Crossroads…again

Crossroads in life are challenging places. It seems like I’ve spent a lot of time at this particular crossroads in the last year.

After parting with my first agent, I chose to sign with another agent who had originally offered on my first manuscript. I spent some time deciding whether that was a good choice for me to make, and ultimately decided it was a chance that I needed to give myself and my manuscript. But sometimes the choices I make don’t always work out. After working through edits to another manuscript, I sent them back, and got the notice yesterday that my agent felt it was best for us to go our separate ways.

This time it was easier in some respects. Although it was painful, differences in vision are not always things that can be worked out. It’s much better to find that out earlier rather than later. Although it was painful, ultimately, I have to believe it’s for the best.

It’s another crossroads for me; another place to decide where I would like to do next. I’ve spent most of the last six months either editing, revising, or waiting, hoping that I would have a chance to move on to the next stage.

So, what now?

First, there will be a period of recovery. Even when a decision brings a measure of relief along with pain, it’s still tough. I need to work through it, remember I am strong, dedicated, and unafraid to keep working toward finding the right champion for my work. It’s pretty discouraging. I really did hope this time would be the one that would work out. It didn’t. I’m thankful to have good writing friends to lean on at this time. Writing community is really the best thing ever, and I treasure it.

Secondly, I will probably spend some time thinking and deciding what I’d like to do next. I’ve been reading through my completed series and falling deeply in love again. It’s a vision I believe in, and one I’d like to develop. I’ve found myself alternately exhilarated and terrified by what I’ve created. It’s like a powerful painting that just rocks me back on my heels because it connects to something deep in my soul that is screaming to be heard. That’s not a feeling I’m willing to ignore. But it’s also a scary one. I feel it takes great courage to be authentic, and I’ll need some time to nurture that courage before I query it again.

Thirdly, I want to take some time to do what I do best—write. Just write. Full steam ahead, playing with stories, getting to know more characters, more worlds, more magic. This is my happy spot, where I believe what I know in my heart, imagine what I barely dare to dream, and where I feel safe to be myself—my whole, weird, wonderful self—boldly and freely. What better place in the world could I be than there?

Moving forward will happen. When it’s time, I’ll find my path.

 

 

Hurts So Good: Edit Letters, Revision, and the Turbulent Writer

I just finished revisions to my story Tree Gods last week. My edit letter came back on February 6th, along with the commented MS. I was so excited to get it. Whenever one works with a new agent, new CP, or new Beta reader, there’s that rush of enthusiasm. This person really gets me! This person will understand exactly what I’m trying to do and get me there! This person has this incredible magic elixir which they will sprinkle on my words that will make them smell like roses and cut like thorns! Yayyyyy—ugh.

Y’all know what the ugh, is, don’t you?

Because when that person really gets me, my story, exactly what I’m trying to do, and how hard it can be to get there, they DO have that incredible magic elixir, and it’s called “I love this—but”. Then it’s up to you, the writer, to get rid of the but. Or butt, depending.

So, what did I do after receiving my edit letter?

Well, frankly, I was completely miserable. Not because I didn’t know the changes were necessary to give the story a decent shot at selling, and not because I was angry at having to do the work. I love rewrites. I love solving problems, taking advice and using it to hone my vision. I enjoy arguing changes out and seeing things either get better or worse due to those changes and fixing them. I love everything about this part of revising except the emotional firestorm that is an inevitable part of the process for me.

I cried all Friday. I didn’t eat much for three days. I didn’t sleep very well. For about 24 hours I had a couple of characters screaming at me about the proposed changes. I had nightmares about my story and rewrites. This happens whenever I get feedback—whether it’s hard and unhelpful, hard and helpful, or hard and doggone-it-you’re-right-I hate-you. It’s absolutely normal for me to do this.

I worked very hard to create that vision that’s now open for critical eyes. It’s a part of my soul, whether I like it or not. And when someone tells you your creative soul is “off” in some way, it hurts, whether it’s true or not. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t this attached to my work, but it’s part of who I am as a person and a writer. Either I can hate that about myself or I can embrace it. I choose to embrace it.

Also, I can’t shift into problem solving mode until I’ve got the negative emotions out of the way. In fact, it would be a very bad thing if I didn’t get sad/mad. Those emotions help fuel my drive to write my best work, to fight until my vision is clear, and to take feedback I don’t like and turn it into the best parts of my story. I need that raw, angry unhappiness to stoke the fire that comes around seventy-two hours later that puts me behind the laptop with both energy and a plan for action.

Deep down, I know I can’t kill my story. If I make a bad stroke during revision, I can fix it. A story isn’t stained glass. It’s clay, and like clay, it can be molded, cut, filled in, piled on, taken off, and as long as it isn’t baked yet, it’s fine.

So, because I know this about me and my process, I have learned to do a few things when it comes to accepting feedback—good or bad.

First—I had outside activities that weekend. While it’s not fun to cry in public, at least it’s allergy season. I got a pass for sniffling from time to time and having very red eyes. I was driving four hours a day all weekend long. I was exhausted. By the time I crashed Sunday night, I was too tired to care about anything but bed. Staying busy helps me when it comes to feedback. When I’m in the emotional state of things, I shouldn’t be problem solving. I simply won’t know what to do. Everything will be reactionary. I need to redirect my energy. This can be drafting something new, writing poems, or cleaning out that closet that’s been on the to-do list for months—okay, years. But I have to do something that isn’t working on that story.

Secondly—I refused to email my agent anything other than a “Thanks, this is going to be hard, but I’ll do what I can” until I had sorted things out. But boy, you should have seen that sorting out process! I opened a word document and wrote 5000 words stating how hard the changes were going to be, why they hurt, and if I felt they would or would not work. I needed the catharsis. I howled to my CPs and editing partners. That’s all helpful. But I put that buffer of time and space between myself and the person who wouldn’t have given that feedback if she didn’t care about me and my story!

Feelings and emotions are valid. They need to be felt. I needed to get them out. Because you know what happened while getting all that out on the page? I remembered why this story needs to be told. I remembered why I wanted to tell it. I remember that there is only one person who could write this story, and that’s me, because I care. Because I could reaffirm that, I could also transition to the state of mind where I could see changes as good for my story. They would be my own changes, made with my personal goals in mind.

Thirdly—I planned out my time for the changes. I did this about 48 hours after the initial screaming period. I pulled out my calendar, and thought about what kind of time I might need for revisions. I figured what I could do based on the biggest developmental things that were suggested. I began to come up with compromises for developmental suggestions where I knew I wouldn’t get full cooperation from the characters. I drafted an email with those potential compromises and asked for a time-table without giving my own. I knew what I could do based on having done substantial edits to an MS before, but I wanted to see if that was about right or too slow. Turned out my time-table was about two weeks faster than the first deadline. Awesome. If I’d needed more time to do what I wanted to do, I’d have had it.

Fourth—I sat down on Monday and started with the easy things. I sent a copy of my MS to one of my CPs and gave her one objective for reading, and she had the whole thing turned around for me inside of a week. By that time, I was already working on most of the places she felt could handle the recommended changes. I then picked out four major scenes for the subplot and pulled them out of the MS for targeted work. Once they were done, I plugged them back into the story, and read them aloud to see how they worked. The characters cooperated better than I imagined they would because of the compromises I offered, and put in those scenes. That smoothed the rest of the editing substantially.

So… it took me three weeks of hard work, putting in between 6-8 hours of writing seven days a week, but I have a shorter and hopefully stronger MS.

Is it perfect?

Nope.

Will there be another edit letter with suggestions on how to make it better?

Yep.

Will I go through all this turmoil again?

Yep.

It’s all part of writing the best story I can write.

Know yourself. It’s the key to turning feedback torture into a crucible of creation.

 

Office, Monday Morning

 

Office, Monday Morning

 

Hailstones hammered the sky blue,

Washed the windows clean.

The lawn, busy in green, is a thousand starry faces as I pass,

Then each leaf, bent double with the dew, attends to the work

Of an earth on a tight spring schedule.

The noisy rush of water, trafficking down the river, ferries a million drops

Shaken from the trees by the light breeze—hurry, hurry—

A vulture, late commuter, tips a bronze wing in passing

Takes to the sky, elevating.

In my office, Monday morning

Even buzzards are eagles.

R. Fryar

 

I had a very difficult time coming up with a blog topic for today. It’s not that I couldn’t think of anything to write about, rather that I couldn’t figure out exactly what I wanted to say.

I’ve been busy for the last two weeks, revising Tree Gods. I had a few developmental things that needed some attention, but the biggest difficulty has been cutting sentences and paragraphs that I spent time crafting in favor of tighter prose that isn’t as pretty, but gets the job done in fewer words. I find myself exhausted by the end of the week. It’s a good kind of exhaustion as I see the pile of cut words mount, while knowing that they are all safely in track changes where they can be retrieved if it turns out that I do need them after all. I’m unfortunately a little aggressive with cuts!

I am so lucky. I have an agent who likes my book. At some point, it will be out on submission. Maybe an editor somewhere will like it too. And it’s by no means the only book I have written or will ever write. Already I have two stories percolating, and two revisions that are ready to start in the month of March. Sometimes it takes re-reading a poem I’ve written to remind me that it’s a special thing to wake up and know that going to the office on Monday morning is always delightful.

Have imagination. Will work for stories.

Keep Swinging

With Author Mentor Match going on, ReviseResub coming up, and Pitchwars showcase just over, writerly angst seems to be riding a bit high. I thought this would be a good time to say I never got into a writing contest, a mentoring relationship, or won an editing opportunity. Nevertheless, I got up to bat every time. I swung. Every darned time.

Oh, I got pulled down. I had moments when I was sad, tired, and sure I’d never make contact. I’ve had plenty of rejections. I’m sure to have plenty more. That’s part of the game. Strikeouts are far more likely than home runs. But the way the writing game goes, when you aren’t getting home runs, it feels like you aren’t even hitting the ball. The truth is that every time a writer writes a query, enters a contest, pitches their work to an agent or publisher, or applies for mentorship, that’s a hit. We just feel like we can’t call it a hit unless we get to run the bases, am I right?

But a curious thing happens when you keep getting up and going to bat. You get another chance to swing. That next hit could be your home run.

Keep swinging.

Reading As A Writer

 

Writers are supposed to read.  Most of us got our desire to write from reading. It’s good for us. It allows us to decide what we like and what we don’t like in a story. It lets us study craft, and appreciate both good and bad examples. It keeps us aware of what is being published, and helps us look for comps to what we are writing.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not easy to read as a writer.

First, there is the time commitment. Even if a writer is listening to books (and I am absolutely a fan of the audiobook!) time reading is time that isn’t spent writing. For a writer who may only have two to three hours to write per day, taking an hour to read is the difference between finishing a first draft in four weeks vs six.

Then there’s the concern that reading while drafting an/or editing will create a difficulty for the writer in keeping their unique flow as they write. I don’t personally find that a problem, but I know many writers do.

Then there’s the simple fact that writers are readers when they read. As objective as a writer tries to be, it’s impossible to be completely objective while reading. Worse, it’s impossible not to compare your own writing to the polished book you are reading. Writers can go two ways. Either the published book is so good, the writer begins to believe their own writing is crap. Other writers go the other way: how on earth did this crap get published when their own work is so much better? The middle ground—accepting that published work has been through more rounds of editing than a writer wants to think about, and also accepting that while that work may not be great, it fit the publisher’s idea of what they believed should sell to the widest audience possible—is a hard place to get to.

But the part about reading that I find most challenging as a writer is dealing with a popular Meh Minus book.

I tend to grade books when I read them. First, I’ve got the A books. These are so awesome, I can’t shut up about them, I have to buy them in hardcover, read them multiple times, and they get a place of pride on my bookcase as the most amazing books ever.

Then I have the G books. These are good. Most of them I read once. They occupy an evening. In the days of my local used bookstore, these would be sold or traded in on new books, often by the same author.

Then there’s the M books: Meh and Meh Minus.

Meh books don’t lead me to despair. Every author has constraints. Maybe they weren’t allowed to end that book in a satisfactory way. Maybe they were constrained by word count limitations. Maybe it’s a debut, and the craft is just not great yet. Meh books mean there’s room for improvement, and that’s okay.

The Meh Minus is the real challenge. My Meh Minus this time was a book written by a well-established female fantasy author, and I was looking at it as a potential comp for something I’m writing. Eep. Let the spiraling begin.

First of all, Meh Minus books are published, and sometimes by a big publishing company. That means that if I personally hate the book, I hate something that a fairly large population of people like. That’s not encouraging.

Secondly, Meh Minus books make me afraid that I will be forced into the mold set by those books. That’s really terrifying. It’s like having your toes or heel cut off to fit a shoe. It’s a little worse as a woman writer, too. I feel that in general women fantasy writers are expected to write a certain way, about certain types of characters, and adhere to certain notions of what women are allowed to write about. In short—you’re either Galadriel or Eowyn. There’s not a whole lot of room to be Thorin’s sister, a hard-working dwarf mother with a beard and one heck of a war hammer.

Every Meh Minus book, especially one written by a female author, leaves me deeply afraid for myself and for other women who write boldly, dangerously, and on the edge of what is expected, skydiving off the ledges of our imagination.

The third and worst thing a Meh Minus book can do is make me terrified to pick up another book. If a popular fantasy book is one that I can’t enjoy, what if they’re all like that? What if everything I write is doomed because I can’t write in a way that I hate? That’s the hardest thing to get past, and yet it’s essential that I do conquer it.

I can’t find that next A book unless I keep reading. And I’m bound and determined to find five A books by women fantasy writers this year that I can put on my shelf as the ultimate triumph—I have found a woman author who can write characters, male and female, that I can love and identify with.

And I can have hope. The wonderful thing about publishing? What sold two years ago may not be what is wanted in two more years. What was accepted in fiction is changing. My next A book is out there. I will find it. And maybe someday, I’ll write a book that ends up on a woman fantasy writer’s A shelf as the first time she’s been seen and heard. And then—then I will have really achieved something I can be proud of!

The Februaries

This morning, I awoke with one singular, terrifying thought in my mind. All of my work is a disaster, and not a beautiful kind. The kind that needs to come down with a wrecking ball. My art is horrible, and I should probably throw out half of it. Someone might find it one day and it will offend their eyes. Pretty much everything I do is wrong.

This is an unusual state of mind for me. Even rejections don’t bring me down too much. There’s always next time. The next time I send it out. The next manuscript I write. The next idea I have. I like pushing forward. But around this time of year, I have more than my normal amount of what I like to call “The Februaries”.

I didn’t coin the term as far as I can remember. I think it was already a fixture in the homeschooling community when I arrived. But basically, around February, everyone is tired. Tired of the same things. The same old lesson plans. The same wearisome tasks of getting up, cracking open the books, opening them, and trudging on in a never-ending slog of work that must be done.

The cure is different from one family to the next, but most treatments for this state of mind involve a break of some kind, adding something new and valuable to the routine, getting more vitamin D, and above all, remembering that February turns into March, and March is always better.

Like my little bout of despair this morning, which will probably vanish the moment I pick up a paintbrush or open a document to write, this feeling will pass. This isn’t writer’s block, impostor syndrome, or depression. It’s just my current mood, and I can greet it and say goodbye to it without much difficulty. It’s not going to hang around.

Some states of writing fatigue do hang around. Writer’s Block. Burnout. Post-project depression (I’m dealing with a touch of that at the moment), and you know, that fiftieth rejection is pretty tough, too. But for The Februaries, it’s a good idea to have ideas for what works to dispel some of the bad humors. (This is NOT useful at all for clinical depression, which is a bad mf, and needs more than a kick in the rear end to deal with it!)

My cure for the Februaries is typically working a little more on personal projects. I might take more time to clean out a closet, or a cabinet, and get rid of actual garbage or accumulated junk clogging up the space I want for painting and writing projects. I will buy myself an attractive fern or potted plant to decorate my writing space. I’ll paint more pictures, frame them, and hang them on my walls to remind myself that I’m an artist, whether my art offends eyes or not. And I’ll write through the doldrums—potboiler pieces that make me laugh, or make me cry, or do something crazy like turn an epic fantasy into poetry, just because I want to.

Most of all, I will remember that The Februaries don’t last forever. I’ve met them before, and in the end, spring will come again.

 

Organization

Organization, and faith in that organization, is another quality that goes into fearless writing. The dreaded…plotting.

Whenever I am asked what planning goes into my writing, I tense.

“I’m a pantser. I make it up as I go.”

Here it comes. First, the incredulous look. Then the patronizing smile. Followed immediately with what things I’m doing wrong and how I could write so much faster and better if I would just be a plotter, not a pantser.

I’m pretty well resigned to those looks now, and well-meaning writers telling me everything I do is wrong, and that if I’ll just follow their plan for writing, I can finish a book in 6 months, or a year, or whatever the author’s idea of “fast” may be. (Usually not fast enough for me.) Showing every step of the work on paper, index cards, in outline form, or in a book of scene summaries is “the way”. That’s organization.

This is where it gets interesting. As a pantser, I am highly organized. I have to be.

I draft fast, I like to redraft and rewrite quickly, and I need as few moving parts as possible. I’ve only got so much desk and wall space anyway. My organization (steps, scenes, character arcs, plot arcs, pacing, conflict, goals, emotional resonance, not to mention how to get from scene to scene) is up in my head.

It has been since I was a young storyteller—not even writing yet—because I learned to mentally keep track of complex plots, intricate character arcs, and even hours upon hours of dialogue I composed. I didn’t have a television growing up until about the fourth grade. Most of my free time was spent inventing massive worlds and the creatures and characters populating them. I would take these stories and play them every day alone or with my friends at school, which meant that I had to remember whatever scene was in progress until the next time. I wasn’t alone in this respect. My friends knew how to do it, too. We could “play” the same make-believe for months in this manner.

I don’t know if those years made me into a pantser or if I was born that way, but I do know that at my age, I’m probably not going to be converted into showing all my steps on paper. Doesn’t mean I can’t. Just means that when I’m asked to do things like lay out a beat-sheet, I’ll be doing it with the complete character arcs already in my head. A reverse outline will come from the synopses I’ve already written using the reverse outline in my head.

That’s not a lack of organization. It’s just different.

If you plot—plot boldly until your written system is so streamlined you can do it in your sleep.

If you pants—pants boldly until your mental system is so streamlined you can do it in your sleep.

And then write in whatever way brings you joy, sets your heart and words free, and lets your creativity soar.

Flexibility

At the end of last year, I talked about my plans for productivity in 2020. Today I want to talk about something just as important. Flexibility.

The simple fact is, writing calls for a lot of it.

So, your book, “the one”, didn’t land you that agent, or a book deal. You may need to shelve it. Cue anger, sadness, grief, despair. Shelving something has the connotation of putting something away that can never see the light of day, and will slowly grow old and moldy until you throw it out once the misery has mellowed. I don’t like thinking about it that way. Never have.

I prefer to think of it as that book that you just couldn’t finish, weren’t ready for, or the read that everyone loved but it’s just not for you right now. Too long. Too short. Too hard—some books need the depth of emotion that comes from certain events in life, and maybe some emotions were too raw, too incomprehensible, or needed more of your soul than you could impart. It’s just not for “now”.

And that’s where flexibility comes in. Are you ready to put down one thing and take up something new? Can you adopt a new path if that’s what’s needed for you and your work as a whole? It’s something to think about.

Being able to pivot in your course isn’t easy, particularly when it’s expected that a good dose of the stubborns is needed to succeed in writing. But there’s also a need for adaptability, a willingness to have multiple ideas, multiple goals, and multiple stories, and to be able to shift from one to another.

You just never know when you might have to change directions!

Fearless First Drafts

My week off was interesting. I didn’t handle it very well.  A day in, I got bored.

I decided to paint to relieve that boredom. I ran through about eight tubes of watercolor in four days. But I completed a piece or two, and did a few practice pieces that definitely challenged me to not be afraid of the paint, and to let myself go as dark as I needed to go on the first pass if possible. Why? Because there’s a saturation point at which paint is at its most vibrant. Keep layering to achieve the depth and you risk muddying your colors. It pays to be bold and dynamic from the outset, to be fearless.

Not that much different from writing a first draft.

I don’t hold to the opinion that all first drafts are crap, and that’s why we rewrite. Rather, we rewrite to add a few more layers of paint to places where we didn’t lay down the pigment as well as we might. Because there’s a learning curve, it’s not uncommon to end up picking at it so much in the revision process that we end up with mud, have to scrap it, and start over with a new draft of the same story. Still not crap, and definitely not wasted time.

I’ve done all of those things at one point or another—rewrites to add depth, add emotional quality, add stronger motivations and more conflict. I’ve taken stories that lacked stakes and redrafted them to make them darker and more dramatic. It’s part of becoming a writer, just like making truly horrendous mistakes with the paint and paper is part of learning how to paint.

But the more I paint, the bolder I’ve become. No more poking around in tiny pools of paint for me. Bring on the deep wells! Order the 21ml tubes! Forget the tiny brushes! Gimme a big brush! Big paper! Dangerous subjects! Gimme! I can mess up. I’m not afraid. If I can’t fix it, I’ll turn over the page, sketch it afresh, and paint on the back.

That same thing is beginning to happen in my writing. Frankly, I love it. My latest WIP, FLIPPING, is a perfect example of that increasing confidence. While I largely believe that the voice of my protagonist, Charley Dalton, was simply his way of expressing himself, I was amazed at how deep he wanted to get into his motivations, emotions, and beliefs about himself and others from the very beginning. Instead of backing off, and muting his colors, he flaunted them on every page.

As for dangerous subjects? I had no idea that he wanted to dig so deeply into territory that I’ve never explored, feelings I found almost unnerving in their complexity. He wanted to address social concerns that will require more research on my part. And the magic system is like nothing I’ve written before.

It’s going to be advanced project for me in revisions. I’m not certain I’m up to it. But, like painting, being bolder and more open to mistakes really made the first draft something very special. Here’s to hoping my revision will be just as bold, dramatic, and absolutely fearless.

 

End of the Year: Looking Forward

New Year’s Resolutions: The Eternal Quest of Self-Improvement

 

It’s that time again. I wrote out my great and grandiose plan for next year.

 

Ironsfork Trilogy Line edits, rewrite sequel, and draft book 3—sequel is in second draft form. If I have time, finish a spin-off that needs another 50K to complete.

Tree Gods Quartet  Revise Tree Gods pending Beta feedback, rewrite sequel—all of this series is already in first draft form.

Rewrite Flipping Completed the first draft on 12/29. Hope to pick this one back up late March or April.

Draft Dark Water (just a concept, light character work, and a query letter at this point)

Work on a short story every week. Goal is a finished one about every month or so.

Work through 4 craft books, doing all the exercises

Read 52 fantasy books. I set no limits on non-fiction, other genres, Beta reads, or graphic novels. I can read as many or few of those as I want.

Take one week off of writing every four months.

 

I don’t know how much of that will happen. I know that sometime in January, most likely, I’ll get my eagerly-awaited line edits to work on, and then I’ll be rescheduling all of the above. Yes, I already have a schedule in mind, and even have a month off in there to do some character work and goof off. I can do this! But that last one I’m having trouble with.

Short of anesthesia and a few sick days, I haven’t taken a day off of writing in around ten years. I don’t like going a day without writing. If I’m not drafting or revising, I’m composing a poem, writing in my journal, interacting with the writing community on Twitter, or chatting craft with some of my writing buddies on Slack.

This year, I’m going to try to take one solid week off of writing every four months. That includes Twitter. Gasp. And blogging. Crud. And writing short stories, novels, poems, non-fiction essays, journals, and to-do lists. Argh. But sometimes you have to schedule rest for your own, introverted self, or you’ll never do it. So, here goes.

There will be no blog post from me on January 6, 2020. I’m on a writing vacation. When I get back, I’ll talk about the project I finished before the break, FLIPPING. See you on the other side!