Category: Writing Life

I have a mentor!

What does that mean? Technically nothing, emotionally everything, and practically, somewhere in between. 

What do you mean, a mentor?

There are many writing contests run online, usually publicized through Twitter, where writers can win mentorship and/or editing from another author, an editors, or an industry pro. Mentors publicize what they’re interested in reading, what their editing style is, and what they look for in a mentee. Writers submit a query, first pages, sometimes a synopsis, and sometimes answers to questions about themselves/their book, choosing two to four mentors to read their entry. The process is very similar to querying agents, by design! Then each mentor picks one (or sometimes two) authors to help with polishing up their work to a diamond shine.

I saw some mentors that seemed perfect for my second novel, code-named Ballroom, so I entered. I got a request within four hours of submitting—which, to be honest, has a lot to do with luck of who’s reading submissions. Like agents, mentors are searching for a love connection with a story, and in these contests, additionally for a book they have ideas to improve.

Reader, I made a love connection.

Technically nothing

I mean, as far as career progress that the IRS would consider taxable, a mentor doesn’t count. Getting one means having another critique partner, a cheerleader, a guide, one who’s walked the path you hope to be on, but that’s it.

Emotionally everything

But “that’s it”? Oh, no, dear reader! Having someone who’s never met me and doesn’t know me pick my story out of their submissions and want to read more is the most validating experience an author can have. And then to have that mentor be so, so excited about so many of the things you love about your own story, well… that’s everything!

Practically, somewhere in between

I feel so loved and supported and uplifted. Sure, winning a contest doesn’t guarantee an agent or a book deal, but it guarantees having one more friend in my corner to encourage me, challenge me, and support my question. Cat, I can’t wait!!

Anna from Frozen being super excited
Me all day today

Take Hurting Seriously

The latest eruption in Book Twitter is about American Dirt, a novel about Mexican emigrants written by someone who four years ago claimed to be white. For an explanation of what’s problematic in the book, read this gentle review, or this straightforward one, or this salty one, or this explainer. If you’re a person of color, you probably already know what I’m about to say.

But I want to speak to white authors. When I searched for “American Dirt” to see what all the fuss was about, this was one of the top news results:

Preview image of headline with author photo and book cover.

(The headline of a Washington Post article reads, “‘American Dirt’ is a novel about Mexicans by a writer who isn’t. For some, that’s a problem,” with the first-line preview reading, “At first, Jeanine Cummins was worried she had no business writing ‘American Dirt.’”)

That Post headline rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m ashamed to say it took me some time to figure out why—because I’m also guilty of it. The headline frames people’s objections as an intellectual issue: “some” people have “a problem” with it. The caption of the photo heading the article is, “The book has sparked debate over who is entitled to tell fictional stories.”

I’m white. I’ve been the author who was afraid of “cancel culture.” I’ve been afraid to write BIPOC characters because of the backlash if I get it wrong. But I listened to authors and readers of color, who did the emotional work to explain what shouldn’t have had to be explained: if you’re more afraid of being called out than you are of doing harm, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.

But it’s worse than that. Even though I understood and assented to the notion that I should care more about doing harm than being called out, I was still unwittingly treating call-outs as an intellectual exercise: a matter of justice and fairness. I wasn’t giving enough credence to people saying, “These bad representations are actually hurting us.”

The uproar has nothing to do with who is “allowed” to write about Mexicans. It’s not like Cummins wrote a great book and Latinx critics are just sore because she’s white. People are pointing out the real harm that this book’s misrepresentations can cause. As David Schmidt wrote,

While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: “crime and violence are Mexican problems.”

That problem is worse precisely because the book was given a seven-figure advance and a huge marketing/PR push ahead of books that actual migrants have written. David Bowles wrote a great piece about the problematic parts of publishing that landed us here, ending with,

“Imagine what $1,000,000 could have done to actually address the problem Cummins ostensibly set out to resolve. Macmillan: you could have, for example, advanced forty Chicana/Mexicana writers $25,000 each for their #ownvoices stories about our ‘faceless’ plight.”

If you read the critiques of American Dirt and come away thinking that the problem is just that its author is white, you’re guilty, at least subconsciously, of thinking, “These people are exaggerating their pain.”

People’s hurt deserves and desperately needs to be believed. That’s as true of readers calling out bad rep as it is of women reporting sexual assault and people of color reporting racism, and and we need to take them seriously.

You can learn a lot from writing one short story

Especially if you spend 7 days working on it! *nervous laughter*

Write Often

I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s “Portraits and Dreams” workshop in February, which was amazing. One piece of advice she gave was to write a lot of short stories, and write them often. (She gave similar advice two years ago at her “Seven Sentences” workshop, but I was apparently not ready to take it then yet. In other news, take as many of Maggie’s workshops as you can.)

After all, she said, the hardest part of writing is translating the beautiful abstract story from your head into words on the page. Nothing can help you get faster except lots and lots of practice. Completing a whole story arc over and over, which short stories allow you to do, helps you get faster at the translation part. She and two of her author friends committed to doing one story a week each, and they found the practice really helpful. You can read some results and about the process in The Curiosities.

Do the Pre-Work

Having just rewritten a 1,500-word story at least five times in seven days, I can confirm that translation is hard. For me, I had trouble even figuring out what I meant to say, but that might just be another way of saying “translating the feeling and impression in my head onto words is hard.” I did at least write the end first, advice I got from Jonathan Maberry (who credits it to someone I’ve forgotten), but then I changed the ending.

I find that my prose “sets up” (like concrete) a lot faster in a short story. Writing longhand first would help me be less precious about the words. Because I was writing for a contest with a low-ish word count limit, I kept worrying about that. Do not do this. Instead, get everything down first and then trimming and eliminating. I hope Future Me will remember this.

Rewrite Blind

Another technique Maggie suggested was the “blind rewrite,” or I might call it the “fresh start rewrite.” After you’ve analyzed your story and figured out what’s wrong, start with a completely blank page and rewrite from scratch. It’s doesn’t take me more than 90 minutes to write 1,500 words if I’m not too focused on getting the “right” words down. I found myself longing for clever turns of phrase from the previous draft, but you can always go back and grab them. I found that sometimes I had come up with even cleverer ways to phrase things by remembering only the impression that I had.

As I got to later revisions, I only wrote the new snippets from scratch, but I did them before diving back into the existing prose. That kept me from being too in love with old words to truly write the new words I wanted.

Find the Contrast

Maggie says the most interesting bits of writing are the points of greatest contrast. Even/especially for novels, she likes to think up the pivotal moment and work backwards, to make sure the reader has been properly set up for it. The beauty and difficulty of a short story is that you don’t have much room to fit in a whole character arc, but it can be done! Some short stories are more like tone poems, but if you can build to a dramatic crescendo, why not?

Practice Practicing


Photo by Omar Tursić on Unsplash

The down side is that I spent 7 workdays on this short story instead of working on my novel. Now, I need the practice, I like the result even if it doesn’t win the contest, and it’s good to get away from my novel once in a while. But I do hope that the practice helps me get faster, because I spent an average of like 40 seconds per word on this thing.

But in honor of finishing, enjoy this teaser from the short story. 🙂

Deadlines and Anniversaries: I Finished (Again)!

Last month, the second anniversary of my transition to being a full-time writer passed without my noticing. Maybe the second anniversary is never as exciting as the first, but I also have an excuse: I was finishing my book!

I told myself I would finish in April. Then in May. Then in July or August. But I know the difference between a real deadline and a fake one, so I knew I had to create consequences. I decided that if I got to September and still hadn’t finished, I would cancel all my social engagements until I did! Unfortunately, I didn’t clarify to myself. What about weekends, when I have to come up with ways to entertain the kids? What about parties I’d already agreed to host or attend? It wasn’t a clear enough consequence.

BUT. I finished! This is version 4.5 since September 2016, when I sat down with a new abundance of time and nothing but an outline. Version 1 was in third person POV and reused a character from an older version as the love interest. Then in January of 2017, I fell out of love with him. For version 2, I chucked about 30,000 words and the love interest, scrambling to finish by the end of April (and the real deadline of my editor). In version 3, I switched to first person POV (on said editor’s advice). Version 4 rejiggered all the relationships, took some great feedback from several more amazing editors, ruthlessly chopped 9,000 words (and so many darlings) from the first half, and added 6,000 words to flesh out the end.

Reader, I am so proud of this version. Of course I can always continue to improve it, and I’ll have to, but it’s amazing to finally, finally be garnering interest from agents. (Very, very small nibbles, but even teeny tiny bits of affirmation can sustain an author for a long time!) When I get more feedback, I will continue to incorporate it, but… I’m done! I got to the end! I wrote, edited, polished, edited, and got all the way to “The End.”

Now… on to the query trenches.

rejection resized

How to see word counts in Scrivener’s corkboard

Author Kimmery Martin asked to see word counts in corkboard view for Scrivener. While I’m not positive this is what she wanted, it sounded like a helpful feature, so I tried to figure out a way to do it.

First, I’ll show you how I do it. I have my scenes and chapters organized in the Binder and I click to different levels to see the word count at the bottom of the main editor window, which is in “Scrivenings” view (i.e., viewing the text).image

I can adapt that same strategy to see word counts in corkboard mode. First, create a vertical split view by using the buttons in the upper right corner of the editor.image

Set the center editor to corkboard view, then click on the button to sync the two editor panes.image

Set the right-hand editor to text/Scrivenings view.image

When you click on a group in the corkboard, it will sync to the text view and let you view the word count at the bottom. (Click the picture to enlarge it.)Screenshot of Scrivener showing the same chapter in multiple views

The problem is that drilling down to see the scene-level word count isn’t easy. If what you want is to see metadata (label, synopsis, status, etc.), then outline view might be what you want for the middle section (which also lets you move more seamlessly between scene and chapter (updating the right-hand editor and word count as you go).image

(To customize what you see in Outline view, go to View menu > Outliner Columns. There are many options available!)

When Reality Interferes With Your Goals

At the beginning of this year, I set for myself what I considered to be ambitious but achievable goals: accumulate 75 rejections and edit my second book. Of course, I wasn’t really after 75 rejections; I was hoping that I could find an agent who wanted my book before I hit that number. But querying 75 times was something I could control, so that was the official goal.

I didn’t exactly hit the ground running—I spent the first week of January laid up with the stomach flu. Ugh. Then, I wanted to wait for a response from the two agents from whom I’d won feedback during my Nanowrimo contest participation. If I’m really honest with myself, I wasn’t hoping for feedback. I was hoping for a stamp of approval, something along the lines of, “Yes, this book is ready. Go forth and query! In fact, query me!”

sad Winona Ryder from What I got was a lot of confusion and a very gentle, “You’re not quite there yet.” Oooof. Reality bites.

And yet, better to find out that way than by getting 75 rejections, right? Since an author can usually query an agent only once per story, I didn’t want to waste opportunities if the story wasn’t ready.

Fortunately, I also got some really good suggestions from a knowledgeable friend, who read my story not once but twice! With a little reluctance (how much longer is this process going to take??), but also a lot of motivation (I will work until I succeed!) and some direction, I embarked on yet another edit. I followed Susan Dennard’s amazing revision process, and spent way more time brainstorming than I had hoped to. I reconsidered nearly every aspect of the story, all the way from scratch, and landed not too far away from where I started.

Finishing the edits again took way longer than I wanted—I had hoped to be done by the end of March, and it was almost the end of April—but I was still able to submit to RevPit, an online mentorship contest run by a group of freelance editors. Though I wasn’t selected as a winner, I got unbelievably encouraging feedback from one of the editors. It was so incredibly validating (yes, I’m using all the adverbs today) to see that my deep, deep edits had indeed made the book better—even good enough that someone could be excited about it!

Of course, the feedback, while good, still means that I have another round of editing to do before I will really want to query this story. But I’m almost as happy as if I’d won the contest. When I’m editing by yourself day after day, I get to the point where I can’t tell anymore if I’m actually improving the story. Now I know that my efforts were indeed helping, and I’ll have a clear direction for where to go from here. Hopefully, making the story even better will mean I won’t have to go through 75 agents before I sign one.

But if I do, at least I still have the second book that I’m anxious to get back to!

Getting to know me

Facts about me

  • I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be an author. I wrote my first story in Kindergarten, and I still have it (thanks, Mom!). It was about a princess, a dragon, and a knight, so… not much has changed.
  • pimpmybioI graduated from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue!)
  • My favorite Doctor is Ten (with Rose Tyler, as it should be—FIGHT ME), but Nine was my first, and you never forget your first Doctor.
  • I love ballroom dancing (that’s how I met my husband! See pic at right).
  • I have two boys. The oldest just started Kindergarten and the youngest just finished potty training (cue the choir of angels!).
  • Costumes I’ve worn in public: Jem, She-Ra, Wonder Woman (before everyone knew how cool she was), Princess Peach, Princess Buttercup, Agent Lucy Wilde (my son really wanted to be a Minion), Galadriel
  • I carry teabags in my purse because you never know when you might want good tea, like airplanes that carry only Lipton, fancy dinners that don’t have decaffeinated black tea for drinking with dessert—you know, the usual. My writing ritual requires tea and I drink unhealthy quantities of it.
  • If I could be anywhere right now, it would be on a tropical beach with a drink that has a little umbrella in it.
  • Chocolate is life and you can’t persuade me otherwise. I’ve now trained myself to like dark chocolate, and the best chocolate bar I’ve ever tasted is Divine Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle. If you bribe me with that I will do almost anything for you.
  • I’m a Ravenpuff. When asked whether I’d rather be right or kind, the former wins but the latter is what I try to do.
  • When I have to choose a favorite book, it’s always The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. (Corlath! *swoon*)

About My WIP

An ugly alchemist makes a magic mirror, only to discover that beauty doesn’t fix her problems and magic always has a price. In the tradition of Wicked and The Forbidden Wish, my YA fantasy novel The Alchemist’s Mirror brings to life the backstory of Snow White’s stepmother in a 14th century that never was.

How learning story structure helps me write faster

I last participated in NaNoWriMo in 2010. Since then, I’ve had two kids, quit my job, and rewritten my novel twice. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit about story structure and am now a reformed pantser (although no one is ever only a plotter or a pantser, many lean far to one side of the spectrum or the other).

Given my love of plotting, then, I didn’t know if I’d ever participate in Nano again. However, I was sufficiently motivated this year, and I’m loving it! And what I love most is how the years of studying story structure are paying dividends in a decidedly write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants month.

Before I learned structure, when I got stuck, I’d ask myself, “What do I want to happen next?” Or maybe even, “What should happen next?” But since I didn’t know anything about that should, I just brainstormed until I came up with a good idea (or any idea).

ThreeActStructure_small

https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JuliusKuschke/20130909/199869/Aristotle_was_not_a_Game_Designer.php

Now, when I want to know what should happen next, I just have to position myself within the framework of structure. “What should happen next? Well, I’ve just passed the call to adventure/inciting event, so now I need to work toward a First Plot Point that will change everything, oh yeah, and reveal the antagonist’s power and/or plan, and force my main character to make a decision to enter the Adventure World.” (Sometimes I even write sentences exactly like that in my brainstorming! Because it’s hard to hold everything there is to know about the First Plot Point in my head all at once.) That is a much easier question to brainstorm an answer for, because structure gives me criteria—a way to judge how good ideas are.

Usually by the time I hit on an idea that meets all those criteria, it’s plenty good enough to roll with! It might take slightly longer to get to that idea than to come up with an answer to my old, more generic questions, but the difference is that I know the specific question will lead me to an answer that won’t paint me into a corner and will leave me with something more novel-shaped at the end. That saves me time both in November and in my future edits!

I cannot recommend K.M. Weiland’s site highly enough. She will kindly and gently lure you into plotting (even if you still like to pants the heck out of the first draft and just apply structure in editing). For a quick rundown (with way more depth available), check out her everything checklist!

P.S. You can support girls’ education and motivate me to finish Nanowrimo this year by donating to the Malala Fund!

Words for a Cause

candy hangoverHappy November, everyone! For writers, the day after Halloween brings not just a candy hangover but the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. Those who sign up attempt to write a whole novel during the month of November. (The target of 50,000 words is technically a little shorter than most novels, but still a lofty goal for 30 days.) “Wrimos” who participate in “Nano” get pep talks from published authors, organize community “write-ins” where authors gather to motivate (and sometimes distract) one another, and provide plenty of accountability and camaraderie to keep going to the finish line.

I wasn’t planning to join this year, but then author Susan Dennard announced The Mighty Pens, a team of writers who want to use their words for good. That got me thinking. My book is in a slower editing/querying phase, plus I’ve never tried working on multiple projects at once, a skill that I’ll need if I make a career out of this writing thing. “Just to see,” I started to brainstorm an idea that’s been percolating in my head since May, and that multiplied into many ideas that seem almost novel-shaped.

So I decided to throw my hat into the ring! (more like the three-ring circus…) We’re raising money for the Malala Fund to support girls’ education. You sponsor me, I get motivated to keep going, the Mighty Pens authors (including me) qualify to to win prizes, the and the Malala Fund helps girls all over the world get the education they need to secure a better future. It’s win-win-win-win! Winning all around!

You can make a one-time donation now or follow my progress (I’ll be posting it on Twitter, my Wrimo page, and Facebook, in descending order of likely frequency) and donate anytime in November, such as when I reach word-count milestones. A pledge of 0.1¢/word would be just $50 if I reach my Nano goal. My fundraising goal is $500, or 10 people pledging less than a penny a word! (To be fair, these are cheap first-draft words, but it’s a “real” story with structure and everything.)

I’ll also share story-related bonuses with you as I reach fundraising milestones, like a novel aesthetic or snippets of prose. Stay tuned for surveys on what people want. For now, here’s my inspirational book “cover.”

The Magic of Movement and Light

This is what happens when someone with no design skills uses Photoshop. (Photo credit.)

A Year of Writing Dangerously

Cup-of-teaOK, I don’t know that my writing qualifies as dangerous, but it has been a year since I started this crazy experiment of being a full-time author. It’s been a while since I did a retrospective, so now seems like a good time!

When I quit my day job, my counselor warned me that for every year that I was in the old job, it could take a month to adjust to a new routine. Since I was in my old job for twelve years, that means I needed to give myself permission to take up to a year to get into a new groove. I’m happy to report that I have a pretty good groove going now, a year later. Of course, my routine has to be flexible because what I’m writing and the life around my writing is always changing (first kid started elementary school!), but overall I’m more confident now that I’ll get everything done if I stick to my plan.

Things I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. My addiction to tea has not diminished. The opposite, actually.
  2. Ergonomics are really important. Ignore at your peril. Back spasms and stiff necks will hamper my productivity.
  3. Rituals and routines are more important than I realized. As it turns out, it’s well-documented that creative people benefit greatly from habitual triggers that put them into the creative mood (e.g., a specific kind of pen or notebook; a specific playlist; a specific place to sit; or a ritual like starting with a hot cup of tea). At first, I did it subconsciously, but now I try to do it intentionally.
  4. I can’t actually write for eight hours a day. Besides the obvious necessary breaks, the concentration required to focus on my own writing is too intense to sustain all day; generally, I get only about four hours of really productive writing time. The good news is that knowing that helps me stress out less, because I can remind myself that if I don’t write a lot in the morning, I can still have a good afternoon, and conversely, if I do have a good morning, I shouldn’t feel bad when I run out of steam mid-afternoon.
  5. There’s still plenty I can do in my writing time besides writing: read work from critique partners; read published books; cultivate my social media presence (got to be careful not to let that become a black hole, though…); and take care of my physical and mental health (yoga, counseling, etc.). It’s surprising how hard it is to remember that those are furthering my career.
  6. That said, I am very deadline-motivated if it’s a real deadline. I can and will make a heroic effort to meet a deadline, including working way more than 8 hours a day, though I’ll need some recovery afterward to catch up with everything else. Fortunately, publishing has a lot of “hurry up and wait.” But it’s useful to know that about myself for the future!
  7. Seriously, all the tea.

tea2