A Month of Brainstorming

Storystorm January writing challenge

Just want to give another shout-out to Tara Lazar and her amazing Storystorm January writing challenge. For 31 days, writers (primarily picture book writers) try to come up with 30 potential story ideas. These ideas can be a snippet of a scene, a character sketch, a plot idea or just about anything that sparks a potential story idea. The goal is not to create a whole story, but a notebook (or computer file) filled with potential ideas that you can work on throughout the year. I’m a bit behind in this year’s challenge – thank you Flu B — but I hope to catch up. Even if I don’t come out with 30 ideas, the sheer practice of sitting down and just seeing what comes to mind is great brainstorming practice.

Prepping My 2020 Reading Log

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For many years, I thought about tracking what I read. Last year was the first time I tried putting that idea into action. I tracked mostly my adult book reads. I included an occasional middle-grade title and completely ignored picture book or chapter book reads. In total, I read more than 50 books, including some nonfiction titles.

I’m hoping to do a little better with my recording in 2020. To get myself on the right track, I created a log and reader tracker in my bullet journal. My pages aren’t artistic (I can’t draw at all), but they are functional.

Among my goals this year, is to track all books regardless of genre and page count. I’ve already recorded my first title of 2020 and I look forward to filling out these layouts.

I also read a ton of newspapers and magazines, but I think trying to track them may be too daunting.

Have you ever tracked your reads? Looking back, was there anything about your reading list that surprised you?

What are your 2020 writing goals?

I’m excited about what 2020 has in store for me. I have a new book coming out this fall, Layla’s Sugarland Adventure, which is set in a HersheyPark-like setting complete with kosher food and another mystery for Layla and her cousins to solve.

I’m also anticipating completing the next Achdus Club adventure. Ruthie once again takes front and center in the new story, which doesn’t have a name yet. The only thing I know for sure is that Ruthie is up to her old tricks and the Achdus Club won’t stand for it!

For much of last year I put a focus on learning and growing. (You can check out my previous blog post for more.)

While I’m continuing in that area, my buzzword for 2020 is expansion. I hope to share more soon!

What are your goals for 2020? Leave a comment below to receive my free Writing Goals PDF worksheet.

2020 Plans and a Look Back

One of several writing workshops I participated in during 2019.

For me, 2019 was a year of learning and growing.

It started in January as I enrolled in an online, yearlong program on writing picture books and learning what it takes to be publishable in this area. Not surprisingly, there is no comparison between my journalism writing and picture books, but what was surprising to me was how different PB (aka picture books) are from the middle-grade novels I currently write.

As the year went on, I had the opportunity to participate in online workshops, study picture books from a writer’s perspective, utilize critique opportunities and, yes, write PB manuscripts. I’m not sure if I have the skills—and it most definitely is a skill—to effectively write for this audience, but I intend to keep trying in 2020.

My first stop in PB 2020 journey is Storystorm, which PB author and Storystorm creator Tara Lazar describes as 30-day brainstorming event. The goal is to end the month of January with 30 new story ideas. Does that mean I’ll be writing all 30 stories? Nope, but if January 2019 was anything to go by, I’ll come up with a few ideas that are worth considering and one or two that I just can’t let go of and will end up turning into a story.

The fourth book in the Achdus Club series was released in May 2019.

This spring brought two more learning opportunities, one on the personal side and one of the professional side. In May, I joined more than 100 other Orthodox Jewish women to be part of Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Lay Leadership Summit.

The two days of workshops and networking, learning and discussions was eye-opening. I could not believe the breadth of talent, scope of knowledge and clear determination of my peers. I don’t know why I was so surprised, perhaps it is because so many of us work on our own, which is why coming together for this summit was so inspiring.

With June came the chance to return to my professional journalism roots. I traveled to St. Louis for the annual American Jewish Press Association conference. There, I had a chance to reconnect with old colleagues and peers, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years. I also had the opportunity to meet new friends, hear from newsmakers and focus on the important place that Jewish journalism has in our communities.

With colleagues at AJPA in St. Louis.

This fall, however, came a very different kind of learning experience; I learned what it takes to be a successful businesswoman. (Yes, freelancing is a business!) Through books, in-person classes, online workshops and classes, including a four-week build your business intensive geared specifically to Orthodox Jewish women, I have gained insight into what works for me and what doesn’t professionally, uncovered what my value is to my potential customers, focused on ways to build my brand and to reach new heights professionally. (Thank you Estie Rand and Abbey Wolin for your insights and encouragement.)

I am excited by how I spent the last 12 months. All that I have learned in 2019 and the skills I gained have given me the energy to move into 2020 with a focus on some new, creative endeavors. I don’t know what the future holds professionally, but I am looking forward to the next chapters of my writing journey.

Oh, there’s one thing I do know … the sequel to Layla’s Vistaville Summer, “Layla’s Sugarland Winter,” will be released from Menucha Publishers in fall 2020! The countdown is on!

12 Types of Writers

12 Types of Writers

Whenever I visit schools and meet with students, I like to ask them what they think a writer does. They know that a writer writes stories and poems and plays.

But what they, and dare I say many of us, don’t recognize is the breadth of what the writing industry entails. Writers work across a spectrum of specialities and industry. Though they, hopefully, share some of the same skills, the way they go about their writings, the words that flow and create meaning can vary.

I tried to come up with a dozen types of writers. Can you add to this list?

NaNoWriMo: The Ultimate Equalizer

Every November brings us “National Novel Writing Month.” For just 30 days, aspiring writers around the world try to write a 50,000 manuscript. They sacrifice sleep, errands, laundry, social engagements (except Thanksgiving dinner and possibly Black Friday shopping with friends.) In some ways, NaNoWriMo is the ultimate community builder, the ultimate equalizer.

* No fancy equipment is needed to get started (yes, a computer is helpful, but a pen and plain–or fancy–notebook will work just as well.)

*There is no age requirement. In fact, NaNoWriMo has special programs for young writers.

* You can write anywhere and at any time. There’s no geographic requirement that NaNoWriMo participants live in New York and write from their neighborhood Starbucks.

* Everyone is starting from scratch and staring at a blank page on November 1. (Well, except for all those people who literally spent the last six months planning every single detail of their NaNoWriMo story. Their “story notes” or “pre-prep” writing is essentially a first draft.)

The practicality of NaNo means that participants are pledging, er, planning, to write 1,666 words each day in November. Some people will find that there are days (especially in the beginning because you know — shiny new object) where they will easily surpass that word count. (I’ve seen people post that they wrote 4,000 words in a single day. I do NOT know these people and cannot imagine doing.) Most people though will plod away, working in small increments of writing time 15 minutes here, a half-hour lunch break there. Slowly, the word count will build. The focus of writing and the dedication to being a “writer” will also build in those quiet moments of work.

It is a wonderful way to see if you have what it takes to be a disciplined writer.

Full disclosure, I am NOT committing to 50,000 words this year. I have revisions on a soon-to-be published book that must be finished and a number of freelance assignments that are time dependent and can’t be pushed off. So why did I register? Because I love the community that is NaNoWriMo. I love that so many people are focusing on themselves and, for 30 days, putting their dream of being an author. There is simply no better energy for a writer than the excitement that NaNo generates.

PS: If you’re already signed up for NaNoWriMo 2019, you can feel free to buddy with me. You can find me at FayH123. You can also read my previous NaNoWriMo columns.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Do you have any questions, thoughts? Share them in the comments below.

The Winding Road of Fiction

Admittedly, I sometimes have a hard time motivating myself without a firm deadline. I like deadlines. They keep me on track and remind me of the days when I worked at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and had to juggle 2-4 stories a week. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

So when I arranged a deadline for the second book in the Layla’s diary series, I figured it would be a no-brainer.

I was WRONG!

Writing fiction uses a very different mental muscle from journalism. There’s no road map for how to pull it all together. (I cannot plot a book. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.) I just have to travel the road the story wants to take and sometimes it meanders when it should be going straight ahead. Sometimes detours challenge the narrative I am hoping to tell.

I’m back on the right road now. I turned in the edits to Layla’s diary book two, Layla’s Sugarland Adventure, and have started book five in the Achdus Club series.

I want to thank all the bookstores, grandparents, parents and kids who have been asking for a new release. I can’t tell you what your interest has meant to me. Stay tuned, book two is coming and here’s your sneak peek.

Page 1 Layla's diary series
Page one of Layla’s Sugarland Adventure!

And in case you are interested in some of my newest nonfiction stories, check out:

Meet Leah Sokol/Leah Cypess

Fun fact, I actually first “met” author Leah Cypess after one of her daughters wrote me a fan email when my first book “The New Girl,” came out. Since then, I’ve been following her writing journey through social media. With two new releases for the Jewish book market and a resissue of her YA fantasy “Mistwood” all out now, this was the perfect time for me to introduce her to my blog readers. Please welcome Leah Cypess, aka Leah Sokol, to the blog.

How did you come up with the idea for “THE SPANISH PLOT,” a Jewish novel where readers have to pick what happens next? Were you a fan of this genre of books growing up?

I actually remember exactly where I came up with the idea. I was sitting in the coffee shop where I do a lot of writing, leafing through my copy of B. Netanyahu’s book about the Abarbanel, trying to figure out a way to write a children’s book about the Abarbanel. I even had a title in mind, “The Man Who Served Six Kings,” but I couldn’t think of a way to make it work as a story appropriate for children. I was thinking that the story about the attempted kidnapping of his grandson would be good for a middle grade book, but there wasn’t enough *story* there to make a whole middle grade book … and then this approach occurred to me, and I just whipped out a notebook and started writing.

I read a ton of the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books growing up — who didn’t, if they were reading during the ’90s and had a library card? It seemed like they were everywhere for a while and then suddenly they went out of style. But then when my daughters were very into the “American Girl” books, I saw that they had a line of books called “Journeys” that were branching paths novels, and that probably reminded me of their existence. It’s also become more popular in science fiction/fantasy circles, usually in the form of online fiction/game blends, and I have a friend who was writing one. So they were in the back of my mind.

What made you pick the time period around the Spanish inquisition? 
Like I said, I started out with the idea of the Abarbanel, who had so many fascinating episodes in his life … this was just the one that seemed most appropriate as a story where a kid could be the main character. (His financial negotiations on the behalf of Venice, not so much.) It was actually quite a challenge to write in this time period because, as we all know, there’s ultimately no happy ending.

You have two new releases and a reissue out this month, what’s that like?
It’s a lot like having one release out, honestly! I guess I do half the work as I would if two books came out at different times, but maybe I only get half the promotional benefit?

And yes, one of my mainstream books, Mistwood (a YA fantasy novel, published under my actual name, “Leah Cypess”) was reprinted in paperback this month as well. That’s very good news but doesn’t require anything from me — it’s been out all along and it’s still out, it just means a certain number of copies was sold and they needed new ones.

Are you a plotter or pantser?
I am 100% a pantser. This actually made it very fun to write this type of book, because often, as a pantser, I write things I end up not using because they don’t fit in with where the book ends up going. With this book, I got to use pretty much everything!

You also write sci-fi novels and short stories, is your writing process the same for your Jewish and secular stories?
My Jewish stories tend to be much more research driven, so the ratio of research to writing is very different. Once I’m doing the actual writing, though, the process is largely the same.

What does a typical writing day look like? 
At the time when I wrote these books, my youngest child was only in school for 4 hours a day, so my (ideal) writing date looked like: Take her to school, go somewhere — a coffee shop, a library, a park — and try to write for 3 hours before running home to take care of some things and then picking her up. This year all my children are in school full time, so I’m still figuring out what a typical writing day looks like for me, but I can already tell they’re going to be a lot less stressful!

Learn more about Leah Cypess and her sci-fi work at: https://www.leahcypess.com/