Guest Post: Ann Angel on The Sandbox & The Suck Pond

By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown, 2006), perceives drafting as something far more glamorous than me, and so I’m inspired by his words:

“Writing rules. Everything else sucks. Writing is a big sandbox and it’s full of Tonka Trucks and plastic Godzillas.”

Have you experienced that creative space? It’s when your writing feels most fluid and free.

You become so emotionally attached to the imaginative world that, at the end of the day, you struggle to return to reality. You might look up and realize starving people are in your kitchen. And you might think, who are these hungry people?

They’re not the characters you’ve played with all day.

I’ve been there with my four kids and husband who have all wondered, more than once, how writing can be so engrossing that I melted a pan of food to the burner of my stove.

But there are other times when writing is a total suck pond. You’ve probably experienced that too. It’s when you can’t decide if you want to slap the smile off a smarmy character or toss her from a moving car – I chose a moving truck myself. From there, you admit it isn’t just the characters. The plot is unwieldy. The rising action lacks motivation and falls flat. The tone is all wrong. You stop writing.

I’ve been there, too. About a year ago, I was so mired in muck that I feared I’d never finish another novel. The first draft can be, as Cynthia Leitich Smith reminds me, “Drafty.”

Those drafty drafts bring out the worst fear in all of us. Although I made myself sit down to write, it was a tortuous experience. Then I realized this is not writing fear I suffer, it’s the fear that I’ve lost it; I’m no longer good enough.

This is thick as mud fear arrives every time I start something new or go back to revise a work that’s in that drafty stage.

The only cure is to sit down to write every day—or almost every day. But I’m here to tell you that, after spending too much time in the suck pond, the creative sandbox doesn’t always fill easily.

The sandbox is especially evasive when I’m writing about oppression and other soul-wrenching issues which are typical of YA literature. Rising out of the suck pond becomes a serious struggle.

That’s when we need consciously seek inspiration.

I’ve been working on a novel about suffocating hate and xenophobia, and so I can speak from the bottom of the suck pond. Writing comes so slowly because I really don’t like what some of my characters are doing. It’s seriously depressing being inside some of their heads.

Every day that I work on this novel I have to trick myself into beginning. I have gathered an arsenal to make this happen.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the newly christened guru of creativity, is no slouch with ideas for creative life in her book Big Magic (Riverhead, 2015). She cautions, “Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding—because that’s the moment when interesting begins.”

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcherperigee, 2002) has always been a mainstay. I recently picked up It’s Never too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond  (Tarcherperigee, 2016).

As always, Julia recommends long walks and writers’ dates—both good reminders that we can’t find creative inspiration if we’re always staring at a blank screen.

These are good ways to clear my head before and after a day of writing about the wicked side of the world. I’ve been rewarding myself for writing with artist dates.

Julia’s artist dates are permission to visit museums, beaches, art galleries, the zoo—where I recently witnessed giraffes wrapping their necks around one another to flirt.

Julia also advises, “Keep writing. If you keep writing, you will have a breakthrough.”

Through Julia’s suggestions, writers are more likely to create details that come from the observed world. In turn, the details layer and enrich characters, making it possible to write of human goodness even in the lowest moments.

Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), helps writers look back into the history of our own crazy lives which are a great source of specific detail. In my life, parents warned the girls I attended Catholic school with not to hang with those wild Bonness girls (my maiden name), said as one word by mothers who must have believed the very mention of our names would taint their daughters. Karr gets that our lives are the stuff that makes stories come alive. I’ve developed some greatly cool friendship scenes around the close wildness of growing up one of seven sisters.

My cache of magic writing has been pulled together from my experience of consistently sinking into the suck pond. I had an editor once tell me my writing had serious potential.

So I made a poster that says, “Serious potential happening here.” Of course I colored outside the lines when I filled in the letters to hang it above my computer.

Sometimes I play with poetry while I write. Different forms help resolve a variety of issues. A sestina is a great tool to learn more about developing characters, often providing an “a-ha!” moment in which a character takes charge of a sudden turn. Sonnets help me figure out what my character loves and hates. Found poetry and erasure poetry help uncover the details of a character’s private world. So I play with poetry a lot when I’m writing. It can trick me into that place of fluid writing.

A good resource to begin practicing poetry is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002).

No matter where we turn for creative inspiration, it’s good to remember that serious potential is happening every time we excavate the world of our craft. So dig into that suck pond. If you stay at it long enough, you’ll find that sandbox overflowing with imagination.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ann Angel on The Power of Secrets in Things I’ll Never Say

Ann Angel

By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Right about the time I pitched my first anthology, a writer friend said she’d hate that sort of work.

“It would be so time-consuming to read all those stories,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to edit all that content and you’ll have to write all that front and back matter and it will take away from your own writing.”

Even though everything she said is true, I love editing anthologies. The reading can sometimes feel overwhelming and selecting stories is time consuming; editing requires right-brained analytic work and lots and lots of analyzing and thinking and rethinking.

While editing anthologies takes huge chunks of time away from personal writing time, there are so many good reasons to take them on.

Anthologies provide diverse viewpoints on a single topic, and they provide broad and unexpected stories in a single volume.

The best reason I choose to edit an anthology is that I get to take a topic that has far reaching consequences and bring varied perspectives into the world of young adults. This varied perspective provides young adults the benefit of observing a variety of responses to a single concept while also helping them figure out how they might think about and respond to the concept themselves.

That wider view is what motivated me to take on media’s perspective of beauty with my first anthology, Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

More recently, after volunteering at a writing workshop for survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, I was motivated to take on the idea that secrets shape who we are and who we will become in the anthology Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, 2015).

The best part of reading stories for this project was to realize the many layers of secrets. It appears some secrets can be innocent while others hold us hostage to the person whose secret we share. Secrets can be playful and funny or dark and dangerous.

I had expected some of the stories of secrets to show that keeping secrets can shame us into permanent silence.

But I was delighted to receive funny and sweet stories. Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about an angel falling in love with her tale of Josh in “Cupid’s Beaux.” Although the humor was a bit darker, Ron Koertge’s “Call Me” developed the California voice of a wild teen girl who hides a slew of secret boyfriends from one another.

In contrast, I was heartbroken by the story of a girl who hides her mother’s hording in “The We-Are-Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger. Other heartbreaks portraying the power of our secrets can be found in Louise Hawes’ “When We Were Wild” and Kerry Cohen’s “Partial Reinforcement.”

I learned the power of reporting a secret to protect a friend in “A Thousand Words,” from Varian Johnson. Chris Lynch’s “Lucky Buoy” showed that the darkest secret’s power is diminished if you reveal it to just one person who cares, while Mary Ann Rodman’s “Easter” was a sensitive portrayal of a teen choosing to keep the secret of adoption for his baby boy.

Ann with fellow author P.J. Hoover at Texas Book Festival

Another reason I like editing anthologies is that each call for stories allows me to glimpse inside each writer’s diverse creative process around a singular topic or similar concept.

While writers might all begin heading toward a similar plot problem, I’ve observed that the most cliché idea takes on a new un-clichéd life through distinct characters or in the way the story is set and carried out.

For instance, two writers might take on a secret surrounding sexuality, but the story takes on new life if it’s set in a fantastical world which occurs in Katie Moran’s “Little Wolf and the Iron Pin” as well as in Zoe Marriott’s “Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind.”

Other times writers push the envelope on a story so that readers get a glimpse inside the most dysfunctional—and well hidden–moments in a family which is what E.M. Kokie did with her story “Quick Change,” Kekla Magoon accomplished in “For a Moment Underground,” and J.L. Powers did in “A Crossroads.”

In observing how different writers’ work their minds around a problem, and in closely observing how they craft action and scene around the concept, it shouldn’t be a surprise that each writer brings his or her own sensibility to a story, almost always turning it into an intensely personal experience that resonates with readers.

With fellow alumnae Sarah Aronson at VCFA

One of the most pleasant surprised about this anthology was seeing the cover for the first time. Created by collage artist Wayne Brezinka, this cover made me tear up over the rich and layered depiction of our secret stories.

This anthology also demonstrated the power of sharing our gifts and secrets. The teaching authors included were asked to invite one past student to submit a story for possible selection.

In the end, the selected story is the heartbreaking tale of a girl who parents her own mother and protects her little sister from a family secret. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase the image of a teenager dancing a slow waltz to Meatloaf songs with her drunken mother. While erica l. kaufman’s “Three-Four Time” may be one of her first publications, watch for this talented writer’s future work, as it won’t be her last.

Finally, I wrote a story based upon an idea that came out of the workshop that spawned this anthology. “We Were Together” looks at what happens when a boy loves girls too much. I have to admit I was seriously pleased when one of Candlewick’s editors responded that it’s refreshing to read something from the jerk’s perspective.

I hope you find each story refreshing, emotionally resonant and a great joy to read.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Angel loves the world of young adults and writes both fiction and nonfiction for this group. She is the author of the 2011 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams, 2010) among many other biographies.

Her most recent biography, for younger audiences, is Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes (Kingsley, 2013). Previously, she served as contributing editor for the anthology Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann directs the English Graduate Program and teaches writing at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee where she lives with her family. She was drawn to this idea of Things I’ll Never Say because she believes that the secret self is often the true self.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

Fifteen top young-adult authors let us in on provocative secrets in a fascinating collection that will have readers talking.


A baby no one knows about. A dangerous hidden identity. Off-limits hookups. A parent whose problems your friends won’t understand. 

Everyone keeps secrets—from themselves, from their families, from their friends—and secrets have a habit of shaping the lives around them. 

Acclaimed author Ann Angel brings together some of today’s most gifted YA authors to explore, in a variety of genres, the nature of secrets: Do they make you stronger or weaker? Do they alter your world when revealed? Do they divide your life into what you’ll tell and what you won’t? 

The one thing these diverse stories share is a glimpse into the secret self we all keep hidden.

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