I planned to take a nice little sabbatical from social media and blogging over the summer to do a massive edit/re-write on The Devil Inside Me. Life, however, presented me with a wonderful opportunity: to teach Spanish instead of English. I love languages and their connections and differences, and a tiny voice has been in the back of my head for YEARS telling me to take this leap. Even better: it’s at the school I was teaching at anyway, which makes for a seamless transition with peers and administration.
Needless to say, I spent my summer prepping for Spanish I, II, III, and IV. I’m a department of one.
With the first semester finishing this week, the feeling that I’m subbing for someone else has subsided and my students are doing well. Time to get back to writing and blogging!
At first I was annoyed about putting my manuscript on the backburner, despite the advice of letting it sit and stew–but there’s a reason that’s repeated advice: it makes a huge difference. Finally, I was able to re-read it with fresh eyes and an equally fresh perspective, open to changes and suggestions from agents. Most importantly: I finished one round of massive editing. Winter break will herald the start of equally massive revisions.
I’ve got some short stories in the works, I’ve refreshed the website, and via the blog I’ll be sharing good things I discover along this new part of my path toward publication. Please share your journey with me as well! I love to hear from other writers. Don’t forget to sign up for my email list! There will be special freebies along the way, like snippets of The Devil Inside Me, backstory on characters, and helpful guides on writing!
As I mentioned in my last blog post, redefining my goals was a must as of late. I should have been hard at work on novel number two right now, while my second round of queries floated in the ether. But, due to some excellent revision suggestions, I’ll be focusing my time on edits for The Devil Inside Me.
If you’re in the same boat, I’ve rounded up a few articles, old and new, that provide advice on numerous levels of editing, including finding and using a developmental editor–something I’m currently deciding on. I hope that these provide you some help and direction as they have me. Let me know how your writing process is going!
Ah, what a couple of months will do to that pristine list of goals I created for 2019. I even blogged about the pride I had in myself for meeting my 2018 goals. I was so sure that 2019 would be the same.
In late 2018, I submitted my manuscript for The Devil Inside Me to a little under 20 agents and small press publishers–and received full requests from five of them. Five! Excited does not even begin to describe my feelings. I had done my research. I followed tips from top people in the industry. My hard work was paying off. My plan for 2019 was to get an agent or publish with a small press, and I could see it coming to fruition. While I waited to hear, I continued writing short stories, started The Devil Before Me, and began work on a short story chapbook.
Then, slowly, one rejection arrived, then another, and still another.
I was buoyed by the next two rejections–which were R&Rs (revise and resubmit). They both had the same suggestions for edits, and I learned through my participation in a bootcamp class that if more than one agent is telling you the same thing, they’re probably right. And they are.
Where does that leave my list of goals? That, too, needed a revise and resubmit–to myself. I wanted to start right away with the edits. I took care of the easy ones, but the rest will require some undivided time and attention from me. Right now, that is a virtual impossibility. I will be switching from teaching full-time English to full-time Spanish for the next school year, and with that comes brand-new lesson planning. I am also on our bargaining team for our school contract. Our next meeting is from 3:30pm to 8:30pm, if that gives you an indication of time commitment.
So what to do? The logical part of my brain says wait until summer. The perfectionist in me screams, “You must start now!”
In it, she explains that writers will go through seasons, a time of writing and a time of not writing–and that it is perfectly fine and even normal to do so. I felt as if she were speaking directly to me when she said that “writers, like all creatives, can be obsessive.” I was feeling that I was failing at my writing if I dared shelve edits until summer break. However, with all the extra responsibilities currently on my plate, I’m often mentally exhausted when I get home at the end of the day, and my creativity is sapped. Lakin went on to say that occasionally her “brain feels as if it is going to explode or implode from all the heavy thinking.”
Yes, yes, yes.
I was able to make a compromise with myself after reading her article. The heavy edits I’m saving until summer break, but I’ll continue my other weekly writing commitments, like blog work and short story work. An additional benefit to this is the fresh eyes I’ll bring to my manuscript.
We can’t be afraid to re-align our plans. Pressing pause does not equal stopping, and it certainly doesn’t equal failing. Revise and resubmit those goals–for yourself!
I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire, and I often feel like I have to get everything done on my to-do list before I can sit down to write. (Otherwise, my mind will be distracted by the other things I have to do.) Now, I am not a competitive person by nature. I didn’t like team sports when I was a kid: I preferred ballet and piano lessons. But when it comes to writing and brain sports, well, that’s a different story.
The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo–writing 50,000 words in November–is strong for me. That’s my idea of competition. However, the last time I attempted it, I petered out about six days in. I just could not find a way to write that many words every. single. day.
I learned a few lessons that I applied to this attempt, and so far so good. Here they are:
1. For this month, prioritize your writing.
The laundry goes for a couple extra days.
The hubby is put on dishwashing duty.
I make crock pot meals.
I say “no” a lot when it comes to after-work things.
2. For the love of all that is holy in writing-land, have an outline.
But I’m a pantser, you say? No problem.
It doesn’t have to be a formal, rigid, locked-in outline your high school English teacher made you write.
Let it be fluid so that as your ideas come to you, you can follow them instead of an in-stone outline.
Just have your basic plot points. From there, jot down some of the scenes you’ll need. This has been my biggest help: knowing where I’m going next without having to think about it.
3. Join your regional NaNoWriMo group.
Mine has physical meet-ups to write as well as virtual ones.
Being with other people chasing the same dreams is AMAZING for your motivation and inspiration.
Seeing others struggle with the same writerly things you are helps you to know you are not alone.
4. It’s not going to perfect.
It’s a rough draft. Get your story out first. Then polish.
Resist the urge to edit too much. (I’m an English teacher. Trust me, I know how difficult that can be!) Your goal here is to get the story, your ideas, out of your head and into some semblance of a form.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Life happens. Sick kids happen. Job changes happen. Just do what you can do. If you don’t write 50,000 words, you’ll at least have more words than if you didn’t try at all.
Failing can be the best teacher. My challenges with my last attempt drove me to do better this time by learning from my shortcomings. You can too!
Is your writing routine working for you? My recent experiment is proof that changing things up can work to your benefit. I made it through 100% of my edits! (That may not seem like much, but I’m doing some extensive re-writes in the hopes that I won’t have so many drafts.) I just had to be willing to forego the must-write-every-day mantra–which was HARD to do. It still is. But I’m buoyed by the work I’ve been able to get done. If you’re stuck in a rut, I’d like to share two blog posts that talk about letting go of our routines to make way for motivation.
As most teachers will tell you, August tends to be our version of the new year. Everything starts fresh again: new students, new notebooks, new pens that I don’t need…The summer tends to be a recharging time for me, and while I really thought I’d knock out all of my edits for The Devil Inside Me, I did not. Not even close. But with the beginning of the “new” year, I have reset the clock and calendar, and the edits are calling. It’s interesting how, when you let your work sit for awhile, it often comes calling for you. In my case, it’s getting back into a regular schedule of things, which means regularly scheduled writing time. I’m changing up my schedule though: When actively writing, I try to write as close to daily as possible. However, I’ve discovered that this revision process requires more of my time in one sitting–so rather than block an hour out daily, I’m finding ways to chunk my time a few days a week, such as moving weekly chores onto one night so I have three straight hours to work the next. Knowing that I have a block of time, well, I can’t even tell you how much I looked forward to my dates with my manuscript this week!
It’s that time again: back-to-school. As a teacher, this middle part of August is a blur of putting a classroom back together, managing all of the new training modules the school/district/state dictates, and making deals with the copy machine that if it will just not jam for the next hundred copies, you’ll be finished. For the day.
Yes, I know. I get ten weeks off in the summer to do whatever I please. I’m (fortunately and gratefully) past the salary range where I no longer have to work a summer job or two to make ends meet. And trust me, I appreciate the time to recharge, relax, and tackle big projects. This year, one big project was gallbladder removal. Ugh.
But every August–and at other points throughout the year–real life rears its head and presents some challenges that simply prevent me from getting everything done that needs to be: sometimes it’s cleaning the house, sometimes it’s yard work, and sometimes, like now, it’s editing The Devil Inside Me.
What I’ve learned over the last two years of writing is that it’s ok. It’s ok if occasionally the project goes on the backburner. I used to feel horribly guilty if I wasn’t “touching” the novel in one way or another, but these breaks can also help reinvigorate the creative brain. So when life gets in the way, let’s cut ourselves some slack. What matters most is getting back at it!
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My experiences at the Writing Workshop of Chicago (see posts here and here) were invaluable. Perhaps one of my favorites was having my first ten pages critiqued by Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, and Under a Dark Sky. It’s a struggle for creatives to share their work, but how will we ever get better (or published) if we don’t? I’ve had my first ten critiqued before and made so many changes as a result that I couldn’t even say they’re the same first ten pages. I consider this a good thing.
So what did Ms. Rader-Day, Anthony Award and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, have to say about my first ten? Here are a few snippets with her comments in bold.
A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for children and adults alike, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were educational explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. One infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life…You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother…Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all. (LORI: IS THIS A REAL EXHIBIT? THE QUESTIONS SEEM SO…CONTRIVED.)
Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed at the signage.
“Fitting,” he said.
As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead. Two police officers stood nearby, their profiles reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of Laurel, then Hardy. “Avery.” (LORI: NOT REALLY FITTING WITH THE TONE OF YOUR BOOK, IS IT? DESCRIBE THEM INSTEAD.)
“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene, as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA. (AWKWARD PHRASING. MAKES IT SEEM LIKE THE TRUNK WOULD STILL BE ON HAND BECAUSE OF TRACE DNA, NOT THAT THE TRACE DNA WOULD BE USEFUL WITH THE NEW TECH OR IF THEY STILL HAD ONE OF THE TRUNKS…)
“Any guesses on the time of death?”
“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.
“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”
Avery tossed his head across the room. (LORI: READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN. DOESN’T IT SOUND LIKE HE’S THROWING A HEAD ACROSS THE ROOM?)
“The brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”
Ms. Rader-Day also provided me with other comments, like how the transition from my opening scene to the museum scene was jarring because the opener feels historical and it seemed as if I were jumping time. But she also said this:
“I’ve marked a few moments where I was taken out of the story for some reason or another, but my silence during most of the pages is actually good news for you. I didn’t see a lot of amateur hour stuff that I would normally have to comment on—I was just reading a story, and getting lost in it.”
And there it is. Some pretty obvious mistakes which are slightly embarrassing (my students will love the head-tossing example), but some promising feedback that is a perfect example of why sharing is necessary to move forward: we need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and for creative types, we really need to be reminded to see the good. If you have an opportunity to take in a writing conference, do it. You won’t regret it!
4. Confirmation that you’re moving in the right direction
I think for most writers, certainly for me, the doubts creep in continuously. Am I good enough? Is anyone going to like this? What the hell was I thinking? Last year, I participated in PitMad on Twitter and had someone tell me they thought my idea had promise and was marketable. That was enough to propel me to continue. At the Writing Workshop of Chicago, I was able to pitch my concept in person to small press publisher, Emily Clark Victorson of Allium Press. She too said that it was intriguing and asked for my first three chapters. Hearing this not once, but twice, made me feel like I was on the right track. I had a good, marketable idea. The next question would be could I write the story? Remember, I’m an English teacher. I had better have a good command of the English language, grammar, and punctuation–but these things do not a story make.
Last fall, after my PitMad experience, I participated in a writing bootcamp for my first ten pages. The agent and writer I worked with, Paula Munier, showed me that my manuscript was far from perfect, but she did tell me what my strengths were as well as where I’d need to improve. At the Chicago workshop, I submitted my revised ten pages to Lori Rader-Day, author of four mysteries (including Little Pretty Things, which I loved!). My hard work at revisions paid off, as she was very complimentary–but rest assured, I still have a page of revisions to tackle based on her comments.
Aside from the huge boost in my ego and confidence, these experiences confirmed that yes, I could write the story. I could also take revisions and make improvements. Every day that the doubts creep in, I can come back to this and remember that no, it’s not all a pointless waste of time. I’m headed in the right direction–and that provides the impetus for me to continue pursuing this path to publication.
5. Suggestions that you may have never thought of
Chatting with other writers gave us all the opportunity to share our works-in-progress. That resulted in lots of questions–some of which we could answer; some, not so much. Those unanswered questions revealed plot holes, character development needs, and, for some, world-building issues.
Both Paula Munier and Emily Clark Victorson asked if I’d considered making my protagonist a female. You know what they say–if more than one person makes a suggestion, there may be something to it. So I asked Ms. Rader-Day her thoughts, and she asked me it would improve the plot, the conflict, if I changed the gender. In other words, would it make more sense?
Now THAT gave me pause because…well, the answer was yes. Most of H.H. Holmes’ victims were female. Wouldn’t it create more tension to have a female bring down his illustrious descendant?
6. Did I mention networking?
Last week I pointed out that the writers, agents, editors, and publishers you meet may not necessarily become your mentor, agent, editor, or publisher, but you never know who may be the one to open that door for you. And while this was just a one-day workshop, I feel as though I left with the start of some excellent connections. I am already a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and both of these groups were represented at the conference. Ms. Rader-Day encouraged me to come to the fall meetings to get to know others, and Ms. Victorson suggested the same–commenting that they are some of the nicest people around. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the nice people are the ones killing off characters?) If you’ve been researching this industry as I did for some time before I took the plunge, I’m sure you’ve noticed the theme that surrounds getting published: it’s about getting your name out there and making connections. If that scares you to near-death, that’s ok. Find a class, or a one-day workshop, near you. Join a group and hang around on the edges until you’re more comfortable–I’m a complete stalker of the Mystery Writers of America’s social media, but I rarely comment. I’m still too in awe of the company! The point is–get out there and do something. Get outside of your comfort zone. The only way you know is if you try.
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It’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!
One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer.
In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?
Sort of. Depends. Kinda.
The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.
I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in.
I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.
Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)
Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process. Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.
Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!
Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!
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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders. My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.