A Time and a Season

Over three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a regional SCBWI conference in Northern California not far from where I was living at the time. The keynote speaker was an author named Tim McCanna (also an illustrator now), who also led an incredible workshop on rhyme. Unfortunately, I hardly remember the day at all.

Back then, I was dealing with multiple mental health issues and wasn’t receiving proper treatment. My husband had been working and living in Monterey during the weekdays while I was still in Northern California so that my oldest kid could graduate with her class. I was working part time, trying to write part time, and miserable full time. I don’t want to go into details of my mental health issues, but I was in a terrible place, barely hanging together for my kids. Usually, I enjoy going to writers’ conferences, but going that time meant missing rare moments together as a family (since my husband was in town). I was also a volunteer and didn’t want to let anyone down by not going. The only thing I remember distinctly that day was this author speaking in front of a ballroom-full of people, telling us about his writer’s journey, and how he had lived through a period of depression.

I was stunned. What a brave thing to admit to a room full of strangers! It made me think–could I possibly be in a situation where I would talk to other writers coming from a place of peace, happiness, and success as a writer? It seemed too grand of a dream and too far away to believe possible.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I saw Tim McCanna post online about his upcoming book launch at a bookstore in the bay area. I remembered him from the conference, from that hellish time period of my life that I don’t like thinking about, and it made me happy. Why was that? Because from behind a podium he had reached me through understanding my ordeal and also demonstrated what could be possible for me if I could make it through to the other side. When I saw his post online, I looked inward to reflect on what had become of me since that time–my first picture book is coming out next year and I’m an agent’s assistant at a major literary agency. How far I’ve come! But how did I do it? I’ll share with you.

There’s a saying you’re probably familiar with from the Bible that: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose…” I think it doesn’t do writers any favors to say, “in order to be published you must ____ every day…” Because some people can’t “____ every day.” And that’s ok, because maybe it’s not for that time or season. During the worst of my depression, I couldn’t write every day. I couldn’t read what was going on in the industry every day. I couldn’t catch up on Twitter, etc. I was trying to survive, and there is no shame in that. So throw away that advice. Put your health first.

While you’re putting your health first, what are some things you can do that might not feel overwhelming but can keep you on the path to writing? Here is what worked for me, but might not for you, and you can find your own thing, or not. (And please share those things in the comments!) I…

  1. Listened to audiobooks. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no energy to pick up a book. While I laid there, I listened to book after book after book. Then I…
  2. Daydreamed. I thought, what would happen next in a sequel? What if the plot had gone this way instead? What if I changed the setting, what would happen then? And so on.
  3. I played video games. There are some incredible storylines in videogames and inspirational art. Then I think, what if I were to make a game? What would the point be? Who would be my characters? Etc.
  4. I listened to music. Those songs tell tales! Pay attention to the lyrics. What was going on in the writer’s life to put things in just the right way? How does the artist know to express themselves that way? Can I imagine the scenario that led up to this? If I were to write something, how would this be the perfect song for that scene?
  5. Occasionally I played board games. The art in board games can also be stunning and lead your mind wandering. The premise to the game can also be intriguing and give fresh ideas. Keep an open mind!

And one day, maybe you will find yourself again. And on that day maybe you’ll have the energy and courage to say, what if I just jot a couple of those ideas down? Because that’s what happened to me. At the time I thought I couldn’t consider myself a writer anymore, but that’s not true. I was writing all the time, just not on paper. And one day, one of those audiobooks hit me just the right way to ask myself, “What if that had been tango instead?” And that night I thought how grateful I was to have been brought up with Argentine culture and how sad it was that my classmates hadn’t known about tango music the way I had. Then I thought, what if kids can be introduced to tango now? In a way that will reach them? With rhyming stanzas to show them the beat? And as a mash-up fairytale? What if…what if…what if I can be the one to write it down? What if I wrote it down right now? And the rest is history.

Of course, there’s a little more to this story, but my main point is: if you are a writer, you’ll always be “writing” in your own way, which doesn’t have to look like your neighbor’s way, and in your own time. If the current time was always the “right time” for everything, we wouldn’t have seasons.

Depression vs. Sorrow

A quote from WandaVision last night struck me deeply: “But, what is grief, if not love, persevering?” (Kudos to the writers.) As I struggle with depression, I took in this quote and could see the difference more clearly between sorrow and (clinical) depression.

As the quote indicates, sorrow is a form of love. It wouldn’t exist if we had not lost something important. Depression is selfish and inward. Depression blocks us from being fully available to someone else. Depression can take someone else’s words and twist them to their darkest meaning. Depression shines a light on all our flaws.

When we are in sorrow after losing a loved one, on the other had, we’re thinking of that person, what they meant to us, and to their community. We shine a light on all their positive attributes, choosing to forget their flaws. We remember their words as though they were lyrics in a love poem (love coming in many different forms, of course).

They are both similar, however, in that we can’t just choose to “be happy” and “get over” those feelings. When you say that to someone who is sorrowing, you’re asking them to pretend their love away. When you say that to someone in deep depression, you’re asking them to pretend they don’t exist. Though doing either is impossible, would you want that to be a real solution anyway? No.

I won’t go into how to resolve those difficulties, as we are all different and solutions can be varied. However, I would like to warn readers that sorrow can lead to depression, and in both cases, having steadfast friends who offer unconditional love is paramount. Thank you for reading.

10th Annual Holiday Contest entry

The Day of the Three Kings—Argentina

‘Twas the night before Jan. 6, when all through la casa

Not a chico was stirring, not even a gansa;

Zapatos were set by the doorway with care,

In hopes that camellos soon would be there;

Los niños were nestled all snug in las camas,

While tres reyes magos were deep in their ganas;

Mamá in her pañuelo, and I in my cap,

Made me feel listo for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose un gran ruido,

Salté from the bed, I was so confundido.

Away to la ventana I flew like a flash,

Tore open las persianas and threw up the sash.

The moon that was shining, so bright and blanca,

Gave the luster of mid-day to objects en la tierra,

When, what did I see with mis ojos tan largos

But three 1-humped camels y los tres reyes magos!

They were dressed all in robes in majestic colores,

With regalos in sacks con fantastic olores.

I smelled myrrh and frankincense—spotted some gold;

They must be for Jesús, as the prophets foretold.

Their camels—how smelly! Their toes—fatigado!

Their mouths looked dry, their spirits inanimado.

“I can help you!” I cried, and brought hay and some water,

Los camellos filled up and dropped gifts for my daughter.

Los tres reyes magos put the gifts on her shoes,

And regalos and dulces for my three sons, too.

They mounted the camels and then nodded gracias.

“Vayan con Dios,” with help from estrellas.

LatinxPitch

I am so grateful that I’ve been connecting with more Latinx writers. The community behind @LatinxPitch has been marvelous and supportive. I would especially like to say how grateful I am to have met Donna Muñoz. I won a query letter critique in the chance that I got an agent or editor’s response to my Twitter pitch, and that’s what brought me to Donna. I felt like she was my champion and my guardian angel. She loved my manuscript in a way I hoped any reader would, and she encouraged a revision to my pitch that turned out way better than before. She wrote me the night before the pitch to wish me luck and hugs. I am going to give her all the credit for being an awesome person, but I also want to say how warm the Latinx community always has been for me.

When I was a kid I didn’t feel that I belonged to any one group, as I had varied interests, and am ethnically mixed. I had good friends, but there was a latina part of me that was missing in my social life. None of my friends could relate to be called to dinner by hearing a mother yell, “A la mesa!” Or the fact that we celebrated el día de los reyes magos, or that we ate food they never heard of. When I went to college I finally met more latinos and they would welcome me as though of course I belonged. And that is how things have gone from then on. I moved to a city last year where I meet more latinos on a regular basis and have been able to connect with them in the ways I was missing when I was younger. LatinxPitch felt like another way to grow that connection to my roots since I hadn’t met any other Latinx writers since I started writing in 2005! Gracias, LatinxPitch y gracias, Donna!

Valentiny Writing Contest 2020: Nicola’s Valentine

Nicola’s Valentine

“It’s yummy, Daddy.”

“Nicola, go play in your room!” Daddy said.

 Nicola scurried away. She had only wanted one lick of the batter and to make him smile again.

“What can I do?” Nicola said. She spun in a circle, looking around. “I know! But where did I put it?”

“Nicola, I’m sorry I yelled,” Daddy said in the doorway. “Can I help you find something?’

Nicola’s cheeks flushed. “Nope!”

“Alriiiiight,” Daddy said, and shut the door.

Nicola pulled bins out from under her bed. “Is it here?”

Next, she emptied the bookshelf. Not there either.

Last, she emptied her dresser. There it was.

Daddy called out, “I hear a lot of noises. Is everything OK?”

“Yes, Daddy!” Nicola said, and got to work.

A while later Daddy knocked and said, “The cupcakes are cooling now. Would you like a taste?”

Nicola stepped out of her room with her hands behind her back. “I can wait until the Valentine’s Day party at school. I have a surprise for you. Here—”

“How is this possible?” Daddy said, with tears dropping.

“I found the valentine Mommy made me last year and I made it into a new one for you.”

Daddy hugged Nicola tight and gave her a big smile. “You’ll always be my valentine.”

It’s OK

That’s the new phrase I use to reassure myself. This past year wasn’t my personal best year. I’ve been fighting with depression and anxiety for years, and last year happened to be one of the worst years, mental-health wise. Sometimes writing can be helpful, other times writing feels so, so impossible. I’m telling myself, “It’s OK.” It’s OK that I didn’t reach my personal goals, it’s OK if I had to take steps back. It’s OK to start again. Back in 2005 I wrote a PB manuscript that I know will never sell because it doesn’t have a plot. It’s basically a child’s look at depression in a parent. It’s called, MOMMY, ARE YOU OK? Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes my Mommy is happy. She plays ball with me outside. She pushes me on the swing. She reads me funny stories. We go on walks together. She laughs, and I can see all of her teeth.

            Sometimes my Mommy is sad. She has to stay in bed. I see tears in her eyes. She can’t play with me. I wish she could laugh with me.

It’s too bad that I was in that place again last year. It’s unfortunate that I saw life fly right by me. But, you know what? It’s OK. I’m OK.

50 Precious Words Writing Contest

Vivian Kirkfield holds a yearly writing contest in which you have to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end, using only 50 words. Here’s mine:

Painting a Rainbow

It was Cloudy’s first rainbow. She picked colors and started to paint. But orange disappeared! It wasn’t on her poofy table. Not behind her floofy Mama. Oh no, the sun started to shine! She peeked under her fluff. There it was. She splashed a dash and the rainbow was glorious.

Spring Spirit Conference 2019!

I’m in the SCBWI California North/Central Region, and the yearly Spring Spirit Conference is on May 4th. There are 4 sessions and it’s hard to pick which of the workshops to attend!

This year I will be taking these workshops:
Tim McCanna: Rhyming in Picture Books,
Julie Gassman: All about Early Chapter Books,
Julie Gassman: Make Writing-for-Hire “Write” for You,
Natalie Lakosil: Writing and Revising Your Picture Book

What are some favorite workshops you’ve taken?

Valentiny Writing Contest

Valentine Cookie Surprise

“It’s time to make our Valentine Cookie Surprise!” Mama said.

Carla wiggled her feet into her boots. “Let’s jump in the car!” she said, as she gave a little hop.

At the store, Mama said, “This year, find something tasty that starts with ‘c.’”

Carla skipped down the aisles looking for a delicious something to hide in the cookie dough. “Chocolate starts with ‘c!’ I hope I get the cookie with the surprise!”

At home, Mama made the dough. Carla brought out the chocolate. Mama said, “You can watch the cookies bake through the window.”

The timer went “ding!” The cookies were hot, hot, hot.

Carla hid as she waited for the cookies to cool down.

“They’re ready!”

Mama took the first bite and there was no chocolate. “It’s your turn!”

Carla took a cookie and sniffled as she ate.

“Carla, it’s ok if you didn’t get a cookie with chocolate inside. You can have another one after dinner.”

“Mama, there isn’t any chocolate,” Carla said.

“I’ll cut some open and we’ll see.” The more cookies Mama cut, the more tears ran down Carla’s cheeks.

“I already ate the chocolate.” Carla sobbed.

“Oh, Carla!” Mama said. She started laughing. “That is a cookie surprise!”

Mama kissed Carla, and they ate another cookie after dinner.

Reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition

I started reading this book because of the recommendation from the last class I took. I’ve only read chapter 1 so far, but I’m already enjoying it. The chapter was about showing instead of telling. It was interesting to me because I actually enjoyed reading the passages of narrative summaries. However, the stories really did come alive when it was rewritten to include action happening. A quick example from me: Narrative summary–Janie was upset when she came home from school. Nothing seemed to go right. She wanted to talk to her mom about it but no one was home. Showing, not telling–Janie stomped into the house and slammed the door shut. She threw her backpack who-knows-where. “Mom!” she said. Nothing. “Where are you when I need you…” The examples in the book are more complex, and there are exercises at the end of the chapter where you try to fix scenes yourself. The chapter notes that sometimes narrative summary is best for certain situations. The other thing that stood out to me was that you don’t need to express yourself twice, once in dialog, and then for more effect in your description afterwards. For example, if your dialogue makes it clear that the person speaking is upset, you don’t need to then write that the character was upset, after the dialogue. By the way, the writers of this book using The Great Gatsby for examples was a great way of showing, not telling.