finished stories.

There are others who are the opposite way, who find starting something new a difficult task when there’s something else that needs refinement. Either way, writing and editing are never-ending tasks, and it’s important to find a balance between creating new content and putting the finishing touches on a story.

Here’s how I (try to) balance things:

I establish a routine.

The importance of time management and setting up a routine is something I’ve talked about in a previous blog post. But in terms of balancing editing and writing, I try and have designated days or times of day where I’m making the conscious decision to be either editing or writing.

For example, I’m trying to keep my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays dedicated to editing the short stories I already have drafts of. There are a number of fall submission deadlines and contests coming up, and I want to try and have at least a few stories ready to send out to journals I’ve been keeping up with. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the days I allow myself to focus on writing new stories. Setting the designated times to do each task gives me some comfort that I’ll have time to do everything I need to do, and allows me to focus on the task immediately in front of me.

I stick to the plan.

Easier said than done, right? I certainly have had the experience of knowing exactly where a story was going, only to have it take a sudden turn and go in a totally new, but exciting, direction.

But when it comes to these meta-skills of being a writer, I think it’s important to stick to some semblance of a plan as much as possible. Don’t let editing bleed into the time you’ve set aside to write new material. Don’t let brainstorming go on for so long that you never return to an idea you’ve already started. Et cetera.

Of course, if inspiration strikes, it strikes, and I certainly don’t want to fight it too much. But when I’ve veered off the course and am ready to get back into the swing of things…

I get back on whatever horse I’ve fallen off of.

Erika Beebe wrote a fantastic blog post on the topic of getting back into the habit of writing after being away from it for a while. For me, the main takeaway is the re-establishment of a writing routine. Something as simple as revisiting certain times of day when you would write, even if you don’t end up writing during that time, can be a good way to ease into the routine again.

I reward myself with the parts of writing I enjoy the most.

And, like I said, the part I love the most making something new. So if I’ve stuck to the plan, gotten back on the writing horse, and have hammered out a routine that works, I let myself indulge a bit in making something new.

How do you balance different parts of writing? Let me know in the comments!


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.