Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Step Back

My story is finished. Or perhaps I should say, "finished." I've edited, proofread, added, changed, and edited again. But I know I'm not really done. My book isn't ready for querying yet. It's close, but it's not as shiny and perfect as it could be. Even though I can hardly wait for it to be shiny and perfect, I'm forcing myself to take a step back and let it all sit for awhile.

In the meantime, I'm devouring all the books I found myself starting but unable to focus on when my fingers were itching to finish telling my story. Finding a balance between time spent reading and time spent writing has always been really hard for me to do.

I love to read. From my days of reading in bed by flashlight, hidden under the covers until my eyes burned from lack of sleep, it has always been hard for me to balance a good book with all of life's other demands. (Confession: those days of reading in bed till my eyes burn may not be completely in my past. It's a good thing my husband is a heavy sleeper).

But I also love to write. I often find myself, with ideas swirling madly in my head, frantically pulling out the notepad on my phone to jot down whatever story thread has just come to me. Since my time to write is limited, I often can't bear to spend those precious hours simply reading when I could be creating instead.

So my little step back from my WIP has been great. My story is all on the page and, with all my loose ends finally tied up, I feel free. I've read several books in the few weeks since I finished my last edit. Two of my favorites are The Originals, by Cat Patrick and A Grown Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson. And an old favorite: The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis.

As feedback trickles in from my beta readers, I can feel the itch to write starting up again. My fingers ache for a keyboard as new ideas surge through me at random times throughout the day. But I'm determined to complete my step back, for a number of reasons. First of all, it's Christmastime, my absolute favorite time of the year. (If you could take away the snow and the freezing temps, it would be even better!) My kids will be home from school for two weeks and I know I won't be able to fully enjoy my time with them if I'm focusing on the nitty-gritty details of improving my story. Also, I still have several more books I want to read before I dive back into my own. And lastly, in order to appreciate the full impact of my step back, I know if needs to be longer than a week or two. I need to reset my perspective so my eyes are clear when it comes time to pull my story apart and put it painfully back together again.

So here is my pledge: I will not start editing until my kids go back to school in January. If I break this pledge, may my fingers fall off one by one until I'm forced to type with the tiny stubs that remain.

Okay, perhaps that is a bit extreme. How about I just promise not to break my pledge, and we can forgo the scary consequences? Yes? Fantastic!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Cautionary Twitter Tale

Getting on Twitter was one of the best things I've done as a writer. At the same time, it was also one of the worst. Allow me to elaborate.

After I finished with the initial draft of my first novel, a writer friend of mine suggested getting on twitter and following a select number of agents. He said they often provided links to helpful articles and tweeted about trends that any writer should be aware of. At first I didn't want to bother with it. I didn't need another online distraction or profile to update. I was told that if I got on Twitter, I really should post at least once a day.

I'm very careful not to sign on for things I don't intend to finish, so I was hesitant to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. Signing up would mean posting each day, checking in, reading other peoples' posts - time that I'd rather spend writing. But eventually, when I had a few hours of down time, I took the plunge.

In the subsequent days, I was amazed by how fast everything moved. All of a sudden, people began following me. I followed back. More people followed. I followed back. I began thinking up clever one-liners throughout the day and rushing to my laptop to post them. Every time I checked in and there were no new followers, I was disappointed.

My friend was right to recommend following certain agents. All of a sudden, I had links to articles on word count, grammar, book publishing trends, writing query letters, mistakes to avoid in the first pages of your book, and so on. The list went on and on. Soon, I would find whole hours passing without my notice as I clicked on link after link and drank up the information like one dying of thirst.

But I have young kids and my writing time is limited. I would find my children getting off the school bus before I'd even cracked open my WIP and I would be disappointed that I hadn't gotten more done.

The first time I saw a link to a writing contest, things went from bad to worse. I rushed through my edits and polished up my query letter. I agonized over my 35-word taglines and twitter pitches. I entered my first contest, feeling certain that those judging it would fall to pieces over my cleverness and invite me at once to participate.When that didn't happen, I convinced myself that I'd been the first on their waiting list and they'd had a bitter debate over accepting me. Certainly next time I would be chosen.

Through the course of the contests, I became friends with many other writers who were all slogging through the querying stage like I was. We commiserated with each other, offered encouragement, and sometimes critiqued each others' loglines.

Then I began seeing posts titled along the lines of: I got an agent!!!!!! and The blog post I've been dying to write. When I clicked on the links, dozens of gifs did happy dances while the author shared his or her success story with the world. I was happy for my new friends, feeling that my own success story was just around the corner.

But when the rejection letters continued to pile up in my inbox, I began to lose heart. Every new success story shared on Twitter was another reminder that I was not good enough. After spending several months on multiple revisions and several more months on querying, I finally shelved my first novel. I'd heard this was fairly common and that most writers needed a "practice novel" under their belt before they could do their best work. But it was still disheartening. 

For some reason, when I began work on my second novel, getting on Twitter only made me feel depressed. More contests came and went. More success stories were shared. More hopeful writers with polished manuscripts, waiting for their turn at success. Seeing these posts just made me realize how far I had to go before I had another polished manuscript. Sure, I'd gleaned some really helpful information from the articles I'd read and critique rounds I'd entered with my first novel. I felt I knew what I'd done wrong and had a better shot at getting it right the second time around. But every time I got on Twitter, I left feeling extremely discouraged and overwhelmed.

So I stopped logging on.

I've been away for a while now, working on my second novel, and I feel like my head has cleared a bit. Enough to see Twitter for what it is, and temper my expectations accordingly. There are a lot of REALLY good reasons to be on Twitter and to check in often. But one should always go in knowing what to expect. Here are some things to be aware of:

1. Being on Twitter can encourage you to submit too early, hastily pulling together your manuscript in time for a contest. Please, please, please, avoid the temptation to do this. The worst mistake a writer can make is submitting before the work is ready. A novel needs to be vetted three, four, or five plus times. You need feedback from outside, impartial sources who aren't afraid to tell you that something stinks. Your ms needs to be ripped apart and put back together several times before you even consider submitting it or entering it into a contest. And, I have also learned, there will always be another contest.

2. Trolling twitter can lead to discouragement. Learning that agents aren't requesting what you're writing, or reading the polished first pages of other writers' novels and comparing them to your own initial draft can make the discrepancy between your own work and that of those nabbing agents seem insurmountable.

3. Twitter can be a FANTASTIC resource for writers. Where else can you eavesdrop on the conversations of agents, published authors, and newly agented writers? It's a great place to learn the ropes before jumping in and pick up some hints on what is currently working and what isn't. It's a place to make friends and find critique partners. Plus, links to articles, essays, and blog posts on thousands of subjects relevant to writers are abundant.

4. Your true colors come out when you read posts of other writers landing a book deal or signing with an agent. Jealousy battles with benevolence, and cuts you wide open so you can see clearly your flaws. Knowing yourself is a good thing. Just be prepared to make some changes if needed.

5. Twitter can be a huge time waster, enticing you to click on link after link until you find yourself perusing Pinterest with no clue how you got there. Usually, your free time is better spent writing. Rather than checking in with Twitter at the beginning of the time you've set aside for writing, check in at end, when you only have fifteen minutes left before another obligation will force you away from the computer.

It takes self-discipline and self-awareness to enjoy the benefits of Twitter without the complications, but if you can use it for the resource that it is without letting it distract or discourage you, there are a lot of perks to be had. So jump in, the Twater's warm.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Getting to Know Your Characters

Today I had a heart-to-heart. Not with my husband, or with my mom. No, this was a heart-to-heart of another kind. As in, it was entirely one-sided.

I spent the afternoon getting to know a handful of people that exist only in my own mind. I'm thirty-thousand words into their story and, although I've gotten to know them quite well these past few months, I felt it was time to dig deeper. Address the tough subjects. Get to know each others' dark sides.

Many writers prefer to do this in the planning stages of their novels, but for me it had to happen after I'd jumped into their story, getting to know them as I wrote about them. Much in the same way you get to know someone face-to-face, I had to learn about my characters somewhat superficially before I could get to know them intimately. Now that we are a third of the way through our journey together, we're past the formalities.

To begin, I asked my two main characters and my five key supporting characters what they were most afraid of. I addressed one character at a time and wrote their responses in their individual voices. My fingers flew over the keys as my characters began speaking to me. They told me their fears, what they want most, their regrets, and what makes them happy.

Then I asked them to tell me one thing they always wanted to do but never had the courage. I asked what drives them and inspires them to do the things they do. I ended with what they were most excited about in looking toward the future.

Am I a madwoman for caring so much about people that don't exist? Maybe. But that's what we writers do. We invent people that seem real. So real, in fact, that we introduce them to the world hoping others will love them as much as we do.  

Now that I've had a heart-to-heart with my characters, I understand them so much better. I care about them--even the not-so-nice ones. I get why they've been acting the way they have up to this point, and I can throw obstacles in their way that will help them grow. I'm also beginning to see who might surprise me and why.

I'm not worried about inconsistencies in the part of their story that is already complete--I can address those in my second draft. They wouldn't be as real as they are now if I'd done this exercise before writing the first word of their story. Planning and writing a novel is a fluid process. The two need to be happening simultaneously throughout the first draft.

Perhaps I really am slipping by degrees from reality, given the amount of time I dedicate to understanding my handful of fictional characters. But their story is better off for it and, hopefully, will soon be vetted enough that my new friends will be ready to meet the world.