Diving In

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My first blog entry! I thought this would be easy. I mean, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions floating around in my head. So I told myself to just dive in.

But I can’t remember the last time I dove into a pool. I typically ease my way into cold water, starting ankle-deep and moving further in one tiny step at a time. When the water reaches my thighs I do some subtle Lamaze breathing. In other words, it takes a while to dunk my head.

That didn’t turn into the most favorable metaphor for how I write.

I hope it’s not—fiction is a lot easier for me. But writing something personal for a blog? This is all new. This looks like a deeper pool.

I enjoy talking to people I don’t know well, but I seldom mention that I write. I know I’ll get this question: “So, what are you writing?” (Which is exactly what I ask other writers!) When I start to answer, my neck warms up, my eyes dart around, and I begin to ramble. I start worrying that my book sounds ridiculous to everyone else’s ears.

But I’ve spent over six years on this book called UNKNOWN HERO that got me my lovely agent. I’ve probably filled four full notebooks (if not more) with brainstorming and research, and I have no idea what draft I’m on. I have written approximately 58, 247 query letter drafts. I have read in my genre, have read how-to books, and have written two other books during this time, too. I have had numerous critique partners and beta readers and I implemented their feedback. I won a contest called Pitch to Publication (#p2p16) in 2016 with UNKNOWN HERO. I’m still revising (and rewriting) this book, and it’s not without its banging-my-head-against-a-wall challenges, but it is a labor of love. In other words, this is my story. I know this story. I know my intentions.

I should be confident enough to talk about it. I have gotten better with practice and I’ll keep trying.

Still, why is it so hard?

Because talking about my writing makes me feel like I’m—sorry for the bad pun—an open book. The novel itself doesn’t feel so exposing; there are too many characters with different voices who never make eye contact with the reader or try to explain what this author here is attempting to say. It’s fiction; I’m hidden.

Yet when I describe the book to other people it’s a new kind of vulnerability. It’s like unzipping my heart and opening it up like a suitcase for everyone to see inside. Gathering the courage to put your art out there is one huge step, but gathering the courage to put the person out there who’s behind the art is another. I can’t imagine I’m the only writer who feels this way.

I guess blog entries don’t have to be too personal. Perhaps I’ll start off simple: I’ll detail all of my favorite crutch words. (I’m averaging fourteen “eyes” per page. It’s a serious issue.) Or I’ll discuss how I overcame a showing versus telling problem*.

I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and it could be an awkward belly flop. At one point several years ago it was a terrifying leap of faith to interact with other writers on Twitter and enter contests. It was even more terrifying to find beta readers and critique partners, and now I can’t imagine doing any of this without them.

I’m looking forward to writing about writing.

Thanks for reading!

 

*This hasn’t really happened.

 

 

 

Writing on Time

 

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Publishing is a waiting game. I know this isn’t earth-shattering news.

But I’m not talking about the parts of the process well beyond my control.

I am talking about waiting on myself.

I estimated I would finish my latest revisions in a month or two. Fast forward six-plus months of really consistent work and here I am, celebrating an end. An end, not the end, because I might not be done. But that’s one of the things I love about creating something: it can be ever evolving.

Still, working for days, weeks, and months to create my best words is, well, a long time.

Some days my book is a three-year-old who won’t behave. She sulks in a time-out, reassessing how to get along better with others.

Other days she is a preteen who needs alone time. She’s up in her room, earphones jammed in her ears, trying to make sense of this wild world.

And other days she won’t leave my side and I won’t leave hers. We’re loyal best friends, in sync. We read each other’s minds. She is my every minute.

I am incredibly driven to make my writing dream a reality, and it’s frustrating sometimes that I can’t get myself there faster. Even if I work every single day, even if it’s running through my mind when I take a shower or unload the dishwasher, even if my butt’s in my chair until it aches, even if the pages before me aren’t blank—it just takes so much time to do justice to what’s in my heart and head.

We all know we probably won’t get as much time as we’d like to fulfill our dreams. We all know we don’t get forever. Sure, it’s depressing.

But I can also appreciate that time is one of my biggest allies. Over time, the story grows even bigger in my heart and lives in my dreams. Over time, I get to see it with dozens of new eyes. I tear it apart, piece it back together, and add more clay to sculpt it into something only I can create. That objective distance that only time gives is invaluable. Sometimes the hardest work is patience.

You can’t have a journey without the passage of time. Mine makes me see how much I’m improving as a writer. Evolving. It allows me to appreciate my dedication as I continue rolling up my sleeves and tackling challenges (many I’ve created for myself) because I love it so. And counting the days, weeks, months, and years reminds me I’ll never quit, not after all this time.

Perhaps I Have Some Good Advice

Keeping a blog is hard.

It’s hard enough creating a novel.

It’s intimidating to write like I know something, or anything, about anything at all. Writing about writing quickly becomes writing about life. I read other people’s tweets and blog posts and they sound like authorities. Sometimes I believe they are and sometimes I don’t. (In my life thus far, I can confidently say I am an authority on forgetting laundry in the dryer until it is so wrinkled my kids look like walking raisins.)

This is my current situation: my air conditioner is broken and my daughters are gleefully dancing around the kitchen to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, despite the heat. At the same time, I know a family dealing with an insufferable tragedy. I cried for them this week and couldn’t sleep.

My dog’s sleeping fine. Her current situation: she’s taking the best nap in the world, her fur moving in what must be the most soothing tickle beneath the ceiling fan. She is at peace.

I’m not. My heart is pained. It’s impossible to be sure of anything when everything keeps moving, seemingly out of control. You get the good and the bad and the in-between for every minute of every day. Wrinkled laundry is in-between, sleeping under a fan on high is pretty darn luxurious, children dancing around a kitchen table is pure joy, a broken a/c is super sucky, but grieving a death is the very, very worst. And it all can happen at once.

Life is so inconsistent and never fails to make me question whether I know a single answer to anything. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’ll never make sense when someone dies young, loses so much, and leaves behind broken loved ones.

Maybe I have learned a lot about how I want to live my life—I’m a grown-up now, I guess—but there’s also this murky cloud of confusion and self-doubt hanging around, too, and finding meaning in suffering isn’t easy. Everything morphs and changes. There are so many surprises. It’s like my creative process: Just when I feel like I’ve figured it out, suddenly I’m staring at a blank page wondering what the heck to do.

I guess it’s like parenting, too.

Currently, I’m parenting a WIP that I only sometimes love. I love my real children when they aren’t perfect or aren’t behaving. Perhaps I should give my writing the same unconditional love…which boils down to giving that to myself. Right? Because isn’t my writing pretty much me scribbled on paper? Weird.

But I don’t want to put myself on paper, even if it seems like it could help. There’s so much sadness and confusion welling up inside me and I could let it spill out. I used to love my journals and my secret poetry. These universal feelings of loss and bewilderment—I should use them, explore them, try to find answers. Why can’t I tap into it?

Because I guess I can’t bear to. I have no clue where to start digging. Maybe not yet.

So I tried something different. I signed up, on a whim, to do the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. It was either that or continue obsessively outlining a story that should simply be written. I have never written Flash Fiction, but I understood I’d have 48 hours to write a 1,000 word story using three prompts (the genre, a location, and an object). I was hoping for no sci fi. (I like sci fi, but other writers are the authorities on that. Not me.) I got sci fi.

Sci fi, a wine cellar, and perfume. The prompts arrived at 11:59 on Friday and the story was due at 11:59 on Sunday.

Members on the forum who’ve done the contest many times encouraged the newbies to use beta readers. I, for one, have no idea how they had time. I was starting my fourth attempt at a story on Sunday afternoon.

And then something incredible happened. It wrote itself.

I’m not saying it became some life-altering story or anything. But the pressure to complete the task (after all, I paid $50 to enter this thing) and not to embarrass myself in front of judges I’ll never meet meant that I had to get the thing done.

My typical themes popped up: mothers, love, self-sacrifice, empathy—or the sad lack thereof.

I am pretty predictable.

And it felt so good. Something fixed itself when it wrote itself.

Then I did something really risky: I posted it on the NYC Midnight forums without any other eyes having seen it. I knew my story was ambitious in all that it covered, so it might not make any sense whatsoever. I remembered that in the past I’ve given CPs my writing and had them return it to me saying they didn’t understand any of it. I posted it anyway.

The following three things were really helpful for me in the past couple weeks, and might be helpful for someone else having a bad time or feeling stuck:

1) I took a risk by trying something new, and forced myself to follow through.

2) I didn’t write about the most difficult things. My heart wasn’t ready. (Some of it seeped through my writing anyway, of course. Just enough. And now I’ve gone and written this blog post…and I had no idea where I was going with it when I started.)

3) I reached out to other people. In this case, it was strangers on the NYC Midnight forum, with whom I happen to have a whole lot in common. It has been reassuring to talk to nice writers.

Currently, at 12:25 p.m. on August 4th, I may be an authority on these suggestions.

On Writing a New Book and the Importance of the Process

My WIP is a whopping 101,000+ word draft that I wrote over a year ago. It has been tapping its fingers and twirling its hair while waiting for my return. Mold me into something much, much prettier, it demands. It looks something like this, but at least my hands aren’t empty:

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Often this WIP pulls me in. I feel giddy about having this new world to rule over and I relish the endless possibilities. It’s freeing! It’s not boring, it’s not routine, and it’s not math! I marvel at what comes out of my own brain—brand new people who didn’t exist before I created them and all the darkness and light leaking out of my unconscious. I lose time. This part of the experience is uniquely and selfishly mine—well before I’m at the point when I’m seeking beta readers and biting my nails when I find some.

It’s exciting, but that high fizzles. I know it’s gone when suddenly I’m scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, online instant pot recipes, and/or expert articles about HOW TO GET YOUR PUPPY TO STOP PEEING ON THE CARPET IN FRONT OF THE BACK DOOR (yes, that search is done in all caps). It’s so overwhelming trying to form something meaningful out of nothing. It seems I can’t make my new book beautiful enough. I can’t move myself.

I miss my old book, UNKNOWN HERO, and it takes a lot of effort not to open up that file and let it consume me. We’ve been through a whole lot together. I miss my old characters. I’m not quite at home with these new guys in my WIP just yet. I really like them a lot, and I’m getting to know them better, but it’s like I transferred to a new school.

I keep thinking: You’re certain you can’t open your heart to a new dog after the beloved old one dies, but you can. (Even with the housebreaking ISSUES, in caps.) You worry you won’t love your second child as much as your first, but you absolutely do. Is it the same with a new book?

I recently met with a college friend so we could write together. I stared at my computer screen completely befuddled and said, “At this point, I honestly can’t believe I ever wrote a full novel—then queried and got an agent. It seems impossible.”

She responded, “That’s the way I felt about my first marathon. I couldn’t believe I did it. So I had to run another one to prove to myself that I could.”

Um, what? Wait—is it possible that I might have to write another complete book—one that not only makes some sense but is revised and polished—so I can prove to myself that I can do this?

UNKNOWN HERO wasn’t technically my first book. My first book (aka 100,000 Words of Shame) was written years ago and is lost somewhere on my now defunct iPad. It begins with an angst-ridden teenager in a car on the way to school, has no chapter breaks, and never needs to be found. After I wrote it, I let it sit for a while untouched, because that’s what the experts said to do. Then I reread that thing with my hopes too high and laughed/cried through all of it. I may have quit trying to write novels altogether if I hadn’t gotten to about the 80,000 word mark, and realized—oh my God—a story started. It took me 80,000 words to find any kind of plot or character development.

It wasn’t the same with UNKNOWN HERO, because I was one hundred times wiser about how to organize a whole book. I had a good sense of the story I wanted to tell—no, a passion for it. I knew where I wanted it to start and I knew where I wanted it to end. Still, when I stop to think about it, I realize I have thrown thousands of words away. Up to 80,000? Maybe. The book evolved so much. I erased characters, bad writing, and unnecessary scenes that did nothing for the story as a whole. I also cut truly important scenes that no one else will ever read, but they are still part of the story and part of my inspiration. They are in my head and heart and know these things happened to my characters, whether it’s on the page or not.

Funny thing is, I consider myself more of a plotter than a pantser, but this still happened to me.

This time around writing a book, I do hope I’ll be more efficient with my time. (Okay, I’m actually reading a nonfiction book right now to help me be more efficient.) Still, I should probably accept that this meme below is gonna happen, maybe in draft two, draft three, and so on:

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Most of UNKNOWN HERO’s sometimes pretty and often frustrating loops and tangles didn’t make it into the final version. But some did. Some of those unexpected twists and turns became diamonds in my final draft. And I realize now that those diamonds that seemingly showed up out of nowhere only fueled my passion for the story.

Carlton Cuse, screenwriter and producer of Lost, probably said it better than I did:

The creative process is not like a situation where you get struck by a single lightning bolt. You have ongoing discoveries, and there’s ongoing creative revelations. Yes, it’s really helpful to be marching toward a specific destination, but, along the way, you must allow yourself room for your ideas to blossom, take root, and grow.

It’s hard not to focus on the end product—especially after you’ve written a first book, and you know eventually you’ll show this new one to other people, too. You can’t shake the worry that you’re putting time and effort (and yourself!) into something that might flop. You know you need to work faster and smarter, and this is a new kind of pressure.

But would runners still run if they weren’t training for a marathon? Most I know do, and talk about that runner’s high. Would I still write if I didn’t have this ultimate goal of being published? Yes. Maybe not novels, but I have been writing creatively my whole life. Because there is meaning in the process—without an obsessive focus on the end goal. And I know that writing 80,000 terrible words helped me write 80,000 words that I love.

So this is what I’m reminding myself today:

The process is therapeutic.

It is how I practice and learn.

It helps me solve problems—and not just plot holes. I’m talking big life dilemmas.

Creating something ugly and useless is not just okay. It can be good for me.

I know I’m repeating the wisdom of others before me here, but it’s the truth: If it’s an easy journey, the end product won’t mean as much to me (or to anyone).

…And now back to that WIP. One of my main characters informed me that he needs to be a second POV. Who am I to argue with him?

 

 

Query Writing Advice from a Writer Who’s No Expert but Probably Did Write 58,247 Queries in the Past Five Years

 

The body of a query should be 250 words—or less. So that’s probably only a ribcage and the heart beating inside. Everything else is chopped off and discarded. Throw away the torso, arms, and legs. Maybe add a lung, though, because your story should breathe. But, wait—there’s got to be a brain in there, right? Your book should be smart.

So, 250 words is the heart, the brain, and a lung or two.

That’s easy enough, right? Ha.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on queries. But I am fascinated by them—after all, everything rests on that crazy thing once you’ve finished your book and you’re hunting for an agent. I have spent countless hours obsessively scratching and redoing, incorporating feedback, and choosing every word like it’s the shiniest red apple at the top of the tree. I am naturally verbose, so I am constantly removing any less-than-perfect words.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself when you’ve finished a query draft: Does this even make sense? And, as the writer, you really might not have a clue.

So you have to find readers who know nothing of your story. And then you must believe them when they say, “I have zero idea what is happening here.” This is usually followed by: “What does your main character want? What’s in your character’s way? What happens if your character doesn’t get what she wants? You know, silly. The stakes?” These are great questions to hear when you’ve never seen them before and you’re just starting out, but if you have seen them before, and you thought you covered these things in your query, it can send you into a huge spiral of self-doubt about your whole book and your ability to write.

This is when you must determine two things: Is your messy query evidence of a messy book? (Are things missing or unclear in the novel itself? Perhaps your book is confusing, the arcs are missing, your characters aren’t appealing, there are plot holes, there’s no conflict, etc.) OR maybe you’re just not a great query writer…yet. Writing a novel and writing a query are two separate challenges, that’s for sure.

It was both for me at the beginning; I had issues with my book, plus I was pretty bad at writing queries.

I was writing a character-driven novel. And my MC was reactive, rather than proactive, a lot of the time. Her wants—internal and external—weren’t that concrete. “But,” I thought, “I’m writing real life. A contemporary story. Not everyone’s trying to save the world.” But this is pretty hard to pull off.

I had to accept this wasn’t the most exciting read—at least after a conflict-filled first chapter when the momentum was taking an immediate downturn. My main character needed more agency. All of this was evident in my actual query. So I made changes to the novel. (Unfortunately, I had sent out a number of queries before doing this, and I think it hurt me. And, even now, I’m still working on this issue in my book.)

After reevaluating my novel, I then had to tackle my issues with query writing. The heart, the brain, and a lung. I was adding earlobes and toenails. I had the unfortunate and, well, arrogant belief that my book was far too complex to reduce to 250 words. I couldn’t possibly leave out this and that, so I would miraculously find some way to squeeze it all in. I could do it!

I couldn’t. I dropped characters I loved. I dropped a major (major!) part of the plot. I included the inciting incident, the main conflicts (internal and external), and stakes. I focused on my main character and showed her arc. I couldn’t give too much away, even if I wanted to, but I also couldn’t be vague. Ack—it was a difficult balance. There were a number of ways I could write the query, and I gave them all a shot. There was no magic formula that worked for me, although I tried hard to answer those questions above. I finally had a draft that seemed to capture my book, and it was stripped down to—what?—248 words? This was a huge triumph for me. (Also: I could still add in one adverb and one sparkly adjective somewhere! It wasn’t easy, but I controlled the urge.)

Readers got it. They offered minimal suggestions. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I felt closer.

I took time away and came back to it and asked myself, “Would I want to read this book?” Over and over again, I asked myself this. I did want to read it, for the same reasons I wanted to write it. At least I could feel the thought behind it, its heart, and its breath—the life—of the story. I wasn’t completely confident, but I hoped that at that point most of the agent responses I would get would be subjective—and not based on a terrible query. At least this one would adequately represent the book I was trying to sell. I got lots of rejections. But I also got a solid number of requests.

There’s not just one way to write your query. I think you can get two very different critiques and both of them can be helpful and right. You have to decide what works best for your story.

I have read—and studied—so many queries at this point. Some I admired tremendously, but they didn’t move me much. I can also remember reading a few queries on message boards and instantly thinking, “If I were an agent I would totally request that.” Then I read other writers’ comments, surprised that many were so critical. Whether a query is successful to a reader is definitely beyond merely understanding the story it presents.

It’s subjective! And that’s a good thing. All of this would be so boring if everyone wanted to write and read the exact same things.

I’ve learned so much throughout this query-writing process. I’ve learned to have a query in my head (if not on paper) before I even start writing something new. It helps me zero in on the goals I have for my book, put all the major pieces in place ahead of time, and forces me to take a hard look at what will make it a compelling story. So, it’s different than an outline or a synopsis. What is the pulse that beats through your story? What makes it breathe? What makes it important and unique? Maybe this won’t work for die-hard pantsers, but I like the direction it offers me.

 

So, my two pieces of advice:

A big number one: Make sure it makes sense. I’ve read a lot of other writers’ queries that I don’t understand, and if I have to struggle to fill in some confusing blanks, I know no agent has time for that. If it’s confusing, you might be trying to cram in too much. Or, it could be evidence that the book itself is not ready to query.

Number two: I doubt someone will be interested in your book if it doesn’t move them. (And certainly what moves one person doesn’t necessarily move another.) But it’s important to make sure that what you love about your book comes across in your query, so someone like you will read it and think, “Wow. I love this!” (And that’s the agent you want!) It is HARD to move someone with a query. It is so hard to put a heart, brain, and lungs into 250 words. But it’s definitely worth the effort of 58,247 queries to get closer.