Snow days were made for writers and a wonderful affirmation that teaching and being a writer in the wings go hand in hand. Rarely does the universe hit the freeze button and say, go ahead, write your heart out. Nothing else is required of you. Today is a frozen moment in time, and I plan on using every minute.
I'm wrapping up a novel that has been a long time coming. It was an idea that turned into three poems and a short story, the characters scattered all over the map (and the internet). The end didn't come easily. It felt like an impossible game of tug-of-war, letting down the main characters whichever way I pulled. I went to bed last night wondering when I would sneak in a few minutes to wrestle with the ending, and this morning as the alarm went off and the call from my school district closing the high school simultaneously snapped me out of bed, I sat down and finished. There wasn't an epiphany. I didn't dream of the perfect ending, but somehow having the responsibilities of the day lifted off of my shoulders let things fall into place.
Those writers gifted with unlimited resources and unlimited time are few and far between. For the rest of us mere mortals, it's not just about finding the minutes to write. It's about silencing the voice reminding us that there is laundry to be done and what about the dog, he's dying for a walk and are you sure you did your taxes already? Time itself isn't such an unusual commodity. It manifests in doctor's waiting rooms and the space between work and the gym. Physical minutes and hours can be plucked from the day, but using them solely for writing, that's the tricky part. Climbing into the world you're creating, hushing the world hanging around you, is a sometimes impossible challenge. Not because one is better than the other but because they compete. They fight like maniacs, and at the end of the day the real world always wins. Its weight is tangible. Its urgency, undeniable.
I am a routine writer. Every morning whether it's for fifteen minutes or two hours depending on when I can eject myself from bed, I write. But of those days, only half, possibly a third, are ones where I win. Where I put up the shade that allows me to shut my eyes and see the characters twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be played with like dolls on a shelf. The other days I drudge through. I bump my head against the wall between this world and that trying to get the sensation that I'm over there. But my worries and my realities win over and those pages go in the file labeled, hey at least I wrote.
Whatever forces of God or nature blessed me with a snow day today, I owe you. Bigtime. Before the sun came out, when the snow was settling on the real world, I was able to slip off into my own little Narnia and give a few characters closure. And that is truly priceless.
January 1st brings new adventures and resolutions. Each year I try to shake up my writing routine in one way or another, whether it’s a move to poetry, taking on a new editing position, or in 2017 – deciding to self-publish.
While I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of success with my shorter pieces, I never placed a novel in the right spot. Twice I got close (I liken it to *almost* walking down the aisle but getting cold feet last minute and racing away with my book under my arm). Neither publication offers were right. One was lucrative but the compromise in my work was too great. The other publisher didn’t offer the enthusiasm for my novel that I wanted. And after a brief moment of regret, in both situations, I was comforted by the fact that a first book only comes out once, and I wanted it to be on my terms.
On the flip side, I’ve always held a dim view of self-publishing. As a freelance editor who worked with authors taking this path, I was often turned off by the speed with which people wanted a manuscript released and the flippant attitude towards deep editing, a ‘real’ book cover, and other staples of the publication process. Amazon is swarmed with self-published eBooks that don’t necessarily represent authors’ best works. Pair that with the fact that it’s expensive to do the right way, and self-publishing had no appeal.
Enter working with a for-hire editor who was just amazing last year, and my ideas shifted. I first heard about her at a SCBWI conference, and together she and I rummaged through an old manuscript of mine that was really brought to life. It was the first inkling for me that while I would have to shell out some cash for the moving parts of the process, I could actually produce a novel to my standard. But unlike some of the flash jobs I’d seen, I could devote a year to the process and really put my heart into what I was doing.
In other words, 2017, let’s do this. I’ll be blogging alternately about the writing process but also the steps I take to self-publish my YA book. And I promise to include the good, the bad, and the ugly in the hopes that if, nah make that when, I am successful, my how-to from a novice perspective may offer assistance to other folks planning to do the same.
I hope your writing goals and resolutions all come true in this upcoming year. Happy holidays, and keep writing!
For several years now I’ve half-watched the #PitchWars contest, devouring blogs about craft and enjoying authors and professionals encourage one another in an exceedingly tough industry. This year, I decided to jump in. Hopefully after reading this brief account, you might decide to take the plunge, too!
What is #PitchWars?
Brenda Drake’s website (click HERE) offers an incredible explanation since she is the genius behind the contest. But in a nutshell, bring a polished – but not agented or represented – draft novel to the party and pitch to mentors who each select a mentee to spend months with working to create a finished copy, ready to market to agents.
What are the benefits?
Many! First, the process of getting your manuscript ready to enter is a wonderful motivation. Researching the mentors introduces you to amazing new authors (and books, I have a list I’m working on now!) Both mentors and prospective mentees promote the contest with blog posts, query and first page contests, and other resources all wrapped up in the neat hashtag. And honestly for me the best benefit has been allowing myself time to invest in my craft. Let’s face it, most of us are not writing as our primary career, and it’s easy to shortchange the profession. The way the contest is structured, information is distributed bit by bit, making it so easily digestible and a neat, ongoing project to feed your writer soul.
What do I need?
As mentioned before, a full manuscript draft in good condition. Sure, the mentor will help you, but you have to bring something formidable to the table. And you also need a query that will be persuasive enough to entice mentors. Click HERE if you need a good Query 101.
How do I select mentors?
When the mentor lists come out, in various categories based on what you write, on Brenda’s blog, it’s sort of like Christmas in July. (Take a look at this year's mentor lists HERE.) Read their tweets. Check out their blogs. Start creating a list of favorites, BUT wait to make your final choices until their manuscript wish lists come out. My absolute favorite mentor of the YA batch isn’t looking for what I’m writing, and as much as it broke my heart to scratch his name off my list, I did it.
How do I get started if I have no idea what I’m doing?
That was me initially. Search #PitchWars and take it all in for a day or two. Then ask questions! The community is welcoming and will help you. Once you’ve done this, write a query, research mentors, and get ready to submit a query and first chapter to four (or six if you donate) mentors of your choice once the contest opens.
Were you successful?
I have absolutely no idea. The contest submission period starts August 3rd (so if you have all the right stuff there’s still time!) I have my dream mentor list set, I’m ready to send off my work, and fingers crossed by the end of August I’ll be selected as a mentee. But even if that doesn’t happen for me this year, I still consider the whole process a win. I’ve discovered new authors, received valuable feedback, and given time to my career as a writer, which means a lot.
I’m luxuriating in the moment where I’ve finished a manuscript after various edits, received the beta reader thumbs up, and added a few final touches. Now queries and the manuscript itself are in various agent and editorial hands, and I want to reflect upon the most helpful resource I used during the novel-writing process. Without a doubt, it was the use of a mentor text.
A mentor text is a work in the selected genre of what you want to tackle. For example, I was writing a middle grade novel (something new for me) so I specifically chose two texts to help me understand the structure and language of middle grade writing. While my goal was magical realism, I opted not to select a magical realism mentor text because I was worried about inadvertently including too much of the texts’ ideas into my work.
Emulation = awesome. Imitation = not so awesome.
I settled on Holes and When You Reach Me. When you’re selecting a mentor text, first and foremost read it once through for the sake of reading and enjoying. (If you find yourself bored or disengaged, drop it like a bad habit. It’s not the right mentor text for you!) Award winners or popular books are great because they’ve proven their success. Don’t shy away from older books, BUT I’d pair it with something more modern as well. As much as I love Holes, I wanted a book written in the past few years, too. Styles and trends change. (Goodreads and Amazon are my two favorite spots to find mentor texts, because works are broken down by category and reader reactions abound.)
Once you’ve read it/them for fun, get ready to be a detective and see how the book ticks. My process falls into Post-Its, a timeline, and a reader response journal. (Fellow English teachers, you’ll recognize that guy from what you assign your students, I’m guessing!)
1 – Note larger things such as plot structure, rising action, climax, high vs. low stakes, etc. Ultimately I chart the skeleton of the book. To make my life easier I do this all on multi-colored Post-It Page Markers, breaking my notes down into plot, character, and conflict.
2 – Pacing is key, and a simple chapter timeline showing where the ups and downs of the novel happen provides a lovely visual. (In other words don’t just write down what’s happening. The closer it is to the top of the paper, the happier it is for the protagonist. Conversely the low moments look low on the page.) Ultimately you can compare it to your own work down the road and see if you’re keeping the reader as engaged.
3 – Your reactions as a reader are, in my opinion, some of the most important harbingers of success when looking at how a novel functions. When does it make you love the protagonist, or hate them? When do you have faith in the narrative, and when are you hanging by a string?
As a Creative Writing teacher I’m always a bit horrified by students who love to write but refuse to read. “I don’t have time,” they argue. But without reading it’s nearly impossible to sort out the structural nuts and bolts of writing. The best prose cannot stand alone. Gorgeous lines must be draped on a formidable skeleton to support and highlight what you can do.
Good luck finding mentor texts, and happy writing!
June is my favorite month for a variety of reasons - end of the school year, my birthday, and a host of other fun moments. This includes packing up for the annual weekend in Princeton with the lovely NJ SCBWI folks. I've attended my fair share of writing conferences, and this is by far my favorite. The staff are superb, the fellow writers are invested and invigorating, and it's Princeton. Come on now.
As I've been preparing the past week my hope is that everyone reading this can find a way to get to a conference, whether it's a one-day pitchfest or a full weekend of fun and learning. And if you do, here are a few tips to make the most of the experience.
Attire - Be comfortable and notable. Think about how your clothing can highlight your personality and make you memorable. (No, do not dig out your sequined prom dress as a conversation starter/profession ender.) But if you write historical fiction, consider a piece of nostalgic flair. It's a subtle way to make your mark.
Supplies - Travel light. Transfer as many agendas and pieces of info to your phone or iPad as possible. My iPad is the perfect conference compliment. With a keyboard I can take notes at lightning pace, hyperlink important contacts, and even email my info to folks who request it. (The one caveat to going digital? Have business cards handy and plenty of them. There's something intimate and tangible about handing a new writing buddy or agent a physical card. Staples can print them for you in a day, but my favorite online source is Tiny Prints.)
Time Management - Arrive with a plan. Research the professionals attending. Register early if possible to pick strategic workshops and even possibly tables for meals. And schedule time to mingle. The most successful conferences I've enjoyed are ones where I have the confidence of knowing exactly where to be and who to touch base with. But I also always give myself dedicated wander and get lost time, too. It's a balance.
Personal Brand Management - Review your social media. Make sure everything is current and related to writing. If your last ten tweets have been about Johnny Depp (I say this because some of mine have been), tidy things up so when people check you out, they see you as the professional writing machine you are. Catch up on blogs. Source a few neat links. Make yourself as relevant as possible.
The Love - All of the above should be secondary to your love of writing. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are a writer, that paid or unpaid it is a real profession, and be proud of yourself for what you do. The conferences can unfortunately also elicit urges to compare yourself to other writers or beat yourself up for not having achieved everything you want. Success will come in good time, and while you're toiling away and waiting, you deserve to be in the company of writers.
Happy writing, and go HERE if you've been inspired to find a conference this summer.
I'm thrilled to be co-teaching a literary essay boot camp with Mothers Always Write this week. In addition to spending some virtual time with awesome writers, I am always appreciative of a chance to hone my editing skills and translate what I know onto paper.
In other words, it's one thing to be able to see what's wrong in a manuscript. It's an entirely different beast to be able to articulate a strong critique to someone else. The process reinforces the idea of layered editing - something in which I am a firm believer. I thought as a good prep for the course, I would blog a few thoughts.
Any writer who thinks a one-and-done editing pass will suffice needs to reconsider. It is impossible to pay attention to all of the various nuances of editing simultaneously. Even armed with a team of beta readers providing feedback, it is still essential to think about the various steps on your journey to a polished piece.
Step One: The Big Picture
Read your manuscript for clarity, because no amount of lovely language will save a reader from confusion or chaos. This is particularly appropriate if you are attempting a non-chronological or experimental approach. If the reader doesn't know what's going on, find the disconnect. (A bulleted plot list or good old-fashioned outline will help you see where the story runs off the rails.)
Step Two: Repetition and Rhyme
This is a great spot to trim down. Where are you repeating or making structural choices that perhaps don't have a purpose? Basically, if you find yourself on the defensive with the phrase But it sounds good, take out the scissors.
Step Three: The Nitty Gritty
This is, in my opinion, the fun step. You get to pour through the language and pat yourself on the back for those gorgeous metaphors or witty analogies. At the same time, banish any banal writing that doesn't live up to your best. Should everything be flowery and overwritten? Absolutely not. But everything should be well-written.
Step Four: Mechanical Clean-up
Conversely, this one is the least fun. And this is a perfect step to call in help if you don't feel that you are the strongest proofreader you could be. For example, if you always forget to use the appropriate 'to' or often misplace modifiers, hook up with a great editor or friend who has an eye for those details.
Some authors may combine multiple steps. I've known others who color code and do a dozen run-throughs. You certainly don't want to edit until you're sick of a piece, but give your work the appropriate respect and time.
This is the single best piece of writing advice I ever received, and one that was worth turning into a brief blog post.
Never stop learning how to write.
Reading is an absolutely wonderful way to further your voice and sense of pacing and style, but the reality is that unless you're an expert with a dozen novels under your belt, you have things to learn. I made the decision last week to hire an editor to help me with a new genre of book I'm working on...a large undertaking in every sense of the word. It's a sizable financial commitment, a serious dedication of time because there are deadlines which I must meet, and as an educator and mother and author, sometimes I feel like I've learned everything there is to learn. Except I haven't, and that's one of the reasons I'm a writer, because I want to continue learning. In the spirit of this, I present a list of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of and SHOULD make time for. It's not just enough to write. Keep learning!
MOOC - Massive online open courses are free and offer far more than just writing tips and tricks. Particularly if you're planning a historical novel or your work centers around a specialized protagonist, take advantage of the free opportunities to learn and make your writing more authentic.
Online Writing Courses - Gotham is my personal favorite with a boutique of different topics, but there are dozens of online course hubs. If a full course isn't your cup of tea, many organizations are offering writing boot camps that provide a week of intensive study for very reasonable prices. (Mothers Always Write, the journal I edit for, just launched our maiden voyage with this. Ours is full, but many are out there. Decide first on your price range and how much time you plan to devote, and Google away from there.)
Editorial Help - Consider hiring an editor if you have arrived at the end of a project OR stalled on something you're working on. Again, plan what you're willing to spend and then find personal recommendations. Websites present a formidable summary, but until you talk to actual clients, you won't get a true sense of what the editors can do. I received my recommendation from a published author at a SCBWI conference, and I was sold.
Textbooks - If a traditional writing class isn't in the cards and online doesn't appeal, consider browsing syllabi of graduate courses that appeal. Often the texts are listed and just reading through one can be a refresher or walk you through a new genre. One of my all-time favorites, The Making of a Story, is an education cover to cover.
On-Site College Courses - Auditing courses can be a free and educational experience without the commitment of a full graduate program. Reach out to local schools and see what their policies are, or touch base specifically with the writing staff.
Writing Conferences - Most conferences, in addition to providing great access to professionals in the industry, also run workshops on a number of specified topics. Start with a writing group that speaks to your project or genre, such as SCBWI, or , or go to a general writers resource like Poet and Writers Magazine conference search engine.
Critique Groups - I saved this one for last because in my opinion, a good critique group is tough to find. You need to find authors that will challenge you and are there to better their writing. Be savvy when shopping for one and don't settle for a group unless you feel that you are gaining as much from reading the works of the other members as the notes that you receive on your own manuscript. Otherwise often a beta reader can provide the same without as much of a time commitment.
The long and the short is that there are opportunities for every price and time range, as long as you're willing to jump in and find them.
Creativity Doesn't Have to Cost
1) Stop pulling the writing all-nighters. Sure, you might race through ten pages but you will be physically zapped the next day and it will cost you in productivity down the road. And along those lines, treat your writing like the awesome partner it is, not a midnight affair. Write in a cafe, schedule it on your calendar, treat it with respect. Your body and craft will thank you.
2) Get up! Even if you're having the best writing jag ever, stand up and stretch or do jumping jacks. I've never been one to manage the standing desk (I'm too wedded to a dog tucked under one arm and a pillow under the other when I get cozy to write) but if I sit for too long my body feels sluggish and it translates to my writing. If you're too enraptured in your work to remember, set a timer on your computer or phone. For me, every thirty minutes of awesomeness requires five minutes of movement to keep the creative juices and blood flowing.
3) Stop being jealous. Other writers' paths will never be your path no matter how hard you try. And a friend or peer publishing does not diminish your possibilities or take anything away from you. I've seen so many writers stalk successful folks for the wrong reasons. (Stalk them for the right ones!) Find inspiration and take their successes as a universal 'You can do it!' poster floating in the air. And if you just can't shed the green, stay off of social media. It will derail you from your best writing by setting an invisible standard you can't measure up to.
4) Don't binge eat while you write. (I'm not judging. Your general eating habits are your personal business.) But too much sugar or caffeine will provide you a lovely bump of productivity followed by a sluggish food hangover. Take it slow and sip a fantastic drink or carefully nibble away at one treat.
5) Love yourself a little more when you write. Writing is grueling and conjures the inner critic from the first word you put on the page. It is easy to feel not good enough when you write, to compare yourself to others, and even to let hesitance on the page translate to wondering about life choices. Why aren't you a famous writer by now? Why isn't this story taking off? Why did you have Taco Bell for breakfast? At any rate, you were wonderful when you sat down to work, and you're just as wonderful when you shut the laptop.
The bottom line is that writing should be life-enriching. It should make you healthier in all respects. And with a little care and tenderness to your routine and yourself, it will!
"All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."
- Toni Morrison
If only. If only we authors all carried perfect working memories, particularly when it comes to writing personal narrative.
One of my latest projects involves a sizable memoir piece, something outside of my comfort zone. Fiction and poetry are familiar. But as I've hopped into the time machine to revisit the past - five years from my adolescence - I've been reading every book, article, and relevant meme that I can about the do's and don'ts of narrative nonfiction.
While many of the things I've gleaned are fairly obvious, I wanted to compile a helpful quick guide to the basics.
1 - Don't use real names. Even if you initially obtain permission, it is touchy airing your (and others') dirty laundry in a piece that could be republished, shared, and essentially made permanent to the world. The only person you can really vouch for in that sort of a scenario is yourself.
2 - Interview others involved. You may think you remember exactly what happened the day you were asked to prom by the captain of the football team and won the science fair and saved a kitten from a tree, all while acing your chemistry final. But the reality is we are terribly biased beings, and recording different perspectives will help you flesh out the story - as long as you remember that all the other sources carry biases as well.
3 - Start where the reader will be invested. Avoid dumping the who what where when why how in the opening paragraphs. Your reader doesn't harbor the same interest that you do until they've found a point of action to hang their hat on.
4 - Avoid the five paragraph essay like the plague. Nonfiction is not inherently boring or mundane unless you treat it as such. Try to view the details with fresh eyes and give them all the sparkly new life they deserve. Figurative devices and gorgeous language should not be reserved for fiction and poetry.
5 - Speaking of boring and mundane, ask yourself this question. Does anyone need to hear this story? Boiled down, the reader ought to walk away with something. There is a radical difference between what goes in your diary and holds sentimental value to you and what goes in your blog or on a written page that others will scavenge for their own good.
6 - Find critique partners who don't know the story. Editors privy to the story can't be true editors.
7 - You are awesome. Remember that when the honesty train hits you particularly hard and your essay has sauntered across the line from therapeutic to therapy. Be sincere and genuine, but never throw yourself under the bus.
Hopefully these bits of wisdom will help you on your nonfiction path or even inspire you to start a personal essay or memoir project. Happy writing!
I've written posts like this before. I actually think every writer does to remind us that we're not crazy, and if we share our mission statements with others, it somehow solidifies in the universe that we are actually writers.
So here we go, my top ten reasons why I write in no particular order.
10. I am a list maker (as this post evidences,) and there is nothing more satisfying than manifesting my lists into stories. Nick Hornby's High Fidelity always spoke to me this way, and I picture Hornby - pen cap dangling out of the corner of his mouth like a cigarette - jotting down ten intriguing things happening around him. My lists aren't nearly as hip, but I capture images like a grocery list, and they worm their way into a narrative.
9. Writing cool dialogue makes me feel cooler. I am never nearly as witty in person as my characters are. They find the meaning in the inconsequential. They drop alliteration riffs with ease. They do not stutter over the word um. One day I will stockpile a stack of index cards full of cool observations and drop them like an artist's new tracks throughout the day.
8. It is the greatest homage I can think of to those authors who have shaped me as a human being. Thank you Gaitskill, Alcott, Hood, Proulx, Palahniuk, Rowling, etc. I aspire to be on someone else's list one day.
7. Cool pens. The rationale for a truckload of cool pens.
6. It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it. Actually many somebodies because fiction breeds empathy as illustrated in this article. And I believe the world needs more compassion, especially these days.
5. As a writer it is socially acceptable to drop everything and go park in a Starbucks with your laptop and stare contemplatively out the window because you ... are a writer.
4. Prolific writers are prolific readers, and when many talk themselves out of that late night trip to Barnes and Noble because they don't really need a book, I can say it is my research. It is my writing class in 200 pages, and if I return with a bag full of books, well that's practically a portable MFA. Right? Riiiiiiiiiiight?
3. Refer to #4 except with movies. And Netflix. A good narrative is a good narrative.
2. I can reconcile the truly miserable bits of the world through my writing. I just received an email the other day about a piece I'd written years ago. It detailed discovering my ex-husband with the 'other woman', and the person emailing wanted to know if it had really happened. When I confessed it was sadly all truth, she wrote back the following:
Sorry. He's a shit. You'll do better.
She's right, and when I wrote that piece I was so raw and vulnerable, but putting it down on paper trapped it under a glass lens and allowed me to draw distance and resolution. "Expectations" reminded me that I have a writer's brain, and a writer's brain can turn even the worst lemons into lemonade. (Or vice versa. We can also make the sweetest little situation into a nightmare. It works both ways.)
1. I love it. I've written since I could talk and hold a crayon, and whether my future takes me to the top of the NYT best seller list or simply allows me to share the way I see the world with others from time to time online, I'm ok with that. I write because I can't imagine a life without it.
Why do you write?
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.