“Write every day.” -Every book on writing (paraphrased).
It’s some of the best and most disheartening advice aspiring authors will get. It’s disheartening because it’s oh-so-simple. And it’s HARD to do. But, as Chuck Wendig put it in his cheeky (but true) book on writing, “If you write: you are a writer. If you do not write: you are not.”
Are you or aren’t you?
So, I’ve had a good writing streak going on my manuscript. But today, I didn’t FEEL like writing at at all. There’s this particular scene I’ve been struggling through all week, writing and rewriting. This, as you can imagine, is a drain. I was dreading opening my laptop from the time I woke up this morning. But after much procrastination, I finally forced myself to sit down for at least the bare minimum so I wouldn’t be crushed by the guilt of NOT writing at all.
Then, like magic, the words began to flow. I blew through the scene in no time and started editing the next part. Where did this burst of energy come from?Forcing it does not always yield the best results, but continually disciplining your mind to work when the creative well is running dry will cause you to dig deeper.
Keep digging, Inklings. Who knows what surprises are lurking in that beautiful brain of yours.
With my daily “read for an hour, write for 2” routine in full swing, I have been eating up books. Most people go to the deli or liquor store to prepare for Memorial Day Weekend. I went to the book store.
After 20 minutes of searching Barnes & Nobles, I finally gave in and asked an employee where to find the books on writing. Ah, the “Writing & Publication” section. Of course. It’s located at the most inconspicuously low shelf in the store. Why didn’t I think of that? So, I squatted low, beholding the titles until I could no longer feel my legs. And then I sat like a child on the floor in the middle of the aisle and took out the books, one by one.
By the time I’d narrowed it down to two tomes, the clerk was ready to ask if I wanted a part-time gig dusting the floor. It pained me to leave the other, but could not take them both home. You can only share your four-day weekend with one. Books are jealous creatures that way.
But the book I chose rewarded my decision 100 times over.
Inspirational is not quite the right word for Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” That word is better suited for poetry on gardening and B-movies on the American Dream. Not that there’s anything wrong with feeling inspired, but these “feel-good” stories are temporal. The motivation they bring passes away. So, inspiring will not do.
And it’s not an instruction manual, either. Sure, there are useful nuts and bolts in every chapter on dialogue, character, and plot, but I’d hardly classify it as a writer’s reference guide. It is bursting with too many deliciously candid anecdotes for that.
So what sort of book is it then? Like I am having tea with a twice-removed aunt I have never met before, but she knows everything about me from my mother. You know the one. She is in her 4os, maybe, and doesn’t go anywhere without a bottle of red wine and a leopard-print cane. She wakes up to a broken cuckoo-clock instead of the alarm on her cell like everybody else just because it sounds more “authentic.”
Don’t roll your eyes just because she may be off her rocker. She doesn’t have time for people like that. You’ll never get to know the fabulous, mysterious, and relatable truths she has stored in her alligator purse if you don’t reach in.
If you want to rekindle your love for writing and find something out about yourself along the way, she will offer a drink from the well–or bird bath–of wisdom that is oh-so-rich.
A few Saturdays ago–and I say that because I am utterly losing my sense of time– I attended a critique session with the “Mitten Meet Up” for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.
Battling down the usual anxiety of exposing my manuscript to fresh eyes, I decided that it was in the best interest of my story to go–after all, the feedback I’d received from my beta readers had been insightful. Plus, the last SCBWI meeting had been very informative. I thought, “I’m a grown woman, for Pete’s sake. I have no time for these petty insecurities causing me to lock my manuscript away from the world!”
The lovely ladies organizing the event suggested each in attendance bring 500 words to pick apart over a two hour critique session. That’s right, just 500 words. Out of, you know, over 62,ooo.
On one hand, I wanted to impress the mittens off of my fellow Michigan peers. But what was the point of that? It really put me in a tight spot and made me reconsider what type of feedback I would need the most.
I wasn’t going to stroke my own author ego; I was going for my story.
Given the twists and turns in my plot, I decided to start from the beginning. I know, I’m so creative. But ch. 1 sets the tone of the story, and it’s where both of my main characters are introduced. I knew already that I needed to develop both, at least a little more. And when better than a first impression? Besides, you need a strong hook to stand out to literary agents and publicists. Mine was somewhat decent, but nowhere near where I wanted it. So, I printed out 5 copies of my first chapter and set forth on the journey that would lead me to oh-so-many revisions…
At the meeting, I quickly settled in with the small group of YA authors. We nestled in at a baroque conference table in a library right off of a page of Harry Potter. Not only was the setting lovely and rich with inspiration, but it placed us far enough from the boisterous laughter bouncing in the hallways (thanks to the illustrators and children’s book authors). It was a nice change of pace; at the last meeting, I slipped away with the quickness only an introvert knows.
But safe within the library, I was thrilled to talk with “others” like me. After introductions, we took turns reading the stories aloud. The drafts were all in different stages, but all had brought a chapter from the beginning, or near it, of their manuscript. At least we were on the same page! As we went through them, what became apparent to me was that Michigan has some serious talent brewing. Look out, agents! When it was my turn to read another author’s chapter, I cracked up several times throughout my narration and had to recompose myself. I was quite enjoying it all until it was my chapter’s turn. That’s when the anxiety kicked back in.
There is nothing quite like hearing a stranger read aloud your book for the first time. Especially when a middle-aged man with a deep voice is reading lines meant for a 14-year old girl. After buttoning my mouth, I sat in a paralyzed daze. The dialogue sounded so pedantic and heavy-handed. The tone was dark, but not deep. It was like hearing daytime TV melodrama.
Does it really sound like that?
But it seemed so much better on the page!
What is happening?
Despite the mortifying doubts storming my brain, somehow, the group gave me a positive consensus. They were interested. Even wanted to know more about this world in my head. Hey, maybe it’s not as bad as I think? +5 confidence points!
Then they gave me something more valuable–honest criticism. The kind I could take home and chew on. I asked for more details, and they were happy to support that with specific examples.
“At the start, you tell us X, but instead show us Y here, here, and here.”
“I love this character, but I want to know more about them. How can you bring out this quality?”
“How about adding a scene like this?”
There are shortcomings in your writing you will most definitely be blind to because it is yours. You know how it is supposed to sound. In your head, you have already filled in the blanks. The author’s omnipotence is dangerous to the story because it can end trapping you in a common pitfall without ever knowing why or how you got there. This peer meeting gave me the invaluable perspective on where to go from here when I thought I had already run chapter one into the ground.
Energized, I got in my car. The muses danced with the turning of its wheels. I couldn’t wait to get home and put these fresh, inspiring thoughts down on paper. This feeling lasted for about 20 minutes. And then I realized that fantasizing about writing is a lot easier than actually putting words on paper.
Chapter one would require more time, careful revision, and coffee.
Gail being THE Gail Carson Levine, Newbery Honor winning author of Ella Enchanted, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Dave at Night, and a slew of other fantastic books I cherished growing up in the 90s.
She’s fairly active on her Goodreads blog, so I threw out a question about finding agents and getting publishing advice. I wasn’t expecting a response; I figured it’d be lost in the mass of fanmail she gets on the daily.
But guess what? She totally replied.
After a good deal of fangirling and texting my mom (who read Gail’s books with me as a child), I read her advice:
Wow. Talk about an arsenal of resources. Guides, podcasts, and bookstores promoting members are just some highlights available. Members are eligible for publishing and promotional grants, manuscript awards, and book launching parties. As it turns out, they have a fairly active Michigan chapter, with a writing group that meets bimonthly in Ann Arbor and Farmington Hills. Score!
When I told my husband about the wealth of information, he said I had no choice but to join–it’s time to invest in my career, and take the next steps towards publication.
Let me tell you about the best feeling in the world: two and a half year’s work, printed and bound in my hands.
Me: “I could die right now.”
Printing Services Employee: “Please don’t do that.”
Me: “No, it’s okay. It’s a good thing.”
I wanted to hold it up right there in the store like Rafiki presenting Simba. In the amphitheater of my mind, I heard the music.
See? THIS is what I’ve been working on!
So high was my exuberance leaving Office Depot that I even followed the receipt online and gave the staff 5-star quality reviews.
When my husband took my printed copy to work, my heart swelled with quiet pride. But handing this same manuscript over to my mother was another matter. She’s the one who taught me to love books and introduced me to fantasy. She also teaches middle school language arts, making her a shrewd editor and an excellent judge of my work hitting the target audience.
Meanwhile, I have a few other beta readers, all with varying schedules and reading speeds. I just found out one is already half-way through the story–I emailed her the copy 4 days ago.
So, while I put my foot in my mouth and attempt to give my beta readers the space they need, I will be researching agents. I already feel like I’m in over my head.