“So that’s your first assignment,” the teacher said. “Go find a comfortable place to write and come back with a first draft in two hours.”
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but given what I do remember of the summer, it likely had something to do with a small, traveling circus.
It was July 1992 and it was one of the first days of a program called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (PGSA) – a now defunct, tuition-free, five-week residential program for high school artists of all varieties. I was 16.
There were ten or so of us fiction writers and another ten or so poets. Our workshops were held in unremarkable classrooms, but when given time to write, we had access to the entire campus of a small college tucked into the corner of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Over the summer we fanned out across the grounds staking claims at the base of trees or in the grotto next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of us went to the main building to sit in comfy chairs and enjoy the air-conditioning. That first morning though, we all stayed within eyeshot of one another.
We had been told at orientation that we were the “best of the best,” but we were also told of an experiment the program had done several years earlier – they had invited students who didn’t seem to show the same amount of promise as everyone else. They wanted to know if being surrounded by the “best of the best” would positively impact the other students. I don’t know if any of us remembered hearing the outcome of that experiment. We were all too busy wondering if that were their subtle way of telling us: The experiment might still be going on and some of you might be our test cases.
That first morning we sized each other up. Was I the test subject? Was he? But that wasn’t the only thing bothering us. After just a few moments of trying to write in our own little locations, we started to gravitate towards each other. Awkwardly, we tried to talk.
Then one of us said what we were all thinking: “This is so hard. Give me a pre-calculus assignment and I’ll write you six poems, but tell me to go write a poem and I freeze.”
As high school students, we were use to sneaking time to write. Personally, and my 7th grade math teacher can attest to this, I always had two notebooks open. One for taking notes and one for writing stories. No one had ever given us permission to prioritize our writing. If writing was our dream career, high school was our job. We had to get used to our new freedom.
Earlier this month, I was reminded of that summer, and what freedom to write really means, when I had the opportunity to “unworkshop.” An unworkshop is a self-directed, writing retreat, held at The Highlights Foundation, a rustic collection of buildings tucked into the corner of Northeast Pennsylvania. Writers are given a clean, cozy room of one’s own, plus three delicious meals a day, unlimited snacks and beverages, great conversation in small doses, encouragement from every direction (including from the chef and servers) and an unspoiled countryside for wandering.
As a wife, mother and full-time-plus employee, it was the embodiment of permission to write. Unlike my experience at PGSA, it took no time to get used to. I dove right in. I wrote 9000 words in 47 hours. I plotted the rest of the manuscript by a stream. I figured out how to fix another manuscript. I made friends. I got wonderful advice. I was my true self.
When I told a writer friend that I was going to Highlights, he suggested it might be more economical to get an AirBnB in the town where we lived. I believe he suggested getting cereal and Ramen noodles and just powering through a weekend. I considered it. But in the end, I made my reservation at Highlights. It was the right thing to do.
I had no way of knowing that being taken care of (in the way I was at Highlights), would fuel my writing. It wasn’t just that I’d been given permission to write, it was that everything there was set up to benefit and support my writing.
Was I the “test subject” at Highlights, eating meals with “real” writers who had agents, book-deals and best-sellers? Yea! But they were so welcoming and eager to heap advice on me that I was happy and honored to be carried forward by their talent, experience and generosity.
Unworkshopping is relatively inexpensive at $129/night. That’s a new price as of June 1, but it is inclusive of meals, snacks, local transportation and wifi. If you have the means, make this happen for yourself. You will not be sorry. But, even if you aren’t able to make it to Highlights, consider finding another way to give yourself permission to prioritize your writing. While it was terrifying as a 16-year-old and actually froze a few of us up, as an adult, it opened a floodgate of creativity right when I desperately needed it.
I’m a traditionally published children’s author and I’ve just landed my first adult book deal with a small publisher. I use my real name for my children’s books. Should I take on a pseudonym to distinguish my adult fiction from what I’ve previously published?
Pubbed in Poughkeepsie
Congratulations on your book deal!
There are several reasons why writers and other artists take on a pseudonym. Some like the anonymity they offer, others like the idea of taking on a new persona, and some people want to simplify or jazz up their names. In your case, I would treat this as a branding question and to answer, I would look at the target audience for both of your genres. If there is significant overlap—for instance, if you’re a young adult author who is now publishing a new adult fiction—then I would limit yourself to one name in order to maximize cross-pollination. If the genres are very distant from each other across the spectrum—for instance, children’s picture books and BDSM erotica, then you may have more of a reason to distinguish your bodies of work.
Now, in ye olden days, an author was known simply by their name, which appeared on the cover of their book and not much elsewhere. But nowadays, there is the expectation that an author engages their readers and contemporaries on social media—Facebook, Twitter and the like. For that reason, multiple pseudonyms can get tricky. Therefore, you may want to consider having one umbrella name who writes as others. That way, you won’t have to keep up multiple accounts and personas.
Now, if your fiction is far apart on the spectrum and you’re trying to get school visits while also appealing to the erotica crowd, it may be advantageous to differentiate your online personas. In an ideal world this would be unnecessary because people would understand we are artists and also people with a wide range of taste and artistic pursuits, but we live in a society which likes to put people into tidy boxes. Therefore, for the practical reasons of bringing in enough income to support your art, you may want to keep your brands separated.
These are all things to think about when entering into a contract with a publisher. It might also be wise to talk to your editor or agent and see what they think. They may have some branding ideas for you already.
I’m a graphic designer in addition to being a novelist. I’ve just sold my first book and I’d like to have input on what the cover looks like. How receptive are publishers to the author’s ideas on cover art?
xxoo, Artistically inclined
Dear Artistically inclined,
This question varies widely depending on the publisher. Larger, more traditional publishers tend to have a concrete idea of what they want your title, cover, jacket copy and overall branding to look like. Smaller, independent publishers tend to be more open to the authors’ input. Either way, I would suggest you make a Pinterest board that has pictures of what you think your characters look like, settings from your book, other covers you’d like for yours to emulate, and artistic pieces that you think represent your book’s mood and tenor. For examples, you can check out my Pinterest boards.
Most publishers do take author’s input into account and it always helps the designer if you have a vision for what your characters look like. One thing to be aware of, in particular when it comes to character depiction, is whitewashing, where a publisher lightens the skin tone of your character or diminishes their ethnicity on the cover. I’ve included an example below of this type of activity, LIAR by Justine Larbalestier, where the main character is African American and the cover didn’t reflect that. This cover was corrected by the publisher, but only after a very public outcry. Remember, you are your book’s best advocate and it’s better to push back early on than to let this kind of behavior play out.
Laura Lascarso is the author of two YA novels, COUNTING BACKWARDS (2012) and RACING HEARTS (2015). If you have a burning YA question you’d like answered, tweet it to @lauralascarso with #DearLaura or include it in the comments below.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of co-teaching at a local high school with Dave Amaditz, another All The Way YA contributor. At the end of the session we’d left time for Q&A and the questions rolled in…
They weren’t new. As an author, I hear versions of the same ones all the time. What inspires you? Where do you get your ideas? What’s the best piece of advice you have for a new author?
When we reached that last question, I prepared to give my standard answer. Join a writer’s group so you can get feedback on your work. Something I whole-heartedly believe in, by the way.
But then something happened. For the first time in a long time, I considered the question. What advice did I really want to give? Sure, writer’s groups are invaluable, and I’d consider myself lost with out the two I’m involved in now. But on that particular morning, I allowed myself to delve deeper. To consider my answer as a small sea of hopeful faces stared up at me.
Here’s what I told them.
“When it comes to feedback, leave your expectations at the door.” Now, I’m paraphrasing a little. Anyone who’s ever seen me speak knows that I get carried away in the moment. But that’s…the gist.
The hopeful faces crinkled, their evident confusion dimming their enthusiasm for a moment. So I explained further.
Whenever we offer up our work for critique, there is some part of us (even if it’s a minuscule part) that’s hoping our work will be deemed “perfect.” That the file we sent out, will return unmarked, with no follow up actions required on our part.
“Give up on that right now, because it’s never going to happen,” I said. Before you rush to comment on what a cruel author I am, give me a little more space to elaborate.
We talk about feedback being subjective on this blog all the time. Or at least I do. We all like what we like. Whether it’s music, books, food… Yet, once that marked-up file returns we cringe, we mope, and we either begin editing like a fiend or reach for the chocolate. And we forget that everyone has certain likes or dislikes. That not everyone is going to dig our particular story or style.
The problem for us writers is, that no matter how much we want that feedback, regardless of how much we ourselves seek it, there’s always that one, small part that’s hoping for crisp sheets of white, filled with compliments. As I said to those kids…
Give up on that right now, because it’s never going to happen.
If you’ve given your manuscript to someone who knows their stuff.
If you’ve given your manuscript to someone whose goal isn’t to placate you, but to help you develop as a writer.
If you’re critique buddy meets those criterion, you’re going to get feedback. Every time. And in almost every case, the more feedback you get, the better the writer you are.
Even if you have a polished manuscript that you’ve rewritten two hundred times and edited just as much, you’re going to get feedback.
Think about how much time we waste figuring that all out for ourselves. Imagine if we reset our expectations and welcome that feedback with open arms.
That’s why I told these kids to leave their expectations at the door. When you know that feedback is coming and you’re waiting for it, expecting it, and you own it when it does show, that you’ll continue to take steps along your continuing journey as a writer.
Let me boil this all down for you. The next time you send your writing out to a critique group or partner, or beta readers, or the kid down the street, reboot your expectations. They are going to have feedback for you.
So take a deep breath, press Send, and wait for the track changes to come. And leave your expectations (and your muddy boots) at the door.
This week I am filling in an outline chart for a retreat with a group of agents and editors. And I am hating every single moment of it. I hate boxing things up. I hate having to answer each question for each scene/chapter. I hate that it feels like killing the flow of creativity.
On the other hand, I actually love plotting. I love building new worlds, digging into characters and their arcs, figuring out what happens when.
But I know quite a few writers who hate plotting. Worse, they feel guilty about hating it.
I know plotters who struggle with making their characters grow or giving their story emotional resonance but know exactly what happens to their characters when. I know pantsers who have a very clear idea of the emotional arc their character(s) go through – but the story itself meanders in places or has too many subplots. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, no matter what approach we use.
There are tons of fabulous plotting books out there. But they don’t work for everyone because most books on plotting are written for people whose minds work in ways that LIKE plotting.
Plotters are people who use a part of their brain that structures things, analyses them. They get a rush from figuring things out. They like thinking about what their character arcs are, they like knowing where they are going, they like lining things up before they write so the scenes build on each other and come together for the climax.
However, pantsers (writers who don’t plot) see something else entirely when they think about their stories. It could be character emotions, or a holistic overview, or a mass of swirling colors. Whatever they see is what they have to work with. Personally, I have a bit of both going on when I work on stories. But plotting books tend to focus on structuring things, on putting things in boxes, on labeling things, on filling in a chart with things.
But some things just don’t fit in boxes.
So if you start to shake because you’re told to make an outline or fill in a chart, please don’t think there is something wrong with you as a writer. There isn’t.
Instead, it’s time to question the approach most people have when they think of plotting for non-plotters (aka pantsers).
All of the plotting books I’ve read are for people who can plot outside in. They are for people who can do a big-picture overview (three act structure etc.) and then bring it down to the character level after. They can map plot points, fill in character questionnaires, use spread sheets and timeline software. But none of those tools will help writers who discover story the other way around (from the inside out) and prefer to start with a character at a certain point and watch where they go.
Which brings me to the heart of this post. Instead of trying to plot a story when their mind doesn’t approach it that way, pantsers should focus on discovering their story.
When you discover a story, you have an idea, a vision of a character’s emotions, or a feeling you’d like to explore. Instead of thinking about the three act structure and what happens when, pantsers follow a character’s emotional development as he or she moves through events. Pantsers discover their characters, their world, and by the end of the first draft, their plot.
There are many ways of being a pantser. Some pantsers focus on discovering the emotional inner journey of a character, some prefer to discover how events will unfold as they get there, but the common thread is a desire to allow themselves the creative freedom to discover the story as it unfolds.
So how can you help yourself discover your story as you write?
One of the things that helps me is to try to feel the character’s inner journey. To see where they end up emotionally. I find if I know where characters are headed, emotionally, I know what kind of situations will push them to face (or let go of) the problem/issue/emotion they are dealing with. I often let the external situation either echo (to reinforce) or challenge (to create an obstacle) their inner situation. In other words, I guide my characters toward situations that will keep the story moving forward by developing their inner journey.
For example, if I know a character goes from being unsure to sure, I think about what might encourage them to make that transition. Once I know that, I can figure out the situation(s) that would give an emotional payback, and build from there.
Or, if you don’t know where the emotional arc is headed, you can see how the character reacts to different situations and play with those situations until you feel an emotional arc that works for that character.
Either way, thinking about the emotional development of the character as you go can help keep the story moving forward and bring it to a satisfying resolution.
And what about after the story is written? How can a pantser revise then?
When I pantsed my first story, I re-read it and cut everything that didn’t fit (or just didn’t move forward) the emotional development of the character. Although making a chart can help point out areas that lack tension or are superfluous in a manuscript, I hate doing them. Instead, I’ll read the manuscript as a PDF doc on my kindle. The parts that lag or are confusing jump right out. After, I go back to my computer and revise/cut/write a new scene. And build back up from there.
I know many writers who love the rush of the first draft. It’s exciting, it’s new, you’re discovering your story, your characters, your world. And it’s true. It is exciting. But I have come to feel that revising is where you stroke your story into being alive. Revising is where you can take the time to deepen your characters, their reactions, their emotions. You tweak an emotion in one scene, and it impacts how the character enters the next scene – potentially changing how that scene goes. Since you now know how the main character feels, you also know how they can or can’t react. It’s all one big, amazing, 4D puzzle.
It’s a story. And it’s yours, no matter how you got there. So trust yourself and how your mind works. If you like plotting, by all means plot. If you need to have complete freedom to explore a character, go explore.
Or maybe, like me, you’ll find a balance between the two that works for you.
Either way, happy writing and happy revising!
It all started when I was listening to a podcast interview with a popular, indie romance writer. She said that these days, she likes to release a new book every single month. To keep up with this schedule, she writes around five thousand words a day.
“That’s really the only way to stay fresh in your readers’ minds.”
Lately, it seems like no matter what writing podcast I’m listening to, the advice I’m getting is all about speed, speed, speed. And I totally get it.
Writing fast = new books = visibility = book sales = financial abundance = more time to write = EFF YEAH.
But the thing is, there’s a dark side to this. And I think you already know what I’m talking about.
Word count fatigue is real. Here’s why it kicked my ass, and how I’m (fingers crossed) keeping it at bay.
Don’t Overheat the Engine
When I told myself that I had to write faster (right freaking now!) the results of my new obsession with speed were… not pretty.
I was rushing myself, plain and simple. No wonder all those stories I started eventually lost steam — I was overheating my engines! I learned the hard way that stories can’t be rushed. You can optimize your writing processes and set yourself up for success, but you cannot rush your story.
Writing takes as long as it takes. And that’s just how it is. Trying to rush yourself will only discourage you and make you less grateful for the words that you’ve created that day.
Look at the Time
Here are a couple of things that I didn’t take into account after listening to that awesomely prolific writer explain her book-a-month schedule.
First off, this was the schedule of a full-time author who admitted to writing for hours at a time. Most of us who work day jobs don’t have that luxury.
Secondly, this author probably took several years to build up the kind of stamina it takes to write at that pace every day — without emptying her creative well.
If you’re someone like me who “only” writes around a thousand words on most days, then it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to consistently produce several thousand words per day through force of will alone.
Who’s Counting? (Hint: Not Me)
So here’s what I did… To avoid word count fatigue, I just stopped counting words altogether. I don’t think this is an ideal solution for anyone who’s on a deadline, but in my case, it worked out pretty well.
Gone were the days that I would look at my word count and think, “Wow, I only got 1000 words today? What the eff?”
Seriously, guys. How messed up is that? One thousand words (or 500 words, or 200 words, or whatever) is nothing to sniff at. It’s more than you had yesterday, after all.
The Reasons Behind the Hurry
There’s a difference between writing fast and rushing yourself. After some thought, I realized what my deal was:
I was impatient — with myself, with the story, and with my career.
At the root of it all, I wasn’t appreciating the moment. And because of this, I was impatient with the process and tried to hurry it along.
It can be hard to embrace the moment when current circumstances are a little frustrating, but for what it’s worth, giving myself permission to slow down a little has made me more grateful for everything, including my semi-quiet writing life.
Dictation: My Golden-ish Ticket
I first started using dictation when I heard about it from (you guessed it!) a writing podcast. It promised giant leaps in my word count in much shorter timespans than simply pounding at the keyboard.
Finally, I had found my ticket to sky-high word counts and the kind of output that would make a seasoned WriMo blush!
Except… Not. The truth is, dictation is just another way of putting the words down on paper (or pixel). It may be physically faster than typing, but for me, it wasn’t an all-in-one solution.
These days, dictation and I are actually pretty close friends. And while dictation does help me squeeze a larger word count into a smaller chunk of time, it’s better to think of it as a tool, not a cheat code.
If there’s one thing my word-count fatigue did for me, it reminded me that magic was still part of the writing process.
It was news to me that, no matter how much I could try to optimize something, there was still an element of the unknowable here. It can be pretty humbling to admit that there is magic in writing and that part of storytelling can’t (and won’t) be rushed.
Somehow I thought that I could circumvent the fear and awkwardness of a first draft, but there’s no doing that. The only thing that I could do is try to set myself up for success by embracing the process.
Even if it’s scary, thrilling, and utterly frustrating at times.
In my previous post, I listed all of the unpublished novels sitting in my closet or on my hard drive. Most of them haven’t budged since then.
But ya know, ya never know. Writing is a weird business. Sometimes, a story you think is going great crashes and burns. Sometimes, a manuscript you’re sure is going to be the one can’t find its audience.
And other times, projects you thought were going nowhere go . . . somewhere.
Case in point:
In 2013, I took my first stab at NaNoWriMo. I didn’t plan; I just sat down and started writing. My novel, a deep-space YA action/romance titled Freefall, grew day by day. I got my 50,000 words (largely by ignoring my job and family for a solid month), but then I bogged down. Exhaustion, maybe. Lack of planning. Whatever it was, I couldn’t see a way forward. I figured the manuscript was dead in the water.
Then, late last year, for no reason I can recall, I pulled up the old file and read it through. I decided it wasn’t half bad. I jotted down some notes, working out a way to finish it. Then I hammered out the rest of the story.
My agent loved it. So did my editor. It’s due out next summer.
Second case in point:
Ten or fifteen years ago—I’ve lost track—I came up with what I thought was a wonderful idea for an alt-history novel based on abolitionist John Brown and his relationship to the New England Transcendentalists. I did some preliminary research, but couldn’t figure out a way to tell the story. I wrestled with it off and on over the intervening years, did more research, took a vacation to Concord to nose around historical sites and archives, went to Boston and stood face to face with one of the actual pikes Brown commissioned for his ill-fated raid, drafted a few halting pages. This past summer, I finally gave it a title, Chainbearer, and a duo of narrators. The draft grew to nearly 20,000 words. After all this time, it seemed I was finally making headway.
But then I hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out where to go next. If this had been a new project, enthusiasm might have carried me through the impasse. But having spent so long on it and invested so much of my heart in it, the latest setback was a killer, and I was ready to give up.
Then, out of nowhere, my agent emailed. She’d read the pages I sent her and thought the story had potential. She advised me to stick with it.
I don’t know if this project will ever see the light of day. I hope it will. But at the moment, it’s amazing enough to me to think that it might.
This post isn’t meant to provide false uplift. For every project that unexpectedly resurrects itself, I can name another that doesn’t. We writers have far less control over the process than we might like to believe. That can be a scary thought, a disheartening thought, but it can also be a hopeful one.
Because ya just never know.
“I hate editing. It’s like someone ripping out your organs and dissecting them while you’re still conscious.”
This is a thing I actually said to my publisher. Now, mind you, I managed to score a job at said publishing company after being picked up for publication, so it’s not so weird that I was having this chat with her, but still, this is a thing I actually said to the owner of my publishing company.
Because it’s true. Writing is the party. You have fun, you hang out with friends, you make memories that will last forever. Editing is the clean up after the party. Cleaning cake out of the crevices of your table because your family decided to have a cake fight, vacuuming the chips off the floor. Throwing all those used cups and bottles away. And, most importantly, putting away all of the food you thought you’d need that you didn’t end up needing after all.
I am not a fan of cleaning up. And in much the same way, editing isn’t a fun process for me. As many authors do, I get fully attached to my characters and my words. So if the writing is the cake, and the editing is putting the cake away, than I try not to put the cake away and gorge myself on it instead (hey wait! My analogy is also true…I should probably be a bit embarrassed…but I’m not.). I refuse to kill my darlings, to use the proper writerly term.
Editing has taught me many things about my writing and about myself. The first, is that I’m a word hoarder. I love my words. YOU CAN’T TAKE THEM. Okay. I’m okay. I promise. And what do you know? I also have to fight to throw other things away. Everything is sentimental. Everything has meaning. Remember that shoebox? I really loved that day we brought home those shoes in that shoebox. I wish I could save it. We could use this shoebox for other things, right? And that’s how I feel about words that are cut from my manuscript.
The second is, I have issues with managing my anger. Actually, I always knew that, but I had believed I’d gotten it under control. As it turns out, I have the same problem during edits. My initial reaction to large changes in the story was to fight. And not just a little. “You don’t even understand my character!” I yell at my computer screen, red-faced. I cry a little. I honestly don’t feel any better until I sleep for a while. But when I wake up, something magical happens. Not only do I look at the world with fresh eyes, but I look at the manuscript with fresh eyes and I see that the editor may have a point. Probably has a point. DEFINITELY has a point.
The third is, I am not the exception, no matter how much I believe myself to be. It is impossible to see your own work clearly. I always thought this was a myth. If I looked at the story, I just had to pretend I didn’t write it, and I would see a world of things I could change and improve upon to make it work. As long as I didn’t believe my work was perfect, I wouldn’t have an issue. That’s bull. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from working with an editor is that the biggest fault I, as an author, have in viewing my own work, is that I know exactly what I’m trying to say. Like in any form of communication, it is far too easy to be misunderstood. And yes, you know what you’re trying to say, but the reader, or the person receiving your communication has no idea. So you either have to be clear, or you have to risk putting across an entirely different message than you were attempting to share.
That brings us to my final lesson. I have a six-year-old son, a husband, a day job at a law firm, family and friends that count on me, a job at a publishing company. I’m responsible and strong. Hell, I’d even say I’m smart. But when my novel first got into my editor’s hands, it had a problem. There were many great parts, interesting characters, etc. But I was told that sometimes the main character reacted to things immaturely. For a teenager. I am thirty-three years old, and yet, every time I found a note in my story that said my character suddenly sounded like a character in a middle-grade novel, she was doing something I had said or done recently.
So, I may be a little goofy. But I’m not immature. And here’s why. I have mostly survived. I’m nearly done with my edits. And you know what? I did them all. I may have questioned. At some points, I discussed and came to a compromise. But in the end, I sucked it up, and I dealt with it, because I decided I trusted my editor. So I let go and let him do his thing. And my story is 100% better for it.
The moral of this story is, once you’ve found a good editor, it’s okay if you feel terrible during the editing process, but if you trust them, you’ve got to let them work. Let them make your artwork a little shinier. It will pay off, I promise.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here, sewing my organs back together and returning them to my body cavity.
Justine Manzano is a multi-genre writer living in Bronx, NY with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. She maintains a semi-monthly blog at JustineManzano.com and a twitter account @justine_manzano, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery. The Order of the Key, the first book of her YA Fantasy series Keys and Guardians will be coming soon from Fantasy Works Publishing.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m not too hung up on age, or shape, or the color of my hair. But there’s not a whole lot of literary happy in the celebration, because it marks yet another 365 days when I haven’t reached my publishing goals. I have a vision of me in a few years (eons, centuries, millennia?), pushing a walker with a canvas bag attached to the handle, loaded with my books to peddle. While I mutter around my clicking false teeth, “Want a nice young adult novel, Sonny?”
Sure, Grandma Moses painted masterpieces at the age of 78. Harry Bernstein came out of obscurity at 96 with his memoir. And Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first Little House book at the age of 65. These facts do nothing to soothe my writer’s ego that has been bruised, abused, and kicked to the curb for way too long.
I have ample proof that I write well. I am agented and have been. My work has been sold to major publishing houses. And I’m doing this blog. But my first YA trilogy ended up cancelled, and my MG series got canned twice. With each Machiavellian maneuver time passed, and I got older. But not as old as I’ll be in the morning.
What to do, what to do?
Believe me, I have answered that question more than once with a resounding, “I quit.” Followed by rants to all my writer friends that include: My life is too busy to write. The publishing industry sucks. I’m too old to care about it anymore. It’s an unethical business. I don’t need all that drama. Only celebrities get published.
Then a non-writer family member or friend will ask the question that makes me cringe: “Did you get anything published…yet?” At which time I repeat the above rant, give an elaborate shrug, and make plans to go out for lunch because, after all, I don’t have to sit at a stupid computer all day writing words that no one will ever read and I don’t have to care about run-on sentences or punctuation or grammar or plot or flow…
It is at this point someone invariably says, “Well, it’s a nice hobby, but you can always take up knitting.”
“Knitting? Me? I’m a freaking WRITER, Dude. Pre-published, but still.”
What to do, what to do?
At this birthday juncture, I again ask myself this question, coupled with: What is my real goal? Is it worth keeping on? What if I never publish? How old is too old? Does everyone think I’m a loser or worse, a bad writer? Will my son have to go to school one more year saying he knows a real author when I continue to only be a writer? On my deathbed will I sob over the words leftover and lonely on my computer?
So I quit. Sort of. Kind of. In a way.
Are you sensing some ambivalence here? There’s no way to quit breathing—except for the deathbed thing—and in the same manner, there’s no way to stop writing. Writers write, just like farmers farm, lovers love, doctors doctor. Every time I decide to forego my SCBWI dues, skip conferences and retreats, and use my laptop for Pinterest patrol, a new idea leeches from my DNA into my consciousness. And I am unable to shut off the water main break in my brain.
What to do, what to do?
It’s simple, really. Just not easy. Writing is not to be confused with publishing. Both are admirable endeavors. A story isn’t necessarily better because someone deemed it worthy of being printed, although that’s what most of us believe. Instead, we need to believe in ourselves, in our imaginations, and in our worth. Writers are notorious for low literary self-esteem, mainly because publishing has become the benchmark of what is good. But if you’ve read some of the books out there lately, you already know this isn’t always true.
It’s demoralizing, year after year, to be this close—and yet not grab the prize. Or has the prize been with me all along? After reflecting on this somewhat absurd thought, I’ve come to realize a little reframing is in order.
My goal, if I dig deep enough, is to take the ideas that bombard me and put them into a coherent story. I tend towards plots with some type of social awareness; I have picture books, middle grade, and young adult works that resound. My heart is on those virtual pages, and with it I’ve grown in so many ways.
I’ve grown in pants size because I like to eat while I write, but that’s not exactly where this is headed. With each new saga, my craft improves. Language, grammar, punctuation, flow, plot—so much better than when I began. I’m a better writer. Every avenue I explore through research teaches me more about the world we live in—and the world inside of me. I’m a better person. And the near misses with publishers are educating me about the business end of things. I’m a better entrepreneur.
Do I want to be an author? Oh, yes. Am I content to be a writer? Not really, but maybe that will nudge me to keep on keeping on. By doing so I may get published. And if not, I’ve got the joy of knowing how to produce excellence in a pursuit that is so much a part of me. Sure, I could try knitting, or sky diving, or ballroom dancing. But they’re things to do, hobbies if you will.
Writing is who I am. And having discovered my core identity, haven’t I reached a meaningful goal after all? I’m gonna snuff those freaking candles with a vengeance tomorrow. Happy birthday to me!
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Too Many Cooks
Reading Steph Keyes’ blog post from a few weeks ago struck a chord that resounded deep within my writer’s soul; her post was about knowing when you are done revising and the confusion that can arise when you collect too much feedback. In her “quest” to improve her manuscript, as she says, I had cast my net so wide…that I’d somehow accumulated too many opinions and changed far more than I needed to.
Don’t I know that feeling! I’ve done it with two manuscripts that are now sitting in a state of total paralysis from all the over-revising I’ve done to them. Not to mention, that, like Steph, I’ve received recent feedback on both that indicated to me that all I had edited out, should probably go back in to address the gaps in plot and character that I now have as a result of “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
For the past five years, between countless editors and an agent and rejections and near hits and total misses…I’m emotionally spent in terms of too much coming in. Too much feedback and too much of it contradictory and vague…All of it blurring together so it sounds like the wha-wha-wha of the grownups in the Peanuts cartoons.
My Overfilled Well
My creativity is a well overfilled and muddied with messages, advice, instructions, situations, and events from the last 12 plus years, starting from the moment I won an award for my first novel, My Sister’s Wedding, all the way through the last round of feedback for my most recent submissions.
A well is useless if the water is dirty and overflowing. Either I fix the well or maybe even demolish the damn thing and start over.
Advice from Meghan Trainor
Let it go. You need to let it go as Meghan Trainor says in her new song NO! She says it about a guy she’s trying to lose while I’m trying to lose old messages—but same idea. I need to let go of these old, dried up, tired messages that have done nothing but keep me distressed, depressed, and anxious. I want to do a ceremonial burning of it all…I want it all gone, all of it! Not the actual work. Not the actual books or manuscripts but the words and feedback and advice because I took it all in and I applied it all ferociously, without much discrimination or filter.
I’m taking a break from writing YA novels. I think that writing YA fiction, for me, for the last 12 years has been about trying to please someone else—agents, editors, and mentors. Today, I write for the love of writing, for the value of expression, and if what I have to say connects with you, dear reader, then that’s fantastic! As for what will happen to the 10 manuscripts sitting in my computer in a folder aptly entitled WIPS, I will go back into each one (eventually), finish the final revisions, and as I do, I will call upon the great Steph Keyes and her words about knowing when the book you are writing is finished:
“It’s done when you’ve told the story you set out to tell. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone will like it or love it, but you have to.”
Hannah R. Goodman is a writer (among 500 other things) in Rhode Island and founder of All The Way YA. She can be found on Twitter at @hannahrgoodman