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Losing and finding the center

"For many of us, sooner or later there comes a point where work gets hard and there’s no support at all from the outside world. That’s when you feel besieged. The fear of getting it wrong stops you."

The above quote comes from a post by Tricia Sullivan on the inner turmoil that can result from too much second-guessing and self-criticism.

And then there's this post by Michelle Davidson Argyle about being paralyzed by too much feedback.

And this one by Dawn Metcalf on not writing when life gets in the way, and the self-perpetuating negative cycle that can result: "I felt like I'd failed across the board, which didn't improve my mood or my ability to write. And that is the flipside of having a public voice and a private life--there is so much of our stories that cannot be told because while being a writer is public, being a human being is private."

Sometimes, a writer's mind is her own worst enemy. We need to be listeners, sensitive, attuned to our environments. We need critique. We need professionalism. Yet those are the very elements that can turn poisonous on us. And on top of any inner struggle comes a pressure not to admit it, not to reveal weakness. To be honest and vulnerable and creative while also having review-proof hides and boundless optimism ... Got all that? And can you juggle on a high wire, too?

I have always loved the way Anne Lamott approaches the writing life in Bird by Bird. She talks craft and practical matters, but she admits that the writing life is filled with inner battles, filled with apprehension, mind games, self-doubt, despair. Not only with those things--of course, there is joy, too, or why else even do this?--but she shows that you can feel all those things and admit it and still write, still publish, still live.

I hear tell that not every writer experiences this, and to those who don't, all I can say is: I'm happy for you, bless your heart. But the writers who do go through this don't do it to be precious. It's not because they've bought into some myth of the tortured artist. The more writers discuss this, the more we realize how common it is, and the more we learn to recognize where some of the pitfalls lie. When we find ourselves lost, we make finding the center again a priority. We know it's around here somewhere.

Not so smart

Somehow I agreed to get Smart Brief emailed to me regularly. I know I clicked somewhere I probably should not have done that, but there you go. Lately, I have been questioning how "smart" these briefs are. This morning, Donalyn Miller texted me to see if I had read the most recent Smart Brief. I had. She and I shared a common concern: the lead article was about required reading lists and math packets kids had to do over the summer. Here is the link:

First, I think I would transfer my child if he or she had to do math packets in the summer. I get that kids lose stuff during the summer. I get that we want to stop the "summer slide." But asking kids to work problems in a packet? No thank you. Surely there is a better approach?

Ditto asking all kids at a grade level to read a SINGLE book and then to be prepared to take a test over the book when they return to school in the fall? Let's just suck every single bit of joy from reading, OK? The article calls the reading being assigned "hobby reading." I am not sure that term is one I want to use. This assigned reading is hardly something that will lead to kids wanting to make reading a hobby. I suspect the opposite is truer.

My bigger issue is not with this district and their decision to assigned reading and math over the summer. The larger issue is WHY does the Smart Brief highlight this practice? That acts as a sort of endorsement from NCLE in my opinion. Surely, a literacy organization does NOT endorse this approach. To the editors of the Smart Brief: if you would like links to credible literacy activities, they are out there. I posted recently about what Katy ISD is doing this summer. THAT is much closer to what we would want to endorse.

Please stop giving readers links to articles that are not best practices.

Alice-Miranda At School (2011)

Alice-Miranda At School. Jacqueline Harvey. 2010/2011. Random House. 257 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Alice Miranda at School is a manipulatively cute book. It tries to be "cute" and "charming" and "delightful" and "amusing" and "endearing" on almost every single page. It tries to fit a certain mold in its storytelling.

Alice Miranda, our heroine, is seven. She wants to attend a certain boarding school. Even though she's a good six months younger than most of the other beginning students. Eight is usual age, after all. Alice Miranda has to be the most intuitive child on the planet. She can "read" people of all ages extremely well. On her first day at the school, she finds three adults who need her help. The cook needs a vacation so she can go visit her grandchildren for the first time. The gardener is depressed because he can't have flowers on the school grounds anymore. The assistant or secretary (the second in command) is sad because she can't marry her true love because she'd be fired if she marries. Alice Miranda also finds some students nearer her own age who need fixing.

Alice Miranda would definitely be "Emma Approved." (I am currently watching "Emma Approved" which is an adaptation of Emma by Jane Austen.) Alice Miranda almost demands a reaction from everyone she meets: instant love or instant hate.

If this book actually has a real plot, it is the "three tests" that Alice-Miranda must take in order to stay at the school.

I liked this one. I didn't dislike it. I found Alice Miranda's character to be unbelievable and silly. But since I felt it was completely intentional for her to be so over-the-top and unnatural, I didn't mind it so much.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
If you're reading this on a site (other than Becky's Book Reviews or Becky's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

My tweets

  • Tue, 20:16: Brought dinner for my son's teacher going through chemo. Picked a book from my shelf I thought she'd like & threw that in too. #bookBoost


My tweets


A view of the Camera

I love seeing the dome of the Radcliffe Camera when walking through the Deer Park and Old Quad of Brasenose College, but this is the first time it's seemed like a face peering over the wall -- am I the only one who thinks this face vaguely resembles the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?

Yesterday was rather cold and wet, but today the sun is shining. I'm looking forward to dinner at The Trout with the Oklahoma alums who currently are enjoying the Oxford Experience, but first I really need to get serious about the work I brought with me...

Or maybe I'll take a walk with Steve. It's just too gorgeous outside!


Synopsis: A Google Example

Let's Meet! Here's where I'll be speaking this fall in AR.

  • Arkansas Reading Association Leadership Institute, July 26, Little Rock
  • Arkansas Association of School Librarians Conference, July 28-29, Little Rock
  • Interview on on August 4-6
  • Fayetteville Literary Festival, October 4, Fayetteville, AR
  • Arkansas Library Association Conference, October 5-6, Hot Springs, AR
  • Arkansas Reading Association Conference, November 20-21, Little Rock, AR
Invite Darcy Pattison to speak at your event.

A couple years ago, Google produced a promotional video, Parisian Love, which advertised its search capabilities in a very simple way. There are merely twelve phrases entered into a Google Search box. And yet–it tells a story and tugs at the heart strings. It evokes emotion. How good is this copy? The video has received over 7 million views!

The sound here is minimal, but effective. But it’s really the words that shine.

When I think about blurbs for books, this stands as a stellar example of what you can do with very tight text. If you could craft your synopsis–or blurb, flap copy, elevator pitch, tweet, or whatever promotional copy you’re working on–to get this strong an emotional tug, you’ll have a winner.

Here’s the Copy

Parisian Love

Study abroad Paris France
Cafes near the louve
Translate tu es tres mignon (You’re very cute)
Impress a French girl
Chocolate shops paris france
What are truffles
Who is truffaut
Long distance relationship advice
Jobs in paris
Churches in Paris
How to assemble a crib
Search on.

Watch the Video

If you can’t see this video, click here.

Try writing up some promotional copy for your story in just twelve phrases.
Does it evoke emotion?
Does it show a narrative arc?
Can you use this to craft a better marketing message?

All the news that's fit to print?

Yesterday/s New York Times featured an op-ed piece on balanced literacy entitled THE FALLACY OF BALANCED LITERACY: There is NO balance to this opinion piece, and I do understand that there is a point of view that needs to be communicated here. However, the criticism of what the author terms as balanced literacy is wrong in so many different ways.

First, there is a basic misunderstanding of the term balanced literacy. According to Alexander Nazaryan, he understood balanced literacy to be independent reading and writing with no instruction. Moreover, he points to Lucy Calkins as the architect of this approach. He also mentions that there are studies showing her approach is wrong, and kids do better with E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation.

So, what is wrong here?

1. Balanced literacy is not limited to FRV (free voluntary reading) and writing without instruction. Balanced literacy is much more. This was the same attack used with whole language back a couple of decades ago before the National Reading Panel declared there were pillars of reading instruction and using authentic texts, reading aloud, choice, etc. were almost excluded from their recommendations.

2. The research cited in the article is flawed. So what else is new? Let's go ahead and dismiss balanced literacy based on research that really does not look at each approach fully.

There is more here as the writer almost has an audible sneer as evidenced by phrases like this: "I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless." Muscular teaching as opposed to feeble teaching? Like we see in balanced literacy? Or this: "The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it. It plays well in brownstone Brooklyn, where children have enrichment coming out of their noses, and may be more “ready” for balanced literacy than children without such advantages." As if balanced literacy is only for the elite while poor kids need more muscular teaching?


The motto of the NYT is "all the news that's fit to print." Perhaps the motto of the op-ed pages need to be "all the opinions not supported by facts?"

How to Write When You Don’t Feel Like It

This week on the PRANK LIST blog tour: I share my messy bookshelves with the world (including my Star Wars ones) and I talk about using picture book techniques in novels

I’ll be honest. There are days when I should be writing but just don’t feel like it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this particular phenomenon, right? But the trick is, I’m on deadline for my next book right now which means I HAVE to write, even if it’s the last thing I feel like doing.

I’d like to say there’s an easy solution to this problem. And I suppose there is. Stop whining, sit down, and write.

But sometimes tough love isn’t enough, so here are a few others techniques that have been helping me plug along with my project.

Formulate a plan

I’m not an outliner, but I do write a synopsis of the story that helps me figure out the overall narrative and the character’s emotional arc. Having this synopsis worked out beforehand–even if it’s pretty general–gives me a map to follow as I’m drafting.

Create a spreadsheet

I like to make a spreadsheet of each chapter, including length, POV character, major events, and anything else that seems relevant. This helps me flag chapters that are too long or short, too boring or too cluttered, etc. It also helps me see which chapters I need to write next. (I don’t always make this spreadsheet when I’m drafting, but I always make one before I start revising.)

Make a list

Write down what’s fun about your book, or list the scenes you’re looking forward to writing. This can help make the process of writing the project feel less like a chore and more like the exciting creative endeavor it was when you first started.

Use another book as a guide

When I was having trouble getting into the mood of the second UnFairy Tale book, I went back to one of my favorites, Whales on Stilts, to help get me in the right mindset. Analyzing the book also helped me to figure out why my project felt like it was lagging.

Reward success and forgive failure

Sometimes a reward method is a good motivator–if I finish this chapter, I get to eat a cookie. Sometimes having a daily or weekly word count goal can help keep you accountable, especially if you get others to cheer you on. But if you miss a day or even a week, don’t beat yourself up. Just write out your “what makes this project fun” list and find a way to get back into it.

Do you have a technique that helps you keep going? Share it in the comments. Happy writing!

Originally published at

Two things on a Tuesday

1. Over at Guys Lit Wire I have a post about a poetry collection entitled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers. It's an awesome collection, and I've excerpted two poems as part of that post. You should read them, if you have time.

2. I'm on retreat this week. It's a solo sort of thing, and not a fabulous week spent with other writers. (On the one hand, I love the retreats I've done with other writers; on the other hand, right now being all by myself is what I have the energy for. But I hope to set up a retreat with friends later this year.)

I'm spending the week working on revisions. And by revisions, I include a bunch of new writing, as one does. I am working on several (something like 4-5) picture book manuscripts in various states of disarray, and on a new take on my Shakespeare poems, because I was reading some aloud at a reading last month and thought a couple of them were a bit stilted. And stilted is not a word I really want attached to my work.

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Lisa Schroeder, Author for Kids and Teens

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February 2013


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