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!”
My answer arrived when I was fishing for something on C. S. Lakin’s website, Live Write Thrive. I found this blog of hers: “A Time to Write and a Time to Not Write.”
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!
Read my latest short story, “Anomalies,” in the inaugural issue of Black Works, an online journal by Underwood Press. “Anomalies” is the most recent installment of my series re-imagining H. H. Holmes’ childhood. If you like it, check out the others!
Today is my one year blog-iversary! I feel like trumpets should be sounding, confetti should be flying, and someone should be pouring the champagne. Why? Because I hit my writing goals last year. Every last one of them, including starting and maintaining this blog.
How? Great question since I procrastinate. I fear failure. I loathe imperfection. I spent a few months prepping my website (hellooooo learning curve) and preparing a few blog posts in order to go live January 1, 2018. On that date on my planner, I wrote,”Do not be afraid!” I knew I would chicken out if I didn’t have that reminder. Taking my writing public and opening myself for critique and criticism was a huge challenge and risk for me. But here I am–still alive.
If this sounds like you, trust me when I say if I could do it, you can too. Here is the short version of the steps I took. If you’d like a free goal-setting worksheet, click here!
Give yourself some quiet time and space to think.
Maybe the local coffee shop has enough background noise for you to concentrate. Maybe you send the kids to grandma’s for a few hours so you have silence in your own home. Whatever your brand of thinking space, make room for it. You need to genuinely consider your dreams here, and that won’t come easily if you’re trying to multitask. I set aside an hour but found I needed only about 20 minutes to be honest with myself.
What are your wants and dreams?
Don’t be bashful–be honest. If you could have/do/be anything, what would it be? Write it all down. Silence that inner critic that tells you it’s impossible or stupid or too far out of reach. Then, take each dream and ask yourself how you could make it happen. What are the baby steps you’d have to take to start down that path? Write it all down and create a timeline for yourself.
Then, be honest with yourself. One of my dreams is to get a literary agent. I have zero control over that in some ways, but I can write and edit and edit some more. I can polish my work and give it to beta readers and re-work it some more. I can research the industry and find out how to write a kick-butt query letter. I can do more research and find out which agents would be the best match for me and for my writing.
One of my dreams is also to win the lottery, but there’s not much I can do short of buying tickets. Which I never do. Assess your dreams and look for the kind of difference between my two examples here.
Put your list of dreams and goals where you’ll see them.
I printed mine out and put it in my planner. I also had a copy on my phone. I didn’t want it displayed on a wall at home or on my desk at work. This was a private challenge for me.
Some people will tell you to share your goals with someone else to better hold yourself accountable. This is a great idea, but I would like to add something: Only share them with someone who is in your corner, who supports you no matter what, and who knows the inner workings of your brain. I told my husband that I was really going to go for writing a book, but that was it. My intrinsic fear of failure coupled with perfectionism means I often freeze up and procrastinate. The thought alone of sharing my goals with the world started a deep freeze. As I began ticking off my goals, I shared them with more and more trusted people. At the end of December, I shared my completed novel with three co-workers who are reading it over our Christmas break. If that had been a goal of mine a year ago, I guarantee you I would have frozen at the thought. So be judicious. It’s ok to keep them private as long as you are honest with yourself.
Check in with your goals. Update your progress. Adjust as needed.
Again, be honest with yourself. Don’t self-sabotage. Don’t make excuses. Decide that you’re going to do it. If something takes you longer than you anticipated, that’s ok. Adjust your timeline. It took me longer to write my first draft because I edited a lot as I went (and I researched probably more than I needed to). BUT, that made my life easier during the editing rounds.
Imagine my surprise when I saw a link pop up in my Facebook feed with this headline: River North hotel invites guests to spend a killer night in H.H. Holmes pop-up suite.
Yep. You read that correctly.
If you’ve followed by blog for any length of time, you know that my novel is based on the murders of H.H. Holmes. He’s received some cult-level popularity via Erik Larsen’s book, The Devil in the White City, the recent History channel American Ripper docuseries, and even American Horror Story. And now, for a limited time, the Acme Hotel Company in River North is converting a hotel suite into a Holmes-lover’s dream. Or is that nightmare?
Decor included in your
scare stay: old newspaper clippings, surgical tools, and Holmes’ mug staring at you. All. Night. Long.
Acme Hotel, this Holmes fanatic thinks you’ve landed on a spectacular idea.
Attached in the same Tribune article? A link to an interactive “walking tour” of the 1893 World’s Fair. Incredibly cool, and not just for a writer’s research either!
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!
When I asked a few weeks back what YOU would like to see on this blog, some kind souls requested more from my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me. Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite suspects, Elyse Baxter. Enjoy!
“And your name?” Davis, lost in thought, had barely looked up when the next person walked up to him.
He looked more closely once the silky voice hit his ears and saw a young woman with long, dark chestnut hair and fair skin, devoid of make-up, sitting down across from him. In Davis’ mind, she didn’t need the make-up. She didn’t need much of anything.
“And Ms. Baxter, what is it you do at the museum?”
“I’m a preparator. I’m the preparator for the Holmes’ exhibit.” Davis raised his head again when Ms. Baxter emphasized her “the.”
“What does that entail?”
“I handle and prepare all manner of artifacts for our exhibits. I coordinate with others to ensure proper and timely installation of our exhibits. And I was the lead preparator and project manager for this exhibit.”
“So you’re responsible for this display?”
“This exhibit,” she corrected. “Yes.”
“Uh huh.” Davis made a few scratches on his notepad. The preparator smoothed her knee-length skirt and uncrossed, then re-crossed, her legs.
“How long have you been working here?”
“I’ve been with the museum for three years now. Prior to that I worked at the Boston Museum of Science.”
“Are you from Boston?”
“Not too far from it.”
Davis looked up from his notes, waiting for her to explain. She didn’t.
Again, Davis paused, scratching at his two day scruff, allowing for further detail. She said nothing.
“Can you be more specific?”
Elyse Baxter sighed. “Philadelphia.”
“So you’re responsible for this display–how so? Start to finish?”
“While it is unusual, yes–I was responsible for the design and implementation for this–exhibit–from start to finish. I presented my concept drawing to Mr. Panetti two years ago, before the television hype and the movie deal. He sat on it for a year until he realized there was more than just a cult following.”
“There’s a movie deal?”
“Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing H. H. Holmes?” she asked with the same incredulity of Chapman.
Davis continued scratching down notes.
“So then what? He agreed?”
“Yes. I had two other designers who worked with me to build the concept model, and–” She waved her hand with a flourish. “This is the result.”
“And when did you last see the disp–exhibit?”
“About thirty minutes ago, when the docent explained what was going on.”
“Where were you prior to that?”
“I was working in our creative space–it’s on the lower level, where my office is.”
“And prior to that, when was the last time you saw the exhibit?”
“This morning, at 6am. I was giving everything one more look.”
“One more look?”
“Today was the opening day for this exhibit. Surely you heard it advertised, Detective. It’s on the side of eight CTA buses. This is a central piece to our museum, to Chicago.”
He nodded. She continued.
“It’s also our first PG-13 rated exhibit. That generated even more of an interest from the public.”
“So you were giving everything a once-over before it opened up?”
“Yes. I was responsible for its execution, so I had to ensure everything was perfect.”
Interesting choice of words, thought Davis.
“I don’t mean to be cold and unfeeling, Detective, but do you have any idea how long this…scene…will keep my exhibit closed? So many people were looking forward to it.”
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.)
“Dunleavy! How’s life?” Chapman smiled cheerfully.
“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!
Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!
Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.
The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.
“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.
“How’d you know?”
“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”
He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.
“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”
“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”
“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”
“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.
Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.
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 both children and adults, 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 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. An 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.
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.
“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.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”
Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”
“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.
“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.
“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”
“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”
“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”
“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.
“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.
“The tall 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.”
Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.
“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”
“Do they have security tapes?”
“Working on it.”
“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.
“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.
“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.
“Burnham?” Davis asked.
“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”
“Exposition?” Davis asked again.
“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.
“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.
“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.
“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”
“No offense taken.”
“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”
“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”
“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”
Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”
“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.
On April 4th, Fourth and Sycamore published my short story, “Downright Devilish,” which is the first in a series of shorts to re-imagine the childhood of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, grew up in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the 1800s. (You can read more about him on this blog post.)
When I began learning about Holmes, what fascinated me the most was the eternal question of what makes a serial killer? Is it nature or nurture? Was his overbearing father enough to turn him into a quiet killer, or was he simply born without compassion and conscience? I found plenty of ideas in my research notes and the death records for Gilmanton which led to this short story series. After you read “Downright Devilish,” read “Diabolical” here!
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