Midway Thoughts-NaNoWriMo 2019

People, Adult, Woman, Street, Outdoors, City, Dark, War

 

On the fifteenth of November, I had 25,000 words. Half way through the month, halfway to my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000. Yeah! (small victory dance)

How do I feel? Exhausted. At the beginning of November, I reread a favorite book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. In the book, he argues that the minute we commit to a major creative project, Resistance rises up to oppose us.

This week, I faced Resistance in the form of work, illness, and mental exhaustion. For years, I’ve done a decent job balancing my teaching job and my home life. However, this November’s been the toughest one I’ve ever faced. Too much to do with impossible deadlines, resulting in additional hours at work that could have been given to my writing. All I want to do when I drag myself home is collapse in a chair and read my Kindle.

Besides work, my husband’s chronic illness, suddenly after ten years, flares up. Should we change his treatment? What if he has to give up Harley riding, one of the loves of his life? What if I need to take over some of his responsibilities at home? Am I being selfish by writing at my computer when I could be spending time encouraging him? Most of these nights I don’t remember if I fall asleep before hitting the pillow.

This is war, so I’ve fought back by turning off my alarm at 5:15 a.m. and getting up to write before work. Sometimes it’s been hard to type, let alone come up with words. Maybe you think I’m crazy to get up that early, but it has its advantages. Writing still partially in a dream state generates fresh ideas unencumbered by critical thought. Before I start piling up the day’s baggage in my brain, I can find room for my story.

I’ll admit—it’s challenging to write 1700 words a day. My husband helps a lot. We talk about my character’s adventures over a glass of wine, and run through scenarios of what might happen next. (I did start with an outline for this book, but it soon grew too big to fit into it.) Another benefit of committing to NaNoWriMo is that you live in your story every day. Usually it takes me at least a year to complete the rough draft of a novel. Under a 30-day deadline, I get to know my characters well.

How am I doing? It’s not over yet. Every day is another chance to give up. Or to meet Resistance’s challenge. All I can say is that this morning I got up and wrote.

Are you a #NaNoWriMo2019 crazy person? Keep writing. It’s a war out there. Resistance wants to prevent the next best-selling novel from being written. Even if you don’t make your 50,000 word count, there’s got to be a story in it. Soldier on.

Today She Needs to Write

Homework, Girl, Education, Studying, Student, School

 

A short story about a short story.

When I announced to my third grade class that one of my Harley stories was going to be included in an anthology coming out next month, a serious-looking girl in the second row shot up her hand.

“Did you have a question?” I asked.

“How long did it take you to write the story?”

Hmm. I knew this student loved to write in her journal, and her quick write responses often filled the entire page. Adults who share my writing addiction know that years can pass before a story or book is exposed to the light of publication. Would my answer cause her to close her journal and pursue another dream?

How long did it take?

Last fall I went on the Harley overnighter that became the subject of my story. When I returned, it was back to my normal life as a teacher. (Often I have compared my life to Indiana Jones, especially the part where he has to go back to his job as a college history professor after outrunning the Nazis.) A few months passed before I found time to sit down and think about that adventure.

Actually writing it didn’t take more than an hour. I read through it, adding and deleting for another half hour. After I thought it was finished, I sent it out with my other submissions, the dark hole where you rarely find out your story’s fate. Meanwhile, some of my other short stories were accepted into online magazines. Nothing for that story. I took UCLA extension classes and worked on my YA novel.

Early in the summer, I heard that my California Writers Club branch was going to publish their first anthology. I took back out that Harley story, edited it again, and submitted.

That story was accepted into the book. The editor wanted some minor revisions. Five months later, the book is almost ready to come out.

So how did I answer? My smile reflected in her eager eyes, I replied, “Only about an hour.”

She’ll find out about the rest someday, but today she needs to write.

 

 

 

 

Why Rejection Makes You a Better Writer

Death ValleyJodi

After a few weeks querying agents for my YA book, I needed to take a break and consider my progress. One agent, who I met and worked with in a critique group, sent me a personal rejection the same day I emailed her. Another agent, who loved the book at a retreat, sent me back her regrets. In prior years, with prior books, I would get no rejection letter at all. Only silence. Compared to no response, my recent rejections have led me to be more optimistic.

So I decided to make a list of how agent (and magazine editor) rejections have improved my writing:

  1. Book rejections make you realize that you need feedback on your writing before you send it out to agents.

 When I began my writer’s journey, I finished my rough draft and thought I had a masterpiece. I read a little of it to my friends, but I was sure that it was finished. Now I enlist the aid of critique groups, professional editors (not as expensive as you would think), writing retreats, and college extension classes before I send anything out.

  1. Agents have their own agendas.

They actually have to sell your book to publishers, who are even more jaded than they are. Agents have categories of books that they represent. If they already have enough magic books, they won’t be interested in your fantasy project. The lesson here is keep querying. You just haven’t met your agent yet.

  1. Being rejected by agents can lead to personal growth in your writing.

After getting several rejections on a book, I looked at all the comments that accompanied the passes. Agents are busy people, and if they take the time to tell me what they didn’t like about my work, I need to pay attention. This has led me to take writing classes at UCLA Extension, which I highly recommend. I also began submitting short stories to magazines so I could beef up my publishing credits.

  1. I appreciate all the hard work that goes into the books I read.

I read all the acknowledgments at the back of the novels I read, and count the number of people the author thanks. Have I exposed my WIP to that many people? Also, I was encouraged by an writer that had the courage to admit she had 17 novels rejected before she was published. Therefore, I need to stop my whining.

  1. Rejection makes me recommit to writing.

As the years pass, it would be easy to turn off the laptop and do something else with tangible results, like knitting. Writing is easy, revision is hard, traditional publishing seems nearly impossible. However, I’ve overcome many impossibilities in my life, and I’m not ready to die to my dreams yet. Rejection shows me that I haven’t reached that mountain peak— I’m still in the foothills. I need to keep walking.

  1. Rejection initiates me into the writing community.

All writers experience rejection at some time, and they can be a great source of encouragement to other writers. Joining Twitter and following other writers allows me to share in their joy and pain along the publishing path. Thanks, guys.

 

As you can see, rejection is not as negative as the gut punch you feel at first when you open that agent’s email reply. You get mad, cry a little, eat chocolate, drink a large glass of wine, and get back to work. And hopefully, after a lot more work, someday we’ll be sitting by the pool reading each other’s novels instead of this blog.

Changes Fall

Autumn

 

Today when the piano alarm on my phone crescendoed until I obediently rolled out of bed, something felt different. Through my slitted eyes, dawn’s light through our open windows remained black. Birds chirping outside startled me, and I realized my husband had turned off our room air conditioner sometime during the night. A strange impulse coursed through my body, traveling through me like a crowd doing the wave at a baseball stadium. My throat scratched when I asked my husband if he wanted a banana packed in his lunch, so I took a drink from the water bottle on my night stand. The water was still cold!

Then I realized the source of strangeness—the air inside my room was cool. For the first time in three months, I wanted to put on a sweater. Usually I would wake up soaked with sweat, barely rested due to constant demand for cold water during the night. My body had no idea how to adjust to more moderate temperatures. In dim light, I searched through my closet, digging deep before feeling the zipper of my hoodie. Gratefully, I pulled it on and zipped it up to my neck. My shaking ceased.

The aroma of coffee dripping into the pot in the kitchen combined with crisp coolness and whispered promises. The summer sluggishness I had strained beneath disappeared, and my steps became light. Ambition kindled in the cool morning. Suddenly hope swelled in my chest, and I began to believe again that my life would change. That my fourth graders this year would love to write. That my book might be picked up by an agent. That I would find the perfect writing critique group. That I would lose those last five pounds.

Officially fall begins on September 22nd, but in my bedroom, on this day, the changes of fall began.

Finding Gold in My Story

snow

 

 

A weekend in the mountains sounds restful, but for the twenty five writers that attended the Southern California Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Retreat in Idyllwild, it turned out to be three days of hard work. The focus was on middle grade and young adult works in progress, which placed me in the company of my genre peers, rather than in the mixed company of most critique groups I had attended.

For me it was the last effort I was willing to extend toward a project I had been writing for three years. A book that I had thought I had finished, but had been quietly rejected by agents for the past two years. The College of the Crones had sat unloved in my document files, while my creative nonfiction articles were getting snapped up by travel journals. The first time I’d thought the book was finished, I spent worthwhile money on professional editing. I had even pitched my book to an agent at a writing conference, and took her advice to heart, getting rid of one of my main characters. But I was tired of working without result. The title of the retreat was “Finding Gold,” but I wasn’t sure that my book had anything valuable left.

The dream team of masterminds behind the weekend included Heather Buchta, who organized a group of writers who mostly had never met each other into focused critique groups. A few weeks before I headed up the mountain, Heather emailed our group with a request to share our photo and synopsis of the work we were planning to share. This proved to be brilliant, as we knew who to look for when we arrived. Also we didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting our group up to speed on our stories.

Although I had attended previous writing conferences, this one proved to be the most productive. We had four sessions of critiques with our small group of six and our leader. In addition, an agent, editor, or published author would also sit in with us. Each writer had fifteen minutes during each session to use as they wished, timed by our leader. Some writers read different chapters each session, while others took the feedback and revised the same passage, printing out copies for the group on the printers that some of the leaders brought with them.

Between critique sessions, Kate Sullivan, senior editor at Delacorte Press, and Erin Young, agent at Dystel, Goderich and Bourret, gave brief, useful presentations on theme, query letters, and pitches. Estelle Laure and Steve Bramucci, published authors, told their tales about being in the trenches as writers. These session drew laughs as well as tears, and plenty of “ah-ha!” moments.

But I will always treasure Kate and Estelle contributing to my critique group. They set a high bar for courtesy and professionalism. And I will never forget the passion and meticulous attention they showed toward my manuscript. Priceless.

Hikes and writing time were built into our schedule, which provided additional time to share with other writers. Wine and appetizers in front of a roaring fire at a nearby restaurant made us feel like we were in a story. The weather became a main character over the weekend, as we changed from sunny spring weather on Friday to a Sunday morning blanket of snow.

All weekend long, I cherished each stolen moment to revise a few more chapters. With the help of one of the leaders, I reprinted two chapters that I reworked after the first two critique sessions. I worked with a feverish zeal that reminded me of my rough draft days. It was hard to put my computer away.

Suddenly, it was Sunday morning and time for awards. If we chose, we could have submitted our first ten pages for a contest a month before the retreat. A team of published writers and editors judged the manuscripts in a blind contest. The two categories of middle grade and young adult were judged separately, with first place and honorable mention in each. As the leaders announced the young adult winners, I hoped that someone from my critique group would win since the quality of the work shared had been excellent. What I wasn’t prepared for was when they called my name for honorable mention.

As I stood up to receive my certificate in a daze, I realized that my book, almost abandoned for the immediate gratification of shorter articles, deserved to live. The College of the Crones would be finished, but with new direction and inspiration.

After lunch, I headed down the mountain through a snowstorm, eager to get home and continue revisions on my book. Instead of rocks, I had found the gold hidden in my story. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a writing retreat for works in progress, don’t hesitate to sign up. It turned out to be a weekend I will always treasure.

 

 

 

On being published, and how it changed my life

i-am-a-writer

Two years ago, I got sick and tired of my pathetic longing to publish my novel. My book project was only one year into the revised drafts, and I felt like time was running out. Let’s face it –I’m not getting any younger, and if I want to be a best-selling author I need to get my first one on the New York Times bestseller list. So I sent out an army of queries to any agent that represented my genre. My submission spreadsheet grew into several pages with polite rejection notes. The agent I met at a very expensive writer’s conference never responded to my query. I was desperate for a new approach.

My critique group was supportive and gave great feedback, but they were not professionals in the writing industry. I wasn’t going to improve my writing without higher standards. Should I go back to school? Seeking to improve my craft, I enrolled in a local university’s online creative writing program. What I expected was that my writing would be pulled apart, equipped with upgrades, and become the shiny sports car I needed to catch a literary agent’s eye. What I experienced was a barrage of articles about writing that I could have Google searched myself. The students provided feedback on each other’s assignments, although most were not qualified or bold enough to give more than vague compliments. Curiously absent were concrete suggestions from the teacher. Although it was great to have structure and deadlines for creating short pieces, I didn’t really learn anything new.

However I did enjoy discussing the art of writing with other people interested in pursuing a writer’s life. There had to be other writers out there like me that wanted to be taken seriously. So I searched the internet and found the California Writers Club. It was a state club with local branches, so I checked out the Inland Empire Branch. What an exciting moment when I walked into a room with thirty other writers, most full time professional ones, and listened to a presentation about marketing books on social media. These people were living the life I dreamed about! I joined the group, and the members have become some of my dearest encouragers.

One of the club’s suggestions was to set smaller goals along the way to my big goal of publishing my novel. For my WordPress blog, I include articles about riding with my husband in the HOGs (Harley Owners Group). I found a database called Duotrope where you can find submission information for all varieties of print and online magazines and contests. A new submission spreadsheet was begun, and within two months one of my articles, “Backroads to Pioneertown” was accepted into an international travel journal called Coldnoon Travel Diaries. There was no money award, but my work was validated. Buoyed with my success, I continued to submit articles and last month “The Almost Grand Canyon Trip” was published in the literary journal The Courtship of Winds.

            My blog caught the attention of our HOG chapter and I was asked to become the editor of their newsletter The Handlebar Star. My responsibilities include collecting and editing articles written by the club officers and adding my own touches.

Success with my nonfiction writing sparked my creativity toward my novel project. Instead of giving up, I asked for help from my social media audience. One of my Twitter followers agreed to become a beta reader for me, and sent me seven pages of notes and revision suggestions. I was surprised to discover that the roots of my story were still alive, and I am weeding out unneeded sentences and watering my characters. I am learning to persevere in editing, long past the point where I’m in love with any of my sentences.

What began two years ago as a desperate search for help has shown some small victories. I’m not giving up on writing courses yet, although I will do more research on the best programs. Joining a professional writers group has given me a supportive family that helped me discover opportunities I never would have found on my own. And becoming an editor has reinforced the basics that I need to practice.

And so I start this year as a published writer. Did it change my life as I thought it would? Absolutely. Criticism and encouragement have sharpened my writing sensibility and I’m ready to do the work necessary to perfect my writing style. Today I’m even more dedicated to improving my writing and finding new ways to get my stories out to readers.

My first pitch at a writing conference

nature-photos-flowers-and-wallpapers-13

Last Saturday was the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Editors Day at Cal State Fullerton. I was excited to hear presentations from the kind of people who would eventually decide the fate of my book. Over the past months I had attended conferences with advice from successful writers that was very practical. But they aren’t publishers.

What do editors and agents really think about writers? I’ve heard horror stories, although my personal experience has been the silence of unanswered queries or generic electronic rejections. Neither of which causes improvement in my writing.

When I received my name tag, my heart stopped when I saw the appointment time for my pitch session with an agent. When did I sign up for a pitch session? I never prepared for a pitch session. All day long, my hands shook as I scribbled notes from the various speakers. Some of the writers won the privilege of sitting with an editor or agent for lunch. However I was not, but later was grateful when my sandwich was spilling over with cream cheese and cranberries. I barely managed to eat it without wearing it for the rest of the day. And I had the opportunity to meet another blooming writer who was just starting down the path.

Much later, in the sleepy hours of the afternoon, it was my turn to walk down the hallway to the small door, and sit down next to the other rustling victims waiting for their turn. A much too cheerful well dressed lady asked my name and checked me off the list.

Then I sat, waiting.

Finally, the group before mine came out, and I noticed that no one was sniffling. I took it as a good omen as I walked in the door.

My interrogator, I mean agent, was a smiling woman with large glasses that made her appear as a young owl. We shook hands, and my story began. What started as an elevator pitch became a complete synopsis, encouraged by her questions. Even though I was a bit rattled, she encouraged me by sincerely seeking to understand my characters and their journey. She made astonishing suggestions that gave me a new perspective on my project. I never felt at any time that she would tell me to stop writing and do something productive with my life.

When I rejoined my newly met companions back in the lecture hall, I couldn’t stop smiling or writing down notes from my interview as fast as I could. It was all I could do to remain in my seat, not jumping up to return home and start making changes to my manuscript immediately. Why had I been so frightened? My new agent friend cared as deeply as I did about stories. Apparently that was the reason she worked in the publishing industry.

Writing needs feedback to grow just as flowers need water to flourish.