Author Archives: Laura Ayo

There’s a Video For That

Laura Ayo

I get some of my best writing done when I’m on vacation. There’s just something about a change of scenery and unscheduled time that sparks my creativity. Regardless of the destination, my packing list always includes my laptop and charger, a notebook, sharpened pencils and pens. This past week, as I scribbled in my notebook with sand between my toes and the sound of waves lapping the shore, I realized I’ve come to rely on one other resource I didn’t have at the sunny shore – Wi-Fi. More specifically, YouTube that I needed Wi-Fi to access.

This is the first year that I wasn’t drafting a story while vacationing. I am, for the first time, at the revision stage of writing. But it wasn’t until I was in a place where Wi-Fi was abysmal that I realized I have been watching a LOT of YouTube videos while revising my work-in-progress.

My story is a historical fiction middle grade novel set in the mid-1700s. And while reference books, diaries, databases and other resources have helped me gain insight into what life would have been like for my characters during that time period, they simply don’t offer the sensory details I can glean from watching videos. YouTube, more than any other online video sharing platform I’ve explored, has been a gold mine for culling those specifics so I can craft a more immersive experience for my readers.

How were anchors on tall ships raised in the Age of Sail? Documentaries on YouTube had the answer to that question and anything else I could possibly need to know about sailing in the 18th century.

Can you see a certain mountain from a specific vantage point where my story is set? Drone video uploaded to YouTube by someone who lives there showed me the view.

Video tutorials have informed my writing about basket weaving, blacksmithing, canoe building and countless other pre-Revolutionary War skills. I’ve listened to music from that time period and audio clips of everything from bird calls to a storm at sea to the labored breaths of someone with pneumonia. I’ve even turned to video reviews, hacks, lists and tips lending advice about how to improve my writing skills or navigate meta data in the writing software I use.

If you, like me, get stuck when you’re trying to describe the sights and sounds your characters are experiencing in certain situations or settings, consider turning to online videos to help you through those moments. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:

  • Be specific with your search terms. The narrower the search, the fewer the list of results you have to weed through to find what you’re looking for.
  • Avoid what I like to call “just one more” syndrome. If you find one video with the information you’re seeking, I promise there will be several others that do the same. Don’t be tempted to watch them all. Once you find what you need, avoid wasting hours of your precious writing time by skipping over the others in the hope that you might find something even better.
  • Pay attention to the runtime stamp. If you have two video options, preview how long each of them are and then watch the shorter one first. If you find what you need in a three-minute video, there’s no need to watch the 33-minute second video on the same topic.
  • Consider the number of views and thumbs up indications. Most videos indicate how many times it’s been viewed, as well as how many of those viewers gave the video a thumbs up to indicate it was worth watching. I’ll always take my chances with videos showing 2,000 views and 1,800 positive reviews over the ones that have been viewed 20 times with eight thumbs down reviews.
  • Stay on topic. It’s tempting to follow the “if you liked this, you might also like this” suggestions that pop up at the end of each video. While watching hours of sailing mishaps are undoubtedly entertaining (and sometimes, terrifying), I needed to remind myself that I was writing about sailing vessels that didn’t sink or run aground, so I didn’t have time to get sucked into watching off-topic videos, as tempting as they were.
  • Watch the clock. If you’re like me, dedicated writing time is hard to come by, so set a timer to stay on task. When the alarm sounds, it’s time to trade watching for writing.

Not having Wi-Fi at the beach allowed me to focus on fine-tuning character-driven scenes. I came home with notebook pages of thoughtful dialogue, character insights, well considered action sequences and … a list of topics I needed to research on YouTube once I reconnected to Wi-Fi.

Evolution of a Home-Based Writer

Laura Ayo

This past year has challenged everyone to get creative when it comes to managing their lives from home. As someone who has juggled a home-based writing career while mothering two kids for 15 years, even I have had to adapt. But successfully working from home, especially if you share that home with other humans, is an evolving process, even when there isn’t a global pandemic adding stress and obstacles to the mix. It always requires commitment, organization, the ability to set boundaries and priorities, and flexibility. Here are my tips to making the best of it.

Commitment. The first thing I did when I started working from home was remind myself that writing is my job. It’s not a hobby. I earn income as a writer, pay taxes on that income and have a separate bank account for expenses related to writing. But it’s a very different kind of writing than the creative writing I’m doing to become a published author of books for children and teens. No one is paying me right now to do that kind of writing, but I believe it’s just as worthwhile. I committed to finishing a manuscript and now I’m committed to revising it so it’s the best I can make it. I’m committed to improving my skills and developing my craft. My creative writing time is valuable and precious and I recognize that I’ll only accomplish my goals by continuing to treat it that way.

Organization. My freelance writing work is unpredictable. I may have no assignments one day and multiple assignments the next. To best manage my time, I sit down each Sunday with the calendar on my phone to plan the upcoming week. Then, based on what I know I have on my plate, I write out a schedule for what I need to do each day. I’m a detail-oriented person, so my schedule is subdivided into half-hour increments and includes time for freelance work, creative writing, non-writing-related appointments, 15-minute breaks, a lunch hour (or half-hour on really busy days) and every-day tasks such as walking the dog, preparing dinner and, before my kids could drive, taking my kids to school and their extra-curricular activities. I review and update the schedule each night to reflect any changes that may pop up on any given day that will affect the rest of the week. Having something on paper that I can review quickly each morning keeps me focused and productive, especially when I’m juggling multiple projects for several clients that may all be due the same week. I’ve tried other tools to organize my time, but the old-fashioned paper method works best for me, although I do use my phone for appointment reminders and timer features to stay on track.

Setting Boundaries and Priorities. This part of my writing process has been the most challenged during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, I rarely had trouble setting boundaries or priorities. When my kids were infants and toddlers, their well-being and healthy development were unapologetically prioritized over my writing time. Once they started kindergarten, I only worked while they were in school or while my husband was home to take care of dinner and bedtime routines. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in unchartered waters. My husband and both kids weren’t just home; they were home with no obligations. My husband’s job shut down and the schools closed, but I still had freelance assignments coming in. For the first time, I had to be firm with setting boundaries. (I know you don’t have school tomorrow, but you can’t stay up until 3 a.m. playing video games and FaceTiming your friends because I still have to work tomorrow. I know you want me to come on a bike ride with you because, yes, the weather is gorgeous, but I have a deadline to meet.) I also had to prioritize tasks based on deadlines. I would focus on accomplishing the tasks that had firm deadlines first and made my peace with the fact that other tasks sometimes just had to be left for another day. Which brings me to my last tip…

Flexibility. Even with the best intentions and scheduled plans, life happens. Kids get sick. Storms knock out power. The meeting you thought would only last 30 minutes stretches into two hours. Global pandemics, as we now know, can happen. Being flexible when the unexpected happens is the only way to survive working from home. If you’re organized and know how to prioritize, re-working a schedule to still meet a deadline is possible. But sometimes you just have to remember that tomorrow is another day. In those moments, it’s okay to dig into a pint of ice cream or go for a walk or play with your kids. It’s important to remember you’re human, and we all need to remember to give ourselves a little grace from time to time.

Revising at a Sloth’s Pace to Discover Joy in the Details

Laura Ayo

I’m no stranger to revision. During my years as a daily newspaper reporter, I edited and revised on deadline. Every day. Often, for multiple articles, each written in a matter of minutes, not hours, and certainly not days. Even as a freelance journalist, I regularly revise and edit articles, press releases, web content, blogs, social media posts and whatever else a client might send my way. But revising a middle grade historical fiction novel is nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. This past week, I’ve been really taking the words of poet and novelist Vikram Seth to heart:

“Revision has its own peculiar pleasures and its own peculiar frustrations. The ground rules are already established; the characters already exist. You don’t have to bring the characters to life, but you do have to make them more convincing.”

In the spirit of Seth’s words and to mark the start of the second week of Write by Midnight, I thought I would share some of the pleasures and frustrations I felt while striving to make my characters more convincing.

First, the frustrations.

Revision. Takes. For. Ever.

My Write by Midnight goal was to revise two chapters a week. And even though I wrote more than my planned 90 minutes on five days and met my time limit on the other two days, I only revised one chapter and barely made a dent in the second. Last night, as I prepared to write this progress report, I reflected on why, even with more dedicated writing time, I struggled to reach my goal. There are many answers, but I can sum them up by saying I want to write with historical accuracy and emotional authenticity in a way that middle grade readers want to keep turning the pages.

This. Takes. Time.

When I wrote the first draft, I didn’t worry about researching how people in the 18th century would have treated pneumonia. I made notes to go back during revision to discover what the hold of an 18th century sloop would look like and how the crew would repair storm damage to the ship at sea. I just wrote past those – and many other – period-specific details during the drafting stage.

But now I’m revising and I need those details. They’re vital for my readers to feel the fear, worry and helplessness that my protagonist experiences as she’s trying to care for her sick mother during a storm in the hold of an 18th century ship that is carrying them away from their homeland to an unknown destination. Finding those details takes time. Paring them down to the ones that evoke the emotions I want the reader to experience takes time. Making sure they’re the sights, sounds and smells an 8-year-old girl would notice takes time. Discovering the words she would use to describe her thoughts and feelings takes time. Making sure all of these details are age appropriate, readable and interesting takes time.

Revision is the stage of writing where writers need to invest the time.

Doing so leads to the pleasures Seth referenced. My research unearthed the details I needed to not only add layered depth to my characters, but also illustrate the themes I want to get across in my writing. The discovery process is thrilling, especially when it leads to writing you never thought yourself capable of. So, I’m not beating myself up for not writing two chapters by the end of the first week of Write by Midnight. The words I did get on the page are good ones. They say what I want them to say. My story is better because of the time I invested.

As I move onto the second week of our write-a-thon, I’ll keep letting the peculiar pleasures outweigh the peculiar frustrations. I’ll move forward with my revision process, slow and detailed as it may be, and wish you all the best in discovering what works best for you and the stories you strive to tell.

Treasures abound in research rabbit holes

Laura Ayo

Amid the extreme tides of the Bay of Fundy is a tiny island known as Isle Haute. I learned about its existence while doing research this summer for my current work-in-progress, a middle grade historical fiction novel set in 18th century Nova Scotia – then known as Acadie. I turned to the Internet to learn more about the rise and fall of the world-famous Fundy tides since they would have been a significant part of everyday life for my characters. And before I knew it, I had not only learned about the 50-foot tidal exchange and watched way-cool videos of people walking on the ocean floor during low tide, but I had stumbled upon Isle Haute.

What caught my eye about the island – notable for its 320-foot-cliffed sides – was that it appeared to float above the water, especially on misty mornings, thanks to those dramatically fluctuating tides. I should have shut down my Wi-fi right then and there and gone back to writing. But a floating island? I had to read more.

So, over the better part of the rest of my day, I read more about Isle Haute and how it not only appears to float, but has been known to disappear and reappear in a new location within the bay, or so people claim. Local legend says pirate Ned Low buried stolen treasure there in 1722 and then beheaded a member of his crew so its ghost could safeguard it until Low returned to collect the loot. But Low was captured and hanged, never to return to reclaim the treasure, and the flaming headless ghost emerges every seven years, prompting the island to change its location.

Buried treasure, of course, means there have been attempts to unearth Low’s rumored stash. And in reading about those efforts, I came across one nugget of information that actually related back to my WIP. My story is about a brother and sister who are separated from one another in 1755 when the British deported thousands of Acadians from their homeland. Thanks to my tangential research into Isle Haute, I learned there are some who believe the Acadians hid their valuables on the island during the expulsion to keep them from falling into British hands. It was also suggested that some Acadians hid out on the island to avoid the deportation.

Was there a way for me to work all of these fun tidbits of information into my story? It seemed like a stretch, so I set aside the “research” and lamented the fact that I had just spent an entire day working on my manuscript with nothing tangible to show for it.

Fast forward to last week. I tuned in to this year’s virtual YA-hoo! Fest’s historical fiction genre talk hosted by authors Vicky Alvear Shecter, Kathleen Burkinshaw, J. Kasper Kramer and Amy Trueblood. These well-spoken and engaging panelists shared their thoughts about falling down the research rabbit hole. Their agreement that it’s not only an inevitable part of the process for historical fiction writers, but that it shouldn’t be a shameful thing – or regarded as a waste of time – was exactly what I needed to hear as I’m starting to revise my story. I’ve been neck-deep in a lot of rabbit holes while researching this novel.

Shecter embraces the process, saying it’s where she discovers interesting gems to use in her stories. She advised editing the finds, however, by incorporating only the ones that are relevant to your character’s specific journey.

While elaborating on that same idea, Kramer said the rabbit hole is worth exploring, especially when it leads to an emotional, pivotal moment for your character.

Burkinshaw even followed up the discussion with words of encouragement on Twitter: “Keep going and don’t be afraid of the research rabbit hole.”

I digested their comments over the past few days and had them in mind as I worked on my story this weekend. As much as I think a middle grade audience would love to read about flaming headless ghosts, my story isn’t about hunting for pirate treasure. And, if I’m being true to history, my tween protagonists would never have paddled a canoe across the Bay of Fundy by themselves to hide their family treasures. I did, however, find a feasible way to work in a small bit of what I discovered in the rabbit hole, and I’m energized to flesh out the scene to add it.

When I’m finished writing it, I’ll move on to the next item on my “To Research” list. Surely, it won’t take long to find out what kinds of crops the Acadians were harvesting right before the deportation. Let me just check the Internet real quick….

Find Your People to Stay Positive, Keep Writing

Laura Ayo

If you’re like me, you’re seeking positivity anywhere you can find it these days. Thankfully, the writing community is one of the most encouraging support systems I’ve ever encountered, and they have not disappointed when it comes to offering humor, inspiration, reality checks and a much-needed distraction during the uncertainty accompanying a global pandemic. Continue reading