24 January 2012

A Recommendation and a Chance to Win Free Books!

Recently, I've had a few close friends ask for my advice in getting their books published.  While I don't yet have an agent or a publishing contract myself (I'm still in the beginning stages of the process - finding the nerve to send out queries to literary agents), I'm happy to share the things I've learned.

The best advice I can give aspiring authors (like myself!) is to get to know other writers.  I've learned so much from my associations in the SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and the MWA (Maryland Writers' Association)!  Get involved in a good critique group, with other serious writers who will have the courage to tell you when your beloved manuscript just isn't very good yet, and who will have the skills to tell you what you can do to improve it.  Good critiques, while not always pleasant, are absolutely essential to a serious writer!

I've also advised friends to utilize the immense amount of information available on the Internet for writers.  A quick google search will give you pages upon pages of blogs and websites full of tips, tricks and techniques.  You can take online writing courses (some are free, some require a small fee), enter writing contests, read interviews, the list goes on and on! 

One of my favorite writing resources is the blog Literary Rambles.  The interviews with literary agents on this blog have been ever so helpful in my quest to find an agent of my own.  Almost every agent I've considered querying has done an interview here, and while it's always a good idea to verify any information from an interview with the submission policies on the agent's official website, Literary Rambles is a great jumping-off point in the research process.  In addition, they've posted some great interviews with authors, book reviews, even Q&A sessions with middle grade readers!  They've just hit the 2,000-follower milestone, and they're running a great giveaway contest (through the 28th)!  Head on over, check out the site, and enter the contest while you're there :)

Other websites/blogs I've found helpful:  (This is by no means a full list, just a sampling of what I've discovered in my searches.)

8 Fiddly Things You Can Do to Your Manuscript to Make Your Editor's Day

Verla Kay's message board for Children's Writers and Illustrators

Katie Davis: Author/Illustrator - Webinars


Seven Ways to Turn Writer's Envy into Inspiration

Authors Make Their Own Success

Good luck & Happy Writing to you all!

19 January 2012

One Simple Life

Just before Christmas, I attended the funeral of a man who impacted my life more than he probably ever knew.  John Harris, who served as a Bishop in the Catonsville Ward (now the Ellicott City Ward) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, helped to ease my transition from California to Maryland three years ago.

Bishop Harris was the first person I met here in Maryland (other than my realtor).  When I flew out in November 2008 to sign the papers for our new house, a friend back in California advised me to call the Bishop of our new ward to let him know we were going to be coming soon.  A quick search of the church website told me that our new house was located within the boundaries of the Catonsville Ward (a congregation of the Mormon church), over which Bishop John Harris presided. 

Our conversation was short (perhaps 5-10 minutes at most), but I introduced my family and gave him our new address.  I explained that we would be moving into our new home in mid-January.  He was polite.  He said he was very glad I’d called, and he looked forward to meeting the whole family in January.  It was one of those conversations you have millions of times, where you say the same old things and no one really thinks about it.  (Just like, when someone asks how you’re doing, the acceptable response is always “Fine.”)  I returned to California without another thought about it. 

However, over the next few weeks, as we prepared for our cross-country move, I received phone calls and emails from other members of the Catonsville Ward.  Bishop Harris had passed my information along to several people and encouraged them to call and answer any questions we might have about the area.  By the time we arrived in Maryland, we had friends waiting to welcome us.

When one man (who has since become a beloved friend of our entire family) approached me and said “I think I need to get to know you better.  I’m trying to figure out why Bishop Harris thinks you’re so wonderful,” I realized that Bishop Harris wasn’t simply spouting the appropriate polite phrases when we met.  He truly was glad to meet me and excited to meet the rest of my family.  My fears melted away, and I knew we’d be fine here in our new home.

Ironically, we didn’t ever develop the kind of close friendship with Bishop Harris and his family where we’d get together over dinner and board games.  We didn’t spend any time together at all, outside of church activities.  But each one of us knew that Bishop Harris loved us and thought we were worth something.  And because we felt like he thought we were kind of special, we began to act like we really had something to offer our new friends.  My shy, introverted daughter came out of her shell and found the courage to let her talents shine.  My rambunctious son discovered that people still knew who he was, even when he stopped clowning around and let his serious side show.  I realized that I didn’t have to kill myself trying to be everything for everyone.  People liked me just because I was me.

I’m certain that John Harris never knew how much he changed my life.  I don’t think many of us realize how the little things we say and do will alter the lives of the people we meet.  But the little things really do matter, and a kind word spoken sincerely can make the world a better place.

12 January 2012

On Becoming a Bag Lady

It all started when I dropped my shampoo bottle in the shower at the gym, completely shattering the lid, and rendering the bottle unusable.

I repeated the mishap two days later with a brand new bottle of shampoo.

When I dropped and broke a third bottle only a few days later, I decided that I needed to do something!  The next time I went to buy a new bottle of shampoo to keep in my gym bag, I also looked for a bag that I could take into the shower with me.  I wanted something that I could hang from the shower to hold my shampoo and prevent further costly mishaps. 

I expected to easily find the perfect thing: a sturdy bag with a long handle to loop over the shower - one that would hold up in the repeated soakings of my daily showers while allowing the water to drain quickly, so I wouldn't have to worry about carting a dripping wet bag home with me.  I was certain I'd find several options to choose from, and I decided I'd pick the least expensive bag, even if it wasn't the cutest one.

To my surprise, I couldn't find anything that fit my needs.  After a few weeks of searching, I realized that I'd have to make my own bag. 

I remembered seeing someone years ago with a crocheted bag made out of recycled grocery bags.

  The plastic "yarn" was waterproof, and the holes that naturally result from the crocheting process would allow water to drain easily.  I didn't know how to crochet, but I was learning how to knit.  If someone could crochet with plastic bags, surely I could knit with them!  Best of all, my bag would be free!  I had plenty of plastic bags lying around, and I figured I could whip something up in no time - a few days, or maybe a week.  After all, I was getting quick with my knitting needles.  I made a scarf for my dear husband in only two weeks, and I didn't need the bag to be anywhere near as long as a scarf!

As it turns out, knitting with plastic bags wasn't quite as easy as I'd imagined.  First, I had to figure out how to turn those big, bulky (yet flimsy) grocery bags into long strands of yarn, strong enough to hold up to the abuse I knew my bag would take.

 Then, I had to come up with a pattern for the bag - something big enough to hold my shampoo, conditioner and body wash, but not so big that it couldn't conveniently hang up in the shower.

After much experimentation and several failed starts, I came up with a technique and a pattern that worked.  Roughly three months later, I had my bag!

The first one worked so well that I decided to make a bigger bag for my swimming suit and towel, and then I made an even bigger bag for carrying enough suits and towels for the entire family, in case we wanted to go to the pool or the beach.

By this time, people were starting to notice my unusual knitting projects.  A few people asked if I had ever considered making the bags to sell.  I laughed.  Of course not.  This is just a hobby, not a job.  Besides, who would actually pay for something so simple?  Something that didn't come from a professionally-developed pattern, just from the trial-and-error process of my amateur mind?

Then, a few months ago, I agreed to demonstrate my plastic knitting technique at my daughters' elementary school Environmental Fair.  I offered a small bag to be used as a raffle prize for the event, to help raise funds for the school.  As it turned out, holding a raffle at this event was against school district policy, so one of the organizers suggested that I put prices on my sample projects.  She was certain I could sell them all and make lots of money for the school that way.  I agreed to do it.

To my surprise, I sold almost all of the bags I'd made for the event, and people continued to contact me about the bags even after the Environmental Fair was over.  Before long, the demand for my little knitted plastic bags outgrew my supply of plastic to knit with (I can only go to the grocery store so many times in a week!) so friends started collecting bags for me.

I've made bags as gifts and I've even sold a few (although I still can't imagine ever turning my fun little hobby into a business).  Now, I'm in the process of knitting several bags for the Catonsville Elementary School PTA auction in April, and anticipation is already building for the bags.  I've already heard several people say that they're hoping to win one at the auction.  I'm simply trying to process the idea that something I've created could be the next fad here in my little corner of the world.

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  Who knew my clumsiness could lead to developing a talent I never realized I had?