7 steps to reclaiming your personal plotline

Palacio Real. Spain 2011.

She was a little slip of a thing -- rounding 70 by my calculation, with skinny bird legs and a smoker's laugh. I didn't put together who she was until the conference emcee read her bio: "Patricia MacLachlan is an award-winning author, know for the beloved classics Sarah, Plain and Tall, Skylark, Baby ..."

My 9-year-old self raced into the Wyndam Hotel ballroom, knocked me off the seat, and sat in my place, chin in hand, ready to hear everything and anything this woman had to say.
Sarah, Plain and Tall stands as a seminal moment in my young reading life. It introduced me, a suburban kid accustomed to hills, trees, and the modern automobile, to a windswept, rural, bygone prairie world. Its language was spare and direct. I remember feeling trusted as I read it -- trusted to grasp its deeper significance, trusted to carry its emotion forward.

The memories flooded me as I sat there, an excited participant in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Tri-Regional Conference this past weekend, surrounded by 150 or so people who have almost identical dreams to me: to put their own writing in the hands of children and trust them to impart it to others.

Being so surrounded is at once comforting and daunting. Comforting because you're among your 'tribe,' as SCBWI founder Lin Oliver said. You can throw terms like MG and YA around and people don't just nod politely, they ask you for your hooks and your querying progress.

Yet it's daunting because these same 150 people -- a small slice of the 25,000 or so members worldwide -- are all reaching for the same brass ring you are ... and there's no guarantee there will be enough brass rings for everyone.

Session after session, question after question this weekend, it sunk in that I have signed on for a mighty big goal. The chances of me being the next Patricia MacLachlan are, at the moment, non-existent. I need much more practice. More risk. More originality.

This, by the way, is when I kicked my 9-year-old self back off the chair and groaned, "How the hell am I gonna make this happen?"

Well, by writing. But not by writing any book the book a book (though that's a clear first step). I can apply what I learned about writing at the conference to every aspect of fulfilling this goal. For example:

1. Choose action. In picture books, illustrators can illustrate action best. Dialogue is static; characters can only talk so much before they must get up and DO something. So must I be about my 10,000 hours of practice. I must type. I must research. I must read. I must act.

2. Give myself a break. No first draft is perfect. It's not supposed to be. I struggle with this, as I prefer delusion and often think I am above improvement. But try as I might, I can't escape the fact that my skills are not at genius level. So I'll embrace it instead and see what emerges from my imperfection.

3. Grant myself permission to play. Here's a novel idea I picked up: enjoy the process! Imagine that! Stop thinking about the end goal and focus on the joy of creation. Be wacky. Make words up. Ignore the rules -- they won't always get you where you want to go.

4. Be able to surprise myself. Be unpredictable. Don't fall into old habits on or off the page. When I know everything that's coming, the magic disappears. I hereby challenge myself to forfeit control and see what my busy brain comes up with on its own.

5. When in doubt, take it piece by piece. Achieving goals does not equal scaling monoliths. It's going step by step, usually forward, sometimes backward, but always in motion (see #1). Am I overwhelmed by the years -- decades even --  it could take to get published? Then I'll write one chapter this month. Or five pages this week. Or one paragraph today. The point is, begin.

6. Nothing is sacred. Writing is often about choice. My stories can't have it all and neither can I. What I have to preserve is the core of my story -- the unflappable nugget of original thought and universal truth that makes my work sing. Which brings me to ...

7. Do I have heart? Or to put it another way, do I care? Why am I writing it? Do I make you care enough? What about this work matters? Why should I share it with the great wide world? What's getting me up each day to do this? Can I even answer these questions? Cuz if not, I best be revisiting my motives.

I'll admit, my first professional critique this weekend was less than stellar. I saw other attendees raise their hands when asked "Who's published?" and I heard other aspiring writers talk about their agents & editors, newly acquired. I watched all the dynamic keynote speakers -- all acclaimed authors and illustrators -- and thought, "I could do that. I'd love to do that, in fact. One day. Someday? Oh god."

But then I remember what Patricia MacLachlan -- published author, beloved storyteller, sassy speaker -- said in the ballroom of the Wyndham: "As writers we whisper in the ears of children."

To which my 9-year-old self nodded and then put her nose back in her book.

Hang on, kids. I'm coming.

Prayer #188: A Plot Afoot

In the beginning, I feared the end.

In the middle, I worried I hadn't begun.

In the end, I wondered why I'd bothered wasting the energy fearing and worrying when instead I could have been enjoying the beginning and the middle.

Lord, help me live each act as it comes and turn the pages at just the right pace.