How three writing workshops and NaNoWriMo saved me from a two month writing drought

Me beach

Sitting down with my hot eggnog, Christmas music playing in the background, I noticed on my webpage that this is the first blog I’ve written since the beginning of September. How did that happen?

After writing every day and producing a nine episode novella during the summer, I started the school year knowing that teaching would drain my creative time, but remained undaunted as I signed up for three writing workshops at the end of September. When I opened my front door every day after school, my brain was mush and I had nothing to write. My husband and I were even too busy to catch many HOG chapter Harley rides, so I did not even have any Harley ride tales to share. I was certain that hearing about successful writing would motivate me to press on.

The Inland Empire California Writers Club held their Fall Retreat in Idyllwild, a tiny mountain community, the perfect place to get away and write. One of the workshops focused on marketing. I didn’t realize that I needed to work on a press kit before my book was published. After the retreat, I had time to write in my cabin in front of the fireplace. It was fun to entertain fresh ideas and characters after spending years on College of the Crones. After writing, polishing, and submitting that three-year project, I needed to turn my attention elsewhere. Waiting for the next query rejection is a dismal way to spend your time.

Next came a one-day workshop up in Hesperia called “The 90 Day Novel” with Alan Watt, from the L.A. Writers Lab. Alan became my characters’ psychologist, as he helped each of us to draw out the backstories and motivations that would make my story ring true. Although it was an intense day with a small group of writers, I came home with a greater sense of who my characters were and how they would react in different situations.

The last writing conference, held the first Saturday in October, was The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Meet the Editors Day at Cal State Fullerton. Editors and agents talked about the publishing industry. I had the opportunity to have lunch with one of our speakers, a writer from Redlands. We talked about the importance of revisions, critique groups, and a finding an editor.

After all that input, you might think that I would rush back to my laptop and start writing. I certainly thought that on the way home. Unfortunately, school and Harley riding and my social life conspired to eat up October until I found myself with no word count, or blog at Halloween. Scary, right?

So what does a girl do? Join NaNoWriMo of course! That stands for the National Novel Writing Month. On their website, you pledge to write 50,000 words during the month of November. I took my story ideas from Idyllwild, my characters and scene outline from the Alan Watt workshop, and my dreams about publishing from the Meet the Editors Day and plunged into the deep end of my new novel. The first chapters flowed, and when I posted my daily word counts, my numbers matched the trajectory on the graph I needed to get to my goal.

Then came the three day Harley ride with my husband and our HOG chapter up to San Simeon over Veterans Day weekend. No room for my laptop on the bike. And don’t forget Thanksgiving, which stole away a few more days of writing.  I found myself in the last week of November with 15,000 more words to write.

Hard words, too. After my initial flurry through my outline, I reached the end of my story, but still too brief to be classified a real novel. I rewrote my outline, based on what I had actually written, and looked for places that needed more structural support.  Should Star go on two dates with Frank before breaking up with him instead of one? Would her friends call a meeting to confront her about hanging out with their evil magician friend?

Bit by bit I gained on my word count, 1800 to 3000 words a day. The last day of November, I still had 1500 words left. Bleary-eyed, I shooed away my husband and my Pomeranian, and pounded away on the keys.

At 9:38 p.m., I made it! A brand new rough draft of a novel, done in thirty days. Redemption for my wasted autumn.

Of course, the book, titled The Spellwriters Book Club, is not finished. Months of revisions, critique groups, and editing stretch before me.

But my writing drought is over, thanks to three writing workshops and NaNoWriMo.

Finding Gold in My Story

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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

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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.