Fakers, Bakers, and Music Makers – Bonding via Unforgettable Characters

How do you sum up a weekend adventure that had approximately 865,342 high points?

I’m not sure I can, but I’ll at least attempt to highlight a few moments that made my time at the #UCIJretreat2021 amazing and memorable and oh-so-worth-it. (That’s Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys, in case you were wondering.)

A few months ago, author Ralph Walker put out a call for writers. The response was overwhelming, and RW successfully arranged a virtual retreat via Zoom for 20 lucky writers to learn plotting techniques and how to dive deep when it comes to creating memorable characters. In the retreat’s inaugural weekend, writers from all walks of life and all stages of writerhood (Is that a word? It is now.) gathered in their Brady Bunchesque Zoom boxes to talk craft, brainstorm, laugh, and have a good time.

I’m happy to report I was one of those lucky writers. One might wonder: How much can a writer learn from…other writers? The answer is a lot. The thing about writing is that there’s never a time you’re done learning. There’s never a point where a writer can say they’ve mastered the craft so expertly that there’s nothing more to be learned from others. (I guarantee you this is still the case even for Stephen King and Nora Roberts. I promise they, too, can still learn. Knowledge is like Thanksgiving dinner. You may think you’re full, but there’s always room for dessert.)

Plus, friends. Who doesn’t want new friends!? So many writers I’d known via Twitter, but had never gotten to actually know on a more intimate level, and now I had the opportunity! And they write everything. I followed along with characters from everywhere and anywhere (hence the title of this post) and what a ride it was. I fell into so many amazing worlds and so many raw emotions.

To read the words of a fellow writer is a special gift. It’s an invitation into a person’s soul, into their world, into a special place in their heart, and no one who reads a writer’s words should take that honor lightly. I am so very grateful to have been trusted with the words of so many kindred spirits.

As you might have guessed by the name of the retreat, the weekend encompassed creating unforgettable characters and incredible journeys. We discussed what makes a character unforgettable and how to take a reader on a journey with all its rollercoaster twists and turns while still providing an explosive ending that delivers.

And the swag! Did I mention the swag? A box full of goodies and treats, writer fuel (coffee and tea), a #5amwritersclub mug, stickers, and an organized binder chock full of information. It’s clear RW put a lot of work into this retreat, and how grateful I was to have been on the receiving end of it!

Plus, secret envelopes. Did I mention the secret envelopes? RW is a master at the secret envelopes and they were filled with…

Wait.

…if I tell you, they won’t be secret anymore. I guess you’ll just have to apply for the Fall 2021 UCIJ Retreat to find out.*

Bonded by a shared retreat. Love these faces!

*Seriously, do it.

The Benefits of Friendship

I head one of the local SCBWI critique groups in my county for Young Adult and Middle Grade authors and, friends, I must confess I feel a little guilty. Sometimes, this group seems like the L. Ryan Storms writing self-improvement hour. I get SO. MUCH. from my dear friends and our talks about what elements make a piece work or why a certain chapter maybe doesn’t work.

Is it difficult? It can be. It was definitely more difficult in the beginning when I realized I’d never shared my work in person before. (Also, I’m an introvert. Did I ever mention that? Once or twice maybe?) But as time went on, my nervousness disappeared and I began to look forward to the feedback offered to me by these kindred spirits who shared my love of stories and all things story-related.

Our group is fairly easygoing when it comes to the rules, but the general idea is:

Share your work if you have something to share. Give useful, critical feedback on others’ work (no breaking spirits allowed). And brainstorm together when it comes to what we like about a piece, who the audience is, where we think the storyline should go, or how the author can make it better.

I have been so very lucky to know such talented, thoughtful individuals who are willing to read a chapter of my work each month and tell me all the things I need to hear. The good things. The not-so-good things. Because without them, I’d be lost when it comes to catching my crutch words and phrases, my overused actions, my annoying, sarcastic main character (who is a bit of a bitch, tbh), her tendency to overreact from time to time, and the annoying boy love interest who, honestly, isn’t mad enough at the world around him when he should be.

I digress. Without my dear SCBWI group, I’d be lost. I interact with at least a few “lost” writers on Twitter every week, those who aren’t sure if their material works, who feel like they’re embarking on this crazy journey alone, who cry and threaten to never write again, who fear they’ll never be as good as, as talented as, as successful as… (insert famous author name here).

My biggest advice to them is:

Find your people.

There’s so much more to explore in the craft when you do it together. There’s so much more to learn, to unravel, to dissect and put back together when you have a posse. Find your posse. Find your people. When you do, the possibilities open wide.

But Storms, how do I find my people?

Good question. For me, the answer was partially on Twitter, where I interacted with strangers who became friends over the course of both time and multiple in-person meetups and conferences. And the answer was also to join a professional organization like SCBWI to interact with others who were writing in the same age categories. I attended a meet-up or two, met a few members, volunteered to start my own critique group because none of the times/days of the other groups worked for me, and met even more amazing writers at all stages of the game.

Some were traditionally published, some independently published, some agented, some querying, some just beginning to test the waters by admitting publicly (gasp!) that they write. And therein lies the beauty of the writing community. I’ve never met a community so open – so willing – to help others along the way.

The answer is not necessarily to join SCBWI. (Though I would argue that this move is infinitely beneficial in ways too numerous to count. If you write for children or young adults, join SCBWI. Do it.) There are dozens of other professional writing organizations out there. The key is to find what works for you and jump in, whether you think you’re ready or not.

Keep learning, keep growing, keep reaching out to writers you know and writers you don’t. Read works by published authors. Beta-read manuscripts for unpublished authors. Offer valuable feedback, and get feedback on your work. Writing is a lonely craft, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely life. Friends are everywhere. Just hit that ‘Follow’ button.*

Look at all those amazing writers (and readers)!

*Okay, for real, only follow writers you want to interact with. Don’t follow creepers. Don’t follow horrible people. Don’t follow people who look like they will DM you ‘hi pretty lady.’ Don’t follow bots. Don’t follow everyone for the sake of numbers. Find your people. Now go!

2020 Wrap Up

I shoot some stats just about every year, mostly to prove to myself that, yes, I *am* actually moving forward in this thing called a writing career.

Given the craziness of 2020 all around, *I* wouldn’t even blame me if I’d chosen to fall off the face of the earth, or hide under a blanket and never come out. But we’re stronger than that here in the Storms household. Which means, nevertheless, we persist.

And persist we did.

2020 Writing

Books published: 1
eBooks published: 1
Signing events attended: 0 – Thank you very much, COVID. (Also, get your vaccine so you can come to 2021 signings. Because they will be happening as soon as I get my vaccine and the world is in a better place all around.)
Independent Book Award Entries: 4
Manuscript words written: >90,000
YA manuscripts finished: 1
PB manuscripts finished: 1
YA manuscripts started: 1
Adult manuscripts started: 1
Manscripts queried: 3
Queries sent: 96
Query rejections: 55
Query no response: 33
Queries still open: 19
Total accumulative completed manuscripts (2011-2020): 7
Online pitch contests entered: 2
Blog posts written: 11
Number of new SCBWI critique group members discovered: 1 (We’re up to 5 in our cozy little group!)
Writing friends made: Never enough! Writers, find me on Twitter.

Happy Holidays, friends! I hope you’re all safe and healthy and happy and that 2021 brings new and great things. (Preferably all good things, no more disasters and viruses, please. 2020 brought plenty of that, thanks.)

Much love to you all, from my house to yours! xo

Santa came to our house. If you celebrate, hopefully he visited you, too!

Fledgling

Every writer knows one of the very best feelings in the world is the moment a shiny, new idea takes shape in your head, and you can’t shake it. And when that shiny, new idea involves collaborating with your 14-year-old kiddo, it’s even better.

A few months ago, my very artistic and talented daughter had to conceptualize a children’s book as a project for her Family Consumer Science class. (For us old folk, that’s 2020 speak for Home-Ec.) They were covering an early childhood development module, and she decided to create a book to help teach children their colors. Since birds come in all colors of the rainbow, she pitched a book about a bird who wanted to see a rainbow of feathers in the Amazon rainforest. She diligently crafted the proposal and even included a sketch or two. Project complete. (She received a A+, btw.)

This shiny, new idea isn’t that book.

BUT.

It *is* a picture book about a bird and a bird family. And working on it with my daughter is one of the most rewarding experiences any mother could hope to have. A combination of written word and visual art, this project is pure excitement for both of us.

In a time when teens are distant and hanging with the family is a serious faux-pas, I have the opportunity to relish my daughter’s enthusiasm for this project, and her willingness to foray (with me!) into something uncertain, into a project that may or may not come to fruition. I’m soaking in our time together and our collaborative effort to dive whole-heartedly into a creative realm we both adore. Storytelling.

Whether by word or by illustration, books make our lives more colorful, more vibrant, more worth living. They entertain and encourage. They create empathy and interest in the world around us. They enable us to learn from the time we’re in the womb straight through our very oldest years. Storytelling is a craft as old as human existence, a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Taking part in that tradition by creating stories with my daughter and friend is a privilege I will always treasure. My young fledgling isn’t quite ready to leave the nest just yet, but I hope when she someday does she’ll think on our time together and will be reminded to always reach for those shiny, new ideas.

Stretch those wings, little bird.

Concept art for our upcoming picture book. Want to see more of younger Storms’s art? Follow her on Instagram at @dragonartist06.

You go, girl.

Gonna talk about something I’ve noticed frequently among my friends. A serious lack of self-confidence. This doesn’t apply to all of my friends, of course. (In fact, some of them could probably use at least a thimbleful or two of humility.) But when it comes to my girlfriends in particular, I see a pattern of self-doubt that borders on self-sabotage and depression. And it breaks my heart. So I’m calling it out when I see it. If you see yourself in these stories, maybe it’s time to reassess your outlook, too!

A few examples. Names have been changed.

Let’s talk about my friend Elaina. Elaina is an incredible artist. One of the best I’ve ever seen, and anyone who has seen her work cannot stop raving about it. Her talent and skill is phenomenal on a scale that I can’t even begin to comprehend, but when I try to mention this, she’s quick to respond with comments about her art not holding a candle to “professional” artists out there. She constantly insists her work is unimpressive and says that “anyone can do it.” (No. No, they cannot. Trust me.) I’ve spoken to numerous other folks who’ve seen her work. No one — NO ONE — can understand why she would say such a thing. She has an incredible eye and the skill to bring amazing creations to life. I’m not sure why Elaina would think, even for a moment, that she doesn’t have the same level of talent as other top-level artists.

Next, the story of Jillian, an established writer across multiple genres, she thinks slow sales or a 4-star review instead of 5 means that she’s not good at what she does. She expresses out loud her feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth and threatens to give up on writing, even though she eats, sleeps, and breathes storytelling. She lets other people’s comments on her books determine her entire outlook for a day, a week, or more. Why? (By the way, I’d love for a 4-star to be my lowest review…ha!) She loves her books until she reads critical reviews, and then she can see nothing but the negative in them. But she’s a talented writer who lives for creating characters and stories that enchant.

And then there’s Theresa. Theresa has been stuck in the same position in a workplace she hates for a decade. Why? Because she doesn’t have enough self-confidence to believe that she could work somewhere else, because the workplace has beat her down to a point where she believes she really has no choice but to stay. She’s in a toxic environment, but is afraid no one else will want her, so she stays in a stagnant position and never tries to move forward. What could she achieve if only she tried?

Friends. What are we doing to ourselves? What. Are. We. Doing.

Why are we self-sabotaging ourselves and our careers?

Girl silhouette with stars and moon

Girls–women–it’s time to bolster our self-worth. The world is a mean enough place on its own. It’s sad and awful and there’s so much that needs to change. (Please, please, please change soon!) But beating up on ourselves? That’s something that should never happen to begin with. To my women friends, know that every time you put yourself down, you’re showing a young girl that she shouldn’t believe in herself. Every time you refuse to acknowledge your self-worth, girls around you pick up on the signals you’re sending. Every time you say you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not skilled enough, not talented enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not tall enough, you’re setting the stage for the next generation of self-sabotage.

I have two daughters. I want them to believe in the power they have over their own lives. We are not here by chance. Our lives are what we make of them.

(A brief aside here — I must recognize that we are also victims of our circumstances, and not all of us start at the same place in life. Some of us face advantages while others must deal with significant disadvantages. While I can acknowledge this is the case, that’s a blog post for another day.)

Women. If we don’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to?

So, girl? Go. Go make it happen. Whatever it is you dream. Whatever you hope. You go, girl. Because you? You are amazing. If only you would believe it.

12 Books—Month 5

This month, in my Twitter-Friend Book Review, I chose Katrina Ariel’s Wild Horse Heart. I first glimpsed this book when Katrina and I became friends on Twitter and I was lucky enough to read some of her other work as a critique partner long ago. Since I already knew I enjoyed her writing, I bought a copy of Wild Horse Heart and jumped in.

Given my love of horses, this book was an obvious choice. A light contemporary romance, Wild Horse Heart is a story about taking big chances, starting over, and learning to love yourself. It was an easy read and I finished it in about two days. Plus, let’s take a moment to talk about this gorgeous cover art, shall we? Love.

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Ariel obviously enjoys the outdoors and her love of nature shines through in her work. The descriptions of landscape in particular had me itching to get in the car and start driving westward once more, longing for fresh air and wide open spaces.

If you like romance, enjoy a little Hollywood escapism, and love the idea of stepping out of your own life and into a new one, this is the perfect read.

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My horse is a Standardbred, a retired racehorse. My sister has a mustang, just like those in Katrina Ariel’s book!

12 Books—Month 4

Friends! I am so glad I chose Jennifer M. Lane’s Stick Figures from Rockport as my monthly Twitter-friends read. It was delightful! I’m pretty particular when it comes to women’s fiction, so I always hold my breath a little for the first fifty pages or so.

I like women’s fiction, but as a strong empath, it hurts to read about raw pain too often. And hello, what is women’s fiction, if not a whole lot of raw pain? Good women’s fiction, in my opinion, offers more than just a painful scenario, more than loss and hurt, more than fractured relationships and terminal illness. It offers the opportunity to grow. It offers insight into our own lives. Good women’s fiction allows the reader to peer into the pain of another female, peeling the layers page by page, and emerge with a deeper understanding of oneself. 

And that’s what Lane was able to do in Stick Figures from Rockport. She did what many women’s fiction writers can’t—took me on a journey with a grieving character who was able to solve a mystery by piecing together a troubled past that once seemed perfect. It’s about love…and loss. And how learning a new truth doesn’t make your own truth any less real.

If you like women’s fiction, pick this one up! Lane is a talented writer whose writing flows gracefully and whose prose is poetic without being overly “purple.” Stick Figures from Rockport was a treat, and I can guarantee that I will pick up more of Lane’s work in the future.

Bonus—Lane lives fairly close to me geographically speaking, which means her main character (who lives in a Pennsylvania farmhouse) drives roads I know well and visits towns where I’ve worked in the past. How cool is that? Eastern Pennsylvania girls unite!

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12 Books—Month 3

How is it already March? Guess what? That means another of my 12 Books segments! For this month, I chose The Changing Tide by K.A. Dowling. I’ve been following Kelly on Twitter for quite some time. She’s a ton of fun, has a bazillion hilarious stories about her toddler, and is relatable on just about every level. She’s real in a way a lot of people aren’t when it comes to Twitter.

Dowling is a phenomenal writer and a master at painting with words. One peek into her life and it’s clear to see perhaps why she’s so damn good at describing the world. She’s spent her life acknowledging it in a way most of us can’t even imagine. Because Dowling is deaf. Is this why her words feel so poetic to me? I don’t know. I’ll never know. Hearing or deaf, she’s clearly an amazing writer either way.

I chose The Changing Tide because I’ve been following K.A. Dowling long enough on Twitter to become ever-so-slightly familiar with a couple of the book’s characters. Here and there, I’ve gotten to take a peek at a few pages from a sequel to this book. I loved Dowling’s style so much that I had to delve in. What I found was both intriguing and frustrating. The Changing Tide reads like book 1 of a trilogy. 

Um, Storms? It is. 

Oh, right. So maybe I should get into a little more detail. I expected to be as immediately invested in the story as I was from the few pages I’d gotten to read long ago, but what I found was that this particular book was slow to move forward with the action. I wasn’t quite sure where the plot was going or when the adventure would begin, which means, of course, that now I have read books 2 and 3. It’s a good thing I’m a sucker for trilogies!

The one piece of Dowling’s writing that really hits me more than anything is her ability not only to create so many different characters, but to dive deep within them since she changes character point-of-view multiple times throughout the book. Each chapter is dedicated to following a specific character. The ease with which she shifts gears and slides into each character’s head, even though they differ extensively in thoughts and mannerisms, is positively awe-inspiring.

So if you get a chance, check out The Changing Tide. Then gear up for The Forbidden City and The Winding Maze, books 2 and 3 respectively, because you won’t be able to stop with just book 1.

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12 Books—Month 2

It took me a little while to decide which book to pick for my February read since there were so many wonderful choices from my Twitter writing buddies.

This month, I decided to go with Sorchia DuBois’s Just Like Gravity. I’ll preface my review by saying I’m not a huge reader of the romance genre. While I love a good romance subplot, outside of my teenage years, I’ve never been able to read a story exclusively for the romance.  That said, I cannot resist a reincarnation tale. You see, DuBois is a paranormal romance writer…and now you’ve got my attention.

Just Like Gravity was a fun tale with a ‘crabbit’ main character who can handle her whisky as well as she can handle her Scottish highlander, but what really grabbed me were the past life incarnations of the two main characters and I almost wish I could have spent more time in those stories. What can I say? I’m a sucker for history, particularly when it’s a haunted, tragic tale! In Just Like Gravity, there’s fortune-tellers, treasure, danger, murder, and romance. What’s not to love?

If you’re a reader of romance who can appreciate a good dose of historical and contemporary fiction, this is the perfect blend!

(I love DuBois for other reasons, too! She’s a fantastic editor who was a pleasure to work with, so if you’re looking for editing services, look no further. She can do it all! Check out her website. Also, follow her on Twitter!)

Just Like Gravity

 

Did you miss Month 1 of my 12 Books series? Catch up here.